Doctor Who Reviews: The Abominable Snowmen

The Doctor is a legend. We hear that on a regular basis today in the 21st century revival of Doctor Who. Characters fall to their knees in shock and wonder as The Doctor proclaims that he’s a force to be reckoned with because he’s over 1000 years old and hails from the planet of Gallifrey.

Wasn’t always that way, though. Taron has difficulty believing that the bouffant-haired dandy is the same man as the legendary grump who saved the Thals from the Daleks long ago. Ortron likewise initially doesn’t believe that the legendary Doctor has paid another visit to Peladon. And then going way back, The Doctor meets a hostile welcome when he decides to return the legendary Ghanta to the Det Sen Monastery in The Abominable Snowmen.

Hot on the heels of the Cyberman story, The Abominable Snowmen adds another famous monster foe to the roster. This time, it’s the Yeti, overgrown balls of fluff on legs. Admittedly, they’re not the scariest of foes the first time around - it would take The Web Of Fear to get kids thinking twice about cuddling their teddy bears at night. Actually, that’s the problem with the Yeti in The Abominable Snowmen, they’re too cuddly by half. Although the way in which they can stop and start is quite effective, it’s hard not to feel sorry for one of the beasties when it’s beaten into submission by a horde of Det Sen monks with great big sticks.

That problem aside, The Abominable Snowmen is still another creepy Doctor Who story. While the Yeti may not be that scary, there’s still a supremely eerie atmosphere pervading the story. This is mostly achieved through the concept of the Great Intelligence, a disembodied presence that manifests itself through a hapless, possessed individual. In this case, it’s the apparently benign monastery master Padmasambhava. Wolfe Morris gives a good performance, alternating well between benevolent crooning and a vicious hissing that he uses when Padmasamhava is speaking in the voice of the Intelligence.

What also works is the devastating effect that the power of the Intelligence has on The Doctor and his friends when they brave the Inner Sanctum in the last episode. The Doctor warns his companions to be ready for anything, and while he laughs off levitating objects as showy magic, you still get the impression that he’s genuinely scared. Sure enough, after he’s gone first into the Sanctum, we hear a deathly silence and then The Doctor’s piercing screams. We don’t often hear the Second Doctor scream, so he must be up against a pretty formidable foe. The last few scenes are very well acted by Troughton and Morris, who add much to the frenzied atmosphere achieved by Gerald Blake. All in all, the Great Intelligence is one of the creepiest foes pitted against the Second Doctor. It's unlikely that we'll find out whether Padmasambhava’s original death scene survived in which the ancient monk’s head melts and dissolves away.

The Abominable Snowmen succeeds in providing more chills than a fridge in an igloo. It’s a nice idea to have a monastery as such an unwelcoming place. Normally, it’s a place of peace and tranquillity, and yet, the Det Sen Monastery offers no such hospitality. Even The Doctor’s arrival is met with hostility. Initially, the monks don’t even give him the chance to explain his arrival. It’s only until Thonmi actually hears The Doctor out that he’s on the way to being freed from becoming the filling in a Yeti sandwich.

Gerald Blake is very successful in achieving that creepy, unearthly atmosphere. The POV shots of Padmasambhava are well done - simply achieved with the drapes in front of the camera which occasionally flare white as the alien force takes hold of the monk. The location filming in North Wales is marvellously shot, adding much to the bleakness of the tale. And one notable thing - it’s left to the sound effects to convey the atmosphere. Whether it’s the bleeping Yeti spheres or the desolate wind sounds, The Abominable Snowmen still succeeds without any incidental music whatsoever. Presumably, this is the story that gives Murray Gold the most nightmares, sending him into a fit of terror at the prospect of a life without farting orchestras or annoying pompous choirs fingerpainting the story.

Blake’s casting choices are pretty good too. The most memorable character is of course, the gruff English explorer Travers. Jack (Father Of Deborah) Watling is magnificent as Travers. The character starts out as oddly unlikeable, after he sells out The Doctor to Khrisong and his monky friends as the man who presumably killed his colleague. In fact, he’s initially no more than a ruthless glory seeker who’s determined to get his prize come what may. However, after he’s mellowed and sheepishly admitted that The Doctor isn’t a killer, Travers is still an interesting character. In particular, the scene where he chances upon the globes of ooze in the creepy cave is very well acted by Watling - Travers’ genuine fear comes through, and for the first time, you genuinely believe that he’s out of his depth.

Another memorable character is Khrisong, the bluff but doomed head warrior monk. Khrisong falls into the category of The Man That Can’t Make Friends easily. Suspicious to the point of paranoia, it’s a wonder that the head of monks isn’t exactly a peace-loving dude. Norman Jones is very good though, and perfectly conveys the character’s gruff suspicion throughout the story. Khrisong’s death is particularly brutal - rammed through the back with a whopping great sword by the possessed Songsten (a good performance from Charles Morgan). It’s another of those scenes that you can see coming a mile off, but it’s still quite shocking when it happens.

The Abominable Snowmen is another strong entry in what turns out to be a consistently excellent season. Mervyn Haisman’s and Henry Lincoln’s script is very well written, full of atmosphere, which is heightened by Gerald Blake’s moody direction. The Yeti may be a bit too cuddly to be totally convincing, but the air of dread and the creepy concept of the Great Intelligence compensate for this.

But being locked up in a cell is no way to treat a legend is it?

* More legendary tales of the Doctor are talked about by me in these 3 1970s-era ebook guides: