The Perils of Buddhism: The Abominable Snowmen

“The Abominable Snowmen” is a rare historical from the Troughton era.  Troughton’s first season saw the last of the “pure historicals” until “Black Orchid” came along in the Davison era; the show very much turned its focus to the present and the future.  A significant part of “The Evil of the Daleks” was set in the Victorian era, but “The Abominable Snowmen” is the only Troughton story (other than “The Highlanders”) to take place entirely in the past.  In this respect, it is a bit of an anomaly in the far more forward-looking Troughton era.

Jamie, Victoria, and Professor Travers (played by Deborah Watling's father, Jack) try to solve the Yeti problem

Jamie, Victoria, and Professor Travers (played by Deborah Watling’s father, Jack) try to solve the Yeti problem

The story takes place in the Himalayas of Tibet, at the Det-Sen Monastery, in the 1930’s.  The Doctor has visited the place about 300 years earlier and was charged with keeping safe the holy Ghanta of the monastery.  He is happy to have arrived and tells his companions, Jamie and Victoria, that the monks will give them quite a welcome when they see he is returning the Ghanta.  He sets out for the monastery, telling Jamie and Victoria to stay behind in the TARDIS.

Unfortunately, there is trouble at the monastery.  The usually peaceful Yeti have been attacking the monastery and anybody else in the area.  Right before the TARDIS appeared, the companion of Professor Travers, who is searching for the Yeti, was brutally murdered.  The Doctor’s sudden arrival is greeted with suspicion by all, as Professor Travers accuses him of the murder.  His furry, Yeti-like coat doesn’t help his case any, as Khrisong, the head warrior monk, suspects that he has found a way to control the Yeti.

Eventually, the monks begin to trust the Doctor, and he tries to help them uncover the truth behind the Yeti attacks (with the help of Victoria and Jamie, who obviously don’t stay behind in the TARDIS for long). He soon discovers that the Yeti attacking the monastery are actually mechanical, but who could be controlling them?  And what is going on with the high lama of the monastery, Padmasambhava, who seems to have incredible powers over people’s minds and no one is allowed to see but the abbot?

The Doctor, still in his Yeti-like coat, speaks to Thonmi.

The Doctor, still in his Yeti-like coat, speaks to Thonmi.

Overall, this is an enjoyable story.  At six episodes long, it never dragged.  Again, the mix of conflicts with the humans, like Professor Travers and Khrisong, along with the struggle to stop the Great Intelligence and his mechanical Yeti kept the plot suspenseful (how the same writing duo of Haisman and Lincoln could also be responsible for “The Dominators” is a bit baffling).  I do have to admit that I was a bit confused as to how the Doctor managed to finally stop the Great Intelligence.  I wasn’t sure why destroying that pyramid of spheres expelled the Great Intelligence from Padmasambhava, but I’m willing to just accept that it did.

Even though it is a bit of an anomaly as a historical, in other ways it is an excellent example of the classic Troughton story.  It is a historical with very little history in it.  The names are historical; for instance, the Det-Sen monastery was named after a king who played a pivotal role in introducing Buddhism to Tibet and did, in fact, learn from Padmasambhava.  Other than that, however, historical accuracy was not a goal.  It is a base under siege story, which was the hallmark of the Troughton era.  In this case, however, the base is the monastery, instead of the more typical military base or colony outpost.  Instead of soldiers you have warrior monks (yes, that’s correct, *warrior* monks), and you have the traditional human working with the enemy, although there is a bit of a twist in this case, as the traitor does not betray the others of his own free will.  In fact, when Padmasambhava is able to speak for himself, he tries to save the monks.

