Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Abominable Snowmen


The Abominable Snowmen is as much of a mystery as the eponymous creations; created by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, the creations are great, lumbering creatures, with wonderfully soft fur and horrifically grotesque claws.  They do not speak, or make any noise aside from the incessant beeping given off by the control units.  They are robots, artificially created in the 1930s by something called the Great Intelligence, and proved so popular that they returned to the series 3 serials later in The Web of Fear, and were due to return again until Haisman and Lincoln fell out with the production team over the dire The Dominators.  Tragically, only one episode of this serial exists, meaning that we are left only with audio and telesnaps.  Having said that, though, the serial is an incredibly strong one, and works in this format regardless.

The serial starts with what sounds to be a haunting and moody moment, grittily shot (based on the telesnaps) as a huge lumbering shadow falls across the ground, a rifle is wrenched away and twisted into so much scrap metal, and a gigantic footprint is discovered.  Unlike Marco Polo, however, when there was a logical explanation for this print – the sun melts the edges of a normal footprint, making it seem to grow, don’t you know? – here the print is that of the infamous Yeti, who are roaming the mountains of Tibet and wreaking havoc, despite their shyness and allegedly pacifistic nature.

Cutting to the TARDIS crew, it is a delight to watch the passion and enthusiasm in the crew here; the banter flows nicely, as the group argue about the correct geographical positioning of Tibet, and the Doctor’s secretive nature is again to the fore as he searches for the holy Ghanta, a mystical bell which needs to be returned to the Monastery.  As he digs out the now iconic fur jacket and heads off, leaving Jamie and Victoria rifling through chests of objects and clothes, there is a wonderful playfulness to their conversations, with Jamie still showing care and concern for his companions.  Hines sells the conviction perfectly – as Troughton returns, having found the footprint, he can read him like a book, but the Doctor’s insistence that he goes alone troubles Jamie no end.  As in the last two serials, the proactive nature of Victoria’s character continues to surprise me; Watling has always been undervalued, by myself included, and seeing her here, using her cunning to trick Jamie into leaving the safety of the TARDIS because she is bored, is wonderful. 

Once the Doctor makes it to the monastery, though, things quickly spiral out of control.  The danger is palpable in the scenes set within the monastery, and this is sold no end by the excellent performances of all involved.  As Professor Travers, the paranoia and fear is dripping from Jack Watling’s performance, and the speed with which he accuses the Doctor of murder and sabotage is telling;  when we later hear that it is because he thinks the Doctor is a journalist, it makes the entire thing seem even more ridiculous – the thought that anyone would go to such lengths “for the sake of a cheap headline” is rather preposterous, even by today’s standards with the Leveson enquiry.  As Khrisong, Norman Jones is wonderfully chilling, with his shifting eyes and murmured threats in hushed tones.  Indeed, the only inconsistency in the entire serial, as far as I’m concerned, is in the racial stereotyping some of the actors assume; several speaking in perfect RP English accents, crisp and clean dialogue which is sharp and well-delivered.  Others, though, decide that, because they are playing Tibetan monks, they need to assume faux Asian voices, blurring some of the diction in a mockery of Asian speech patterns.  It runs the risk of becoming offensive – but fortunately just stops short of being so.

Episode 2 thankfully exists, so we are given the chance to see the Yetis in all of their glory – the scenes with Jamie and Victoria in the cave are wonderfully tense, and the lumbering creatures – whilst painfully and undeniably cute – pursuing them across the hillside is marvellous.  They finally run straight into Travers as he wanders around the hillside.  Travers must be an absolutely awful explorer, mind; he says that for twenty years, he has been searching for the Yeti, and yet in about twenty minutes, the Doctor’s companions have been chased by them, and they have discovered their cave.  Entirely by accident. 

The Doctor, meanwhile, is having a rough time; accused of not only the murder of Travers’ assistant, he is being held responsible for the troubles which have befallen the monks.  Thonmi, a patient and sensible young Monk played by David Spenser, is sent to retrieve the Doctor from the dank cell in which he has been locked up, where he tries to show him the holy Ghanta, stored under his mattress.  It turns out that Khrisong and his Warrior Monks have decided to place the Doctor in a trap to prove his culpability; he is strapped to the front gates of the monastery.  Troughton is, as always, magnificent to watch, and his facial features and twitches are wonderful to behold as he dangles from the rope. 

