Thursday, December 5, 2013

"The Abominable Snowmen"

Aired Sept 30 – Nov 4, 1967

6 Episodes

Story 38

Written by Mervyn Haisman & Henry Lincoln


Directed by Gerald Blake

Synopsis

The TARDIS arrives in Tibet in 1935 and the Doctor visits the remote Detsen monastery in order to return a sacred bell, the ghanta, given to him for safe keeping on a previous visit.

There he meets an Englishman, Travers, who’s on an expedition to track down the legendary Abominable Snowmen or Yeti.

It transpires that the Yeti roaming the area are actually disguised robots powered by control spheres, which scare away or kill anyone who approaches. The High Lama Padmasambhava, whom the Doctor met hundreds of years earlier on his previous visit, has been taken over by a nebulous alien being, the Great Intelligence, which has artificially prolonged his life and is now using him to control the Yeti by way of models on a chessboard-like map.

The Intelligence's aim is to create a material form for itself and take over the Earth. The Doctor banishes it back to the astral plane, allowing Padmasambhava finally to die in peace.

Analysis

The Abominable Snowmen is both an unusual story for its era and a typical one at the same time. It's the second story in the "Monster Season", an era infamous for its reliance on the monster of the week format as well as the base under siege setting. Both of these decisions for this season came from the production team in order to capitalize ratings (viewers loved a good monster) and to save costs (fewer sets and smaller casts mean more money elsewhere), but they did reduce the show to its most simplistic premise; Doctor Who fights monsters. In that regard, this story is typical of the ones that surround it.

However, it's also an unusual story in many ways, and these differences serve to make it more compelling than it has any right to be, and also serve it well in its current status as a story one can enjoy only in audio form. The script doesn't actually have much incident, and goes out of its way to tie up the Doctor and his friends in runarounds and treading water in order to pad out its length. As a four parter, it might have just about worked, but as a six it doesn't entirely hold suspense.

But the writing has several wonderful touches. The Great Intelligence is a fantastic concept for a villain, not a monster or a moustache twirling baddie but a disembodied force, almost an idea of evil looking to gain physical form. It's a superb, wonderfully evocative idea. The Yeti robots may be cute, but they're also an unusual kind of monster for Doctor Who. The setting of the monastery allows for some interesting Buddhist ideas to seep into the story and provides all the atmosphere, which is capitalized through the choices of the director.

Gerald Blake eschews having any music in the story at all, aside from the monks' chanting, a choice that is surprisingly effective in generating a very creepy and eerily quiet atmosphere. Indeed, all through the story are some solid touches that really up the creepiness. The way the Intelligence speaks, with his sinister whisper, is very effective, as are the barren location work and the quiet yet menacing control spheres. From what little evidence we have of the fight scenes, it appears that Blake placed his cameras almost inside the action, creating a kinetic and chaotic effect that probably minimized the fluffy cuteness of the Yeti. Added to that, all of the performances are very strong. Victoria gets a great outing here, shown to be intrepid and then given a wonderfully creepy moment when she is hypnotized into a panic.

All that said, the plot doesn't live up to the promise or the innovations of the direction. It's certainly got great underpinnings, it just doesn't quite hang together.

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