“The Abominable Snowmen” has long been one of my favorite classic serials. In terms of Troughton stories, I rate only “Enemy of the World” and “Evil of the Daleks” higher — and although I give them a slight edge in terms of ranking, I think “Snowmen” moves me more. It inspires the kind of protectiveness you develop for the serials that affect you most deeply. I find it very powerful and very dear. And given that their follow-up stories are, in turn, a repetitive runaround in the Underground and a mockery of peaceful protesters, it's rather astounding that actors-turned-writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln managed, for their first Doctor Who assignment, a serial as respectful and thematically rich as "The Abominable Snowmen." In 1967, it was probably the first time most audiences had been exposed to Buddhism or the tenets of monastic life, and you suspect they came away thinking that monks are brave and honorable men who wrestle with many of the same questions we all do. And for Doctor Who in 1967 — in fact, for TV programming in general in 1967 — that genuine interest in (and empathy for) Eastern culture is a bit of a miracle.
There’s an awful lot that “The Abominable Snowmen” gets right, but much of what makes it special are the themes it raises and explores, and the way the creative team chooses to frame them. We’ll get to that in a bit. Let’s just start with the things it can boast about on a purely technical level. But first, a slight digression. “The Abominable Snowmen” is the second serial in a season known for its “base under siege” stories, but there’s no real base under siege here. The reduction of Season 5 to the “base under siege” season is a misnomer anyway, suggesting that the stories suffer from a certain sameness (they don’t), and that within the stories, the episodes themselves suffer from a certain sameness (except for “Web of Fear,” they don’t). In “Abominable Snowmen,” the Yeti who attack the Det-Sen Monastery are a ploy to force the monks to abandon their home. They’re fascinating, but they’re hardly focal. The main story-line is about how the master Padmasambhava, meditating on a higher plane of existence, has been mentally ensnared by a being called the Great Intelligence, who’s been holding his mind and body hostage for centuries. (A quick shout-out to Wolfe Morris, who makes Padmasambhava’s dual nature — the comforting warmth of his own voice and the hissing sounds that emerge when he’s speaking for the Great Intelligence — eerie as hell.) That’s the core of the story — that’s where its emotional impact lies. The “base under siege” aspect is the least of it.
Now back to other things it can boast about. It makes marvelous use of the three principals: the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria. Although they were easily one of the best TARDIS teams, there aren’t a lot of serials that manage to showcase all three throughout — and well. Patrick Troughton sits out two episodes of “Evil of the Daleks” and the second episode of “Web of Fear”; Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling have a week off during “Enemy of the World.” Watling was unavailable for one of the taping nights of “Ice Warriors,” so her lines were transferred to Hines — and she all but disappears near the end of the serial. And in her final story, “Fury From the Deep,” script editor Derrick Sherwin is so intent on giving Victoria proper motivation to leave that he has her whining for episodes on end; it feels heavy-handed and rings false. That leaves “Tomb of the Cybermen” and “Abominable Snowmen” as the only serials to feature the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria all the way through, untarnished, and although “Tomb” has a lovely exchange between the Doctor and Victoria about mutual loss and the benefits of travel, it’s about the only bit of characterization in an action-driven story. “Snowmen” is the one where you see how glorious the three are.
Haisman and Lincoln explore them in all possible pairings. At the top, the Doctor leaves Jamie and Victoria alone in the TARDIS so he can go exploring, and the banter between Jamie and Victoria is just as entertaining as what the Doctor discovers on the mountains of Tibet. In episode 2, the Doctor and Victoria leave Jamie to his own devices, as he carries out a plan to entrap a Yeti. An episode later, the Doctor and Jamie head back to the TARDIS to pick up some equipment and manage to outmaneuver the Yeti (it’s two episodes showcasing their sensational chemistry), while Victoria — unleashed and undaunted — gets a chance to investigate the Det-Sen Monastery. The three then reunite for the closing chapters.
The story builds beautifully. We meet one of the Yeti in the cliffhanger to episode 1, but the Great Intelligence isn’t even referenced until episode 3. We’re introduced to the Abbot and Padmasambhava in episode 2, but Padmasambhava is unseen; his features — tortured and wizened — aren’t revealed until the end of episode 4. And he and the Doctor don’t share a scene until episode 5. (In this way, it feels a lot like David Whitaker’s writing; no one knew how to build and pace a script like he did.) Some of the cliffhangers are designed to terrify us (the Yeti attacks at the end of episodes 1 and 3); some seek to haunt us in other ways (episode 2 ends quietly, with a glowing sphere rolling slowly, on its own, past a giant Buddha; episode 4 ends with our first glimpse of Padmasambhava). Other Who stories give away so much so soon that there’s no place left to go, and the story starts to feel padded. (“Web of Fear” is a prime example.) “Abominable” unfolds at the perfect pace: playing its cards close to its chest, making sure there are plenty of surprises and reveals to come.
