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Doctor Who: The Snowmen (Review)

Snowmen are rubbish in July. You’ll have to be better than that.

– the Doctor points out that the Great Intelligent doesn’t seem especially… intelligent

The Snowmen is a return to the sort of plot-driven Christmas Special that we occasionally saw during the Davies era. Much like The Christmas Invasion was concerned with introducing David Tennant and The End of Time, Part I was focused on wrapping up the Davies era, The Snowmen feels like it’s more concerned with setting up the fiftieth anniversary half-season ahead than it is with being a Christmas Special in its own right.

Sure, The Snowmen has all the festive trappings you might expect. There are killer snowmen, as the title implies. There’s a rich lonely old miser, as we’ve come to expect in these sorts of tales. There’s a nice Victorian setting for all the action as well. However, The Snowmen devotes a considerable amount of time to developing the mystery surrounding the Doctor’s new companion, and setting up a recurring foe for this fiftieth anniversary half-season.

The result is somewhat unsatisfying, as if The Snowmen is working harder to check the requisite boxes than it is to provide seasonal Doctor Who viewing.

What white teeth they have...

What white teeth they have…

Maybe that’s not fair. There’s a lot to like here. The Victorian era just screams “Christmas”, if only because of the enduring popularity of A Christmas Carol. The BBC also does “period” a lot better than it does “science-fiction”, so the Doctor Who stories set in Earth’s past tend to look considerably better than those taking place in the distant future. The gulf isn’t quite as large as it was during the Tom Baker era, but it is still there.

More than that, though, The Snowmen manages to work in a lot of what one expects from a Christmas Special. Indeed, Moffat even writes the episode about killer snow, which is a nice twist on the Davies era fixation with snow at Christmas. There’s also some absolutely wonderful visuals, which continue Moffat’s trend of emphasising the show as more fantasy than science-fiction – not that the science was ever too hard. The idea of the Doctor living on a cloud floating over London is a wonderful visual, and perhaps the perfect expression of the show’s fantastical aesthetic – finding the amazing in the otherwise mundane.

Packs a punch...

Packs a punch…

Being a Moffat script, there’s also all manner of smart gags and jokes worked in. In particular, The Snowmen makes repeated reference to Sherlock Holmes, a reference that manages to make a polite nod towards Moffat’s other iconic television show (Sherlock), and also back to one of the more iconic adventures in the show’s history. The image of Matt Smith prancing around in a deerstalker and a cape – proceeding to get most of his major deductions wrong – is hard to resist, and demonstrates that The Snowmen is mostly good fun.

As ever, Matt Smith is great as the Doctor, even if we are venturing a bit into excessively emotional territory. The Snowmen feels like the show is drifting into the same sort of companion-related angst that was a fixture of the Davies era. The realities of modern television mean that the departure of a companion needs to be a more emotional affair than it would have been in the classic show, but there is a point where that emotional soul-searching becomes a bit excessive.

It's lonely at the top(hat)...

It’s lonely at the top(hat)…

After all, there will always be a healthy cast turnover in Doctor Who, and the show doesn’t need to spend too long wallowing in the loss of the previous companion. There’s something a bit uncomfortable with the idea that the loss of Amy and Rory may have forced the Doctor to retire, to give up saving the world. This is a character who kept travelling and helping after he destroyed his own planet. Amy and Rory may have felt like family, but it feels a bit overly melodramatic for the Doctor to become a miserly and lonely old man, even if it fits with the general “lonely Doctor” theme of Moffat’s Christmas Specials.

That said, The Snowmen suggests that perhaps the Doctor isn’t mourning the loss of Amy and Rory. It’s just logical to make that assumption, given the episode aired after The Angels Take Manhattan. It is equally possible that the Doctor is mourning River Song, given that she turns up dead in The Name of the Doctor to confirm that their personal timelines are pretty much in synch at this point.

A glass act...

A glass act…

River is never mentioned by name, in an episode that features a pub named “the Rose and the Crown” and a case that attracts the Doctor’s attention with “the Pond’s frozen over.” It’s interesting how River casts such a shadow over the Moffat era Christmas Specials, despite never actually appearing. A Christmas Carol made it clear that one day the Doctor and River would run out of days, and it seems like The Snowmen is the story about the day after that most unfortunate of days.

