Yesterday was Christmas Day! Which may have some connotations of presents and trees and turkey, as everyone forgets the original Christian and Druid roots, but for me the most significant connotation in the last couples of years, as I’ve grown increasingly tired of the same routine, is a new episode of my favourite television show.
Generally, Christmas episodes of Doctor Who are never anything special. They’re usually a bit of fun, a bit silly and aimed to please children. Which is fine – it fits with the ‘tone’ of Christmas, whatever that is once it’s done with the commercialism conveyer belt – but isn’t a style which particularly appeals to me. I’ve also become disillusioned with the Steven Moffat, the head writer, who although has written some fantastic episodes in the past (The Empty Child, Silence in the Library and The Pandorica Opens, for example), many have been pretty poor, particularly last year’s Christmas special, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe. And then some episodes which are generally good tend to be riddled with plot holes, where he seems to have simply decided he doesn’t want to let logic get in the way of telling a story. It’s a successful attitude so I can’t criticise it, but once again doesn’t work well for me.
These factors coupled with my recent lack of interest in television and film making resulted in a lack of anticipation for this episode. Which, in retrospect, was probably for the best. By no means was The Snowmen a bad episode – in fact I was pleasantly surprised – but nor was it perfect. The Christmas episode included a variety of presents for viewers: a new companion, a new TARDIS console design, and an updated theme tune and opening credits, all of which proved to work well.
Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara Oswald technically already made her first appearance in Asylum of the Daleks, and while impressing with her acting skills did not seem as developed a character as would be hoped. My overall impression of Clara was of yet another one-liner sprouting, overconfident character who wouldn’t be out of place in a sitcom; the kind of character Moffat frequently writes. Her appearance in The Snowmen has somewhat softened that opinion, though not entirely. She’s likeable, certainly, from both the writing and acting, and perfect companion material. It’s refreshing to see a companion who isn’t from contemporary Earth – twice, as the case may be. It looks like the Clara we’ll end up with will inevitably be from 21st century London, but the mystery adds a layer of intrigue nonetheless.
And what a mystery it is! I’m afraid I don’t have confidence that Moffat will absolutely resolve it – River Song’s resolution was badly handled, and I still haven’t forgiven him for abandoning the ‘who blew up the TARDIS?’ storyline – but I’m excited to see where it’ll go. Coleman is a welcome addition to the cast!
Acting was fantastic all round. Dan Starkey, Catrin Stewart and Neve McIntosh were great as Commander Strax, Jenny and Madame Vastra, respectively. Despite the fact they’re so obviously out of place in so many ways, the team fits in well with the Victorian setting and are all likeable, bringing something unique to the episode. Strax is hilarious as the show’s first ‘good’ Sontaran, suggesting grenades as the solution to every problem, although I wasn’t satisfied by the explanation of how he survived the events of A Good Man Goes To War: “He died helping a friend of mine, then another friend brought him back to life.” …If you say so, Doctor. Vastra has an interesting relationship with the Doctor, reprising an almost mentor-like role. Jenny, as a human, is unfortunately sidelined by her odder friends, but provides a necessary antithesis to the team.
Richard E. Grant was excellent as the main villain Dr Simeon, and Ian McKellan was of course a perfectly threatening voice for the Great Intelligence (who I only twigged towards the end would go on to orchestrate the events of The Web of Fear in 1967. If only that episode still existed…). The idea of snowmen had never inspired much confidence within me, and indeed were underused and flimsily explained. What was their main point? One moment they’re fearsome killers, the next they reflect thoughts; they lacked focus and explanation. In fact, I never really understood their plan, which proved to be a major detractor of the episode. To inhabit the world with living ice people, having scanned the previous governess? Okay… To colonise, to conquer, to exploit? It’s never said. Likewise, the resolution is equally shabby. I vaguely understood the concept of the snow mirroring the family’s tears, but didn’t quite get how. The Snowmen did truly become scary, however, as the Great Intelligence possessed Simeon. His face gradually frosting over was truly terrifying.
And finally, as ever, Matt Smith’s acting stole the show. His ‘shouty-wouty’ overly enthusiastic side is starting to grate ever so slightly in the same way that David Tennant’s did, but Smith is so versatile and the character given such well thought out dialogue that it’s not a massive problem for me. The Doctor’s isolation is an interesting concept, expanding on the Tenth Doctor’s decision to travel alone during the 2009 specials, though this is the first time he ever properly withdraws from his world-saving antics. I find it difficult to believe that the Doctor would ever truly stand back and let the Earth perish however, which is perhaps why he slips back so easily. Smith and Coleman, seen acting together for the first time, work well together. My only criticism – and it’s unfortunately quite a large one – is the rushed way the Doctor gave Clara a TARDIS key. Generally this is a significant moment of acceptance, the moment a character truly becomes a companion. The Doctor hardly knows Clara; his explanation is: “I never know why, I only know who…” which makes no sense whatsoever. It’s as if Moffat wanted her to have the key, for whatever reason, so shoehorned the moment in. It felt wrong and premature. I’ll happily take this back if it turns out there’s a hidden reason for doing so – the Doctor at this point had made the connection between Clara and ‘Soufflé Girl’ – but if this is a future plot point, it should clearly be so, rather than appearing as an irregularity.
The direction by Saul Metzstein matched that of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and A Town Called Mercy earlier this year. It was atmospheric and chilling (no pun intended). The shot following Clara in through the TARDIS doors, the interior expanding around her, was a particular standout. To my untrained eye, Doctor Who feels the most ‘expensive’ and ‘filmic’ I’ve ever seen it. The direction adds credence to Moffat’s ambition to have a shortened feature film every week. The new TARDIS is a nice design, though isn’t something I paid a lot of attention to. It feels much more alien now and less homely, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering the premise of the show is exploring worlds outside the TARDIS. That said, I’ve always enjoyed scenes within the TARDIS during classic episodes, particularly during the 1960s, so I feel some regret that we’re unlikely to see more of these. Both the opening titles and the updated music were improvements; the titles were a bit busy and, so I’m told, fairly amateur-looking, but give the episode a bombastic opening, and I appreciate having the episode open through the TARDIS doors. The music sees a return to the original Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainer, but still with elements of the version introduced in 2010, which suits the show better, in my opinion.
In conclusion, The Snowmen was a surprisingly good Christmas special for Doctor Who. There were inconsistencies in plot and character, but nothing large enough to ruin the episode.
Final Score: 8/10