(As an aside, some of that has to be the handiwork of script editor Peter Bryant, who had taken over for Gerry Davis during “Evil of the Daleks.” Doctor Who polls often ask “who was your favorite producer and story editor combo?” The answer is inevitably Letts and Dicks or Hinchcliffe and Holmes. But after Davis’s departure came exactly three serials produced by Innes Lloyd and story edited by Peter Bryant: “Abominable Snowmen,” “Ice Warriors” and “Enemy of the World” — all of them various degrees of brilliant. When Derrick Sherwin takes over story editing with “Web of Fear,” the scripting — in particular, the pacing — starts to suffer. It’s hard to say what Bryant’s contribution to “Abominable Snowmen” was, but it’s unlikely that it was negligible. For three serials, Lloyd and Bryant elevated Who to phenomenal heights.)
“The Abominable Snowmen” is the first story filmed for Troughton’s second season, and as I argue elsewhere, it boasts his best performance as the Doctor. When he took over from Hartnell, it took Troughton some time to nail down his character — he was never less than wonderful, but there was bit of trial and error, and it wasn’t until his fifth serial that the Second Doctor felt fully formed. And as with several of his successors, Troughton's first serial filmed for his second season — in this case, “The Abominable Snowmen” — serves up his most dazzling performance. (This seems to be the point where the actor, following some time off, returns to the role not merely refreshed but with newfound assurance, secure in what he's doing with the role and eager to stretch it that much further.) By this point in the series, Troughton has forged a blend of focused intensity, patented indignation and flustered horror that's proven irresistible — but "Snowmen" threatens to undo all of his handiwork. Its monastic setting calls for hushed tones and muted acting beats, and Troughton has to take the Doctor's bold mannerisms and angular inflections and moderate them. He responds to the challenge brilliantly; in fact, it's startling how effortlessly he modulates all the quirks and tics on which he's built his Doctor, without sacrificing any of them. It's a quiet performance that never goes soft, and in its own way, it's as much a tour-de-force as his dual performance in "Enemy of the World." (By the second half of the story, particularly after his first meeting with Padmasambhava. Troughton is practically whispering all his lines — a reflection not merely of the gravity of the situation, but of the surroundings in which he finds himself — yet he’s still unmistakably the Doctor.) And he takes advantage of the gentler tone to play up the Doctor's tenderness — as he consoles Padmasambhava, or eases Victoria out of her trance, or coaxes the truth out of the spellbound Abbot. And that warmth saturates the story.
It certainly has an impact on Frazer Hines, and as with Troughton, I’m not sure he’s ever better than he is here. Jamie’s transformation from a boy to a man — which Whitaker masterminded in “Evil of the Daleks” — seems complete in “Abominable Snowmen,” and a lot of it has to do with the addition of Deborah Watling to the cast. While Watling wasn't the strongest actress to join the TARDIS crew, she's ideally cast in the role Whitaker designed for her: someone to bring out the Doctor's softer side and Jamie's protective nature. (They both become more dynamic characters because of her.) Jamie is marvelously showcased in “Abominable Snowmen,” and Hines makes the most of it. Jamie’s bravery is put to good use, of course, as are his fighting skills — but that’s pretty much true of his entire run on Doctor Who: Jamie is always up for a scuffle. (In the worst parts of Season 6, when Jamie begins to devolve — when Zoe’s genius too often reduces him to the role of village idiot — that’s often what he’s consigned to: the guy who fights a lot.) “Abominable Snowmen” also takes care to play up his intelligence and his compassion. And it’s intelligence of a certain kind — the kind that seems consistent with an 18th-century lad who’s spent much of his life in battle. Jamie has “street smarts,” for want of a better phrase. Jamie is astute, and he strategizes well. Sometimes his strategies are so risky that they send the Doctor and Victoria fleeing in the opposite direction — as they do here at one point — but it’s Jamie who knows how to stop an advancing Yeti in episode 1, and how to capture one in episode 2, precisely because Jamie would know how to subdue and ensnare an enemy.
