Much of the discussion around the new DVD/Blu-ray of The Abominable Snowmen has focussed on the fact that it’s likely to be the last story to be animated, at least for the time being, due to BBC America withdrawing support. But what of the release itself?
Fans will have been studying how the animated version of the Second Doctor classic matches what we know about the story as transmitted from its sole surviving episode and contemporary photos. The depiction of the monks of Det-Sen Monastery was one significant aspect that the animation’s co-director Gary Russell was intent on changing.
Speaking at a BFI Southbank screening to launch the release, Russell explained that he and the animation team were keen to present the Tibetan monks, played by white actors in the original, more authentically:
“It’s actually my only real bugbear about Gerald Blake’s directing: what was he thinking? Why did he cast white people to play Asian characters? It’s not even ‘a thing of the 1960s’ because there were plenty of Asian actors living and working in the UK, on television. The directors and producers of that time say, ‘Oh well, there just weren’t the actors around at the time to do that sort of thing’ – absolute rubbish. There were, and they should’ve been given that job.”
“It was never even an issue for me. That was an obvious thing that we were going to do – we were going to rectify that mistake that was made in 1967, because it’s just bloody insulting.”
The Abominable Snowmen isn’t the only example of Doctor Who casting ethnic roles inappropriately or displaying an insensitive approach to issues of race, of course, and it wouldn’t be the last. The programme was not alone in its approach, though, as Russell says, that doesn’t excuse it.
The modern animated versions of classic era stories pose a particular challenge – that of how faithful to be in reconstructing what was shown on screen. If more missing episodes and stories (such as Marco Polo or The Crusade, to give two examples where white actors wore heavy make-up to play characters from other ethnic backgrounds) do ever get the animation treatment, it seems unthinkable that future directors would differ from Gary Russell’s approach.