jason stives looks at a game-changing whovian special…
It’s weird, in hindsight, how much Steven Moffat’s Christmas episodes of Doctor Who have little focus on the holiday itself and more about the need to share the holidays with someone. They also take on the form of dark fairytales a mix of sci-fi horror and stories with a moral clause to it. And while results have varied they tend to be far more important to developing [season-long] plots than they were during the Russell T. Davies-era. This year’s special, “The Snowmen,” introduced some key plot points to the upcoming series of episodes as well as brought in some much needed nostalgia to the show as it enters its 50th anniversary year. While some things fall short in the final product, the introduction of a new companion coupled with a nice mix of comedy and mystery makes for a Christmas episode that is important to the narrative as well as a step up from the previous year’s special.
The strength of “The Snowmen” lies in the performances of our two leads and indeed it eclipsed the episode’s plot — which took a back seat for a healthy dose of character development. When we meet The Doctor again some time has clearly passed between now and the events of the “Angels Take Manhattan” and the Doctor has now become somewhat of a recluse living in his TARDIS positioned high above the clouds of Victorian London. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any friends and we are treated to the return of the Silurian huntress Madame Vastra, her wife Jenny, and Strax the nurse Sontaran who stands out above all in this episode as a bit of a comical sidekick. Despite the insistence of The Doctor that he doesn’t help out anymore, a young bar matron named Clara clearly thinks otherwise as she pursues the Doctor in hopes of him helping him solve the strange mystery behind the falling snow and a man named Dr. Simeon.
For months the Christmas special was being touted for the introduction of Jenna Louise Coleman as the newest companion who we now know is named Clara Oswin Oswald. But when she popped up in the season opener “Asylum of the Daleks” months back it took everyone aback especially since she had been turned into a Dalek at episodes end. This time out instead of turning Clara into something; she is simply killed off after falling from the TARDIS perched atop a cloud. Already we are starting to see a far more complicated companion than Amy was and we have a lot to learn when the show comes back in April. Regardless, Coleman fires on all pistons the same way she did back in “Asylum” with a healthy dose of pep, wit, and adventure and her interactions with Matt Smith started to mirror the chummy relationship the Tenth Doctor shared with Donna Noble. Of course, there is an underlying romance evolving, but compared to Rose or even Martha we have someone who doesn’t need The Doctor and kind of just fancies him. The trouble with The Doctor and his companion falling in love is that it kind of maroons any relationship development into anything but love. With Clara we see someone who lives a double life as a bar matron and a governess to the children of Captain Latimer and someone who takes on the sense of skepticism and curiosity that The Doctor has suddenly pulled back from.
It’s hard to actually believe The Doctor doesn’t miss all this but here we see a Doctor that echoes all the way back to his first incarnation someone who is grumpy, cautious, but with a mean spirit when necessary. It’s obvious from his continuing interactions with Clara that he sees someone who he can travel with despite the danger and indeed a lot of the story feels like he is testing her to see if she can handle traveling through time and space with all the dangers that may come. It helps that by accident the word that Clara uses to get the Doctors attention happens to be Amy’s surname but clearly The Doctor has been looking for a spark to get him back to his old self. Clara embraces all this only to have her chances of space travel taken from her by the threat of the dreaded Ice Governess. On paper the idea of Ice Governess doesn’t sound too bad when you consider the plot. Dr. Simeon and the Intelligence (voiced by Ian McKellen) need a human form to take in order to be physically formed and they find this in the tale of Captain Latimers former governess who drowned in pond and then it froze over. When the governess finally comes to life it’s an incredibly silly gimmick that feels like one of the weakest parts of the story.
Another weak point lies in the supporting roles that aren’t the Doctor and his friends mainly Dr. Simeon. Richard E. Grant is very serviceable in this role with his grim scowl always in tow but I wanted more of a story behind Simeon especially since there was clearly a linking theme of not being alone on Christmas with these characters there was clearly a linking theme of not being alone on Christmas with these characters. While there isn’t much to say about Dr. Simeon I have more than enough to say about his employers the great intelligence with their reveal at the story’s climax sending my fan barometer off the charts. For new fans of the series the Great Intelligence is an alien constantly in pursuit of a humanoid host that appeared in two classic Doctor Who stories from the Patrick Troughton-era, “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web of Fear.” In those stories the Great Intelligence inhabited the form of the mythical Himalayan creature the Yeti, and since this story takes place years before those stories this acted as a formal introduction to the Intelligence during its early days occupying the Earth. It makes sense for the snowmen to be its physical manifestation and while it worked for some spooky moments initially they aren’t used as often as they could be during the remainder of the show.
With the reveal of the Great Intelligence coupled with a new title sequence and a new and very retro TARDIS console room the show is starting to ramp up for its 50th anniversary and there were many nods during this story to the shows past and it was done very well. However, we need not forget the spirit of these Christmas specials since Moffat took over and many of them deal not necessarily with Christmas but the notion of not being alone. The Doctor has been fighting with this problem for awhile and each time he has become less and less alone in the world with the people he meets. His boundless energy when he realizes that Clara must exist in some other time brought back the enthusiasm that the Eleventh Doctor is known for but with a sense of caution that it has taken him awhile to realize. The Snowmen ultimately ended up being a step up from last year’s Christmas special and despite some flaws that weighed down the story’s ability to advance it’s a great sign of the kind of stories that we will see as the show continues towards its big milestone next November.
Rating: 8 out of 10 (Excellent)
All Photos Credit: BBC America