But it’s the addition of Victoria to the cast that gives Jamie his heart — plus a new kind of strength. He’s forever looking out for her — she means a lot to him. In episode 5, Victoria emerges from the inner sanctum in a trance, under a hypnotic spell. The Doctor resolves to have his first exchange with Padmasambhava, then returns to Jamie and Victoria in the meeting room. Jamie asks, “Did you find out what you wanted to know?” “Not about Victoria, no. But I found some very interesting clues as to what's been happening.” The Doctor is too obsessed with the big picture to properly prioritize. His biggest concern isn’t healing Victoria, but battling the Great Intelligence. In “Evil of the Daleks,” one of the most fascinating traits Whitaker had given the Doctor — it neatly balanced his unassuming looks and cockeyed demeanor — was his willingness to sacrifice a friend for the greater good. The Second Doctor could be ruthless. (Whitaker would remind us of that again in “Wheel in Space,” when the Doctor dispatches Jamie and Zoe to spacewalk to the rocket, even though a meteor shower is about to strike; he’s quite aware of the dangers he’s putting them in, but he’s decided it’s worth it.) Here, the Doctor is fixating on the force controlling Padmasambhava, and how to combat it, but Jamie puts his foot down: “Oh, never mind about that. It's Victoria you ought to be worrying about.” “Yes. Yes, you're quite right. Victoria must come first.” It falls to Jamie — in a show of moral strength — to set the Doctor straight. And when Victoria comes to, she turns to Jamie and asks, “What are you grinning at?” — and although there are no accompanying telesnaps, you can imagine Hines beaming with joy and relief.
As for Deborah Watling, this is hands down her best performance; nothing else comes close. Right from the start, we see that Victoria is her father’s daughter: she’s inquisitive and headstrong — except when it comes to facing danger, and then she’s content to leave the heroics to Jamie. In the opening scenes, when the Doctor instructs Jamie and Victoria to wait in the TARDIS while he explores the mountainside below, Victoria takes it upon herself to monitor the Doctor’s progress on the scanner. Two serials in, and she’s already working the TARDIS controls. (“I want to see where the Doctor's gone. Now if I turn this to the left it should... Ah ha, that's it!”) Touching down in a time period not too far removed from her own, Victoria gains cunning and initiative. From her first moments in the monastery, she senses that something is amiss — they are too many forbidden rooms and unanswered questions — and she sets it upon herself to find answers. (At one point, confined to her quarters, she mimics food poisoning to make her escape. She even manages to imprison her guard Thomni, whom she’s newly befriended. Victoria is a crafty one, and not above playing dirty.) Victoria’s determination to seek out Padmasambhava isn’t like Dodo snooping about (quite effectively) in “The Savages.” Dodo — and I love her — was a bit of a busybody. Victoria has her father’s genes; the mysteries of the universe fascinate her, and roadblocks to knowledge are unacceptable. And given a chance to be capable and focal, Watling proves just how good she can be when she's not consigned to simpering and screaming.
But more than the splendid use of the cast — or the careful and clever pacing — or the sterling performances — it’s the themes that make “Snowmen” a standout. Neither Haisman nor Lincoln was a disciple of Buddhism (although, by all accounts, they tried to familiarize themselves with the teachings and terminology). But in the serial’s depiction of monks disentangling from the ways of the world in search of something deeper, and in its underlying conflict between personal responsibility and interdependence, its view of cloistered life seems vivid and accurate. There are no villains in this piece — at least, not among the monks. Yes, the head of the warrior monks, Khrisong, proves a thorn in the Doctor’s side. (On the debit side, the serial starts with one of those “Doctor accused of a crime he didn’t commit” devices that was already hoary by 1968, and Khrisong is one of the two making the accusation.) But we come to understand what’s motivating him. The Yeti — who have always been unthreatening — have been unaccountably attacking the monastery, and for Khrisong, it falls to him to protect the monks. But he’s uncertain how best to act:
Khrisong: I have tried to do my duty. Under your guidance, the protection of the monastery lies in my hands.
Songsten: I know, my son. Your task is a hard one.
Khristong: The purpose of my life is nothing if I fail. You know, my Abbot, that I willingly would lay down my life for you and my brothers. But can I combat this with mildness? You must let me fight their strength with my strength.
Songsten: Our ways are the ways of peace, Khrisong, my son. You must not seek to change them.
Throughout “The Abominable Snowmen,” Khrisong is caught between two paths — and in some ways, they embody two of the contradictory premises at the heart of Buddhism: the one that argues that nothing that we build is built alone, and the other that stresses that we are the agent of our own understanding. Buddhism requires the faithful to be loyal, but also to figure things out for themselves. Khrisong spends the serial in turmoil. The Abbot Songsten and Padmasambhava are preaching pacifism, and he feels obligated to respect their wisdom and abide by their wishes. But Khrisong also knows that his religion calls upon him to think for himself, and he believes a more aggressive approach is needed. (What he doesn’t know is that Songsten and Padmasambhava are doing the bidding of the Great Intelligence, and deliberately undermining him.) Ultimately Khrisong ignores his own instincts to abide by the will of his Abbot, and far from being rewarded for it, becomes a tragic figure, struck down by Songsten’s hand.
