This story in a nutshell: The Doctor and company head to the Det Sen Monastery in the Himalayas, a retreat of peace and harmony where evil cannot reside…
Oh My Giddy Aunt: The opening scenes between the three travellers are wonderful, it shows a relaxed chemistry between the trio that has developed practically overnight. The Doctor is giddy with delight about his return to Det Sen, Jamie enjoys discovering a set of pipes in the chest and Victoria sighs wearily at the excitement of her two male companions. Listening to Jamie and Victoria laughing about the Doctor being a ‘great hairy beastie’ is a healthy reminder for me (because I’m quite hard on Victoria as a character at times) that as a trio they were pretty much the ultimate Troughton regulars set. Troughton has a fine rapport with Watling as Travers, initially distrustful of one another but ultimately come to respect one another. It’s one of those relationships with an intellectual equal that crops up a couple of times each era (the third Doctor and Liz, five and Todd) where the relationship transcends the story you are watching and becomes something interesting to watch in its own right. I can see why Travers was booked in for a return visit. He’s not a Doctor who makes an incredible fuss when he’s locked up, he just sits their tootling on his recorder quite happily. You might say that Troughton is a little neglected in this tale (although it is one where he doesn’t take a holiday, which is a novelty) but he gets some pleasingly weighty scenes with Padmasambhava and Victoria in the final two episodes. The Doctor screaming hysterically in the last episode feels so utterly wrong it took me completely by surprise.
Sexy Scot: Discretion is always the better part of valour when Jamie has an idea. The famous Troughton/Hines chemistry is in full swing. Their interaction isn’t just a myth or something for Frazer Hines to wax lyrical about at conventions, it’s genuinely some of the loveliest and most unforced chemistry that the show ever managed to conjure up. They’re made for each other, like two naughty schoolboys egging each other on and hiding behind each other when the going gets tough. The gag where Jamie falls under the Doctor’s hypnotic spell is perfectly timed.
Screaming Violet: ‘If you need me just yell your head off’ is not the sort of instruction you should be giving Victoria. Her scream to end all screams is infamous. Taken as a whole, this is one of Victoria’s better stories insofar as she is fairly active throughout, asking questions, smartly reasoning things out and pushing the story on away from the Doctor and Jamie. So often she was left to scream at the monsters and tucked away in peril otherwise. This proves that she can actively drive a story with some confidence and Watling rises to that challenge. Episode three is a particularly strong instalment for Victoria. A shame the writers didn’t collaborate and see what Haisman and Lincoln were doing with her, I don’t think Victoria is treated as a character in her won right again until her swansong. Victoria’s repeated fears when under the spell of the Intelligence is very well done because the first time we hear it is sounds utterly convincing and just the sort of thing that Victoria would say. With each repetition it gets more unnerving. Is it Victoria in there anymore or is she simply a vessel of which to trap the Doctor?
The Good: What’s surprising about The Abominable Snowmen is just how creepy so much of it is. It opens with the piercing screams of a man in terror, takes us through violent attacks, sibilant possession and evil mind games. It’s not a Doctor Who story that is famous for its chills (in the same way The Web of Fear, Terror of the Autons, Seeds of Doom or The Curse of Fenric are) but there is a disquieting atmosphere throughout this story that is expertly maintained by the director. Just check out the opening episode featuring the Doctor exploring the apparently deserted monastery. It’s a masterclass in suspense without the aid of music, just the expectation of something bad that may have happened and the Doctor exploring some very beautifully designed and well-lit sets. It’s the most extensive and expensive local shoot to date and it’s clear this is a show that is pouring all of the resources that BBC has into it at this point. Trust me this wouldn’t be the case come the end of the Troughton era where the money purse was tightening so it’s great to see location work of movie standard being lavished on the show. The Welsh hillside is a fitting double for the Himalayas, despite the fact that there isn’t a flake of snow to be seen. What’s important is that it is vast, scenic and very easy on the eye. The sense of desolation and that there is nowhere to hide on the hills is perfect for the story. Norman Jones refuses to let Khrisong become a cliché, instead presenting a warrior monk with consideration and integrity. I like how he reasons out his decisions and refuses to act violently just for the sake of it. His death in the final episode proves extremely touching, mostly because Jones has ensured he was a man of integrity throughout. I appreciate the efforts that Haisman and Lincoln go to to ensure that whilst this is potentially the most sedate setting imaginable, that things never get boring. A gaggle of Monks is hardly the most exciting prospect for a Doctor Who story but they are all characterised well and as soon as Det Sen is under siege they drop their moralising for a siege mentality. Thomni in particular is very sweet and aimable, certainly moreso than any character in Tomb of the Cybermen. The award for creepiest voice in Doctor Who goes to Wolfe Morris as the possessed Padmasambhava, and that is against some hot competition (Gabriel Woolf in particular). What singles Morris out is the agonised conflict that he imbues his character with, often whispering with absolute malevolence as the Great Intelligence uses him as a puppet but occasionally his real personality slipping through. It’s a script that is very generous in that respect, giving Morris the chance to really enjoy his sinister moments but provide shades of character too. His low chuckling in the last episode as the story reaches its apotheosis is particularly chilling because it almost sounds like crying too. It was certainly an era for bold imagery; I find the yeti control spheres arranged in a triangle a particularly memorable image, and also when the spheres are on the move. Using the Yetis on a chessboard is also a really fun idea. Any accusations of nepotism can be immediately squashed because Jack Watling is a perfect fit for Professor Travers; plummy indignation and fiery temperament all the way. He’s never entirely presented as a co-operative man, he’s often seen behaving selfishly to meet his objectives and yet Watling ensures that throughout we are always on his side because it’s a perfectly likable performance all the same. He’s not ashamed to admit when he is wrong and that goes a long way in Doctor Who. I abhor those characters that are introduced simply to be spanners in the works (think Ettis in Monster of Peladon) and unreasonably cause problems even when their objections are countered by the Doctor and company. Travers is much more than that and I can imagine this man having a life outside of the confines of this story, so much so that we get to see it in one story and hear about it in another. Are you kidding me with those telesnaps of Padmasambhava in the flesh? He's quite the most ghoulish thing the show has presented to date. The fact that he is supposedly a man peace but actually a mouthpiece for a malevolent entity makes him even scarier. It's very unusual to have such an insubstantial villain in the show, one that is controlling things invisibly. It's even more unusual to have that entity lose the day but survive at the end of the story, ready to regroup and strike again. Even the Doctor cannot say for sure that the Great Intelligence has been defeated. I but that put the wind up the kiddies, especially the thought that it can take over adults. I wonder if any of them studied their parents very carefully the night the final episode aired.
