Doctor Who Christmas special: The Snowmen

[Alternatively: Mary Poppins Versus the Snow Globe.]

The Doctor is brought out of ‘retirement’ by governess/barmaid Clara, a woman he has met – and witnessed dying – in his recent past to look into a spate of living snowmen in Victorian London. But the Doctor’s investigations lead him to a confrontation with an enemy from his more distant past and his human servant Doctor Walter Simeon (Richard E Grant).

Dr Who XI 3 Xmas 2012

Haven’t we met somewhere before? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

“This is the day everything begins”

Doctor Who Christmas specials are something of a curate’s egg in terms of the series as a whole. Required to work as a standalone story to appeal to a festive audience – a significant proportion of whom only ever watch the show once a year – the previous Christmas Day episodes have contained fewer hits (The Christmas Invasion) than misses (The End of Time and the laughably poor Voyage of the Damned). Ahead of its 50th anniversary year in 2013 and with a new companion to introduce in the form of Jenna-Louise Coleman‘s Clara Oswin Oswald, the 2012 special carried even more weight on its shoulders than usual.

When we last saw the Doctor at the end of The Angels Take Manhattan he was just coming to terms with the shock of being suddenly and permanently separated from Amy and Rory, who were stranded in New York in 1938. Here we see the true impact the Pond-Williams’ departure has had on him as we learn that he has effectively retired after a millennium or so of do-gooding. As the Silurian Vastra says:

He prefers isolation to the possibility of pain’s return.

Now a recluse hiding away in Victorian London, despite the best attempts of Vastra, her human wife Jenny and the former Sontaran nurse Strax (all previously seen in A Good Man Goes to War) to talk him out of it, it takes a single word uttered by Clara – “Pond” – to impel him back into action. For much though the Doctor is a good man at heart(s), he has always found a good mystery irresistible.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

The Doctor’s retirement is an interesting idea – and one which show-runner and episode writer Steven Moffat states was inspired by a Douglas Adams concept from the 1970s – but does The Snowmen work as a story? It depends how you look at it. For die-hard Who fans, probably not. There is some wonderful imagery and some cracking soundbites but the repetition of some over-familiar tropes – “Doctor Who?”, the ‘Pond’ word-play – becomes a bit wearing, some of the key plot points are laid on a bit heavy-handedly for irregular viewers and the story itself is more a collection of ‘moments’ than a coherent narrative. As with last year’s special, the episode lacks a compelling threat until the final minutes and the effective use by Moffat of one of his familiar signatures – taking a familiar, everyday object (in this case snowmen) and turning it into a thing of horror – is squandered as it quickly becomes apparent that the titular snowmen’s role is distinctly bit-part. Mind you, was I the only one who thought the Snowmen’s angry faces were inspired by Numberjacks‘ Shape Japer?

However, for younger kids and for those occasional or Christmas-only viewers of the programme, I suspect the episode was suitably scary with its snowmen and ice governess, and had enough magical moments – the Mary Poppins-inspired staircase in the sky being perhaps the one stand-out visual.

And as a vehicle for putting the new companion front and centre and setting up the arc for the series’ return in April, it’s effective enough. We certainly see enough of Coleman here and the way her character sparks off Matt Smith‘s Doctor to know that the chemistry apparent in Asylum of the Daleks was not a one-off. The relationship between Time Lord and companion which is core to new-Who looks to be in safe hands, and that’s no small thing.

Doctor Who 2012 Christmas special The Snowmen

Okay, all together now. Away in a manger … (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

The Great Intelligence and other references

It is played down massively in the episode – the Doctor merely comments that it “rings a bell” – but the Doctor and the Great Intelligence (voiced by Sir Ian McKellen), the non-corporeal entity in the giant snow globe that is pulling Simeon’s strings – have met before. Twice in fact, during the fifth season (1967/68), with Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor encountering it and its mechanical Yeti minions first in the Himalayas (The Abominable Snowmen) and then, closer to home, using the London Underground as a point of attack (The Web of Fear). Hence the relevance of utilising snowmen here and also the 1967 London Underground biscuit tin in which the Doctor carries the Memory Worm. (Although The Web of Fear was broadcast in 1968, not 1967.)

Speaking of the Memory Worm, wouldn’t it be easier if the Doctor carried a stash of Torchwood‘s retcon drug around with him?

I’ve mentioned the parallel with Mary Poppins‘ smoke staircase in passing already. But the use of an umbrella to help Clara access the staircase to the TARDIS is also a clear reference to the film as is, of course, the fact that Poppins was also a governess. (Thankfully there was no hint of Walking in the Air from The Snowman.)