It’s impossible to know how much Haisman and Lincoln truly understood the religious themes in play, and how much was just instinct and dumb luck, but ultimately that’s unimportant. Their depiction of the precepts of Buddhism feels accurate. If they only learned five bits of knowledge in researching the story, they used them all well. Late in the serial, Victoria and Thomni start to open up to each other, and she tries to explain how the Doctor came by the holy Ghanta, which he took from the monastery 300 years ago for safekeeping:
Victoria: Oh, dear. Well, I know this sounds silly, but the Doctor can travel through time and space. He has a machine, you see, and well, I don't really understand it myself. It's rather difficult to explain.
Thomni: There is no need. I understand perfectly.
Victoria: You do?
Thomni: Yes. You see, it is said that the Master, Padmasambhava, can free himself from his earthly body and travel great distances.
Thomni: But this can only be obtained after many years of strict discipline and self training.
Victoria: You mean that you might be able to do that sort of thing?
Thomni: Perhaps, one day.
The scene seems steeped in the teachings of the Kalachakra Tantra, in which, when one truly understands the nature of all things, one can move in space and time just as one moves from one room to another. (The Ghanta is a bell used in Hindu religious practices, not Buddhist, but it’s a nice touch nonetheless.) This conversation, in episode 4, paves the way for the revelation in episode 5 of how Padmasambhava has been enslaved by the Great Intelligence. Padmasambhava confesses to the Doctor that he astral traveled and made mental contact with this intelligence. Again, it’s completely consistent with the tenets of Buddhism, in which astral projection would be classified as a siddhi, a special power, the sort that arises as an accidental side-effect of meditation. Had Padmasambhava simply announced to the Doctor that he had astral traveled, it might have sounded absurd, but the earlier conversation with Victoria and Thomni clarifies and embellishes it — ahead of the fact — in the most charming way. The moment, as they say, has been prepared for.
Haisman and Lincoln write a script that seems appreciative of (and often knowledgeable about) Buddhism; director Gerald Blake then adds his own layer of respect to the proceedings. And this is what makes the tale particularly captivating. As he helms it, this isn't a Tibetan monastery spruced up as the setting for a Doctor Who adventure; it's a Doctor Who adventure scaled down to suit the tone of a Tibetan monastery. Blake is insistent on that. For starters, he dispenses with a musical score: that crutch too often used to bind together Who's disparate elements and gloss over its weaker moments. Instead, the monastery provides its own, natural accompaniment. (Despite that, there's not one pause that doesn't feel properly filled, not one transition that doesn't seem smoothly made. And near the end, when one of the lamas sounds a gong to welcome back his brethren, it feels like an event.) Often scenes are underscored solely by the sound of chanting in the background, and the only light in the cloisters is a burning torch carried by one of the monks.
You can see Blaker’s visual method clearly from the one surviving episode. At one point, the Doctor and Professor Travers get into an argument, and Blake stages it with Khrisong center, and the Doctor and Travers behind him on either side. The Eastern warrior is still and immutable; the Western scientists are bickering like children. Elsewhere, Thomni discovers the Ghanta that the Doctor spirited away in 1630, and as he raises his arms to give thanks, they come together in prayer just above the bell, in an angle perfectly mirroring its shape. Later, Thomni and Songsten go to speak to Padmasambhava, to return the Ghanta; Padmasambhava has not yet been revealed to us, so he instructs them to wait outside, and as they converse with his voice, which echoes through the corridor, Blake frames the shot exquisitely: Songsten and Thomni in profile, facing left; to Songsten’s left, the Ghanta he’s holding out in offering; to Thomni’s left, his hands raised in prayer, once again matching the shape of the Ghanta. Things are in perfect balance inside the monastery. “Abominable Snowmen” introduces a world of order, and asks: what happens when chaos is unleashed? — and not just the Great Intelligence, but the Professor, the Doctor and his companions.
