The TARDIS arrives in Tibet in the 1930s and for once the Doctor leaves his companions behind after they fulfill his request to find an object stored away somewhere in the TARDIS, the Ghanta Bell. Outside the Doctor heads into a valley containing the Detsen Monastery. He finds an abandoned camp, a destroyed rifle, and a human corpse. Meanwhile Victoria convinces Jamie to take a walk outside, where they discover a massive footprint. They investigate, finding a nearby cave that Jamie thinks is manmade. While they look inside the cave, they are trapped by a Yeti. At the monastery, the Doctor hopes for a warm welcome, but instead an injured British man, the anthropologist Prof. Edward Travers, rushes up to him and tries to convince the monks that the Doctor is the man who attacked him and murdered his companion. The monks agree to at least detain the Doctor until his innocence or guilt can be discovered. In his cell, the Doctor is confronted by Prof. Travers, who accuses him of being a journalist who followed him to Tibet to beat him to his planned discovery, finding definitive proof that the Yeti exist deep in the Himalayas. The Doctor tries to convince Prof. Travers that a Yeti could have attacked him, but he refuses to believe it, claiming that the Yeti are timid animals afraid of mankind. One of the monks, Khrisong, agrees, but hypothesizes that the Doctor is somehow causing the Yeti to turn violent, since there had been other recent attacks on locals.
Jamie manages to knock some boulders on top of the Yeti. They find that the cave also contains a pile of faintly glowing metallic spheres. Jamie grabs a sphere and he and Victoria leave the cave, just as the Yeti recovers and begins to free itself from the rubble. Back at the monastery, the Doctor interrogates one of his captors, finding out that the monastery now feels threatened by the Yeti – and that the monks still talk about the disappearance of their sacred relic, the Ghanta Bell, in 1630, which had been entrusted to a foreigner during a time of crisis for the monastery. The Doctor hands the monk the Bell and instructs him to give it to the abbot even as Khrisong has the Doctor dragged away. Khrisong plans to tie the Doctor to the monastery’s front gate and use him as bait, to see if the Yeti are under his control and will rescue him or just try to kill him, in which case the monastery’s guards would ideally save him. Meanwhile the monk presents the monastery’s abbot Songsten and his mysterious master, Padmasambhava, with the Ghanta Bell, leading Padmasambhava to immediately realize that the Doctor has returned after several centuries. He orders that the Doctor be released and treated like a guest, but once the monk who bought the Bell leaves a voice not like Padmasambhava’s warns Songsten that the Doctor “may seek to hinder the great plan.” Elsewhere Victoria and Jamie stumble across Prof. Travers while he’s searching for a Yeti. At first he’s hostile, but Jamie and Victoria’s sincere ignorance of the Yeti convince him that he was wrong about the Doctor, especially once Jamie agrees to lead Prof. Travers to the Yeti’s cave in exchange for taking them to the monastery. Arriving at the monastery’s front gate, Prof. Travers tries to convince Khrisong that he was wrong and to release the Doctor, but it isn’t until Khrisong hears about the return of the Ghanta Bell and Padmasambhava’s command that he’s released.
When the Yeti attack the monastery, the Doctor convinces Khrisong to capture one of them for the Doctor to examine. Looking at the inert Yeti, the Doctor discovers that it’s a robot. Realizing that the metal spheres Jamie stumbled across are the robot Yeti’s “brains”, the Doctor wants to look for the incapacitated robot’s sphere outside, but Khrisong refuses to let any of “the strangers” out, still suspecting one of them is secretly behind everything. They look for the sphere Jamie recovered, unaware that it’s moving around the monastery of its own volition. The Doctor guesses that Prof. Travers took the sphere and might be behind the attacks, and manages to convince Khrisong to look outside on their behalf. Khrisong finds the sphere, but the Yeti ambush him and take it. Later Victoria, suspicious of the fact that no one but the abbot has ever been allowed to speak with or even see Padmasambhava, sneaks into the monastery’s inner sanctum, but Padmasambhava’s voice frightens her away, just as the “missing” sphere finds its way back into the Yeti. Even though Victoria sees the Yeti come alive and warns Khrisong, the Yeti still manages to force its way out. Prof. Travers, still on his search, spies the escaped Yeti meet up with the other Yeti robots and Songsten himself. The Doctor and Jamie try to get back to the TARDIS to get something that will help, but find Yeti standing guard around it. Back in the monastery, Padmasambhava communicates with something he calls the “Great Intelligence,” pleading with it to let him rest once the experiment is done. At the same time, in the cave, Prof. Travers is horrified when he sees a pyramid resting on top of the spheres begin to generate a solid shape.