At the same time, Thonmi takes the Ghanta to the Master of the monastery – incidentally, the second mention of “the Master” in the last 3 serials – Padmasambhava, who we are never able to see.  Instead, his whispered tones chillingly pervade the air, as his voice seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.  Songsten, the Abbot of the monastery, is also present, brainwashed by Padmasambhava and forced to follow his orders.  The return of the Ghanta is evidence enough for the monks to free the Doctor, just in time as the Yetis appear over the brow of the hill, in pursuit of Jamie and Victoria, with Travers in tow.  While Thonmi leaves to set the Doctor free, we hear, for the first time, the schizophrenic tones of Padmasambhava, as he mutters about the protection of the Doctor, and, at the same time, the dangers facing their “great plan” if the Doctor learns of their plans.

The episode ends with a Yeti becoming captured, thanks to Jamie’s plan to lure it into a net, and the Doctor analysing it, discovering that not only is it a robot, but the control sphere – like one of the glittering metal balls found in the cave by Jamie and Victoria – is missing, having fallen out when the Yeti was hauled upwards outside the gates.  Meanwhile, the sphere, stuck in wet mud, is beeping furiously, and the one brought into the monastery by Jamie begins to beep in response, eerily rolling along with a mind of its own. 

It is a shame, really, that episode 2 is the only episode that exists from this serial, as, by the sounds of things, the drama and tension really pick up from episode 3 onwards.  Episode 1 was decidedly slow, revelling in the superb location shooting and building very slowly.  Meanwhile, episode 2 was fairly formulaic, a typical run-around, with some standard setup.  Episode 3, however, really ramps it up, and the proverbial stuff hits the fan; the story explodes into action, there are ethical conversations about science versus religion, the Master’s plans become clearer, Victoria shows a great deal of cunning (as does Travers!) and the Doctor gets some great lines.  It’s all go!

The strongest moments in the third episode are those with Padmasambhava and Songsten, the Abbot, who is brainwashed into believing he is working for the greater good.  As Padmasambhava, Wolfe Morris is absolutely superb – the differences between the vocal inflections of the two voices are incredible, and it never becomes confusing, only listening to the soundtrack, to be able to differentiate who is who – which is exactly as it should be. 

The character I feel particularly sorry for is Rapalchan – who is, despite rumours, not played by Harold Pinter under an equity guise.  The poor man is tricked and brainwashed left, right and centre; firstly by Travers, who manages to persuade him that he has been granted permission to leave, and then by the Abbot Songsten, who is similarly brainwashed, and is being forced to leave monastery to place a vital piece of equipment in the cave for the Great Intelligence. 

In episode four, the tension continues to ramp up as the escaped Travers, spying on the Yeti, also spots the brainwashed Abbot, and follows him up to the caves he has been seeking all these years.  Whilst these Yeti are evidently active, there is meanwhile a ridiculous scene wherein Jamie and the Doctor discover inactive Yetis guarding the TARDIS.  It seems ludicrous the Great Intelligence should go to the trouble of providing guards whilst its evil machinations unfold, yet fail to turn them on.  Still, off they are, and after a humorous scene to discover this fact – with a terrified Jamie hiding as the Doctor throws a rock at the inanimate lumbering behemoth –  the Doctor and Jamie are able to gain entrance to the ship to find the equipment they need.  This equipment includes a screwdriver – sadly, still not one of the sonic variety, which is still almost half a season away.    

Travers, meanwhile, is having less success as he spies upon the Yeti spheres, and watches as the pyramid cracks open, before spewing foam out endlessly.  To some extent, rather than the season of Base Under Siege adventures which Season 5 is known for, we should consider this the season of Foam.  Seriously, the amount of foam used in the show at this juncture is ridiculous – from the foam-spewing chest unit in The Tomb of the Cybermen to the stuff being vomited out of the spheres and engulfing the mountain, through to the big bad foam of Fury From the Deep and the sprayed foam of The Web of Fear, it seems like everyone’s at it.

