Monday, May 23, 2011

My Guru, If You Will (The Abominable Snowmen)

There comes a point in Doctor Who where the sheer and
unrelenting absurdity of the show's premises and visual
iconography simply renders all attempts to mock it
moot.
It's September 30, 1967. Mr. Humperdinck continues to rule over the musical Landscape untroubled by the psychedelic whippersnappers in the rest of the top ten (of which there are at least three). He continues this for two weeks, at which point he is abruptly unseated by the Bee Gees with "Massachusetts," with The Move's "Flowers in the Rain" immediately behind. For the next four weeks, it's just a question of which bits of psychedelia fail to unseat the Bee Gees, who are currently beautifully exploiting the popularity of psychedelia to provide a safe and fun-seeming alternative with their almost-but-not-quite psychedelic lettering on their single.

"Flowers in the Rain" and "Massachusetts" are also, interestingly, the first two songs played on BBC Radio 1, one of a Collection of four new radio stations that comprised the BBC's long overdue concession to the existence of rock and pop music on the part of the BBC and the death knell of the pirate radio stations. You also, during this story, have the murder of Jack McVitie by the Kray Twins, a key event in the unraveling of the dominant system of organized crime in London in the 1960s. In other news, it's mostly Vietnam War I fear, though you have the memorable instance of Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman attempting to levitate the Pentagon during this story. Which is actually probably a decent way into this one.

One of the problems looking back at the 1960s is that for all we romanticize psychedelia and the hippies, for a wide variety of reasons, nobody wants to go back to Old Times and actually do that again. The October 21, 1967 March on the Pentagon is kind of a key event in this phenomenon. For large swaths of the world, the attempt to levitate it while Ginsberg performed Tibetan chants is simply incomprehensible, and is evidence that however nice an album Sergeant Pepper was, perhaps the whole acid thing went just a little further than is useful. I mean, levitating the Pentagon? Really?

In fact what we have here is a case of failing to understand your audience. Anyone who was tuned in to the psychedelic movement at large would have recognized the Pentagon levitation as an act of guerilla theater in the classic psychedelic vein. Did Hoffman and Ginsberg actually expect to levitate the Pentagon? It's tough to imagine that they did, given that it's not like they had a lengthy track record of levitations to go on. I mean, even if you decide to just completely embrace the idea that it is possible to levitate objects via meditation and chanting, nobody starts with the Pentagon. I don't care how many drugs you've done, if you're actually making efforts at psychic levitation, you don't start with a colossally large building while the cameras are watching. You start alone, quietly, in your Room, or perhaps in the Basement, and establish that you can actually do this.

On top of that, levitating the Pentagon is a terrible idea. I mean, not for the obvious reasons. Well, OK, yes, for the obvious reasons as well. But most people stop thinking about the matter after "but that's impossible" and never really pick it up to consider it more deeply. The plan was to levitate the Pentagon five feet and shake it once to exorcise the demons. Think for a moment about the practical result of elevating a massive building for five feet (what would hold all that stone together?), what would happen to the people inside when the building is shaken (suffice it to say they'll wake up with more than A Slight Ache), and, for that matter, the massive damage done by the broken water and gas manes throughout. To say nothing of what would happen when the building were returned to its now broken foundations. This is a plan, in other words, that clearly nobody ever once considered the practical consequences of. Which makes sense only if one of two things is true. Either Ginsberg and Hoffman are simply idiots, which an even cursory review of their work shows they are not, or they never intended for it to work.

No. The Pentagon levitation makes sense only if you consider it as a bit of theater. An attempt not to levitate the Pentagon but rather to give the bureaucrats inside the Pentagon the bracing experience of having a mob of people angrily trying to levitate you. In other words, it was not so much an attempt to cause massive property damage as it was an attempt to make the lives of people working in the Pentagon wildly stranger than they would otherwise have been.

There are two things to point out here. One is that there's something fundamentally odd about Tibetan Buddhism being one of the major engines of this sort of psychedelic guerilla theater. The other is that under this interpretation, Doctor Who is wildly more in tune with psychedelic culture than anybody gives it credit for being. The base under siege, in which people who are firmly part of the military-industrial complex are suddenly confronted with horrible and inexplicable monsters and thrown out into a sort of existential No Man's Land, is in fact a dramatization of the very idea of psychedelic politics - confronting the entrenched structures of power with the utterly mad.

