Meanwhile I had spotted the 1995 "Downtime" production, shortly after "School Reunion" was shown; and after several failed bids on eBay, I finally managed to get hold of a copy of it. However, my wife has meantime developed a deep dislike of Victoria Waterfield, and so I could not possibly watch it while she was conscious and in the house. Most unfortunately, she has been laid low this evening with a horrible bug of some indescribable nature; but the relatively small silver lining is that I have been able to watch "Downtime", having listened over the course of my commute on Monday to "The Abominable Snowmen" and similarly today to "The Web of Fear". I had meantime seen both surviving episodes (#2 of "The Abominable Snowmen", and #1 of "The Web of Fear") on the "Lost in Time" DVD collection. So by a strange set of circumstances, I am able to present a joint review of the Yeti trilogy.
The Abominable Snowmen
This was the second story in the famously monster-rich 1967-68 Season 5 (preceded by "Tomb of the Cybermen", and followed by "The Ice Warriors", "The Enemy of the World", "The Web of Fear", "Fury from the Deep" and "The Wheel in Space"). The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria land in Tibet in roughly the 1930s. The Doctor (in one of those irritating references to otherwise unseen adventures) happens to have the holy bell of the local monastery stashed in the Tardis as the result of a visit several hundred years previously. Much confusion over his and his companions' real intent ensues, especially since a) an English researcher, Professor Travers, is there looking for Yeti and thinks they are there to steal his research, and b) the monks have been attacked by the Yeti (and indeed Travers' colleague is killed by them in practically the first scene). In the meantime, the Great Intelligence controlling the (robotic) Yeti also has an unhealthy influence over the leader of the monastery. All ends in a dramatic confrontation inside the Det-sen monastery. You can get a jolly good impression of it for free from the photonovel on the BBC website (possibly even better than from the soundtrack, narrated by Fraser Hines who played Jamie). NB that one of the two co-authors went on to become one of the co-authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (though when his two colleagues sued Dan Brown for plagiarism in The Da Vinci Code, he stayed wisely silent).
Well, it's OK but it's not great. Troughton as the Doctor is, as always, fantastic (he has a couple of great one-liners - "They came to get their ball back!"), and the other actors give it their best as well. And the sinister beeping of the Yeti control spheres is a noise that will haunt me whenever I hear a mobile phone give off a similar ringtone. But there is a curious sapping of tension from the scenes with the monks - even if some of them are deluded warrior monks. Troughton does a lot of agonised groaning (he was very good at that) to maintain the tension, but he is working against the tide a bit. Jamie astounds everyone by having a couple of good ideas. Victoria, sadly, just screams. And the biggest problem is that it's not readily apparent what the sinister plan of the Great Intelligence actually is. My second least favourite thing in sf is having villains whose means and motivation are not clear (my least favourite is cute anthropomorphic robots, but at least the Yeti do not fall into that category). But if the Great Intelligence takes over one Tibetan monastery - so what? And where do the raw materials for building the Yeti come from, halfway up the Himalayas? Bad news for Det-sen and district if it succeeds, but not clear that this is a potentially world-threatening danger.
The Web of Fear
The sequel, broadcast only a couple of months later, is in quite a different category. This is truly one of the great Doctor Who stories, and it's very sad that the only surviving episode on video is the first, which is not the best. The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria arrive in contemporary (ie 1968) London, to find that the whole city centre is deserted, the Underground closed, corpses covered by sinister webs; it turns out that Professor Travers' souvenirs from his Himalayan adventure of decades before have developed a life of their own, and the Great Intelligence is back and re-mobilising the robotic Yeti to try and Take Over The World.
Even for us folks from the Celtic fringe, London has a particular resonance. I discovered at the age of, I think, 15, that 43p is the amount of money you leave London with, no matter how much you had when you arrived. There are several wonderful scenes of (Scottish) Jamie and a Welsh soldier trying to find their way through the tunnels. And within London the Tube is very special; there s something pretty appalling even in the audio description of the gradual extinguishing of the lights representing Tubes stations not yet overwhelmed by the enemy. I guess the idea of horrors in the Underground has an extra resonance after July last year, though this would have been very far from the makers' minds in 1968. (The Blitz, of course, would have been nearer.)
There's a real peak in the middle of the story. The Doctor is wholly absent from episode #2 (presumably Troughton had the week off), but rather than embarrassedly scramble for continuity as tended to be the case in Hartnell's day, the Doctor's absence is a real source of tension, leading Jamie and Victoria into rash efforts to track him down. When the Doctor does turn up in episode #3, it is in the company of a mysterious colonel, who seems a deeply ambiguous figure - is he what he claims to be, the new commander sent in by the authorities outside the zone affected by the crisis, or is he a tool of the Great Intelligence? Of course, we long-term fans know what the answer is as soon as we hear the colonel's name; but the character portrayed by Nicholas Courtney here is far more interesting than the buffoonish Brigadier of the Pertwee years.
Unfortunately the last two episodes slip back into chasing through tunnels, but the form picks up again for the climax, which sees the Doctor apparently trapped in a sinister mechanism which will drain his mind into the Great Intelligence. Again, we long-term fans know that he may well have a trick up his sleeve, but Jamie and Victoria don't, and dutifully rescue him before he has time to turn the tables on the enemy, which is therefore defeated but not destroyed, leaving room for another story.
That story was finally produced 27 years later, in 1995, in a story written by Marc Platt (author of various spin-off fiction and the canonical story "Ghost Light") and directed by Christopher Barry (whose credits go right back to The Daleks), and starring Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier, Deborah Watling as Victoria, Jack Watling as Professor Travers, and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith; so it's pretty damn close to canon. Platt's visions are, frankly, confusing. I didn't get a lot out of his novel Lungbarrow, and I have also been listening this week to one of his audio plays which was similarly complex; I have never seen "Ghost Light" but it seems to be famously impenetrable. "Downtime" scores rather better. Victoria is now in charge of a new hi-tech academy, where all the students are controlled by rasio signals from the mainframe; it turns out that once they have been correctly programmed, they can get turned into Yeti by holding a control sphere.
I groaned at two unnecessarily self-indulgent and self-referential moments - at one point the Brigadier tells Sarah Jane that the important codes ar "NN and QQ", the original production codes for the two first Yeti stories; and there's a conversation when Victoria reminisces about her father (killed by the Daleks) to Professor Travers, who in turn reminiscences about his daughter (last seen in "The Web of Fear"); but we fans know, of course, that the two actors are themselves father and daughter in real life.
Having said that, Courtney again is very good as the (now long-retired) Brigadier, trying to solve the problem and also patch up his relationship with his daughter Kate (played very luminously by Beverley Cressman - who seems to have done surprisingly little else). Both Watlings reprise their parts from a quarter-century earlier well, with the added touch that both characters are now more or less under the sinister influence of the Great Intelligence (and this is reasonably canonical, as both were taken over by it at differnt point in the earlie stories). And Elisabeth Sladen is given very little to do but does it very well (and was to do essentially the same role, investigative journalist checking out what is going on in peculiar educational establishment really controlled by alien powers, even better in "School Reunion" this year). Peter Silverleaf as Victoria's sidekick Christopher, however, is just unwatchable. (John Leeson - the voice of K9 - also has a small part, as does Geoffrey Beevers who played the Master at one point.)
To be honest, I think even completists can give this one a miss in good conscience. But I'm glad to have watched it and to have rounded out the story of the Yeti, as far as it can be taken.
Summary: Get "The Web of Fear" - essential listening for the Who fan. And if you like it, get "The Abominable Snowmen" as well.