The Abominable Snowmen

“I have brought the world to its end.” – Padmasambhava

A lost classic–the direction, acting, and setting for this story are miles above the previous one. The first thing that stands out is how atmospheric the scenes in the monastery are—dark rooms lit with torches, entire segments with silence rather than background music.

In the one existing episode, there is a great shot that pulls backwards from a close-up of the Abbot to suddenly being on the other side of the gauze that separates him from the master as though we are seeing from that viewpoint. Very well done, and it makes me wish we could see what else they came up with for this story in the other episodes. The actors are very effective as well—Khrisong exudes a headstrong and stern gravity yet seems honorable to the end, Thomni is immediately likable and brave. Yes, they are not ethnic Asian, but at least they aren’t made up pretending to be—and still somehow they convey a non-Western character through their carriage and measured speech.

I’m not sure a modern day show would make use of a real religion as much as this one (like creating a full Buddha statue), but at least the characters are portrayed sympathetically. I first scoffed at the seeming incongruity of an adversarial fighting Buddhist like Khrisong, but not only is this well addressed in the dialogue (“Our ways are the ways of peace, Khrisong my son. You must not seek to change them.” “I would fight to preserve them.”) but a brief research on Tibetan monks actually shows there was a class of warriors called ‘dob-dob’ with just such conflicting values. You would also expect a monastic episode like this to offer sage pearls of wisdom and it doesn’t disappoint with sayings like “Harsh words are like blunted arrows. It is the truth that makes them sharp.” and “When the wind destroys the nest, so the bird will build another.”

Of course, the plot itself is the most important part of a show, and this one holds up well by introducing an entirely new kind of menace–an otherworldly disembodied intelligence that is seeking to spread itself in a corporeal form. Rather than having it simply appear on earth and possess a person, I like that they give it more of an interesting back story. The Great Intelligence, as it comes to be known, was formless and wandering through empty space. Padmasambhava, having achieved the mental ability to wander on the astral plane, was unfortunately a ripe victim to have his consciousness seized, the Intelligence thus taking him under his control. Aware of himself but unable to do anything else but comply, Padmasambhava was left to exist miserably for hundreds of years beyond his normal lifespan, slowly building robots and controls under the influence of the Intelligence to aid in its manifestation. (It’s odd to see this mix of spiritual and technical, but I like that the elements are not as clear cut as all that. The control spheres are actually not as mechanical as they seem; thus the line about the Doctor’s overlooking their danger—they were too light to have the inner workings he expected because really they are operated by the mental force of the Intelligence. The mechanical robots are controlled by ancient looking pieces on a gameboard.) The wearied voice of Padmasambhava alternates from his soothing echoed tones to a raspy hiss when the Intelligence is most in control. It’s a fine piece of voice acting that gives much eeriness and edge to the show, especially as it becomes clear that all he wants is for the intelligence to have his way so he can simply rest: “Oh, Great Intelligence, have I served you well? After so many years, can I feel the grip of your power loosen? How long before your great experiment begins and I can rest?”

We get to see Victoria emerge as a companion in this story—far from a Victorian shrinking violet, she is feisty and headstrong throughout, refusing to accept boundaries set. There is even more teasing between her and Jamie as well as with the Doctor, setting them up as a strong TARDIS crew that will hold firmly the rest of the season. We’re also introduced to Professor Travers. Though we’re supposed to like him as he will become a recurring character on the show, he really comes across as hot-headed and selfish for much of the story. Meanwhile the Doctor is returning to Dat Sen monastery after visits before in the far past. Padmasambhava remembers him as a friend of old but, under the influence of the Intelligence, also recognizes him as a threat. (“The Doctor is wise. His eyes are not closed in ignorance.”) It becomes hard to know who is manipulating whom. When we hear the Doctor screaming in mental pain off camera at his initial mental battle with the Intelligence, it makes us suddenly think that he might have met his match.

It’s very hard to judge how satisfying the actual conclusion to this great story is. It seems to wind down too quickly, but that is partially because the final battle is very action/acting-oriented and we only have the audio of it. Thus I had to read the script to know that supposedly objects were flying under the control of the monk, Travers enters the sanctum and shoots Padmasambhava, and our heroes are undergoing a huge physical struggle to get across the room. It would be nice if we could actually get to see all of that played out.

Best (or worst) unsettling moment:

The creepiness of the Padmasambhava/Intelligence union is already marked by the excellent voice work of the actor jumping from the lilting voice of the monk to the sibilant hiss of the Intelligent. When we along with Victoria are suddenly privy to the inner sanctum and revealed his shrunken face, disfigured by age and pain, with twisted hands and long fingernails–it’s almost nightmarish.

Firsts:

  • Use of Buddhism
  • Creatures of legend being aliens
  • Betrayal by an old friend (under duress)

Regrets:

I think most everyone would admit that the design of the Yeti leaves a lot to be desired given their role. They are simply too rounded and cuddly-cute to convey much menace. This was acknowledged in their return later when they were pointedly redesigned with more monstrous features.

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