And finally, had Simeon been watching a Victorian version of Game of Thrones? “Winter is coming” indeed!

Likes and dislikes

On the whole I did find more to like in this episode than I did to dislike, although I’m perhaps more willing than many to allow myself a different (and lower) set of expectations for Christmas specials compared to regular episodes. It was a bit like a Christmas pudding, in fact: too rich in places but fine when viewed in the context of the festive season.

My biggest issues with The Snowmen are, well, the beginning, middle and end. I’m unconvinced by the restyled opening credits and theme music, which just seem a bit too frantic and busy – although I did love the brief image of Smith’s Doctor near the end, reminiscent of classic Who title sequences of the past. Overall, like last year’s special, after a promising set-up the middle part of the story sagged badly and felt poorly paced and lacking in genuine threat, with jokes crammed in at the expense of actual plot. And the ending, as the dying Clara’s salty tears wash away the snowmen and stop the Great Intelligence from freezing the Doctor, felt hurried and lacking in any real logic – it was pure deus ex machina.

Some of the things I liked:

  • Snow has always been a key feature of Who Christmas specials, so its use as the source material for this year’s villains was a nice subversion.
  • The Doctor’s new outfit – equal parts The Cat in the Hat and Willy Wonka, I thought. It suits the lanky Smith perfectly.
  • Strax as comic relief. I’ve always found it slightly difficult to take the Sontarans seriously as villians, so for Strax – the “psychotic potato dwarf” – to serve as the butt of most of the Doctor’s jokes worked for me.
  • Vastra as Conan Doyle’s model for Sherlock Holmes. It is a funny conceit – and Sherlock is, of course, Moffat’s other hit show – albeit one laid on a bit too thickly.
  • The Doctor posing (badly) as Holmes: “Do you have a goldfish named Colin?”
  • The sonic screwdriver has a new setting: anti-freeze. Heh.
  • Vastra: “Good evening. I’m a lizard woman from the dawn of time and this is my wife.”
  • The Doctor to Clara as she steps into the TARDIS: “Go on, say it. Most people do.” Clara: “It’s smaller on the outside.” Genius.

So now we have a genuine mystery to propel us into the second half of season seven. What is the connection between the two versions of Clara Oswin Oswald the Doctor has previously met and the third one we know from the concluding trailer exists in (presumably) the present day? And how is it possible for her to have died twice in two separate times and places? We will have to wait until April to find out.

Rating: 8/10

Links:

BBC Doctor Who website

2010 Christmas special: A Christmas Carol

2011 Christmas special: The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe

7.1 Asylum of the Daleks

7.2 Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

7.3 A Town Called Mercy

7.4 The Power of Three

7.5 The Angels Take Manhattan

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15 thoughts on “Doctor Who Christmas special: The Snowmen

  1. Happy Christmas, Tim,

    I thought He Snowmen just about worked, but more for fanboys than casual viewers. I squealed with joy at the reference to the Great Intelligence and Web of Fear and I’m intrigued about Clara. I agree that the Snowmen themselves were under used, but Sir Ian McKellan, what a bonus. I also thought Richard E Grant was brilliant.

    I have no doubt this will split fandom, but for me this was the best Christmas Special yet.

    • Merry Christmas, Mark. Interesting to note that the reception on the forums among the fans has been largely extremely positive, so you may well be right. As is often the way, this Christmas special does indeed seems to have polarised opinion – people either loved it or hated it.

      I think this ranks third on my list of Who Xmas specials behind The Christmas Invasion and A Christmas Carol but so far ahead of Voyage of the Damned and The Next Doctor that they are barely visible on the horizon.

  2. Pingback: Doctor Who: The Snowmen (2012) | An American View of British Science Fiction

  3. I haven’t watched Doctor Who for several series now, I’m not really sure why I stopped, I think the timing didn’t work out for one series and then I never went back to it. I don’t really like sci-fi, so it’s a programme that I always think I won’t like, but then when I watch it, I remember that I do! Anyway, we did watch it last night and I did really like it, and that was with only really half-watching it because of interactions with my kids and their new stuff. It did its job for someone like me who hasn’t watched it for a while, i.e. it worked as a standalone but also enticed me enough to make me want to start watching the series again when it starts. Funny though, I hadn’t twigged the big nod to Mary Poppins, it’s so obvious now you’ve pointed it out, but at the time I just thought of Jack and the Beanstalk! I didn’t even realise Steven Moffat had written this one until you said, I’ve been a big fan of his ever since Press Gang.

    • Interesting to get your view as a lapsed/occasional viewer, Vanessa. Sounds like the episode did its job for you!