By staggering coincidence, then, we get The Abominable Snowmen, a six parter in which bizarre monsters lay siege to a group of people and, in the process, their entire worldview. Specifically, in which giant robot Yeti attack a Tibetan monastery.

There are some things that happen to you when you become a dedicated Doctor Who fan, not all of which are good. One of them is that, after a certain point, you stop blinking at sentences like the one at the end of the last paragraph and just treat it as Party Time or something. So I'll invite you to read it again, and then reflect on just how completely insane it is that the plot of this story centers on the idea that the mythical Yeti are actually (or at least largely) robots controlled by a vast extra-terrestrial intelligence. Even if you review the previous four seasons and change you won't see anything that's a straightforward antecedent of this. It is an idea like nothing we've previously seen in Doctor Who.

Plus we have the Tibetan monastery - the first trip to a real non-Western human culture since The Aztecs. So not unprecedented, but certainly a bit out there. This, however, is the easier concept to get a handle on. As we can already see in this post, Tibetan Buddhism was iconic for psychedelic culture. The link is all but explicit in the story (which, we should note, makes a complete hash of the names to the point where, when Terrance Dicks novelized it a few years later, Barry Letts (an eventual producer of Doctor Who and actual Buddhist who viewed himself as having something of a Caretaker role when it came to Buddhism and the series), told him to change the names around to actually make sense as a supposed Buddhist parable), since the master of the monastery, Padmasambhava (a name that, as Miles and Wood point out, would only have been kept in the script if there was a reason for it), is named after the author of the supposed Tibetan Book of the Dead, the book that was cannibalized into Timothy Leary's psychedelic handbook The Psychedelic Experience.

On the other hand, there's something kind of unsettling about this faux-Buddhism (both here and in the larger psychedelic culture). There is, after all, an actual religion with around a half billion followers who, understandably, might object to the degree to which their entire spirituality is actively co-opted by a bunch of rich white people to, at best, provide a spiritual component to their socio-political revolution and, at worse, provide a thin justification for being drug addicts. Certainly British and American new-age  Buddhism has at best an awkward relationship with the actual thing, having about as much relationship with it as a magician at a child's Birthday Party does with actual occultism. If we're being honest, its appeal is probably that Buddhism, being a fairly unstructured religion with a very nebulous concept of spirituality, lends itself to being the glue that holds an otherwise disparate set of beliefs together. But all of this is dreadfully culturally imperialist.

All the same, after the disaster of xenophobia that was Tomb of the Cybermen, it's really difficult to get too bent out of shape over something that's merely misguidedly respectful of another culture. However tacky new age-flavored Buddhism is, it's hardly a fundamental Betrayal of the show's principles or a massive affront to good taste in the same way that Toberman is. And Troughton has the typically good sense to play the Doctor as someone with a deep and abiding respect for Buddhism, which helps take the edge off of it.

The result is that the monastery turns out also to make a surprisingly effective base for sieging. The monks appear to have a genuine sense of crisis. Having the Yeti attack a literal icon of psychedelic culture and launch a spiritual attack on the monastery as a whole is a clever idea. The use of a vaguely Lovecraftian "Great Intelligence" (Yog-Sothoth, if the horrible Lovecraft retcon of Andy Lane is taken seriously) means that the stakes of this have an odd weight to them - that it matters if this base falls or not. If the archeological expedition on Telos fails, at the end of the day, we'd have some dead bodies and some probably-still-trapped Cybermen. If this monastery falls, the sense is that the moral foundation of Buddhism, psychedelia, and possibly the Doctor himself is disrupted.

The problem is that for all the cleverness, we run into the fact that the Yeti are, in this story at least, an appallingly dumb idea. The idea of the Great Intelligence controlling Yeti is neat. And the story ultimately hedges and has real Yeti exist. So what's the point of the robot ones? Why introduce a ludicrous idea like this? Surely the idea that the Great Intelligence, which already demonstrates mind control powers, is simply controlling the local fauna makes more sense than silver control spheres for robot Yeti. But instead, because the show creates monsters according to a very narrow paradigm, we get a bad Scooby Doo premise. Because for all the good ideas the show has, it is, at this point, much like the Model T coming in any color you like as long as it's black, Doctor Who is, at this point, a show that can be about anything as long as it's a base under siege. This is a pretty good base under a pretty dumb siege, and as a result is one of the better stories of the era.

