Doctor Who: The Snowmen

Clara: "Run, you clever boy."

Christmas specials are unique. Companions are usually absent (or have diminished roles), the backdrops are as festive as blue baubles balanced on Blitzen's bottom, and the stories generally take place outside of the main season arc. This year, however, the story focused mainly on new companion Clara Oswin Oswald, a mystery which started back in 'Asylum of the Daleks', and apart from the obligatory snow, a whistled carol, and the odd killer snowman, the Christmas elements were oddly low key. The result? Best Christmas episode ever!

Christmas, 1892, sees the Doctor stewing in his own melancholia, alone, and living in self imposed cloud exile. He doesn't help people any more, so you just know it's going to take a Christmas miracle to shake him from his festive funk. Enter the ever resourceful, cheeky Cockney barmaid and part-time posh governess, Clara Oswald, decked out in full-on period costume, sporting magnificent hair, and proficient in two of television's favourite accents: Received Pronunciation and Mockney. All it takes to get the Doctor back in the game is the mention of the word "Pond" and the bow tie's back, he's snogging the face off his companion-to-be (whilst pretending not to love every minute of it), and bellowing out cataclysm-averting instructions to the rest of Team Who.

I was so happy to see Clara back, I completely forgot she's supposed to be dead. Until she died again. Just when we thought Rory was gone, Clara's back to continue the tradition of having a character who's perpetually kicking the bucket. If you don't love Clara by now, then you have no soul. The mystery surrounding who she is, and what's going on with her, looks set to give the second half of season seven some much needed inertia. I've been critical of the first half of the season's mostly stand-alone structure. There've been a few decent stories, but there hasn't been the same kind of complexity and invention the Moffat era has become famous (and infamous) for. Presumably the mystery surrounding Clara will to continue up until the show's 50th anniversary, which just so happens to fall on 23rd November, 2013... the exact same day and month Clara was born! Coincidence? I think not.

After 'Asylum of the Daleks', it was difficult to see how the Doctor could resurrect Clara. Now she's dead again, it's even harder to fathom -- but bring her back he must. The epilogue showed Clara alive in the present day and on earth. (“I don't believe in ghosts.”) She's already turning out to be more romantically forward than the Doctor's previous companion. It took Amy five episodes before she managed to stick the lips on the Doctor -- Clara managed it in two (and she didn't even have physical access to him in one.) She's more intellectually switched on, too. She already has a TARDIS key, after passing the Doctor's tests with ease, plus her chemistry with him is undeniable. Presumably she's neither a governess or a barmaid: so who is she? Just some stranded Junior Entertainment Manager from the starliner Alaska? Or was that just a front, too?

Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint being the inspiration for Conan Doyle's Holmes stories, and the Doctor trying to pass himself off as the famous detective, were nice tips of the hat to sister show, Sherlock. Under normal circumstances I'd have cringed at comedy sidekick, Strax, but in the context of tonight's episode, he worked perfectly. His desire to violently destroy everything was the perfect antidote to the occasionally sickly sentimentality. Let's face it, using the tears of a family crying on Christmas Eve to foil snowman Armageddon was a simply awful solution -- but Strax, Vastra and Jenny were ample compensation. Yes, the way they're portraying the Sontarans and Silurians these days does do an enormous disservice to their historic roots (particularly the former's extreme militaristic leanings), but, like I say, it's Christmas. Different rules apply. And now the Sarah Jane Adventures is over, those guys should totally have their own spin-off series. Assuming the BBC would go for a children's show about lesbian lizards and belligerent potato heads.

The story itself felt a little underdeveloped, and Richard E. Grant, usually the perfect choice for playing the dastardly villain, gave an oddly wooden master-class in the art of acting without moving your jaw. The return of the Great Intelligence after 45 years was perhaps more of a treat for Classic Who fans. Obviously, the Doctor couldn't completely vanquish the GI as it appears in both "The Abominable Snowman' and 'The Web of Fear' (stories which technically pre-date tonight's episode, despite following it chronologically.) But I'm loving the meld of old and new. The new retro intro, complete with old school Doctor's face overlay, was a nice touch, as was the re-jigged theme tune. And how proud did the Doctor look of his revamped TARDIS? The internet has been alight with people complaining about how plain it looks. I disagree. I think Moffat's doing a fine job of blurring the line between the old series and the new.

