Title: Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen
Televised as: The Abominable Snowmen
Written by: Terrance Dicks
Teleplay by: Mervyn Haisman & Henry Lincoln
Televised in: September through November 1967
Published in: November 1974
Chapters: Three through Twelve
Or, holy mackerel. I only just learned that Henry Lincoln, co-writer of The Abominable Snowmen, is actually the same pseudo-historian Henry Lincoln who co-wrote Holy Blood, Holy Grail, i.e., one of the books that launched Dan Brown’s truly execrable career. Working in part from Lincoln’s allegedly non-fiction book, Brown authored The Da Vinci Code, which put him into the pop culture stratosphere and resulted in a series of fairly poor Tom Hanks movies. Huh! I have no idea how that bit of Who-related trivia had escaped my knowledge up until now.
Terrance Dicks’ novelization of The Abominable Snowmen is a much, much better work than The Da Vinci Code, even though it doesn’t reveal any biblical truths or uncover any lost Buddhists texts. It does, unfortunately, lack some of the dense and richly detailed flavor that we previously talked about with his first two Target adaptations, The Auton Invasion and Day of the Daleks, but it’s still a good deal more compelling than what was to come — when he was writing eight books a year, including slim adaptations of lame later-day Tom Baker episodes such as The Invisible Enemy and The Horns of Nimon, books that barely weighed in at a hundred pages each
This is the first Dicks novelization not to feature a prologue with original material (such as a flashback to The War Games, or a long flash-foward to life on dystopian, Dalek-conquered, 22nd-century Earth). It’s also a 12-chapter book, and the cliffhangers to the first four episodes fall neatly at the ends of Chapters 2, 4, 6, and 8. This is the origin, then, of Dicks’ soon-to-be standard 12-chapter potboilers. There is no real substantial backstory added for any of the characters, particularly the Tibetan monks. The book opens, as does the TV episode, with a Yeti attacking Professor Travers’ basecamp and killing Travers’ companion, and Dicks does preface this with a few extra paragraphs of Travers having a nightmare that bleeds into his companion’s death screams. But there’s not a whole lot more more in terms of history or motivation.
What Dicks does add, though, is atmosphere. The Abominable Snowmen on TV, in spite of director Gerald Blake’s best efforts, was let down by a couple of production glitches. First, the team famously went Wales for extensive location shooting to stand in for the Himalayas… in early September 1967. All they wound up with was a lot of rainy mud, but absolutely no snow. So the TV story takes place in the snowy Himalayan peaks of Tibet, but has not a single snowflake to show for it. Then, while the Yeti were supposed to be horrific, scary monsters, the end result were rotund and adorable teddy bears, whose roars sounded like flushing toilets. Cutie pies!
In adapting a story set in rainy but snow-free Wales, and featuring cute and cuddly “monsters”, Dicks at least is not bound by the TV production; rather, he adapts the original Haisman and Lincoln scripts (which, it turns out, are quite a bit substantially different from what wound up on TV), when snow was still on the agenda and the monsters were still projected to be scary rather than huggable. Hence, Dicks fires off a lot of appealing prose describing snowy mountain peaks and terrifying beasts:
The moon kept drifting in and out of black clouds, so that they were alternately plunged in pitch darkness, or bathed in sinister, ghostly moonlight. Their footsteps sounded very loud as they crunched through the frozen snow.
Later on, the Doctor admires “a beautiful and spectacular sight to see the sun rising over the snow-covered peaks”. If only!
As far as the Yeti themselves go:
Jamie studied the creature cautiously, fascinated by his first clear look at a Yeti. It was massive, about seven or eight feet tall, Jamie guessed, and covered in shaggy, brown fur. The powerful body was immensely broad, so that the thing seemed somehow squat and lumpy, in spite of its great height.
The huge hairy hands, and the black snout, were gorilla-like. The little red eyes, and the yellow fangs were like those of a bear. He remembered Victoria’s description – something between a bear, and ape and a man. All in all, thought Jamie, it was the biggest, nastiest, hairiest beastie he had ever seen.
