Image Credit: James Ashworth
Image Description: Gary Russell, Rob Ritchie and Ioan Morris chat to Justin Johnson on stage at the BFI
By Evan Jones
On Saturday 3 September, there was a somewhat subdued atmosphere to the regular proceedings at that day’s BFI Southbank screening of a classic Doctor Who serial. For one, there was a noticeably less than full audience for that day’s event, owing to the scheduling clash of two other prominent conventions happening that same day: Whooverville in Derby and Collectormania in Birmingham. From a casual glance of the auditorium, it appeared to be not quite as socially distanced as The Evil of the Daleks in August 2021 but equally not quite as packed-in as Galaxy 4 in November 2021. The lack of a big guest star attached to the post-show Q&A (Frazer Hines himself was at Whooverville!) may have been a contributing factor as well.
The slight tinge of sadness in the air may also have resulted from the fact there are no more new animated reconstructions on the horizon. The release of The Abominable Snowmen this September is the last of a wave of six animated reconstructions that started with 2019’s The Macra Terror. This was followed by The Faceless Ones and Fury from the Deep in 2020 and then subsequently by The Evil of the Daleks and Galaxy 4 in 2021. Whilst Macra, Faceless and Evil were all produced by BBC Studios under the directorship of Charles Norton and AnneMarie Walsh, Fury, Galaxy and Snowmen were all produced by Big Finish Creative under the directorship of Gary Russell and Chloe Grech. Thanks to their additional efforts, there are now an additional 44 missing episodes (out of total of 97) with animated reconstructions, completing a total of 13 1960s’ Doctor Who serials that are partially or entirely missing. With The Abominable Snowmen, they have also ensured that Victoria’s entire run as a companion can be watched on screen.
The Abominable Snowmen is a mostly missing six-part serial Season Five, broadcast from late September to early November 1967. While I had previously seen Episode Two, the only surviving episode of this particular story, I was, similar to previous animations, going into this one blind. I found Snowmen to be a particularly moody and atmospheric tale, not too dissimilar in tone to its sequel The Web of Fear. But whilst Web trades in the claustrophobia of the familiar London Underground, Snowmen is about the isolation and mystery of its remote Tibetan monastery setting. Nobody quite understands what the Yeti actually are and there’s no-one coming to help them, at least until the Doctor and his companions Jamie and Victoria arrive on the scene.
Snowmen is partly remembered for its extensive location work, with several days filming taking place in Snowdonia, North Wales. This reconstruction follows suit with lush-looking valleys for the exterior scenes and a dark, eerie cavern that traps Jamie and Victoria early on in the story. The Det-Sen monastery itself is satisfactorily recreated, though its courtyard seems unusually vast from within. The slow burn of this particular serial also invites viewers to critique the animation quality with much greater scrutiny, but thankfully the character animation is a considerable step-up from 2020’s Fury From The Deep. There are more subtle, naturalistic movements all-round, with group composition much improved and a merciful lack of ‘windmilling’ arms. The serial’s climactic confrontation with Padmasambhava, the High Lama of Det-Sen Monastery who is possessed by the Great Intelligence, was also a particular visual highlight. The green lightning effects in particular give him some Chancellor Palpatine vibes. A surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one.
The animation also made a number of creative decisions that were considerably beneficial to this reimagination of the original production. Most sorely needed was the use of a diverse Asian cast for the monks that inhabit Det-Sen Monastery, replacing the original television cast of white actors wearing offensive yellowface makeup. However, this doesn’t alter the voices put on by the original white actors, which may be difficult at times to hear. In a Q&A session after the screening, co-director Gary Russell confirmed that there wasn’t even a question of depicting the original actors and was sternly critical of the story’s director, Gerald Blake, in making such a casting decision – “What were you thinking?!” – and cited that many Asian actors were available for work in London during the mid-to-late 1960s. Russell went on to say that what was done in terms of makeup within this production was “far worse” than in The Talons of Weng-Chiang.
Moreover, there were entirely new animated sequences to accompany exposition within the story, such as a depiction of Padmasambhava entering the astral plane and becoming possessed by the Great Intelligence. This particular sequence feels like it was designed to parallel the opening of Episode One of The Web of Fear where the TARDIS is suspended in space, trapped inside a web. Audio maestro Mark Ayres has even gone to the painstaking trouble of extracting the sound effects from The Web of Fear and gently overlaying them into the surviving audio track for this same sequence; an applaudable and genuinely nerdy touch.
Audience response to the serial appeared to be very positive with each episode’s cliffhanger receiving an enthusiastic round of applause. Troughton’s impeccable comic acting was also responsible for several bursts of laughter, such as in Episode One where the Doctor delights in seeing an old knick-knack though he cannot remember what it’s for (“Well, whatever it is, it’s nice to see it again!”). Then, in Episode Two, he steers Victoria away from Jamie because he’s having independent thoughts (“Victoria, I think this is one of those instances where discretion is the better part of valour. Jamie has an idea. Come along.”) and in Episode Three he remarks that the Yeti “came to get their ball back”. There was also a poor Yeti that fell into an earthly fissure as the Tibetan mountainside cracked open during the story’s climax in Episode Six, which received much raucous laughter. This was subsequently confirmed to be an in-joke at the bequest of Gary Russell following a Chumbly receiving the same fate during the climax of the Galaxy 4 animation. However, no ‘Wanted’ posters for the Master, in either his Delgado or Dhawan incarnations, were spotted throughout.
As already mentioned, there was a Q&A after the feature presentation with co-director Gary Russell as well as concept designer Ioan Morris and 3-D animator Rob Ritchie, despite protesting that he only sent “four things” to Russell upon request. Russell noted that, similar to AnneMarie Walsh’s answer given during the The Evil of the Daleks Q&A, they had a greater period of time to work on this animation with 16 months of production rather than Fury’s 12. One point of discussion was whether they needed to include snow, an idea which was swiftly vetoed due to the difficulty of animating and then tracking footprints in the snow. It later transpired that Tibet does not typically have snow anyway, except at the highest mountain peaks. Another discussion point was using the costumes of the monks in Planet of the Spiders as a basis for their characters here. Arguably the most trivial was a surprisingly lengthy discussion about the colour of Troughton’s eyes, which are green in the animation, but appear to be somewhat blue in reality and possibly blue-green in some novels within the EU canon. It’s all rather academic, of course, if you watch it in black-and-white.
The Abominable Snowmen sends the recent wave of Doctor Who animations out on a high with this lovingly-produced reimagining of a fondly remembered serial, either for those who watched the original broadcast in 1967 or were impressionable young readers of the Terrance Dicks’ novelisation first released in 1974. For now, this brings a pause to the latest chapter in the missing episodes saga. Who knows if, or when, we might discover more episodes, or at least some more animated reconstructions of them? It is highly unlikely that we might find such things in remotest Tibet. Now that would be a tale worth telling.