...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Alex & Richard's Doctor Who 52: 06 The Abominable Snowmen


From a foe from the impossible future to an enemy from the ultimate past…


The Great Intelligence. And his cuddly toys.

Viewers of the “modern” series might only be familiar with the Great Intelligence as an avatar of Steven Moffat that menaced Matt Smith’s final year in the shape of Richard E Grant (who was also the cartoon ninth Doctor in “Scream of the Shalka” – which leads to all sorts of retcons, but that way madness lies). The original Great Intelligence, though, was much more spooky and much more Sixties.

(art by Simon Hodges)

Ten Reasons To Watch "The Abominable Snowmen" (warning: spoilers)

  1. It’s really creepy – possibly it’s a feature (rather than a bug) of the black and white era, but they had so much more time than the modern show: two hours and twenty-three minutes in this case compared with as little as just forty-two minutes these days. Done badly, of course, that can mean longueurs or the cliché of capture-escape-capture-escape, but done well – as here – it ratchets up the tension. In particular, it allows the Hitchcockian technique of letting the camera linger too long on an ordinary-seeming object until you start to get suspicious of it. You’d be surprised how disturbing a simple metal sphere and a penny whistle can become…

  2. Victoria (and Jamie) – While Jamie is the quintessential partner to the Second Doctor – staying with him from his second through to his last adventure – Victoria and Jamie are seen as the natural pair (even though he makes a much better team with Zoe). Victoria has an unusual character arc for a Doctor Who companion in that it makes a feature (rather than a bug) of the usual descent from “interesting and self-driven character” to “generic screamer” by suggesting that her time in the TARDIS, and the constant peril of adventure after adventure, takes its toll.

    That descent might be seen to start here. Previously, in “The Tomb of the Cybermen”, she demonstrated pluck, intelligence and not a little dry sarcasm. Now, at the start of this adventure when the Doctor leaves her and Jamie in the TARDIS, Victoria is the one keen to get out and go exploring (until they track a Yeti to its mountain lair when – weirdly – she and Jamie swap personalities and he’s the one for going in after it and she wants to go back to the ship); when they get to the monastery of Det-Sen, Victoria is the one determined to get into the Inner Sanctum to discover what secrets lie within; and even when it comes to the crisis point, she won’t be sent away but is determined to go into danger with the Doctor and Jamie. In fact, her most memorable moments from the adventure – her repeated cries of “Doctor! Take me away, take me away!” only happen because she is under the spell of the baddy, and in fact is a clue to the Doctor that someone’s put the ’fluence on her!

  3. Thonmi – one of the warrior monks of Det-Sen, serving as “bonus companion” for the duration, Thonmi (David Spenser) serves as a counterpart to the headstrong “Western” actions of Jamie, with a calm acceptance and obedience. (Helps that he’s quite as cute as Fraser Hines too.)

    The show never makes him look weak or stupid for his faith and philosophies, and indeed his spirituality gives him strength in some serious adversities. Though that doesn’t stop both the Doctor and Victoria running rings around him. Just like they do with Jamie.

    It would have been very easy to make this a yarn about (false) religion being defeated by the power of “science”, but that’s not the way that the show goes at all. It’s very much more about the scientific and the spiritual twining about one another, with neither being whole without the other. In a lot of ways this is a conflict between two beings that have come down from the Astral Plane – one of them, the Intelligence, seeks material existence (and pleasures) while the other (the Doctor) is wiser and knows them to be transitory and is willing to surrender himself for the greater good. And for all that it dresses it up with “Eastern mysticism”, the Intelligence is using tools of “Western science”: machines and robots (yes, just like a Scooby-Doo villain!).

  4. Travers – the gung-ho and increasingly paranoid British explorer, Edward Travers (played by Jack Watling, father of Debbie Watling who plays Victoria – though, you probably knew that) is a further contrast to the “Eastern” ways showing how selfish we are when we stick our oar in where we don’t understand and how we (meaning imperialist Britain) behave pretty badly in other people’s countries and with other people’s ideas.

    Initially presented as an antagonist, Travers judging the Doctor at a glance decides to denounce him and nearly gets him killed as the bait in a Yeti-trap. And it’s only his own selfish desire to find the Yeti’s lair – for which he needs Victoria and Jamie’s cooperation – that leads him to confess his “error”. He deceives the monks again to get out of the monastery, putting his own life in danger to go up the mountain again on his foolish quest.