This leads me to the villains of this story, the Great Intelligence and his army of mechanical Yeti.  The Great Intelligence is an interesting adversary for the Doctor (who Steven Moffat resserected in “The Snowmen”) in that he is an equal to the Doctor.  Very few of the Doctor’s opponents can claim to be on the same level of intelligence with him, but, in this case, intelligence is all that this disembodied mind has.  He is only able to gain control when he has a human mind to take over.  In fact this leads to one of the more disturbing moments in Doctor Who, when you see Padmasambhava, who is the primary receptacle for the Great Intelligence.   His mind encountered the Great Intelligence while meditating, and his body was then taken over for the next 250 years.  In the moments when his real consciousness is able to break through the Great Intelligence’s control, he pleads to be allowed to die.  The relief he finds in death reminds the viewer of just how much he must have suffered in his centuries under the control of the Great Intelligence.

The Doctor and some headless Yeti hang out under and umbrella between takes.

The Doctor and some headless Yeti hang out under and umbrella between takes.

The Great Intelligence, however, cannot really be seen, so the main face of evil in this episode are the Yeti, which are far from being disturbing.  They actually look like they could be rather cuddly rather than scary, but they are supposedly modeled after the real Yeti who are timid creatures living in the Himalayas.  It’s not completely unreasonable that the Great Intelligence would choose to create robotic creatures modeled after the Yeti.  After all, if you encountered something that big and hairy in real life, it would definitely be a frightening experience.  Plus, they are clearly bigger and stronger than humans, which makes them ideal for the Great Intelligence’s purpose of scaring and controlling the monks.  While they may not be the scariest monsters to look at, they are memorable.  They are one of the more elaborate “monsters” of sixties Doctor Who, and while they may not be the most terrifying to look at initially, they serve their purpose.

As for the regulars, they all turn in good performances.  The chemistry between Jamie and Victoria is excellent.  Jamie’s protectiveness towards her is nicely balanced by her determination.  When Jamie wants to stay in the TARDIS (as the Doctor told them too) and Victoria wants to go out and explore, we know who’s going to win out.  Although she does get hypnotized by the Great Intelligence, and then is forced to spend an entire episode doing nothing but panicking and screaming, there is some nice development for Victoria’s character.  In this story we see her feistiness and her desire to help people.  She is not happy when placed on the sidelines of the action and will use her intelligence and determination to get back into the action and do whatever she can to help.

Of course, Patrick Troughton turns in another entertaining performance.  His Doctor still seems to be constantly flying by the seat of his pants, but he is just about always correct in his theories.  For instance, the scene of the Doctor and Jamie discovering the Yeti standing by the TARDIS illustrates this mix of comedy, cleverness, and impulsivity that are the hallmarks of the second Doctor.  How does the Doctor decide to deal with the Yeti? By throwing a rock at it, because he has a hunch that it is not currently in “active” mode.  He is, of course, correct, but it’s a rather…interesting way to test his theory.

The lone Yeti standing guard outside the TARDIS, before the rock is thrown.

The lone Yeti standing guard outside the TARDIS, before the rock is thrown.

Overall, this story is very enjoyable.  The plot is engaging and it has a good cast.  However, everything is not perfect in this story.  You can’t really talk about this story without dealing with the thorny issue of race in Doctor Who yet again.  One downside to the episode is having, once again, non-Asian actors playing Asians.  Some of them are so clearly not Asian, it became a distraction.  Why create a story in which a largely Asian cast is required? I know the answer: the purpose in setting the story in Tibet was to place the story in the Himalayas so that the Yeti would fit into it. The fact that there would be non-Asian actors filling the roles never seemed to trouble the BBC too much.

Well, there was one other reason for setting the story in Tibet; the whole idea of Buddhism gave a nice “mystical” way to explain how the Great Intelligence was drawn to our planet.  After all, it was only because Padmasambhava was able to let his mind explore so far on the astral plane that he encountered the Great Intelligence; someone who wasn’t a high lama probably wouldn’t have been able to reach out far enough to contact it.  The big lesson that you can take away from this story: Buddhist meditation is dangerous.  If you reach out with your mind, there’s no telling who or what you may find!