Still, all this feels a little bit excessive – as if the Doctor is a teenager sulking. To be fair, this is hardly out of character. It’s hard not to hear a hint of The Waters of Mars in the Doctor’s assertion that he might be “owed this one” by the universe. There’s something very petulant and stubborn in the character’s attempts to cut himself off from the world below, recalling River’s comments about how poorly the Doctor deals with endings.

Don't take him for Grant-ed...

Don’t take him for Grant-ed…

Naturally, the Doctor finds a companion who sparks his interest again. The Name of the Doctor reveals that Clara is – in a way – the most archetypal and classic of companions. So we get her playing the role of Rose here, helping a bitter Doctor come to terms with his loss and dragging him back into the world. Clara is, from the outset, defined as a character who fits the technical qualifications of a companion perfectly. She even gets to close out the teaser with a title drop. “It’s the same story every time,” Vastra tells us. “And it always begins with the same two words.”

This feels like an appropriate sentiment for an episode designed to kick off a fiftieth anniversary run of episodes, and The Snowmen is packed with references to the show’s history. Matt Smith’s face appears in the title credits, the first time an actor’s image has appeared in the title sequence since the show was resurrected. The episode also features the return of a classic bad guy, and a nice nod towards the recovery of The Web of Fear before the public even knew that it had been recovered.

Is the Doctor about to get iced?

Is the Doctor about to get iced?

Still, we get a sense of the problems with Clara as a character here. Clara is very much cast as the archetypal companion, but that means there’s relatively little room for her as a character in her own right. Jenna Louise Coleman does great work in the role, but Clara never seems like a well-developed character. There’s so much going on around her that he development is clumsily stuffed into episodes that barely have enough room to deal with their own material.

It’s also worth noting just how much of wasted opportunity Clara’s appearance in The Snowmen is. It is great to have a companion who isn’t from twentieth-first century Earth… except she might be. More than that, you lose a lot of the novelty of writing a Victorian era companion if you just write her like your stereotypical feisty female lead. We’re told that she is a barmaid who pretends to be upper class, but Clara is so confrontational and so expressive that it’s hard to imagine she is in any way a product of what the Doctor sarcastically dismisses as “Victorian values.”

On the cards...

On the cards…

“What’s wrong with Victorian values?” the villainous Simeon challenges the Doctor. It would be an interesting theme for the episode to explore – after all, there’s a tendency to romanticise the Victorian era, glossing over the realities of that particular time and place. It would be fascinating to juxtapose the fantasy with the reality. Instead, Simeon seems like the only Victorian character in the story. Clara shamelessly flirts, is boldly confrontational and seems to have absolutely no filter. Climbing up a ladder, she insists that the Doctor goes first. “Eyes front soldier,” she instructs. And then she adds, “Mine aren’t.”

It is great to have a liberated and sexually confident companion. That’s one of the great aspects of Moffat’s work with River Song; there really aren’t that many confident and strong female roles in that age bracket, and it’s nice to see Doctor Who breaking the norm. However, here, it feels a little pointless to give us a Victorian companion who really seems like she was transported from twenty-first century Earth. Of course, The Name of the Doctor reveals that she was… sort of… even it’s not entirely clear how much any given Clara is aware of her origins.

Snow escape...

Snow escape…

Then there’s the mystery. On the surface, the idea of a companion who is a mystery who turns out to be a person is a great concept. There are moments in the half-season where the idea comes close to working – when Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS calls the Doctor out for his unwillingness to see Clara as a person in her own right, for example. That said, the reveal that Clara was never a mystery and was always herself only really works if Clara is a strong character to begin with.

There’s still some nice stuff here. Moffat’s structural mirroring is as clever as ever. Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint serve as a demonstration of how a romantic pairing between Doctor and companion might work, a version of River Song and the Doctor that had a happy ending after all. “I resent your implication of impropriety,” Vastra comments to Simeon, after he makes a cryptic homophobic jibe. “We are married.”

Simeon's plan to construct the world's largest snow globe continues a pace...