    Tellingly, it’s the stiff-upper-lipped Britisher who has the nervous breakdown when the weird-shit gets, well, too weird-shit for his mind to cope with. It appears to do him the world of good.

    [See also Redvers Fenn-Cooper in “Ghost Light”]

  5. Base Under Siege – the era of the Second Doctor is characterised by his “Destroy All Monsters” attitude (typified by his famous speech in “The Moonbase” and his defence at his trial by the Time Lords in “The War Games”) and by the production format known as “base under siege”. Introduced in, arguably, “The Tenth Planet”, this means: gathering a small but diverse cast (any sort of men you like), building a single large set and throwing monsters at them.

    In “The Abominable Snowmen” the diverse cast are our warrior monks, the more spiritual lamas they are there to protect, including their abbot Songsten and the reclusive Master (no, not that one), and the intruding presence of Travers, plus our heroes; the big set is the monastery, in particular the Inner Sanctum and the gated courtyard with its impressive Buddha; and the monsters are the eponymous Abominable Snowmen.

  6. The Yeti – cute, aren’t they.

  7. Siege Under Base – but, spoilers, it turns out that rather than an outside force trying to get in to the Monastery, the truth is that the Intelligence has been inside all along. Already the production team are subverting their formula. Which is handy given that they are (infamously) doing it in six out of seven stories in Pat Troughton’s second year.

    But it’s also entirely in keeping with the philosophy of this story that the real dangers are the ones that come from within: Khrisong (Norman Jones), leader of the warrior monks, and Travers are several times brought down because of their arrogance and self-belief. Travers, at least, appears to learn his lesson, that there are things bigger than his own desires, and joins the goodies after his collapse brought on by what he meets on the mountain. (Or maybe he doesn’t, as he goes off chasing another Yeti at the end!)

    And, arguably the person who has been most a victim of their own inner demons is the one who’s been in charge the whole time.

    The heart of the monastery is the Inner Sanctum, as Victoria rightly deduced – not that getting inside does her much good! And in the heart of the Inner Sanctum is a gloriously old-school board game, complete with miniature Yeti figures, that is controlling the entire siege. In fact we, the viewers, have been presented with this quite early on, so the fact that we have more information than the Doctor makes the whole show an exercise in tension – who long will it take him to find out whose hands are on the board…

  8. Padmasambhava – spoilers (again) yes, obviously it’s the Doctor’s old friend, the Master (no, really not that one) sitting like a spider at the centre of a web (and yes, the sequel is “The Web of Fear”; and “Planet of the Spiders” is another Buddhist parable. And then there’s the spider-analogue the Animus in “The Web Planet”, which is another “astral intelligence”. Yes, it’s spiders all the way down…), Master Padmasambhava played with real chill by Wolfe Morris.

    He’s quite the creepiest thing in this story. Appropriately enough, given that he’s channelling the Great Intelligence, he’s a disembodied voice for the first four episodes: an invisible presence (except for the ultra-trad creepy hands on that gameboard) pulling the strings of everyone, especially the hypnotised Abbot Songsten and the also-hypnotised Victoria (as a goad to control the Doctor – not because he thinks Victoria’s pleas to “Take me away!” will get the Doctor out of there, but rather – and cruelly – because it will break her mind if the Doctor doesn’t do as he’s told and remove her). And then his appearance at the end of episode four – a grinning ghoul to shock you.

    Padmasambhava has been alive for over two hundred years (this coming only a few weeks after the Doctor revealed his own multi-centenarian age to Victoria in “The Tomb of the Cybermen”), and Thonmi expressly compares the powers of the TARDIS to the Master’s powers of astral flight, all of which adds up to Padmasambhava as a reflection of the Doctor, just as Thonmi is a reflection of Jamie, and “Eastern” and “Western” philosophies are yin-and-yang reflections of each other too.