The activation of the pyramid in Travers’ cave, meanwhile, leads to a wonderfully tense moment between Jamie and the previously dormant Yeti – having removed the panel to reveal the sphere, the Doctor has removed it, but it suddenly gets activated, and so through some wonderful sounding mime work, the sphere desperately tries to reinsert itself, and only through Jamie’s quick reactions does he manages to squeeze a rock into the chest cavity, blocking the entrance for the sphere itself.  Similarly proactive is Victoria, as she continues to seek out the truth and look beyond the facade of the monastery, actively questioning what others seem to take for granted.

Deborah Watling’s portrayal of Victoria in this episode in particular is fascinating, and the way in which she questions Thonmi, despite his honesty and nobility, is very moving; a man so capable of unabashed faith takes the concept of time travel utterly in his stride, and it speaks volumes of the peaceful and calming nature of Buddhism, as his acceptance that “Our master, Padmasambhava, can free himself from his earthly body” likens the powers of time travel with those of the master of the monastery and his astral projections.  What the show does cleverly here, though, is that rather than appearing preachy about the virtues of the religion, instead it simply uses the power of belief as a way of justifying such implausible ideas as time travel.

Meanwhile, Khrisong is also questioning what he has always been told and tries to get to the bottom of the mysteries of the Abbot and the Master; the episode ends with him supporting Jamie and the Doctor, and placing his faith in them instead of his beliefs.  At the same time, Padmasambhava and Songsten are busy planning to escape the monastery, and again Morris’ delivery sells the scene, as his languishing voice speaks of “The strangers?” in a bored and tiresome tone.  The final cliffhanger, though, as we finally see the face of Padmasambhava finally revealed as he beckons Victoria ever nearer is horrific, and his suggestion that she has “no alternative” is equally chilling. 

Episode 5 is finally one of high-tension payoff, as the proverbial hits the fan in the biggest way; as Padmasambhava moves pieces continuously on the chess board, and Victoria is cast under a trance and similarly possessed, the Yeti attack, and rain destruction down on the building.  Meanwhile, Travers is raving about a “shadow on (his) mind” and the Doctor and Jamie, with the assistance of Thonmi, deal with the attack on them.  Rinchen is killed in the destruction, and the monks are forced to leave the safety of their sanctum.

Rinchen and Sapan are two fascinating characters, played by David Grey and Raymond Llewellyn respectively, and they have had some wonderful scenes earlier in the serial.  In fact, one of the most interesting moments of the entire serial occurred in episode 3, when the pair created their spirit trap around the immobilised Yeti.  The debate about the power of faith is poignant and heartfelt, and Rinchen’s character in particular is given more room to grow than we expect of a character with only some 30 lines throughout an entire serial; how fitting, then, that he should come to an end not as a direct result of the Yetis themselves, but instead crushed to death under a falling statue of Buddha.  It is a stark symbol that though the power of prayer can provide comfort at times, ultimately it is equally capable of death and destruction.

The theme of possession and brainwashing has never been as truly horrifying as it is presented here.  When Dodo was hypnotised back in The War Machines, she was carted off to the countryside to recover and never heard from again.  Ben was brainwashed in The Macra Terror but managed to fight it eventually, seeing his friendship as more important than the intentions of the Macra.  Polly was cloned by The Faceless Ones and as such lived out her final episodes before her departure as another, far less likeable, character.  Here, though, the performances are helped by such a strong script, and Wolfe Morris is particularly magnificent, clearly loathing every second of his prolonged existence.  The reveal of him, crumbling and decaying in a chair, barely holding onto any dignity as he ages uncontrollably in front of us, is truly horrific.  The moment that he calls for his “old friend” is heart-wrenching, although as an audience we can feel slightly cheated that seeing him die before our eyes after their reconciliation, only to be revived as soon as their back is turned, is slightly unfair.  It is an idea current show-runner Steven Moffat will steal in some 45 years when the Great Intelligence returns to the rebooted show and Richard E Grant’s Dr Simeon is killed and yet returns like a puppet on a string for the Great Intelligence to control.