Apart from Grant (and the sadly underused Ian McKellan), I thought all of the main actors performed admirably. Jenna continues to impress as the enigmatic Clara, Smith was as solid as ever, and Stewart, McIntosh and Starkey did a satisfactory job with the material they were given. I'm definitely feeling more optimistic about the second half of the season now. Up until this point, it's felt a little like the specials of 2009: slightly disjointed, often throwaway, and ultimately uninspired. Now Clara's back and there's a mystery to be solved, the show feels as though it's found its feet again. How do I feel about Clara's obvious attraction to the Doctor? (Or at the very least his arse.) With Clara as a companion, I don't see how there can't be at least some sexual tension. The obvious obstacle to any ongoing Rose-like shenanigans is River; which isn't necessarily a problem as she's technically dead. The question is: how does the Doctor feel about Clara?

Bits and Pieces:

-- Way to milk the 'Doctor Who?' gag, guys. I fear this particularly comedy breast is now completely devoid of all sustenance.

-- Lovely single camera shot following the Doctor and Clara inside of the TARDIS. That's the first time we've seen that happen.

-- Some interesting puppet themes throughout, with the Doctor animating Punch, the frozen governess mirroring Punch, and the Great Intelligence eventually animating a swept clean Dr. Simeon. But who's pulling the Doctor's strings?

-- Richard E. Grant played the Doctor in the animated mini-series 'Scream of the Shalka'. Bizarrely, David Tennant had a small role as a caretaker. He was later cast as the tenth Doctor.

-- Nice inscription on Clara's grave: "Remember me, for we shall meet again". No shit, Sherlock.

-- Clara invented fish (because she dislikes swimming alone) and was born behind the clock face of Big Ben (accounting for her acute sense of time.) Hmmm... I can't help but feel there's going to be some truth to both of those stories.

-- Every time I heard the GI calling out 'danger, danger," all I could think of was Electric Six.

-- Winter is Coming! Thrones, yeah, Game of Thrones, yeah, Game of Thrones... and so on. (For those of you who know the song.)

Quotes:

Doctor: “What's your name?“
Clara: “Clara.”
Doctor: “Nice name. Clara. Definitely keep it.”

Strax: “Do not attempt to escape or you will be obliterated. May I take your coat?”

Doctor: “Bow ties are cool!”

Vastra: “Good evening. I am a lizard woman from the dawn of time, and this is my wife.”

Strax: “Sir! Please do not noogie me during combat prep.”

Doctor: “It's called the TARDIS. It can travel anywhere in time and space. And it's mine.”

Clara: “It's smaller on the outside.”
Doctor: “Okay, that's a first.”

Clara: “Is there a kitchen?”
Doctor: “Another first.”
Clara: “I don't know why I asked, it's just, I just like making souffl├ęs.”

Doctor: “I never know why. I only know who.”

Clara: “The green lady, she said you were the saviour of worlds once. Are you going to save this one?”
Doctor: “If I do, will you come away with me?”
Clara: “Yes!”
---
Also posted at The Time Meddler.

13 comments:

Patrick said...

Man, Matt Smith has all the luck. He got to run around space and time with a gorgeous and leggy Scottish ginger for two and a half years, and now he's got Jenna-Louise Coleman. Seriously, his life doth not suck. :)

I have mixed feelings about this episode. The actual story about the snowmen was actually pretty lame, and in that respect I'd definitely rank this episode lower than Matt's two previous Christmas outings(both of which were absolutely lovely). The supporting characters like Vastra & such were ok, but not really all that memorable to me. But what made this episode a winner, hands-down, was Jenna's performance and her chemistry with Matt. And of course the ongoing mystery of just who Clara Oswin Oswald is. Is she one person in multiple times? Reincarnation? Cloning? All I know is I can't wait to find out.

Jenna made a GREAT first impression in Asylum Of The Daleks, and she was every bit as good this time around. Some of the modern Doctor's companions could certainly match wills with him(Amy and Donna come to mind), but I don't think we've seen a companion yet who could actually out-banter him the way Clara/Oswin/whoeversheis does. Matt Smith is definitely my favorite of the modern Doctors, and as much as I enjoyed him & Karen Gillan together, I have a feeling Matt & Jenna are REALLY going to shine.

So, as a standalone Christmas episode I'd give this one a solid "meh". But when considered as part of the running continuity, especially the mystery of Clara, I was very impressed and cannot wait to see this story unfold.

Juliette said...