    Which leads us to the (unreal) real villain of the piece…

  9. H.P. Lovecraft – while future fan-authors would read and write much more into this – specifically equating the Intelligence to Lovecraft’s Yog Sothoth – there’s already something Lovecraftian about the Great Intelligence which is too much for the human mind to handle (an aspect that Steven Moffat’s Twenty-First Century version completely failed to capture, making the Intelligence, if anything, smaller on the inside). Travers is driven to the brink of sanity by it – he describes it as “a shadow on my mind” – in particular by the way its alien mass starts pouring into our World, a vast wave of matter from a tiny pyramid (yes, again reminding us of the TARDIS). It describes this as its “great experiment”, an experiment both in the scientific sense but also in the Sixties sense of “experimentation” with mind-expanding and consciousness-altering.

    Lovecraft’s idea of “elder gods” who were totally amoral, utterly disinterested in the affairs of “mere” humans, and whose very presence would destroy the minds (not to mention bodies) of any of us who actually came into contact with them, even in their sleeping or dead forms, was one that came back into vogue in the mid-Eighties comic book scene. So higher-dimensional beings – lloigor or many-angled ones – intrude into the Doctor Who Universe via Alan Moore and Grant Morrison just in time to start informing the Cartmel Era of Doctor Who (as powers from the dawn of time like Fenric and the Gods of Ragnarok) before swarming wholesale into the mythos of the New Adventures (in particular “White Darkness” and anything by Craig Hinton).
    Grant Morrison's Iok Sotot (Zenith), no relation
    They went on to “explain” these powers as Time Lords from a previous Universe – by surviving their “big crunch” and entering our Universe at the Big Bang, the different laws of physics here gave them god-like powers. Rather like Steven Moffat’s explanation of the Intelligence (as “intelligent snow”!) this rather misses Lovecraft’s point. To be fair, August Derleth, Lovecraft’s literary successor, had started this.

    Humans love to categorise things, to put names on them, because to name a thing is to understand and to control it. The point here is that we cannot bear our own insignificance.

    As Douglas Adams would put it: the very last thing you want is a sense of perspective.

  10. Snowdonia – a.k.a the Death Zone, on Gallifrey; a.k.a. BBC Wales. Doesn’t look a lot like the real Himalaya. But they were trying. Jamie asks the Doctor if he can land them somewhere warmer next time. Bad luck, it’s going to be “The Ice Warriors”.

What Else Should I Tell You About "The Abominable Snowmen"?

Ever so slightly, most of it doesn't exist anymore. (Unless it does.)

The BBC did not keep a complete archive of its pre-Eighties productions (or, in less euphemistic terms, gratuitously incinerated some of the most important pieces of television history, including a lot of the Moon landing coverage, Hancock's Half Hour, Sykes, Out of the Unknown, Z-Cars, the Wednesday Play and obviously great chunks of Doctor Who.)

Unlike Alex, who generously wants you to be able to collect the Doctor Who 52 DVD collection and is confining stories such as this to his "Extras", I'm not going to be anything like so restricted.

By great good fortune, there do exist audio-recordings (off-air) of every single missing episode. And for very many of them there are at least so-called “Telesnaps”, an archive of photographic stills from the episodes as broadcast taken by John Cura. Hugely talented and dedicated fans have used these stills, other on-set and publicity photos, surviving clips and even some computer animation to produce “reconstructions” of the missing episodes. Which might be findable on YouTube if you’re lucky.

If you need one, my score:


And I’m sure it would be higher if we could actually watch Troughton’s performance (compare with the reputation of “The Enemy of the World” before and after it was rediscovered).

If You Like "The Abominable Snowmen", Why Not Try…

"Downtime" – straight to video in the “wilderness years”, but written by Marc Platt (see Ghost Light) and staring Lis Sladen as Sarah Jane and Nick Courtney as the Brigadier, with Deborah and Jack Watling returning as Victoria and Travers respectively. The Yeti are cute again, and it captures the mystical qualities of the original in a way that the “action” adventure of “The Web of Fear” does not.

"The Name of the Doctor" – Since I’ve referred to it, you should see how Moffat’s version of the Intelligence is (quite literally) hollow and empty, but the story is interesting for other reasons (as we will see in a few weeks… spoilers!)

Next Time…

Another “whodunit” where the who is both obvious and irrelevant to the point, but from the most sinister to the most light and frothy. A spot of cricket for the Doctor, dinner for Adric and Tegan dances the Charleston…

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