Similarly magnificent is that when Padmasambhava speaks through Victoria, Watling is truly terrific – she convinces utterly, and the idea that she can do little other than repeat the same instructions is awful.  It is one of the most unnerving moments in the show to date, as Troughton settles down next to Victoria to try to break her conditioning, and his suggestion that “She’ll go out of her mind” if he probes too deeply into her subconscious is terrifying.  Never before has someone hypnotised seemed so fragile, as she repeatedly begs the Doctor and Jamie to “take (her) away”.  Still, this being Troughton and Hines, there’s still time for a moment of visual humour, as Jamie begins to doze off whilst the Doctor hypnotises Victoria to remove the “implanted fear”.

As Travers, Jack Watling gets a magnificent moment to shine at the end of this fifth episode, though, as he shows tremendous courage and faces his fears, returning up the hillside to the cave with the Doctor before telling his story again, dealing with his terror; all the while, the corporeal form of the Great Intelligence continues to grow and grow, bulging out through the mouth of the cave and flowing down the hill.  The sixth episode finally sees the loose plot threads tied up as the Doctor discovers that Songsten is the missing link in the story, thanks to Travers’ recollection that it was he who took the pyramid into the cave.

In episode 6, we also see the death of Khrisong, a man who has been so dutifully honourable and true to his cause – it is a tragic moment, made all the more poignant since it is his master, the Abbot Songsten, who kills him, stabbing him in the back as he is about to enter the Inner Sanctum and face the true Master of the Monastery.  He gets a final noble moment with his people, and is able to pass on word that Songsten, whilst physically responsible, is not to blame due to the trance he is in.  Meanwhile, the struggle for control between Padmasambhava and the Great Intelligence is gut-wrenching, as Morris manages through a two-toned delivery to really sell the idea that the holy man simply wants death, as he begs that the Intelligence “Release me!”  The hoarse and whispered “Songsten” is equally pervasive and chilling.

The final showdown between Troughton’s Doctor and Morris’ possessed Padmasambhava is horribly unnerving, too – never before has our hero looked so vulnerable, as he is bombarded with the mental force of the Great Intelligence.  His entrance, followed almost instantly by the cry of pain, is terrifying, and the next image we see of him is bent over, in agony, trying to reach the throne.  Once the group have broken into the Inner Sanctum, Jamie and Thonmi begin the destruction of the control units.  There is another horrifying moment when, following the destruction of the control sphere and the Yetis, the Great Intelligence continues to taunt them, intoning that “one stroke of fortune will not save you”.  There’s an incredibly tense action sequence, with Travers bursting in and shooting at Padmasambhava – and he catches the bullets! – before Jamie finally saves the day by smashing the pyramid and destroying the power of the Great Intelligence, as well as the top of the mountain housing the cave.  Morris’ Padmasambhava is finally freed, and with one final word of thanks to his “old friend”, he is finally granted the death he has so longed for.

The final moments of the serial are something of an oddity – after the introduction of the Yeti, and then the realisation that they are actually robots under the control of something else, we are then led to believe that Yeti do in fact exist, and they are the timid creatures Travers said they were.  Of course, the real Yeti are just as cute and bumbling as their robotic counterparts were, but the sheer excitement in Watling’s face as he goes careering after them is quite magical.

All told, this is a truly special serial; whilst it may be remembered by most for the introduction of the second-cuddliest bad guys ever – yes, I’m looking at you, Mandrels! – it is actually a superbly crafted and intricate study of the human condition and power of faith.  Through an absence of incidental music and some stellar performances, the resultant serial is a tense, doom-laden slow-burner, gradually building up to the incredible climactic scenes in the Sanctum.  Haisman and Lincoln crafted their script with suitable nuance and subtlety, and the direction from Gerald Blake is wonderful.  As always, it is a tragedy that we have so little of this still existent.  The Yeti and the Great Intelligence will be seen again – and very soon – but first, in Jamie’s words: “Could you not land us somewhere warmer next time?” – Yes, it’ll be The Ice Warriors!

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