The Bad: Because Padmasambhava is such a memorably chilling bad guy, it leaves the Abbot as a somewhat redundant character.
Cutie Pies: Should I condemn the Yetis to this section or not? No, not really. Yes, they are extremely cuddly and cute but in a way that is part of their appeal. So many Doctor Who monsters set out to frighten immediately with their appearance (of course they do, to take the opposite approach would be a very foolish thing to do week in, week out) that to have a ‘monster’ that is benign looking (they look like overgrown teddy bears) come up and snap your neck is all the more frightening. I do wonder if the designer was actually going for a more fearsome approach but the end result is an uncomfortable fusion of something silly and something scary because the Yetis look like something you might want to hug, but if you they will crush you to death in an instant. The Adipose unnerve me for the same reason; utterly adorable to look at but they are the remains of a person calcified into a lump of fat. I think the troll doll in Terror of the Autons was going for the same approach too, except that was so hideous looking that it was disgusting from the off. I really love how the Yetis can be stock still for an age (they are robots after all) and suddenly jerk into life unexpectedly. Also, how relentless they are in their pursuit because they never tire. It’s interesting that their redesign in The Web of Fear is supposed to make them more formidable, with glowing eyes and a shaggier, slimmer coat. It feels like the designer took a look at this and thought that they hadn’t been done justice (a bit like the Silurians and Sea Devils in Warriors of Deep but their re-invention made them look like they were grinning inanely all the time so you can see how this sort of thing can fail). However, Web has Douglas Camfield as director so matter how menacing the design was meant to be, they were always going to terrifying. It’s true that the actors fear of the monsters helps to sell a lot of their threat and given their loveable appearance that is doubly true here. There’s a sequence in episode four where the Yeti tears through the Monastery and the genuine anxiety exuded from the actors gives this sequence quite a punch.
The Shallow Bit: I want to do bad things to Frazer Hines’ Jamie. I had to say it eventually. I fear I may have said it before. And there’s something about corrupting a Monk that makes Thomni a viable option too. I’m a bad boy. Victoria is the only woman in this entire tale so unless you find Deborah Watling an attractive prospect (and why wouldn’t you, she’s quite beautiful), you’re doomed.
Result: You might have heard that The Abominable Snowmen is a bit of an overlong snorefest but that would be doing this six-part story a huge disservice. Considered menace would be a nice way of describing the atmosphere of the tale, because instead of going for something obvious and in your face (like Yetis invading the Underground in their next featured instalment) the writers and director take their time to generate an atmosphere of disquiet and some unusual psychological and conceptual horror. My one serious objection to this story is that it is a little lengthy to fulfil its plot remit, there is a good four episodes worth of material here that has been stretched to six and a lot of the slack is taken up with dossing about on the hillside and dicing with Abominable Snowmen. That’s cute in the early episodes but it does become a little repetitive in the last third of the story. However, that extra time does also afford for some shaded characterisation and a truly astonishing villain to emerge in the Great Intelligence, speaking through Wolfe Morris’ Padmasambhava. So, I’m in two minds as to whether cutting down to four episodes would actually damage the integrity of the tale. Maybe five episodes. It’s not a story that pushes the Doctor to the fore, or the companions, or the guest characters. The weight of all three is evenly distributed throughout, which is quite a rarity in Doctor Who. Between that and the fact that the monsters are so cute and the pace can be generously called measured might be why so many people are happy to forget about this one. However, it’s extremely competent (a word that has been evolved to mean something fairly derogatory but I mean in quite the opposite way) tale in practically every department; it’s stylishly shot, well-acted and has a story that constantly innovates. It is a base under siege story but because of the expansive location work it feels quite different from its contemporaries. I like it very much: 8/10