Hmm. Trouble with this is, it's all my least favourite things about Moffat who. I don't like having to remember details of old episodes in the middle of Christmas dinner, I want to know who this girl is already, the fairytale vibe is getting old and the nods to Sherlock and game of thrones just felt self satisfied. Basically, I prefer standalones, always have, that's why I like star trek so much!

I love Clara though. Coleman is great.

J.D. Balthazar said...

I love Clara already, and we haven't even met the real Clara yet. I loved Vestra this time and I hope we see her again soon. looking forward to the show's return whenever it is.

I wasn't fond of the snowman plot, but that wasn't as important as Clara's story.

The Dark Shape said...

I didn't like it as much as A Christmas Carol, but unlike Juliette, this is everything I love about Moffat who -- funny, a bit meloncholy, a wonderful fairy tale tone, and the hints of a larger mystery. Basically, I prefer arc episodes, always have!

JimGfromWI said...

I liked this special a lot more than last year, although not as much as the year before - the Christmas Carol one will be hard to top. A lot of fun - love Strax & Friends. I also liked the various callbacks to the original series - sometimes I think they don't do enough of that. This series has a long, rich history, and there's nothing wrong with pointing out stuff from the past, especially with the 50th anniversary looming, which I CANNOT wait for! Clara seems to be an interesting character, although the dying every episode has already gotten old - come on, we already did that with Rory! But I agree that the chemistry is unmistakable, and I'm very much looking forward to the rest of this season in March. Great review, Paul!

Mark Greig said...

Loved it. Jenna's arrival seems to have given this season the kick up the backside it needed. It hasn't been bad, just a little too run of the mill in places. Now, like the Doctor himself, there is a renewed drive and energy.

I liked how Moffat made this a prequel of sorts to a Second Doctor story. The production team's willingness to embrace the series' past lately has left me feeling extremely confident about the upcoming 50th Special. I always felt that Russell T. Davies, as much as he proclaimed to love it, was slightly embarrassed by the old series and didn't want to link back to it too much. Moffat doesn't have the problem and has been bring the classic and modern eras closer and closer together for the last few years.

We got a lovely new retro look TARDIS (which Moffat promises we'll see a lot more of later in the season) and the new title sequences is like a tributes to every era of the show from the technicolour of Jon Pertwee to the star fields of the 80s Doctor. Even the Doctor's new look is closer to the Victorian/Edwardian styles of the early Doctors while still retaining that ever so cool bow-tie.

Patrick said...

Couple of other quick observations. 1) LOVED the nod to Sherlock, I'm sure Moffat did it just to tweak the noses of people who were asking for a Who/Sherlock cross-over.
2) Where does one get an automated laser-monkey? The same store where you get mutated ill-tempered sea bass?

Ben said...

I really liked Clara and I'm interested to see more of her, but when she kissed the Doctor I was just like, "Again?" I have no problem with the Doctor having the occasional romance, but do we have to do this every time? I mean since the start of the new series, in the "not having sexual tension with the Doctor all the time" column, we've got Donna (mostly), and in the other column, literally every other companion and huge swaths of supporting cast. It's been done, and done, and done. Let's see some new dynamics. I'd like to see a companion other than a pretty young girl who is instantly hot for the Doctor more than once every ten years or so.

Still, I have high hopes--Clara's story seems interesting and she's a good character, aside from that one quibble. It's just that that one quibble gets increasingly annoying to me each time they go back to it without a break.

Charles said...

How sure are we that Clara was alive in the Dalek show? She was a Dalek; Daleks travel in time, so couldn't they have gotten her DNA and made a clone from this Clara in the 1800s?

OK, obviously not because we know she'll show up again, but that's because we saw the previews and read the stories, not from what we were shown.

So does anybody remember -- was their proof that she was one of the people who crash-landed on that planet in the Dalek show?

Josie Kafka said...

Fun fact: Georges Simeon was the creator of an iconic French detective, Jules Maigret. So the brief (Doctor) Sherlock Holmes vs. Dr. Simeon scene made me laugh. And then it made me look for the Agincourt allegory, because I have a funny brain that does odd things.

Wonderful review, Paul. I'm so happy you got me into Doctor Who.

Bert said...

Not sure they intended a nod to Maigret: The writer's name is Simenon, not Simeon.

Josie Kafka said...

Ah, thanks, Bert!

a.m. said...

Well, it's taken me 7 weeks but I've watched them all, read all of your great reviews, and finally caught up. It's been great getting to know this show with your help, Paul! I look forward to being able to watch along with all of you now:)