Reviewed Tim Robins
Catch it while you can, because The Abominable Snowmen looks like being the last animated adaptation of a missing-believed-lost Doctor Who story because, according to the Daily Mirror’s “Square Eyes” column, BBC America has pulled funding for the productions.
That said, some animation companies have reportedly said that the remaining, presumed missing, Doctor Who historical stories are too complex to be animated, because Doctor Who wasn’t meant to be animated. Of the remaining, unanimated, SF stories… well, I’m sure The Space Pirates is a sad loss.
The Abominable Snowmen, a six-episode story first aired in 1967. Set in 1935, The Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and the “dream team” companions of Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Victoria (Deborah Watling) arrive in the Himalayas, where a Tibetan Monastery is under siege by the usually, we are repeatedly told, timid Yeti. The attackers are actually robot servants of an alien intelligence that has taken possession of the monastery’s spiritual leader. Various furry scrapes ensue, until the Doctor goes mind-on-mind with the cosmic horror controlling the robotic Yeti.
This newly animated version of The Abominable Snowmen, the work of Gary Russell and the team at Big Finish Creative, is well served, with atmospheric landscape paintings and excellent character designs, and is the first adaptation to persuade me to watch in black and white. This helps unify the various textures and designs, a pleasure after the spaceship interior in Galaxy 4, which seemed to me decorated by an explosion in an MFI showroom.
I particularly liked the bold “pen” line, delineating the characters’ silhouettes, and the clear line work (think TinTin in Tibet) that efficiently but precisely captures their costumes. An article in the Radio Times directs our attention to the way the features of the monks have been redesigned to more accurately represent the ethnic mix of a Tibetan monastery and so redress the unthinking racism of the original production.
(I do wonder, however, if the animation producers also saved money, by not having to pay for recreating the original performers’ features?).
One of the big surprises of revisiting Troughton’s time on Doctor Who is the way the show could slide into pantomime, particularly in some of the performances of the supporting cast, and there’s no doubt that the scenes that I found terrifying as a child now have a “look-out-behind-you” quality that comes with the series surfing the camp zeitgeist of the 1960s.
The Abominable Snowmen benefits from sincere performances from the cast and chillingly evil work from Wolfe Morris, as the voice of Master Padmasambhava, whose appearence resembles a cross between EC horror’s crypt keeper and the internet meme Wojak aka ‘the feels guy’. In the end “Padmas” goes all floaty in the manner of Mr. Burns in The X-Files episode of The Simpsons.
This is Doctor Who’s first on screen encounter with Buddhists, the second being 1974’s Jon Pertwee’s send-off, Planet of the Spiders. If these stories are anything to go by, the believers are always harbingers of horrible “furry beasties”, as Jamie says here.
I can’t honestly call The Abominable Snowmen an action adventure. Most of the movement involves going in and out of rooms or leaving the monastery, wandering around the mountainside and coming back again. This is, in the end, another “base under siege” story. It’s talky but, thanks to the animation and the soundtrack, I was never bored.
The Yeti in the room is the design of the Yeti themselves, who shuffle about like hairy avocados. Fortunately, the DVD/Blu-Ray comes with a restored, live action Episode Two, and there’s no way around it – the costumes are scary in the way the animation is not.
For a long time, it was thought the face area of the Yeti included fangs (artist Chris Achilléos included these when he drew the cover of the original paperback adaptation). Subsequent research showed the fangs were just matted hair on the costume but, frankly, I’d have been tempted to go with the fangs. As it is, the animated creatures are scaring no-one.
However, I do recommend this animated adaptation. It is one of the best and the story still stands up today. I laughed when the Doctor explained to his companions that they will receive a warm welcome at the monastery, only to find the reverse is true when he actually gets there. This exact setup is used in episode two of the recent Lord of the Ring: Rings of Power TV series. Old Doctor Who still does these tropes so much better than other, newer shows.
Bonus Features: As well as an alternative colour version of the animation, telesnaps of all episodes and commentaries by cast and fans, the three disk Blu-Ray comes with fun extras, including 8mm home movies shot by Frazer Hines and director Gerald Blake on location in Snowdonia. It’s brief but lovely stuff, capturing the spritely cast including Patrick Troughton, who looks dashing without his clownish wig and costume. The footage also captures the cast and crew’s shenanigans – reminding us that even back then, men found their willies an endless source of amusement.
A documentary, entitled, somewhat misleadingly, Troughton in Tibet, directed by Chris Chapman and presented by Toby Hadoke, incorporates the 8mm footage and takes Frazer Hines back to Snowdonia to recall the making of The Abominable Snowmen. We also get to meet former school girl Alison Pageant, whose Dad took her seven-year-old-self to see the location filming. We also learn each Yeti costume cost £100, big money in those days.
Sadly, Chris Chapman has recently announced that John C Hogan, the last of the Yeti actors from The Abominable Snowmen, who also played a Cyberman in Tomb of the Cybermen, has died. “We interviewed him last summer and he went into hospital before Christmas,” he noted on Twitter. “He was a warm host to us – surprised that we’d tracked him down after all these years.”
Journalist Shyama Perera and Doctor Who producer, the late John Nathan Turner, also interview the story’s co-writer Mervyn Haisman. To be honest, this element shows the limitations of this way of understanding Doctor Who’s production. For example, here is a complete non-sequitur:
JNT: Is it fact that the second story, The Web of Fear, came so quickly after the first because of their (the Yeti’s) sheer popularity?
MH: Yes, yes. We started writing The Web of Fear before The Abominable Snowmen actually went out.
Er.. that would be a “NO” then. Still it is hard to beat Haisman’s response to Shyama’s opening question…
SP: Where did the Yeti come from?
MH: Well, Tibet really.
I came away entertained but thoroughly un-enlightened…
Fun Fact: With the release of The Abominable Snowmen release, Victoria Waterfield is ‘complete’! All of the episodes featuring the late Deborah Watling either exists, or has been animated. You can watch her whole run without touching a telesnap!
• Episodes 1-6 (Animated Black & White)
• Episodes 1-6 (Animated Colour)
• Restored Surviving Original Episode 2
Photographic Reconstructions of Episodes 1, 3, 4, 5 & 6
• Making-of Documentary (Troughton in Tibet)
• Audio Commentaries
• 8mm Home Movie Footage
• Archive interview with writer Mervyn Haisman
• Photo Gallery
• Teaser Trailer
• PDF ROM Content
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide.
His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip with Mike Collins. Since 1990 he worked at the University of Glamorgan where he was a Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Media Studies and the social sciences. Academically, he has published on the animation industry in Wales and approaches to social memory. He claims to be a card carrying member of the Politically Correct, a secret cadre bent on ruling the entire world and all human thought.