[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).
“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.
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.
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.
2010 Christmas special: A Christmas Carol
2011 Christmas special: The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe