They came to get their ball back!
Thus far in its run, Doctor Who has delved only occasionally into religious themes, using such themes mostly as set dressing. The eponymous Time Meddler, for instance, occupies an abandoned monastery and disguises himself as a monk (and his TARDIS as an altar), but the religious imagery is incidental to the story. When religion becomes more central to the story, the results have been masterful, providing two of the best stories so far: “The Aztecs” and “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve,” both, not coincidentally, historicals written by John Lucarotti. There were no monsters in those stories (at least, non-human monsters), and they were in the “serious” historical mode. Imagine, then, a story where the Doctor and his companions defeat the Daleks with the help of nuns by reciting a string of “Our Father” prayers and you have, in a nutshell, Melvyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln’s “The Abominable Snowmen” (Story Production Code NN), which draws heavily upon Buddhism (or a facsimile thereof) for both set dressing and, more significantly, plot concepts.
“The Abominable Snowmen” is not, by any stretch, a historical in the vein of “The Aztecs,” but like that story, it treats the religious underpinning of its setting—in this case, Buddhism in early twentieth century Tibet—with a degree of respect. To some extent, the setting is treated as alien, with the actors playing the Tibetan monks of the Detsen Monastery with the same kind of nuanced mannerisms one finds in the portrayals of the Sensorites or the Menoptera. The acting is not uniformly convincing, but the characters all evince a strong and coherent belief system. Unfortunately, the belief system has been distilled into one of unthinking obedience to ritual and authority rather than any more searching version of Buddhism, and when one character, Khrisong, the warrior, dares to challenge the Abbot’s absolute control, he is portrayed as the villain. But with a mustache like that, how could he not be?
To its credit, “The Abominable Snowmen” emphasizes a peaceful vision of Buddhism, with a desire for harmony and a reluctance to commit harm, but the end result is a society where questions are not permitted, as in “The Savages” or “The Macra Terror.” To that extent, then, Buddhism is set dressing for a monster-of-the-week, an exotic and fanciful backdrop for a story about Yeti in the Himalayas. But still, there’s something more at work here. A sinister force has taken over the mind of the monastery’s Master, Padmasambhva, but only because of the Master’s meditative journey into enlightenment and his belief in the essential good nature of all beings. This malevolent force, the Great Intelligence, threatens to take over the world, all because Padmasambhva journeyed to the astral plane and provided the Intelligence with a means to enter the corporeal world. And he was just trying to be helpful. It’s not a ringing endorsement of Buddhism, or spiritual pursuits in general.
And to top it off, the Intelligence forced Padmasambhva to labor for hundreds of years, and all he got for his efforts was a cave full of silver balls used to control a whole bunch of furry robots…
Ah, yes, the titular Abominable Snowmen. They’re robots under the service of the Great Intelligence. Bet you didn’t see that coming.
The Doctor is initially apprehended by the monks at the behest of Travers, an English explorer whose partner was killed by a giant furry beast. Since the Doctor is wearing a giant fur coat and happens to have Travers’ rucksack with him—having found it, and the dead partner, on the way to the monastery—Travers assumes the Doctor is the killer. Khrisong, the warrior, wants to string the Doctor up as Yeti bait as a means of testing his innocence, assuming, for some reason, that if the Yeti try to rescue the Doctor, then he did kill Travers and the other monks who have mysteriously been killed. And all the Doctor wanted to do was return the Ghanta of Detsen Monastery, a holy bell that was entrusted to his safe keeping some three hundred years prior by none other than Padmasambhva during a time of crisis.
It’s frankly not clear why the Intelligence needs the Yeti. It is incorporeal, true, and needs tools in the physical realm, but it has the ability to place people under hypnotic trances and, apparently, to give the same power to those under its control. Why create elaborate robots when you can just hypnotize the monastery and have them create the all-important pyramidal focus that will allow the Intelligence to transfer from the murky astral plane and manifest corporeally (as a blobby goo, which is not really a step up)?
Even though the Intelligence effectively controls Padmasambhva, the Master’s personality still exists and makes itself known, and once the Ghanta makes its way to Padmasambhva, he orders the Abbot to have the Doctor released, because he realizes who has returned the bell. At this point, Padmasambhva believes (against most evidence) that the Intelligence is still benign, and Padmasambhva wishes no harm to come to his old friend, but he also knows that the Doctor will try to oppose the Intelligence’s plan to manifest corporeally.
And why will the Doctor oppose the plan? Because it’s evil, pure and simple:
Doctor: I will stay here, Thonmi.
Jamie: Oh, me too!