And there is indeed chaos. Part of what makes “The Abominable Snowmen” so invigorating and effective is the disparity between what’s happening inside and outside the monastery. The monks’ world is one of harmony. But outside the monastery, it’s madness: the Yeti — who aren’t Yeti, but remote-controlled robots — and the glowing spheres in a triangular stack and the transparent luminous pyramids that ooze a glutinous mass that starts to overtake the mountainside. It’s bonkers. That dichotomy is at the heart of the story, and what "Snowmen" is saying is: the monks’ way of life must be protected. Even the Great Intelligence himself seems to understand this. The Doctor grills Padmasambhava, “Why are the monks being driven away?”, but we’re never given an answer. A reasonable answer, given everything we’ve seen, is that the Great Intelligence reveres the monks too much to see them destroyed. (He’ll have no compunction about killing off half of UNIT in “Web of Fear.”) But the monks are dignified men worthy of respect; even the Great Intelligence knows it.
And so does the creative team. Haisman and Lincoln certainly aren’t telling an authentic Buddhist parable; it’s clear that they’ve researched the subject merely up to a point. But what’s crucial to the tone is that, even when the writers have the monks indulge in flights of fancy, trying to digest events beyond their understanding, they see to it that they’re never corrected or condescended to. With one of the Yeti in captivity, the monks construct a wooden framework around it, a "ghost trap” to “ward off the evil spirits”; with no knowledge of robots, they view the mechanical beast as the devil, who "in his guile, wears his armor beneath the skin to protect his evil heart.” The exchange feels like a couple of Western writers imagining responses consistent with their research (and doing it well), but the very fact that that scene is there — and more to the point, that the monks are allowed a point of view and an interpretation that are never patronized — is striking. No one ever questions the monks in “Abominable Snowmen” — at least, not on a philosophical level. We’re made to understand that their religion, their behavior and their outlook is just as valid as ours. More to the point, they’re not that dissimilar from ours. Its attitude towards the inhabitants of the monastery — and towards Buddhism and Eastern culture in general — is remarkable. It’s a wildly humanistic perspective, one that Doctor Who will rarely again approach with this degree of gentle reverence.
In one sense, "Abominable Snowmen" is another Doctor Who serial where a benign society falls under the spell of an evil force. (“The Macra Terror” had done it, also quite nicely, just a season earlier.) But the monastic setting invites the very questions of faith, trust and blind acceptance that are invariably at the heart of such stories — and gives it a complexity and depth that's rare. "Abominable Snowmen" asks: in times of turmoil, do we obey our gods, trust our instincts, or follow our hearts? Khrisong feels it: he’s caught between his god’s demands for peace and his own instincts about survival. The Doctor feels it: his instincts tell him to save the world, but his heart demands he tend to Victoria. Thomni feels it: his master instructs him to remain vigilant, but his heart gets the better of him. Despite the presence of those cuddly Yeti, there to provide the kid appeal, it's one of the most adult stories in the classic canon.
It's also one of the most civilized of serials — and one of the sanest. There's not much that’s traditionally scary about “The Abominable Snowmen”; it's about the threat of chaos in a world where order rules. The scariest part is the decent, religious man who’s been kept alive for hundreds of years as a puppet for the Great Intelligence. And the real battle at the end isn’t between the monks and the Yeti; it’s a mental duel between the Doctor and the Intelligence, one that the Doctor — and Troughton, in all his quiet, fierce brilliance — fights to its conclusion. Near the end, Padmasambhava is at last freed from the power that’s kept him alive, in agony, for centuries. He’s allowed to die with dignity, and he expires in the brief moments that follow — but not before expressing his gratitude: “At last, peace. Thank you, Doctor.” And the Doctor, watching him die, responds, “Goodbye, old friend,” with a mixture of solemnity and relief. It’s extraordinarily powerful. And at the very end, the Doctor takes out his recorder — which, near the start, with the Doctor imprisoned, was a symbol of comfort amidst chaos, but is now a quiet celebration of harmony restored. Serenading the dawn, he leads his two young charges back up the mountain to the TARDIS. It’s extremely dear.
Next up: “The Savages.” Or maybe “The Smugglers.” I haven’t decided. While you wait, feel free to check out my review of another lost Troughton serial that I love, "The Wheel in Space".
Want more Doctor Who? I offer up reviews of seven Classic Who stories that I consider unfairly neglected or maligned, one for each Doctor: "Terminus," "The Ark," "Delta and the Bannermen," "The Wheel in Space," "Attack of the Cybermen," "Death to the Daleks and "The Leisure Hive." I look at the eleven actors who've played the Doctor for more than one full-length story, and assess their best and worst performances. I also take an affectionate look at the William Hartnell era; do an overview of the Jon Pertwee era; and take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years. And finally, in a 16-part series, I rank and review all 158 Classic Who serials, starting here.