Alongside The Web of Fear, The Abominable Snowmen remains a popular story, but it’s gained a more important status thanks to the Great Intelligence cropping up again in The Snowmen, The Bells of Saint John and The Name of the Doctor.
From the being’s first ‘appearance,’ you can see the potential. It’s no wonder producer, Innes Lloyd commissioned writers, Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln to bring back the abominations so soon. The story itself promises something special – and somehow delivers, despite leaning on several worn tropes.
Hypnosis, lumbering beasties, a hidden room, strange metallic objects, robots, disembodied voices and an on-off base-under-siege all add to the drama, converging to make a strong contender for the title of Ultimate Monster Story. It’s all there and it all works beautifully, fitting for what is now known as the Monster Era.
But our initial impression is of a scream that sounds more like a yawn.
Coming straight after Tomb of the Cybermen, The Abominable Snowmen has to work hard to emerge from under its shadow. It succeeds admirably by showcasing enthusiasm and ingenuity, with a large helping of the familiar.
The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria arrive at the Det Sen monastery in 1930s Tibet, but trouble is afoot. The Doctor is accused of murder by yeti-hunter Professor Travers (Deborah Watling’s father, Jack) and his companions are soon on the run from the strange abominable snowmen. Even in the supposedly-peaceful monastery, an evil lurks…
The Himalayan backdrop is marvellous: truly a breath of fresh air. It’s this that makes the familiar unfamiliar. Is there another tale that takes place in Tibet against such a magnificent backdrop? We’ve seen monasteries before and since – take a bow, The Time Meddler, and stop winking knowingly, The Bells of Saint John – but Det Sen is achieved so brilliantly. The grassy knolls are actually the mountain pass at Nant Ffrancon, North Wales, and in-studio work was split between Lime Grove and Ealing. The fact that they look so great is testament to the work of a dedicated crew including: Designer, Malcolm Middleton; Assistant Floor Manager, Roselyn Parker; Lighting Director, Howard King; and Film Editor, Philip Barnikel.
And of course, director, Gerald Blake, who strangely didn’t return until 1978’s The Invasion of Time. The shots are subtle and easy on the eye, taking full advantage of the brilliant vistas, the isolation of the monastery and a superb cast. It’s not distracting or trying to be something it’s not. It’s just solid direction, and that should be applauded just as much as the innovative approaches.
It’s atmospheric and eerie; when Travers says he felt an evil presence, you believe him.
The Great Intelligence is very interesting: he doesn’t seem particularly evil initially – after all, he only wants a corporeal form, right? In fact, he even takes the surprising decision to order the llamas away from the monastery. It’s like he’s the Hulk, just wanting to be alone. And yet his actions build to something quite evil. The notion of him keeping individuals like the Abbot, Songsten, the mysterious Padmasambhava and, most recently, Dr. Simeon and Miss Kizlet as his slaves – possessing them and leaving them without their own personalities – is really, really grim. He takes their lives, but not by killing them; by forcing them to stay alive and under his will.
I’d say that’s pretty evil, wouldn’t you?
Padmasambhava (can we just call him Paddy, or something?) isn’t your typical villain either: he starts off as a creepy, disembodied voice, influencing events from behind a massive set of doors, but soon, his true nature is revealed. He wallows in apathy, quite rightly so, and he becomes one of those rare relatable enemies.
Even so, he’s the stuff of nightmares: impossibly old with his wrinkling skin stretched over his face, glaring eyes and an imposing presence.
Only a few die – rather surprisingly, considering there’s plenty of cannon fodder. Thanks to a strong cast and a great script, Khrisong, Thonmi, Rinchen, Sapan, Ralpachan and co. are individuals, not just would-be victims of the Intelligence. Thonmi (David Spencer) particularly shines, exhibiting courage and loyalty, never straying far from Victoria.
The TARDIS team are, of course, top-notch. Victoria is often unfairly summed up as a 1960s Screamer, her screams even being utilised to see off the Big Bad in her final story, Fury from the Deep. In episode one’s cliffhanger, she does, indeed, scream – but it works well as a Yeti corners her and Jamie in a cave. (In the cliffhanger’s resolution, Jamie says of the Yeti, “It’s quite dead.” Isn’t not tempting fate a key part of Companions’ Training Academy?)
Victoria could even be a modern-day companion; aside from the occasional panicked yell, she’s really a curious, adventurous and determined type. It’s a shame she and Travers don’t get to spend more time together on-screen, just to see how the two Watlings spark off one another. Considering she only joined the TARDIS two stories ago, Victoria fits right in. The chemistry between the three is great, especially the humour that comes from it. “Victoria,” the Doctor says, “I think this is one of those instances where discretion is the better part of valour: Jamie has an idea” – and they run from him! It’s a wonderful little moment, underlined by the fact that Jamie’s idea actually works.
There’s a bit of William Hartnell’s First Doctor in Patrick Troughton, his affection and father-like guidance for Victoria echoing the concern he showed for his granddaughter, Susan. It’s a good progression after she lost her own father in Evil of the Daleks and his treasured talk with her in Tomb of the Cybermen. There’s a real trust between them all, palpable worry and reliance.
With the small nuances of his performance, it’s easy to gloss over how great Troughton is. It seems like he’s not acting; he simply is the Doctor, and we just accept that. That’s how good he is.
He’s gentle and warm (encapsulated by his memorable fur coat and recorder) but manipulative, authoritative and off-the-cuff too. No wonder Matt Smith had the Second Doctor in mind when taking on the role.
I wonder how many will actually delve into the classic Great Intelligence stories after his ‘nuWho’ revival; probably markedly less than if they both existed in the archives in their entirety. Saying “it’s such a shame” doesn’t really do justice to how sad it is that these serials (and indeed so many serials) are missing. The brilliant direction, location and unintentional foreshadowing make it even more infuriating.
The abominable snowmen are called upon to pick up Control Spheres; perhaps a forerunner for the Autons and Nestene Consciousness in Spearhead from Space (1970). The Doctor rhetorically asks Jamie if he’d walk up to a Yeti “with just a screwdriver in your hand”; four stories later, the sonic screwdriver makes its debut. The Great Intelligence takes glee from the idea of ‘expansion,’ like one body isn’t good enough for him; in The Bells of Saint John, the creature is similarly happy after infecting the wi-fi – before disposing of Miss Kizlet like Padmasambhava.
In fact, The Abominable Snowmen feels like a relation of Vampires of Venice (2010) with an unusual setting, effective villains, a twist on mythology, and the Doctor’s fine logic of dealing with alien technology: hit it with a stick.
The thing that sticks in my mind most, however, is something Vastra says in The Name of the Doctor: “Time travel has always been possible in dreams.” It’s a notion that surely originated with Thonmi telling Victoria about their own ideas of time travel: “It is said that our master, Padmasambhava, can free himself from his earthly body and travel great distances.”
The Great Intelligence has expanded. It’s taken on a life of its own, a whole new following and a promising future.
And this is where it all begins.