Monday, 31 December 2012

Doctor Who Christmas specials are a hit and miss affair. Under Russell T Davies, the theme was generally “another invasion of contemporary London. At Christmas.” Steven Moffat revamped this by having Matt Smith’s specials based on classic Christmas stories, with festive themes of family and love and all of that central to the story. The first, A Christmas Carol, was definitely a hit. The sloppy second, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, was definitely a miss. This year’s was once again named after a well-known story, but that wasn’t the main feature of its marketing, or even much related to the actual plot of the episode at all. With Amy and Rory still eternally trapped in a timey-wimey plot contrivance, The Snowmen was hyped as the introduction of a new companion in the shape of Jenna-Louise Coleman. 

Coleman’s Clara, a Victorian governess and part-time barmaid, first met the Doctor when she noticed strange things afoot – snowmen appearing out of nowhere across London. But the Doctor, embittered by the loss of the Ponds, was no longer willing to help humanity and refused to investigate. More unusual events led Clara to the mysterious G.I. institute and the sinister Doctor Simeon, to the Doctor’s friends, and, eventually, into the TARDIS.

This story definitely had, like Amy Pond’s introduction, a fairytale feel, with the Doctor retired to the skies above snow-covered Victorian London. “There’s a man called the Doctor,” Clara tells the children she looks after, “he lives on a cloud in the sky, and all he does, all day, every day, is to stop all the children in the world ever having bad dreams.”

Yet despite this festive magic, the plot, compared to the Eleventh Doctor’s previous specials, wasn’t heavily Christmassy. The Snowmen felt like an interesting hybrid of the Davies and Moffat styles, with Christmas itself often playing a background role to the central conflict against the mysterious icy villains and against the Doctor’s depressed state.

There were two main concerns I had before I saw this episode. One was that the cast would be too large and certain characters wouldn’t get enough screen time. Besides the Doctor and his new companion, we had the return of A Good Man Goes to War’s Vastra, Jenny and Strax, Richard E. Grant’s Doctor Simeon, Ian McKellen as an Ice Moriarty, Tom Ward and his kids as the archetypal posh Victorian family, and an ice lady. Who have I forgotten? What Moffat did with this cast, however, was create a rich, gothic world – a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-style Victorian London with fantastic monsters hiding in the shadows and danger lurking on every corner. All in all, this worked, though I would have liked Richard E. Grant, who was born to play a Doctor Who villain, to have had more screen time and character depth. Vastra and Jenny are great returning characters, who I look forward to more adventures with, though I’m still not a fan of the new look Silurians – they’re too humanoid, and at least the eyes should be more reptilian. Strax the Sontaran, meanwhile, was a brilliant source of comic relief throughout. Unlike other fans, I have no problem with the send-up of the Sontaran race. Why not? Because, frankly, it’s very funny. And they were never taken too seriously as villains, anyway. My only problem with Strax was the disappointing lack of an explanation for his resurrection. “Another friend of mine brought him back” will not suffice. That is not an explanation; that is a sentence devoid of content.

The other concern I had was the idea of the Doctor going into retirement. After the dreariness of David Tennant’s Doctor never getting over Rose and dickishly crying about her into poor Martha’s face for a whole series, I wasn’t optimistic about another mopey Doctor.  But, as a development which lasted for one story only, it worked well. “Over a thousand years of saving the universe, the one thing I learned – the universe doesn’t care” the Doctor grumbled from beneath his mawkishly jaunty top hat, and, you know, maybe he has a point. At his age, and after the tragic (if nonsensical) loss of Amy and Rory, he does have a right to be a little grumpy once in a while. And that’s where, bringing in the recently explored theme of the Doctor’s need for a companion to keep him on the right path, we bring in Clara to save him. He’s back now! Doctor Who can continue! And through this, grumpy Doctor also served the function of making Clara immediately a strong and likable character through her renewal of the Doctor's enthusiasm for life.