This passage reminds us of two salient points: A) that the Yeti were supposed to be much more frightening and other-worldly than the TV serial’s portrayal of zaftig Teddy Ruxpins; and B) that Jamie, in case ye missed it, is Scottish.
The opportunity is also taken to make Det-sen Monastery large and intimidating, a character in the story itself. The Abominable Snowmen was recorded in Lime Grove D, Doctor Who‘s original home and its tiniest studio (“smaller on the inside!”, as Waris Hussein lamented in An Adventure in Space and Time). Dicks uses the broader canvas to show us what we were forced to miss on TV:
But still this mysterious silence and emptiness. The Det-sen Monastery had always buzzed like a beehive – the chatter of pilgrims, the cries of pedlars in the courtyard, the low humming of the temple bells, the endless drone of monks at their prayers. It had been a lively, bustling place. Now it was as quiet as a tomb. The Doctor shivered.
Victoria also comments more than once on how Det-sen is a “rabbit-warren”, or how all the corridors look alike – Doctor Who‘s favorite cover explanation for filming the same single corridor from seven different angles in Lime Grove D or Television Centre 4. The “base under siege” format so prevalent in the Troughton years was a storytelling device used to make the most of a Lime Grove D-sized studio, but in the book, the monastery’s Great Hall was “filled with long tables and benches, enough to hold hundreds of monks when they gathered for food and prayer”. Ladies and gentlemen, The Abominable Snowmen: directed by Gerald Blake, but novelized by Ang Lee.
(To be fair, Blake did some very inventive work that’s preserved in the surviving Episode Two, but he’ll forever be tainted by what happened with The Invasion of Time a decade later, so I’ll leave it to others to defend his legacy…)
The action scenes are much more vivid, too. Remember that Dicks is novelizing the Haisman and Lincoln scripts, not the televised action. So Jamie doesn’t just beat a Yeti into unconsciousness: it’s hoisted high up the monastery wall by a net, and then breaks through the net and crashes to the ground. Khrisong isn’t just attacked by Yeti, he’s lifted up into the air like a rag doll and tossed like a small child. The Yeti causes warrior monks to bleed here, and when they finally invade the monastery for good, they destroy all the food and fuel supplies by pouring them into one “unusable pile”. The Doctor’s final telekinetic battle with the Intelligence features lamps flaring up in a sheet of flame, or whizzing through the air like a cannonball! Not on TV, where the Loose Cannon recon features gently floating torches.
I also love to pay careful attention to Terrance Dicks’ use of language, and near-perfect economizing of words. His trademark favorite descriptors, like “strange” and “terrible” and “savage” are all here – although he has less opportunity to use “gleaming”, another time-worn favorite, in a story set in a dingy monastery in the distant past. Chapter 1 ends with the Doctor finding Travers’ dead companion in the snow, “his neck broken by a single savage blow”. Dicks also, as he’ll do a lot (twice in this book alone), reminds us that Padmasambhava’s voice “came from nowhere, and yet from everywhere in the room”, and another monk speaks with such authority that makes the others fall silent. Padmasambhava, by the way, like many other Dicks characters over the years, “sank back on the golden throne in infinite weariness” (when he’s not, while possessed by the Great Intelligence, cackling with “hellish cosmic laughter”).
But what Dicks prefers, even to words like “strange” and “savage”, are adjective pairs. Khrisong fights a “gallant and useless battle” against the Yeti in Episode Four, several pages before he is “baffled and frustrated”. The Great Intelligence’s physical manifestation on Earth – a fiery-colored gel in the novelization, but probably just the output of that foam-making machine on TV again, is “a bubbling, glutinous substance”. When Travers collapses in exhaustion after some stupid and foolhardy side adventure, he makes a “tattered, scarecrow figure” – this is after he “tumbled down the mountain like a falling boulder”, which is a neat little simile.