Doctor: I have to. This thing that’s here, this evil, it will spread. It has to be stopped, and I think I can do it
We’re at a point in Doctor Who where the format seems set. The Doctor encounters evil and stops it. That’s what he does, story after story. He shows up for some other reason, gets embroiled, and saves the day. Leaving never occurs to him. It’s a format that can get stale in a hurry. In this case, the Great Intelligence is never explained or examined. What is it? Why is it? It has the potential to be another monster-of-the week, a disembodied Macra. And yet, as a testament to what the production team has developed here going into the fifth season, the viewer accepts the evil of the Great Intelligence almost entirely because of the Doctor’s prior relationship to Padmasambhva.
Sure, there’s the evidence of all the deaths caused by the Yeti robots, but while there’s much menace, there’s very little depth to the villain here. Even so, having seen what the Intelligence has done to his old friend, Padmasambhva, whom it has kept alive for three hundred years, the Doctor knows it to be evil, and we accept that. The backstory is layered in early, with the Doctor positively giddy at having returned to Tibet. The last time he was here, 1631, he secreted away the Ghanta, and now he gets to return it, as was prophesied by the monks. There’s evidence that he respects Padmathingme (in Jamie’s rendition) greatly as a wise and enlightened soul. And even though Padmasambhva has, ostensibly, not seen the Doctor in his current regeneration, he recognizes him instantly:
Padmasambhva: Come in, Doctor. Good to look upon your face again. So many years…
There’s a suggestion here that Padmasambhva sees the Doctor’s his essential being, regardless of his place on the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming, regardless of his current re-birth, the notion of regeneration being strongly held in Buddhist tradition. One wonders if the natural linkage between the notion of reincarnation and the Doctor’s recent regeneration did not serve as a spur for this story.
Too, Wolfe Morris’ portrayal of both Padmasambhva and the Great Intelligence, with highly varied deliveries, helps sell the conflict between the monk and the interloper in his body, a struggle which itself mirrors the Buddhist attempt to transcend the physical into an enlightened state. One sympathizes with the centuries of struggle between the two. The lack of footage of him playing this role is keenly felt.
The Doctor’s concern for Padmasambhva and the monks is not merely abstract, but personal, and what could have been a throw-away line to the effect of, “Yeah, I’ve been here before,” as in “The Rescue,” becomes a key factor in the success of the story. The Doctor has investment in this place and its inhabitants, and thus, so do we as viewers.
Notably, the Doctor does not appear entirely opposed to violent acts in this story, very much in contrast to the majority of the monks. When Jamie prepares to capture one of the Yeti, the Doctor departs with a quip to the effect that the safest place to be when Jamie has a plan is far away, and in the ensuing struggle, it appears that Jamie has killed the Yeti. At this point, there is no sense that they are robots, and there’s also no sense that anyone should care that the Yeti has died. The series has begun a fairly inexorable motion towards non-humans being exempt from the whole “no violence” thing.
Jamie and Victoria are settling in nicely as the supporting cast, being nowhere near as central as Ben and Polly but still providing nice counterpoints (and the requisite end-of-episode cliffhanger screams, in Victoria’s case). Jamie in particular has developed a patterned response sequence with the Doctor, where the Doctor proposes a plan of action, Jamie declares it dangerous and foolish, and the Doctor agrees and then does it anyway.
Victoria serves as the curious cat, attempting over and over to get into the forbidden sanctum where Padmasambhva is sequestered because it is forbidden (shades of Dodo and “The Savages” as a plot driver). She also calls Polly (from “The Smugglers“) to mind when she bluffs her way out incarceration by pretending to have been poisoned. At some point, too, she became quite comfortable with (or at least non-fazed by) the TARDIS controls, playing with the scanner to follow the Doctor when he leaves the ship. Her transition from cloistered Victorian to worldly time traveller may safely be considered complete.
The Doctor, of course, defeats (?) the Great Intelligence by smashing the pyramidal focus that allows it to manifest on Earth while Victoria chants the Buddhist “Jewel of the Lotus” prayer to help them resist the Intelligence’s mental powers. With the Intelligence thwarted, the Yeti it was controlling stop in their tracks, harmlessly deactivated. The English explorer, Travers, who came to Tibet to discover Yetis, finds a real Yeti at the end of the story and chases after it, but as will become clear a few stories further on, he takes one of the robot Yeti back to London as a consolation prize of sorts. Like that’s going to end well.
We leave our travellers on the Tibetan plain, with Jamie complaining about his knees being cold and asking to go somewhere warmer next time. Sorry, Jamie, but there’s a date with the Ice Warriors to come…
(Previous Story: The Tomb of the Cybermen)
(Next Story: The Ice Warriors)
Post 39 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project