From her first episode alone, Clara already has an energetic dynamic with the Doctor, and one refreshingly different to Amy and Rory’s. I am still worried that she may be a little too much on the sassy side, and this may get annoying eventually, though I did find her flirtatiousness less of a problem in this episode than in Asylum of the Daleks. I am also concerned about the hints of sexual attraction between her and the Doc. That never works out. Plus, he’s married – River’s still around and we certainly don’t need another love interest so soon. However, the way in which Clara slowly turned the Doctor back to his normal self was touching and elegantly played, making it all the more tragic when the icy bitch lady threw her to a surprisingly non-mushy death. After losing Amy and Rory, having another companion die on him so soon would be the ultimate tragedy for the Doctor and would almost certainly send him back into mopey mode for at least anther century. It’s also pretty morbid for those two kids, watching their beloved governess die when they should be asleep waiting for Santa. Luckily for the Doctor, he realised that there’s some connection between the late Oswin Oswald and the late Clara Oswin Oswald and ended the episode running off with a renewed vigour to find a living incarnation somewhere. I’m already fascinated by this mystery and can’t wait to find out more. No happy ending for the kids though. Christmas will never be the same again for them.

At least they can find solace in the fact that they saved the world. Considering that a massive proportion of the episode was focused on Clara trying to cheer the Doctor up so that he could save the world again, with the conclusion being the Doctor all cheered up and giddily screaming “I’m gonna go save the world again”, I find it heavily underwhelming that the Doctor did not, in fact, save the world. The family did, by crying, and thus telepathically melting Ice Moriarty’s plans. This isn’t the first time that I’ve felt a Doctor Who plot resolution has been rushed, messy, and too reliant on the telepathic projection of emotions. That ending got tiring when it happened for half of the series 6B episodes… 

Up until this resolution, however, the story was an enjoyable mystery. With funny moments, including a knowing Sherlock pastiche, a series of scary set pieces and a great reference to a classic series villain, we can forgive Steven Moffat for the occasional hammy line (“Tomorrow, the snow will fall and so will mankind”). It is Christmas, after all. Visually, the episode made good use of both its icy theme – the teethy snowmen, the frosty governess and the ice zombie Richard E. Grant making kids never want to go out in the cold or near Richard E. Grant again – and its Victorian setting – from the Doctor’s lush purple coat and top hat to Clara’s pretty dresses and Richard E. Grant’s steampunk office. The Snowmen looked fabulously gothic and was a triumph for the design department.

Except, that is, for what’s probably the most important piece of design in the episode. Trying to move on from Amy and Rory, the Doctor had redecorated the TARDIS. To quote the Second Doctor, I don’t like it. The previous TARDIS was vast and mysterious, with its glass floor and its staircases.  The new TARDIS feels closed in, restricted, depthless. The previous TARDIS was warm and friendly. This TARDIS feels cold and harsh – which perhaps suits The Snowmen’s locked away Doctor but I can’t imagine working as we follow the back-in-action Doctor’s friendship with Clara. It’s more retro, and so fitting with the upcoming fiftieth anniversary, yes, but that doesn’t excuse it being rubbish. Surely some of the previous TARDIS’ wonder could have been carried over? This is just a fridge with a spinny bit.

I do like the new title sequence, though. It’s a daring step away from the time vortex of the last seven years and a sexy smorgasbord of pretty space colours and Matt Smith’s pretty face.

All in all, The Snowmen doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by A Christmas Carol, by far the perfect Doctor Who festive special, but it’s a damn step forward from last year’s mess. As a companion introduction story, it sets up a great mystery and immediately brings a likeable new dynamic, but, similarly, it doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by The Eleventh Hour. Nevertheless, like the best Who stories, it’s got a mix of great elements, including humour, horror, mystery, emotion, and, to add to that, it’s a bit sexy. Do all these elements hold together? Not all the time, no, but when they do, it’s a great lot of fun. 

Plus, there wasn’t anything else good on telly this Christmas.


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