Padmashambava, by the way, is truly grotesque:
The face was quite incredible. Completely hairless, with huge forehead, sunken cheeks and bony jaw. In contrast to the wizened face and shrunken body, the eyes were huge and dark and alive, shining with the blaze of an almost superhuman intelligence. The Master Padmasambhva had indeed gone beyond the flesh. His body was merely the worn-out husk which barely contained his soul and spirit.
Another feature for which the novelization is remembered is the renaming of all the Tibetan characters. As Doctor Who‘s outgoing producer at the time this book went out for publication, Barry Letts had nominal control over the novelization line, and instructed Dicks to change the names – Haisman and Lincoln had used real Tibetan Buddhist names, and Letts thought that would be potentially offensive. So Padmasambhava becomes Padmasambhva, Songsten becomes Songtsen, Thonmi becomes Thomni, and Ralpachan becomes Rapalchan (as in “Your eyes are keen, Rapalchan”, a line that has oddly stuck in my head for more than 30 years and which I still think of whenever I’m able to make out the fine print on a legal document).
Of course, there is one elephant in the room. Here’s how Terrance Dicks describes the Tibetans:
These were lamas, the priests of Det-Sen Monastery, whose lives were spent in peaceful meditation and prayer. Despite their gentle and unworldly manner they had a sort of spiritual strength, a kind of gentle obstinacy, that never failed to infuriate Khrisong.
One would have hoped for a little more authentic Buddhist detail in the novelization, which Dicks could have picked up from Letts, a practicing Buddhist himself. The Abominable Snowmen was that rare “Doctor Who” serial set in Asia, with only one Westerner character in the guest cast, but it was, as was standard casting practice at the BBC in 1967, populated entirely by white guys from Great Britain. But even if the casting had been more enlightened, Haisman and Lincoln still have their characters speak mostly in fortune-cookie riddles, about Satan’s hidden armor, or “Harsh words are like blunted arrows –it takes the truth to make them sharp”. Like the time that Mr. Miyagi took Hilary Swank to a Buddhist monastery to practice karate, and a young Ms. Swank induced a half-dozen monks to dance along to The Cranberries at 3 AM, and Mr. Miyagi told her, “Never trust spiritual leader who cannot dance”.
So Haisman and Lincoln’s portrayal of the native Tibetan characters takes on the faint whiff of being patronizing. After the disastrous script that was The Dominators, Philip Sandifer rightly notes that the authors’ regressive attitudes in that later story make you call into question everything that you thought was progressive about this one. Dicks doesn’t make the source material much less patronizing, I’m afraid, although back in 1974, he probably didn’t see anything objectionable about the scripts he was adapting.
And, to be fair, Dicks does include several explanations, all presumably cut from the original script for timing reasons, about why Khrisong has formed an unlikely team of “warrior monks”, and why Det-sen is so underpopulated – because all the other monks were sent away for safety after the Yeti turned hostile. Dicks also gives us the menu –scalding Tibetan tea, a “pile of yellow rice, covered with strange meats and vegetables”, and “milkless, unsweetened tea with Yak butter floating in it”, which nauseates Victoria. (Come to think of it, I don’t think any character in any Dicks novelization ever quite enjoys their cup of tea. You can measure the gravity of a situation by just how bad the tea gets). So, in short, I guess you can say that Dicks is trying to make the Det-sen characters as lifelike as he can. But, absent an extra 20 pages of text, and a whole bunch of POV scenes from the monks (here, only Thomni gets to narrate any scenes), fortune cookies most of the monks remain.
Missing, alas, are two very nice moments added in by the script editors (Peter Bryant and Victor Pemberton) during production: Khrisong is given some final words before dying, and Victoria and Thomni discuss the Doctor’s agelessness. That’s one disadvantage to the novelization line, that you lose the flavor of some of the actors’ more inventive and improvisational TV performances, or moments of heart or charm added at the last minute to an under-running script. But, in the end, Dicks adds enough flavor of his own to this novelization to make it one of his stronger efforts.
Next Time: Another vacation from Terrance Dicks, and the entry of Brian Hayles to the Target line.