Pinter In Tibet

I watched the new animated reconstructed version of the 1967 Doctor Who story The Abominable Snowmen. Only the original episode 2 survives in full. The soundtrack has been reconstructed from recordings of the original broadcast.

The story begins with a mysterious presence attacking a British explorer in some remote mountains.

We cut to the TARDIS control room where the Doctor, Jamie McCrimmon and Victoria Waterfield are looking at the exterior world through the old TV screen monitor that was in use up till some point in the 70s. The Doctor is delighted to be returning to the Himalayas, which he visited hundreds of years ago. This is now the 1930s. At this era in the show, it is still the case that the Doctor has no precise control over when and where the TARDIS lands. Jamie makes a comment about not wanting to see the Tomb of the Cybermen again (Tomb Of The Cybermen was the preceding story, the start of the 1967 season. The Ice Warriors is the next story).

We rummage through an old box of stuff that just happens to be nearby, turning up a piece of equipment that will be useful later on (a trick that regularly occurs in Who stories). We also locate an item taken from the previous trip to the Det Sen monastery nearby.

The TARDIS interior was always a rather absurdist space, in which useful or random bits of fittings and furniture appear and disappear from one week to the next. One oddity of the 21st century version of the show is that, although it is now quite explicit that the Doctor can reset the interior when needed, it is supposed to be stable and fixed in the interim. It is also now set that the external exit door of the Console Room is the Police Box door seen from the other side. This was not generally the case in the 60s, 70s and 80s, when we exited through the interior white walls and there was some mysterious interspace before the characters were emerging out through the exterior Police Box. The early story The Sensorites included a tracking shot following the Doctor and companions walking all the way out from interior to exterior, but I think that’s the only time it ever happened in the original run of the show.

The Doctor goes out, not noticing the mysterious presence nearby.

Det Sen Monastery is reconstructed here using images from an actual monastery, overlaid with animated figures. By using animation we can now make the Tibetan monks look like Tibetan monks rather than British actors in costume and a small amount of facepaint.

Being able to bring back an item he previously took a few centuries ago enables the Doctor to establish himself as a friendly presence, overcoming the suspicion and hostility of the monks and also Travers, the British anthropologist who is here on an expedition to get evidence of the eponymous Snowmen, or Yeti. Whether he wants a photograph, or to capture a live specimen, is not quite clear. It’s also not established at what point in his life the Doctor previously visited the Monastery. It can’t be during his current incarnation, although no one is around who would recognise him directly. He does imply he came here alone, although he could have been accompanied by Ian and Barbara in a non-screened adventure.

This story shows off the strengths of the old multi-episode format. We are introduced to a world, with many different characters with secrets and plans in the air. The Doctor and the crew are away from their magical travelling box and can’t immediately go back to get a wonder weapon to fix everything, although a wizard gadget is brought in when needed to move things on. Note that although we see the Doctor using a screwdriver at one point on a Yeti, we have not yet had the “sonic screwdriver” introduced in the show, it will appear in Fury From The Deep later in this season. Our heroes have to allay suspicions and establish trust. There are shifting alliances as we find out who the hidden baddies are, whilst hostile parties change their attitudes and cooperate. A simple plot, about an alien presence infiltrating a closed community slowly (this is another “base under siege”, like The Moonbase and many other 60s stories) unfolds at a steady pace with plenty of cliffhangers. Whenever the alien presences are at work away from human eyes, they have a wibbly-wobbly electronic soundtrack.

The animation makes a few changes from what we can see in the surviving episode 2: the Sanctum is rather more obscure and strange in the original, whereas now we can see a ghostly figure uttering the eerie words of a spiritual leader taken over by The Great Intelligence.

It’s a shame we don’t have the original episode 6 to see how the levitation moments looked in 1967 and how the final death and decomposition of the Abbot appeared – although those sorts of practical special effects weren’t too difficult for film and TV in that era.

Fun fact: one of the writers on this story was Henry Lincoln, who later found fame promoting the ideas that were pinched by Dan Brown to become The Da Vinci Code. It was all thoroughly debunked on Timewatch back in the 90s. Lincoln and co-writer Mervyn Haisman wrote another Yeti story, The Web Of Fear, which introduced the new regular character Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart – a Colonel in the Scots Guards at first, but mostly a Brigadier attached to UNIT. There was going to be a 3rd story with The Great Intelligence, in which it was finally and decisively disposed of, but the writers fell out with the BBC. It has been brought back in the 21st century series.

Another fun fact about this story is the rumour that Harold Pinter acted in it. He didn’t, it was a different actor working under the name David Baron who played Ralpachan. Pinter had stopped using that name by 1967; his brief appearance in The Servant in 1963 was under his own name and in any case he would have been quite incongruous on Doctor Who as a known face on BBC arts broadcasting shows by then. What a pity the adaptation doesn’t allude to the story by making Ralpachan look Pinterish.

Pinter isn’t the only modern playwright to wrongly connected with Doctor Who: there was also a rumour that Tom Stoppard was the author of the 1982 story Kinda, which also had Buddhist themes and references. Given that quite a few 60s and 70s stories allude to imperial decline and failing bureaucracies in very obvious parallels with British post-war politics, it wouldn’t be surprising if David Hare or Howard Brenton didn’t write a few of them. Anyway, “Pinter In Tibet” sounds a bit like Tintin In Tibet, another story in a long-running series which took a trip to the Himalayas and had a surprise appearance by the real Yeti at the end.

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