The Doctor is able to incapacitate the Yeti guarding the TARDIS with just a rock, noting that the Yeti were made to frighten not fight people, and removes the sphere. Retrieving a tracking device from the TARDIS, he places it in the Yeti along with the sphere. Songsten secretly returns to the monastery, where Padmasambhava praises him for helping the Great Intelligence begin to obtain material form and orders that the monks abandon the monastery so that the Great Intelligence can “expand.” Jamie and the Doctor use the device to track the signal commanding the Yeti back to the monastery, where a fierce debate has erupted between Khrisong, who wants to stay and fight with the Doctor’s help, and Songsten, who insists on following orders to abandon the monastery. Songsten has the Doctor and Jamie taken to their chambers with a Prof. Travers, who never recovered from his encounter with the pyramid, while Victoria returns to see Padmasambhava. This time she sees him, an extremely aged and barely mobile man, who shows her some miniature Yeti models that he has been manipulating over a board resembling the monastery, causing the Yeti robots to attack the monastery in order to “convince” Khrisong of the error of his ways. Padmasambhava brainwashes Victoria into telling the monks with his voice to take the Ghanta Bell, leave with the strangers, and build a new monastery elsewhere. Realizing what had happened to Victoria, especially when she repeats the same message about how the Doctor needs to leave Tibet immediately, the Doctor goes to see Padmasambhava, whom he recognizes from his last visit to the monastery 300 years ago. A now weakened Padmasambhava realizes that the Great Intelligence will expand indefinitely, endangering the world, and warns the Doctor about him, but he “dies” before he can give the Doctor any details.
As the monks prepare to migrate away, Khrisong returns to the monastery one more time to retrieve Songsten. He finds him communing with “Padmasambhava,” who has now been completely taken over by the Great Intelligence. The Intelligence forces Songsten to kill Khrisong, and the act of murder is enough to shock Padmasambhava back into consciousness, but only for a few seconds. Songsten is ordered by an again unshaken Intelligence to leave with the monks. When the Doctor and the others show up, Songsten attacks but is subdued. Most of the monks stay, but Prof. Evans convinces one monk to join him in trying to destroy the pyramid in the cave. The Doctor speaks with Songsten, who tells him that Padmasambhava built the cave and the robot Yeti to protect it over the centuries under the Intelligence’s guidance. Originally the Intelligence promised it only wanted to occupy the cave, but now it’s demanding the entire mountain to grow in. Prof. Evans finds that the glowing light has engulfed part of the mountain and is blocking the way into the cave. While the monks concentrate their prayers and meditation in order to protect their minds from the Intelligence, the Doctor engages in a telepathic tug-of-war with the force. While it’s distracted, the Doctor orders Jamie and Victoria to destroy the devices controlling the Yeti. The Intelligence is undaunted, but the Doctor tells Jamie to look for and destroy a pyramid like the one Prof. Travers discovered. When Jamie does so, the Intelligence dissipates. Padmasambhava dies, for real this time, thanking the Doctor with his last breath. Prof. Travers escorts the Doctor and the companions back to the TARDIS, where Victoria spots a real Yeti much to Prof. Travers’s delight.
Jamie: Have you thought up some clever plan, Doctor?
The Doctor: Yes, I really might have.
Jamie: What are you going to do?
