50 Years of the Great Intelligence: Revisiting The Abominable Snowmen

Can you believe the Great Intelligence turns 50 today? Half a century of a disembodied alien with a penchant for robots and snowmen. This is the perfect opportunity to revisit his debut serial: in the mountains of Tibet…

Alongside The Web of Fear, The Abominable Snowmen remains a popular story, but it gained an even greater importance in 2012 and 2013, thanks to the Great Intelligence cropping up again in The Snowmen, The Bells of Saint John and The Name of the Doctor. From the being’s first ‘appearance,’ you can see the potential. It’s no wonder producer, Innes Lloyd commissioned writers, Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln to bring back the abominations so soon. The story itself promises something special – and somehow delivers, despite leaning on several worn tropes.

Hypnosis, lumbering beasties, a hidden room, strange metallic objects, robots, ethereal voices, and an on-off base-under-siege all add to the drama, converging to make a strong contender for the title of Ultimate Monster Story. It’s all there and it all works beautifully, fitting for what is now known as the Monster Era.

But our initial impression is of a scream that sounds more like a yawn.

Coming straight after Tomb of the Cybermen, The Abominable Snowmen has to work hard to emerge from under its shadow. It succeeds admirably by showcasing enthusiasm and ingenuity, with a large helping of the familiar.

The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Victoria Waterfield (Deborah Watling), and Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines) arrive at the Det Sen monastery in 1930s Tibet, but trouble is afoot. The Doctor is accused of murder by yeti-hunter Professor Travers (Deborah Watling’s father, Jack) and his companions are soon on the run from the strange abominable snowmen (lumbering, brown, furry beasts somewhat removed from what you’ll see in Monsters Inc.). Even in the supposedly-peaceful monastery, an evil lurks…

The Himalayan backdrop is marvellous: truly a breath of fresh air. It’s this that makes the familiar unfamiliar. Is there another tale that takes place in Tibet against such a magnificent backdrop? We’ve seen monasteries before and since – take a bow, The Time Meddler, and stop winking knowingly, The Bells of Saint John – but Det Sen is achieved so brilliantly. The grassy knolls are actually the mountain pass at Nant Ffrancon, North Wales, and in-studio work was split between Lime Grove and Ealing. The fact that they look so great is testament to the work of a dedicated crew including: Designer, Malcolm Middleton; Assistant Floor Manager, Roselyn Parker; Lighting Director, Howard King; and Film Editor, Philip Barnikel.

And of course, director, Gerald Blake, who strangely didn’t return until 1978’s The Invasion of Time, which, it’s fair to say, is something of a step-down from The Abominable Snowmen. The shots are subtle and easy on the eye, taking full advantage of the brilliant vistas, the isolation of the monastery, and a superb cast. It’s not distracting or trying to be something it’s not. It’s just solid direction, and that should be applauded just as much as the innovative approaches.

It’s atmospheric and eerie; when Travers says he felt an evil presence, you believe him.

The Great Intelligence is very interesting: he doesn’t seem particularly evil initially – after all, he only wants a corporeal form, right? In fact, he even takes the surprising decision to order the llamas away from the monastery. It’s like he’s the Hulk, just wanting to be alone. And yet his actions build to something quite evil. The notion of him keeping individuals like the Abbot, Songsten, the mysterious Padmasambhava, and, most recently, Dr. Simeon and Miss Kizlet as his slaves – possessing them and leaving them without their own personalities – is really, really grim. He takes their lives, but not by killing them; by forcing them to stay alive and under his will.

I’d say that’s pretty evil, wouldn’t you?

Padmasambhava (can we just call him Paddy, or something?) isn’t your typical villain either: he starts off as a creepy, disembodied voice, influencing events from behind a massive set of doors, but soon, his true nature is revealed. He wallows in apathy, quite rightly so, and he becomes one of those rare relatable enemies.

Even so, he’s the stuff of nightmares: impossibly old with his wrinkling skin stretched over his face, glaring eyes, and an imposing presence.

Only a few die – rather surprisingly, considering there’s plenty of cannon fodder. Thanks to a strong cast and a great script, Khrisong, Thonmi, Rinchen, Sapan, Ralpachan, and co. are individuals, not just would-be victims of the Intelligence. Thonmi (David Spencer) particularly shines, exhibiting courage and loyalty, never straying far from Victoria.