      Moffat’s been the show-runner on Who for the last three years now and has written each of the last three Xmas specials. I never watched Press Gang but I adored Coupling, one of the hidden gems of British comedy.

      • YES Coupling! Loved it! Also, don’t know if you watched the other sitcom he wrote much earlier, in the early nineties, ‘Joking Apart’, but I loved that too. Press Gang was great, obviously it was aimed at teenagers, but it could certainly be appreciated by adults. At first it was fairly ‘safe’ but as it developed over the several series, it became much cleverer, there were touches of sci-fi and things brought in; some episodes left me saying “Wow!” It was a great launch pad not only for him as the writer, but for several of the actors in it. I’d like to watch it all again now actually! I wonder if it’s available…

  4. Good review, Tim. I’ve only seen Poppins once so forgot the staircase! I don’t like Moffat’s arcs as he’s rubbish at resolving them but Clara was fun and the two, as you wrote, have bags of chemistry. I do get bored of th endless snogging and flirting they must all have – Sarah Jane and Jo Grant were great without wanting to shag the Doctor! As you say, this was much better than some Crimbo ones.

    • For me, Moffat’s better at both setting up and resolving his own arcs than RTD ever was – set-up too loose, too much dependence on deus ex machina resolutions – but he does suffer from making his plots so convoluted to keep fans guessing that they can never be fully explained in three hours, let alone one. I know there’s a sense of ennui that the Doctor has – yet again – been given a spunky female sidekick but Clara (like Amy) comes with a mystery attached, so I’m not unhappy with that.

      Of course, we now know that the perfect companion would be Strax, but I fear that this would never work for practical reasons – having an alien character with heavy prosthetics works for an episode here and there, but the strains this would place on a shooting schedule if this was a regular companion who needs to appear in most scenes in every episode would, I suspect, be just too much.

  5. Didn’t work for me at all, I’m afraid, Tim. I thought it was a hodge-podge of nice ideas rammed together without making any sense at all. The visuals were very pretty, and I enjoyed Strax a lot but as a whole it just didn’t hang together. I’m quite interested in the Clara-scattered-through-time mystery though and looking forward to seeing how that pans out – although it does seem suspiciously close to the Amy Pond mystery of her first season too….

    One thing I did wonder about (and which I have frankly never been able to get my head around): where are we in the timeline of the Doctor’s marriage/relationship with River? The flirt/romance factor in his interaction with Clara this week was very high…

    • Ordinarily I’d be delighted to be able to type “I agree with CJ”, but here I’m so disappointed about not liking Doctor Who Christmas special that even The West Wing fanatic in me can’t overcome it.

      I liked a lot of what was stuffed into the episode (Clara, Strax, the humour, the beautiful design of things like the staircase), but overall thought the episode was bloated with too many villains (snowmen, frozen governesses, Richard E. Grant AND Gandalf stuck in a snowglobe), too many references and too many companions and all glued together with a pretty nonsensical story. I was really disappointed.

      • I know what you mean. I’d have been disappointed if this had been a ‘regular’ episode, but as a special I’m prepared to cut it some seasonal slack, as this effectively acted as both a Christmas romp for casual viewers and a prequel for the rest of season 7. There were way too many clever ideas jammed in for the story to stay coherent, but a lot of what was in there I thought was quite fun. Reaction online seems to be even more polarised than normal – some love, some hate, not much in between!

    • I’m not wildly in disagreement with you, CJ, but perhaps just a bit more tolerant of the unique demands of a Xmas special than many fans online seem to be. Hopefully the Clara mystery will be different enough to the Amy mystery not to feel like repetition.

      As far as the Doctor and River are concerned, we’re now outside the bounds, aren’t we? The Doctor has been present at both the beginning and end of her life and various points in the middle of it, such as their ‘wedding’, so as far as his own timeline is concerned he’s been both married and widowed – just in the wrong order. I’m guessing his Facebook status no longer says ‘in a relationship’. Oh, sod it, my head hurts now.

      • Mine too! Your take on the relationship status seems completely right, Tim, but I think my poor brain is only wired to cope with linear time – it can’t seem to absorb this time travelling in opposite directions business no matter how hard I try :-(

  6. Yes, I loved this episode – especially the way they introduced a new long-term companion in the context of a Christmas special, which I don’t think they’ve done in the new series. (Donna Noble is a special case – they didn’t know she’d be coming back when they wrote “Runaway Bride”, did they?)

    • It was certainly an intriguing (re-)introduction to Clara, although putting the development of this new Doctor/companion relationship did come at the detriment of the story. Still, it was a fun enough romp and it does leave me feeling excited for the rest of season 7.

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