If this sounds like damning with faint praise, it almost, but not quite, is. Yes, it's hard to just trot out an out and out Celebration of this episode. It's another base under siege. It's another six parter that should have been four. (The modern invention of psychic paper would have trimmed the first two episodes out entirely.) It's got all the problems that the show is increasingly having. But following a catastrophically xenophobic exercise that plunged the show from "kind of repeating itself a bit" to actually being something that it's just tough to be a Lover of... it's tough not to like this story. It's at least got the Doctor seemingly caring about making the world a better place, and it's got some lovely atmosphere between the lack of music and the visual Mountain Language of the setting, and you get the sense that the series is at least trying. Which, let's face it, was starting to come into doubt.

7 comments:

  1. I've been following your blog for a while now, Philip, and am thoroughly enjoying it. Placing the stories in some form of cultural context while also investigating the symbolism within makes for fascinating reading.

    Having said that, I'm surprised you've missed a cultural connection in your review of The Abominable Snowmen: that of one of its writers, Henry Lincoln, was partly responsible for authoring "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail." For all that books Christianity, its surprising how many of its themes are reflected in the Abominable Snowmen: holy priories, warrior monks, holy symbols lost for generations, the seeming immortality of religious figures...

    Even though he lost the court case for plagiarism, without the Abominable Snowmen we'd have never had The DaVinci code! Now there's real horror... or is it just absurdism?

    Anyway, keep up the good work, and I look forward to reading more.

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  2. Lincoln wrote three episodes of Doctor Who. I've got to save something for the other two. :)

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  3. Possibly worth mentioning: the likely influence of this episode on the revelation in Six Million Dollar Man that Bigfoot is an alien robot?

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  4. Both 6 million man and this Doctor Who serial owe something to the earlier (mid-1960s) "revelations" from some UFO researchers that bigfoot type monsters were seen acting robotically by some witnesses- who had also seen the creatures dropped off by silver disk type UFOs.

    This is all very much in the demonology end of UFOlogy and it is remarkable that it is that end of the scale for which exists almost all of the evidence, documented sightings, physical traces and credible witnesses. Doctor Who in this serial is following that pattern too.

    The Great Intelligence is for me one of the very best Doctor Who monsters, for being amongst the most realistic. It's pure Indrid Cold / Mothman stuff.

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  5. Not that anyone's reading comments on this entry anymore, but I finally got around to listening to this and found it lovely and weird and wonderful. The Yeti business is indeed a little out there planwise, but the vocal acting really holds it all together and the Great Intelligence really does come off sounding like something out of Lovecraft -- or maybe out of Christopher Bailey, a monster that comes into our world through the "dreaming of an unshared mind." It makes the Richard E. Grant Great Intelligence seem just a bit disappointing, to be honest.

    I'm sure it doesn't look as good as it sounds, particularly since the Yeti are among the goofiest-looking creatures in Doctor Who, but I really hope this is one of the stories that seem to have been recovered.

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    1. In light of The Name of The Doctor, I've decided that the "original" intelligence is nothing of the sort, but rather is, like the Many Claras, a reprise of the Simeon-Intelligence after he tossed himself into the Doctor's time scar, this being the real reason that actual-snowmen became abominable snowmen, frex: the same recipe baked anew.

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    2. That makes perfect sense, and yet it makes me a bit sad, because I find the Nameless Thing From Beyond the Stars origin spookier and more stimulating to the imagination than the Manifestation of a Little Boy's Loneliness and Alienation origin. I shouldn't, I guess -- the latter is probably the more grownup and literary of the two ideas -- but I do. I'm trying on the idea that the Simeon-Intelligence is also a Thing From Beyond but that Simeon gated it into the world just like Padmasambhava or Tegan. I guess I'm only an anorak, looking for that real tomato.

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