The TARDIS team is, of course, top-notch. Victoria is often unfairly summed up as a 1960s Screamer, her yells even being utilised to see off the Big Bad in her final story, Fury from the Deep. In Episode One’s cliffhanger, she does, indeed, scream – but it works well as a Yeti corners her and Jamie in a cave. (In the cliffhanger’s resolution, Jamie says of the Yeti, “It’s quite dead.” Isn’t not tempting fate a key part of Companions’ Training Academy?)

Victoria could even be a modern-day companion; aside from the occasional panicked vocal warm-up, she’s really a curious, adventurous, and determined type. It’s a shame she and Travers don’t get to spend more time together on-screen, just to see how the two Watlings spark off one another. Considering she only joined the TARDIS two stories ago, Victoria fits right in. The chemistry between the three is great, especially the humour that comes from it.

“Victoria,” the Doctor says, “I think this is one of those instances where discretion is the better part of valour: Jamie has an idea” – and they run from him! It’s a wonderful little moment, underlined by the fact that Jamie’s idea actually works.

There’s a bit of William Hartnell’s First Doctor in Patrick Troughton, his affection and father-like guidance for Victoria echoing the concern he showed for his granddaughter, Susan. It’s a good progression after she lost her own father in Evil of the Daleks and his treasured talk with her in Tomb of the Cybermen. There’s a real trust between them all, palpable worry and reliance.

With the small nuances of his performance, it’s easy to gloss over how great Troughton is. It seems like he’s not acting; he simply is the Doctor, and we just accept that. That’s how good he is.

He’s gentle and warm (encapsulated by his memorable fur coat and recorder) but manipulative, authoritative, and off-the-cuff too. No wonder Matt Smith had the Second Doctor in mind when taking on the role, and a considerable part of me is very satisfied that the Great Intelligence faced off against these two incarnations.

I wonder how many will actually delve into the classic Great Intelligence stories after his Eleventh Doctor era revival; probably markedly fewer than if this debut serial existed in the archives in its entirety, although at least we have The Web of Fear, in large, to enjoy. Saying it’s such a shame doesn’t really do justice to how sad it is that this story (and indeed so many otherwise) is missing. The brilliant direction, location work, and unintentional foreshadowing make it even more infuriating.

The abominable snowmen are called upon to pick up Control Spheres; perhaps a forerunner for the Autons and Nestene Consciousness in Spearhead from Space (1970). The Doctor rhetorically asks Jamie if he’d walk up to a Yeti “with just a screwdriver in your hand”; four stories later, the sonic screwdriver makes its debut. The Great Intelligence takes glee from the idea of ‘expansion,’ like one body isn’t good enough for him; in The Bells of Saint John, the creature is similarly happy after infecting the wi-fi… before disposing of Miss Kizlet like (spoiler alert!) Padmasambhava.

In fact, The Abominable Snowmen feels like a relation of Vampires of Venice (2010) with an unusual setting, effective villains, a twist on mythology, and the Doctor’s fine logic of dealing with alien technology: hit it with a stick.

The thing that cements itself in my mind most, however, is something Vastra says in The Name of the Doctor: “Time travel has always been possible in dreams.” It’s a notion that surely originated with Thonmi telling Victoria about their own ideas of time travel: “It is said that our master, Padmasambhava, can free himself from his earthly body and travel great distances.”

The Great Intelligence has expanded. It’s taken on a life of its own, a whole new following and a promising future.

And this is where it all begins.

  • DonnaM

    Even though I know it by the audio alone, I blooming love The Abominable Snowmen! My favourite classic era Doctor at his best, a wonderful supporting cast and an atmosphere that isn’t diminished by the absence of pictures. I refuse to abandon all hope of seeing it, like the magnificent Web of Fear, returned one day.

  • The Lazy Womble

    I agree with DonnaM. The Monster season is among my favorites and Two is “my” Doctor. I too cling to the hope that the missing episodes will be recovered.

    Thank you, Philip, for a wonderful trip down memory lane. I was there. I watched it all 🙂