The Doctor: Bang a rock at it.
Early in the episode, while looking for the Ghanta Bell, he finds a jester’s cap-like object with bells and is delighted to find it, saying that he hadn’t seen it in “many years.” A childhood toy of Susan’s, perhaps?
The Doctor’s telepathy becomes a major plot point for the first time in a while.
So the intangible elephant in the room is that this is the first (chronological, but not canonical!) appearance of the Great Intelligence, a villain that has rather unexpectedly become a big deal again recently in the 2005 series. Basically, the Christmas special “The Snowmen” establishes that the Great Intelligence had previously encountered the Doctor’s eleventh incarnation in 1892. Because this story makes it clear that the Great Intelligence had been manipulating humans since about at least the 1600s, it’s assumed that either this or the Great Intelligence’s scheme in “The Snowmen” was “Plan B,” although we never do find out much about the Great Intelligence’s motives, especially why it had a penchant for winter-themed plots. (A friend of mine does have a theory that the Great Intelligence the Doctor meets in “The Snowmen” is actually what’s left of the Intelligence after its “death” in “The Name of the Doctor”, but we’re really getting into some real timey-wimey stuff here…).
You nerds might also know the Great Intelligence by another name: Yog-Sothoth. The quasi-, sort-of, kind-of canonical “Doctor Who” books established that the Old Ones do exist in the “Doctor Who” universe and the Great Intelligence is Yog-Sothoth. At least according to the books, this doesn’t even count as the first time the Doctor matched wits with an Old One. That would be The Web Planet where the Animus was (at least according to the books) an Old One. Nothing in the Great Intelligence’s appearances really contradict that theory, so, hey, have at it! What is certain is that, while the Great Intelligence wasn’t the Doctor’s first recurring enemy that wasn’t an entire alien race (that would be the so-called Meddling Monk, even if his second appearance was forgettable in more ways than one), he certainly was the biggest, appearing in one more serial just a year later, “The Web of Fear”, and becoming in 1995 the antagonist of a straight-to-video “Doctor Who” movie starring a bunch of former companions and associates of the Doctor without the Doctor himself, the obscure “Downtime.”
“The Abominable Snowmen” was a really successful episode in its day, so it became the first “Doctor Who” serial that actually got a direct sequel, “The Web of Fear.” Sadly like with so many of the show’s early hits, little survives, in this case one out of six episodes. But it’s still easy enough to get a sense why this one was a hit, even though the titular Yeti are less intimidating than the Coca-Cola polar bears. It’s that, even though on the surface the plot is silly even by old-school “Doctor Who” standards, it actually gives its setting a kind of attention that we really haven’t seen since the early First Doctor era.
Something else that was unexpected is how the character of Khrisong is handled. The thuggish jerk who through ignorance or malice ends up helping the story’s real antagonist is a trope that the classic series had by this point drawn on frequently. Here, though, Khrisong actually feels like more than just a designated obstacle. Sometimes he helps the protagonists, sometimes he acts against them; not because he acts inconsistently but because he has his own selfless agenda, the preservation of Detsen Monastery and the well-being of its inhabitants, that compels him to act in ways that might be unwittingly harmful yet are perfectly logical based on the knowledge he has. Something similar might be said about Prof. Travers. Sure, from the viewer’s perspective he’s a paranoid ass, but why shouldn’t the sole survivor of a vicious, unprovoked attack, who saw a companion and possibly a friend be brutally murdered, believe the worst about any stranger who shows up unexpected to an isolated locale? I’m sure bigger Who fans than I can debate the point, but this might be the first time the show actually considered the ramifications of the Doctor and his companions just popping in and getting themselves in the middle of a brewing crisis and expecting people to trust them.
And, of course, I should mention that the Great Intelligence is a fantastic villain too, easily the most original the show has had in a while. There’s a genuine sense of mystery and dread about him, and the feeling that this time the Doctor really did take on more than he could handle. The connection to the Cthulhu Mythos isn’t quite as contrived as people might immediately assume.