Season 5 – Story 38
“Leave the monastery. There is great evil here” – the Doctor
When the Tardis lands near a Tibetan monastery in 1935, the Doctor prepares to return to the monks of Detsen a holy bell or ghanta that he was given for safekeeping on a previous visit. But the expected “welcome of a lifetime” never materialises. Instead the Doctor is accused by an English explorer called Travers of murdering his companion. In fact the killer was one of the Yeti – also encountered by Jamie and Victoria – which turn out to be robots manipulated by the Doctor’s former friend, Padmasambhava. The frail, centuries-old High Lama is possessed by a space-dwelling Great Intelligence planning to take over the Earth…
Episode 1 – Saturday 30 September 1967
Episode 2 – Saturday 7 October 1967
Episode 3 – Saturday 14 October 1967
Episode 4 – Saturday 21 October 1967
Episode 5 – Saturday 28 October 1967
Episode 6 – Saturday 4 November 1967
Location filming: September 1967 at Nant Ffrancon Pass, Gwynedd
Filming: August 1967 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: September/October 1967 at Lime Grove D
Doctor Who – Patrick Troughton
Jamie McCrimmon – Frazer Hines
Victoria Waterfield – Deborah Watling
Travers – Jack Watling
Abbot Songsten – Charles Morgan
Thonmi – David Spenser
Khrisong – Norman Jones
Padmasambhava – Wolfe Morris
Ralpachan – David Baron
Rinchen – David Grey
Sapan – Raymond Llewellyn
Yeti – Reg Whitehead, Tony Harwood, Richard Kerley, John Hogan
Writers – Mervyn Haisman, Henry Lincoln
Incidental music – none
Designer – Malcolm Middleton
Story editor – Peter Bryant
Producer – Innes Lloyd
Director – Gerald Blake
RT Review by Mark Braxton
If The Abominable Snowmen were a stick of rock, it would have Doctor Who running through it. Few stories scream out the show’s name, and capture its appeal, quite so precisely. Here’s that list of ingredients: unusual setting; huge and threatening monster; creepy malefactor; clear storytelling; and that killer concurrence of personal peril with widespread jeopardy. Other adventures fit the mould, but not with such atmosphere and ingenuity.
The tragedy is that, here we are, deep into one of the most sustained runs of quality serials in the show’s history, and yet only a paltry number of episodes prevail. From The Moonbase up to and including these Himalayan high jinks, only ten of a possible 31 instalments exist; take it back to the start of the Troughton tenure and it’s 12 from 45 – just over a quarter!
Fortunately you’re given a decent flavour of Snowmen if you combine the sole survivor, episode 2, with the soundtrack and telesnaps on the BBC website. All of them remind us it’s a marvellous jaunt, and for many reasons.
There’s something uniquely unsettling about an isolated monastery – just read The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, or watch its film adaptation. And designer Malcolm Middleton does a superb job here with his flame-lit corridors, giant buddha, functional main courtyard and shadowy inner sanctum. The exteriors are reasonably meshed with studio scenes, though at no point does Snowdonia convince as Tibet. But then neither does the Welsh countryside cut it as the foothills of Vesuvius in 2008’s The Fires of Pompeii. So let’s not blame such failings on the old.
The entire story, inspired by a mythical beast like 1975’s Terror of the Zygons by the Loch Ness monster, is accorded further mystique by an off-screen “prologue”. The Doctor has lived a life prior to the stories we’ve seen: he visited Detsen three centuries before, and befriended the chap with the really long name. In 1967 this was something relatively new for viewers to grapple with, and gained more currency as a narrative technique hereafter.
Writers Haisman and Lincoln people their landscape with compelling characters. As well as the misguided but essentially decent Travers, the monks – wrestling a clutch of hard-to-pronounce but authentic-sounding names – are nicely delineated. The best of them is Padmasambhava. It’s an astonishing vocal performance by Wolfe Morris as the alien-possessed Lama, switching from modulated compassion to spat-out malice. And there’s something searingly gruesome about his crumpled countenance.
Another way in which this unusually lean six-parter stands out is in its lack of music. Try to imagine such an approach working in today’s era of wall-to-wall scoring. Silence v “total music”… there’s no right or wrong answer. After all, it’s the variety of approach that has kept the show running for so long. But here it enables the sound of wind whistling through the cloisters to create the mood, and for the actors to do more with their voices: as well as Morris’s “dual-lead” vocals throughout, Patrick Troughton’s subtlety in “talking down” an entranced Victoria in episode five is also marvellous.
Perhaps the fact that it was such a happy working atmosphere for regulars Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling informed the production. When I once interviewed her about being in the show, Watling told me about the fun of working alongside her real-life father Jack (playing Travers).”Dad and I were like mates,” she said. “Pat, Frazer and he got on like a house on fire. One day I lost them all and later found them at the back of the catering van having a few brandies to keep warm. I asked for one but they said I was too young. I was only 19.”
Whatever synergy it was that fashioned such on-screen magic… travelling trio on indomitable form, unusual subject, formidable monsters… The Abominable Snowmen remains a revered standard-bearer for the show. The mark of a good adventure is the desire of the producers to repeat the success. Viewers only had to wait three months to see Travers and those furry foes again…
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Radio Times archive material
RT’s photographer Don Smith travelled to Snowdonia in September 1967 to record the filming of The Abominable Snowmen. Here are a few shots of the cast and crew with the Yeti. (Images copyright Radio Times Archive). Also below, the six episode billings from 1967 and a small article that RT published on the story’s location.
[Episode 2 available on the BBC DVD boxed set Doctor Who: Lost in Time. Complete soundtrack on BBC Audio CD]