Doctor Who (Classic): S05E02 “The Abominable Snowmen”

Season 5
Directed by Gerald Blake
Written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln

In my discussions of the Cybermen including last week, in my discussions about the temporary end of the Daleks, and elsewhere I’ve drawn plenty of attention to the fact that the show has been rather limited thus far in terms of recurring baddies so I won’t repeat myself ad nauseam. I will say though that Season 5 of the show starts to change that. Of the 7 serials, 2 deal with the Cybermen, 1 with the Ice Warriors (who will appear again next season), and 2 with the villains introduced in “The Abominable Snowmen”; the Yeti and the Great Intelligence. That’s over 70% of the season devoted to recurring bad guys for the Second Doctor.

While there are certainly some downsides to this which we will get to when they come up, frankly it’s a necessity for the show. After “The Highlanders” last season brought an end to the historicals, that meant that something had to fill its place and since the answer for Doctor Who was more aliens, this raises an interesting dilemma. Either keep trying to come up with new races which especially five seasons in and no end in sight coming (both in retrospect and at the time) are bound to eventually (and arguably were already) become too similar to each other or just really lame when all the good ideas are used up, or the series can start to just reuse aliens they have already developed and build on them narratively. While the increasing average serial length can certainly mean that by the end we aren’t exactly left wanting more of the races and they can hardly be said to have been underdeveloped for lack of time (as opposed to underdeveloped because of the writing), making your most interesting bad guys recurring and avoiding the use of suspiciously similar substitutes when the story calls for it is the far preferable solution.

After last serial’s being completely intact, we head in almost the complete opposite direction with only one episode (episode two) remaining and perhaps not coincidentally, it is the most enjoyable one. We open on a man screaming and running away from something which makes for a heck of a teaser to open things up. Cut to the TARDIS as it lands in the Himalayas in 1930’s Tibet and we are given even more to the mystery as the Doctor takes off for a monetary without his companions but very excited about something. It builds even further as he stumbles upon a dead body from the intro and takes a rucksack found nearby the body to the monastery. Instead of being greeted with open arms (and considering his return in “The Ark”, maybe he should stop expecting warm welcomes) and there is accused of being the “beast” who attacked the men in the opening scene since he has the rucksack and a huge fur coat which on a quick look (and is earlier in the episode) could be confused for being one of the creatures.

He’s locked up in a cell (I’m confused as to why the monastery has a cell but whatever) and is forced to try and reason himself out while competing forces of a Professor, the monks, and warriors defending the monastery all out with different motivations and plans for the Doctor. Professor Edward Travers is convinced that the Doctor is here to steal his discovery of the Yeti out from under him as a newspaper man and it’s clear he’s gone a bit mental in his twenty-year search. The monks and warriors in the monastery on the other hand are clearly more familiar with the Yeti (most likely holding back information from Travers) and know them to be timid yet are curious why that has changed. Instead they are of the belief that the Doctor is likely the person causing this change (a far more sensible belief) and want to use him as bait.

This is all very familiar storytelling for the show and yet to it’s credit, the show actually wraps most of this up by the end of episode two. The seemingly evil warrior leader and the crazed mad man of an explorer are able to be convinced of the Doctor’s innocence and are proven to be decent sorts (with the warrior leader being a supremely dedicated soldier) and while there’s still conflict to be had, its refreshing it wasn’t dragged out. Of course this is helped along by the circumstances that the Doctor has been here before in 1630 with the Doctor having brought along proof in the form of a bell he was entrusted with during a time of great peril, but I like having all the human characters actually lined up on one side. Granted there’s still four episodes to go which leaves the titular part of this story to be told and at this point, the show starts to go into wheel spinning mode.

We get our first look at the Yetis just over 5 minutes in but only a tease. It takes Victoria and Jamie going out for a quick search and finding huge footprints before it leads us to our first encounter, the Yeti making a proper appearance at the end of the first episode attacking Jamie who cleverly defeats it by causing a cave in. The show also cleverly works in the setup to the back half with a pyramid of a silver balls which are later revealed to be what are powering the Yeti.

These Yeti are more or less the dumb muscle, robots operating for the true villain of this episode, the Great Intelligence who first manifests as a mysterious voice, familiar with the Doctor and able to make those who speak to him forget they spoke to him. He speaks of a “great plan” and wishes to keep the Doctor away respecting his intelligence and doesn’t want the risk of him opposing it which is a pleasantly satisfying approach. “Yeah, I could convert him to my cause, but is the risk really worth it?”

He has no form and instead speaking through others such as Victoria (in an effect that would have probably been creepy if it still existed as more than a static shot) and most notably the abbot who the Doctor had visited last and has kept him alive in a nigh-invulnerable state. Not invulnerable to an exploding mountain top but who is. Despite the destruction of the Intelligence’s body, we never really get a defeat of him which makes for an anticlimactic end, but it’s interesting that for a show that always wraps things up so definitively at the end of each serial (aside from cliffhangers and the prelude episode “Mission to the Unknown”) we already have two serials this season which don’t show the villain completely done in. Last time it was the Cybermen just locking themselves back up and a Cybermat surviving outside the tomb, this time it’s the Great Intelligence possibly still being alive. This new serialization (in closer to a modern sense) ties in wonderfully with this new emphasis on recurring villains. It’s just a shame this first serial is so mediocre.

Grade: C

Stray Observations
– While the Yeti would only again appear in “The Web of Fear” and in a small appearance in “The Five Doctors”, the Great Intelligence would become a more important part of the show decades later during the much maligned Series 7 where they made three appearances in “The Snowmen”, “The Bells of Saint John”, and “The Name of the Doctor” and they could arguably be considered the Big Bad of the second part of that year.
– Oddly enough last episode’s villains (the Cybemen) also showed up in that part of the season in “Nightmare in Silver” while next episode’s villains (the Ice Warriors) showed up in the season highlight “Cold War”. I think we can safely say that Part 2 or Series 7 is a sequel to this season which is something I didn’t realize until just now (or maybe had realized before and forgotten about).
– Unsurprisingly, all the Tibetan characters are played by white actors. Star Trek gets dodgy about women while Doctor Who does so with race (not that the former is exactly perfect in that regard).
– “I could fix these [bagpipes] easily”
“Yes I was afraid of that”
– My memory is finally starting to fail me as I try to recall when certain events transpired in past serial and I’ve even forgotten pretty much all of these serials.
– For once it’s nice to see someone other than the Doctor and his companions draw suspicion with Travers suspected as being up to something (but notably not by the Doctor).
– We get to see another instance of the Doctor’s de-hypnosis powers here and it’s a nice continuing detail but still really weird.
– I like the fact that the Yeti existing is such a casual fact to almost everyone and poor Travers gets to keep up on his chase in the end.
– Once more the recorder makes a quick appearance
– This Week in Cliffhangers: Nothing really, just the Doctor playing on his recorder after Jamie asks for somewhere warmer (spoilers, he’s not going to get it).

Next Up: More Star Trek: TOS on Friday with at the very least the two part episode “The Menagerie” while Doctor Who will be back on Monday for the introduction of another recurring alien race in the six episode, partially extant, partially animated “The Ice Warriors” (already have the disc sitting up on top of my queue).