Simeon’s plan to construct the world’s largest snow globe continues a pace…

It’s nice for Moffat to acknowledge that a stable and loving relationship can exist in circumstances not too dissimilar to the Doctor’s. It suggests the problem is his own, rather than merely situational. He can’t claim that his life doesn’t lend itself to long-term relationships, because we know a couple that have endured and survived similar pressures. (It’s also great to see the whole cast from A Good Man Goes to War scattered throughout the episode. Particular Strax. Who is awesome.)

Moffat also makes some effective parallels between the Doctor and Simeon. For one thing, Simeon is a doctor. And Richard E. Grant played the Doctor. However, Simeon’s miserly existence seems to mirror the Doctor’s enforced isolation. He’s an illustration of just how warped loneliness can cause a person to become. Given that the Moffat era Christmas Specials have been prone to dwell on just how much of a bad idea it is for the Doctor to hang out alone, giving us a bitter and lonely pseudo-doctor is a clever touch.

Did somebody call a Doctor?

Did somebody call a Doctor?

“He never talks to anyone,” Simeon’s mother observes. “He’s so alone. It’s not right. It’s not healthy.” Those lines could just as easily reflect Vastra’s concern for the Doctor. Even the Doctor reaches that conclusion towards the climax of the episode. “Snow doesn’t talk, does it?” the Doctor taunts. “It’s a mirror.” Ultimately, the monster of the episode is nothing more than Simeon’s inner darkness given literal form. As he explains, “You poured your darkest dreams into a snowman and look what it became.”

The Great Intelligence is portrayed as a decidedly predatory villain. The Moffat era seems fixated on monsters the prey on children, and the Great Intelligence is among the most cynical and exploitative of those. “It’s a parasite feeding on the loneliness of a child and the sickness of an old man,” the Doctor explains of the creature. However, there’s also some uncomfortable mirroring going on here as well. The Moffat’s Doctor is a character who tends to insert himself into the lives of young children and distort the paths they would take. He messed up Amy’s childhood and is directly responsible for what happened to River Song.

The bad doctor...

The bad doctor…

In a way, then, the Great Intelligence is the Doctor’s own monstrous fears reflected back at him. It’s a parasite that takes so much innocence from its victims in order to feed its own needs. It’s not too far from the criticisms made by the Dream Lord in Amy’s Choice. It’s a very clever aspect of the script, and The Bells of St. John reinforced the idea. There, the Great Intelligence has become such a vital part of Miss Kizlet’s life that she has nothing beyond him. “You’ve been whispering in my ear so long, I’m not sure I remember what I was before.”

For all the criticism that Moffat gets in writing the Doctor’s companions, it is worth noting that he has worked hard to give those characters lives outside of the Doctor. Amy and Rory found themselves struggling to choose between “real life and Doctor life” in The Power of Three. Clara does a lot better, managing to balance her adventures with the Doctor with the demands and obligations of her own life. Perhaps the Doctor is trying to course-correct so he doesn’t become the same sort of all-consuming monster as the Great Intelligence here.

Close companions...

Close companions…

In keeping with Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who as more of a fantasy than a science fiction adventure, it’s fitting that the eponymous ice creations are powered by imagination. According to Moffat’s take on the series, imagination is the most powerful force on the planet. “The more you think about the Snowmen, the more they appear,” he explains, and the only way to defeat the Snowmen is not to think of them.

Still, that becomes a little too much of a crutch when the script falls back on a variation of the ending we saw in The Doctor, the Widow & the Wardrobe. I understand what Moffat is going for, but the idea of a sad family at Christmas somehow being the answer to everything seems a little trite if you fall back on it more than once. The snowmen aren’t defeated by the Doctor’s quick-thinking, but by a family missing their governess. “The only force on Earth that could drown the snow,” the Doctor explains, “a whole family crying on Christmas Eve.”

It's Christmas Time(lord)...

It’s Christmas Time(lord)…

The Great Intelligence is a joy to see again, even if it would have been nice to see a yeti. Of course, a significant portion of The Snowmen is devoted to how incredibly crap the Great Intelligence is a villain – even the Doctor can’t seem to remember them, although that might be a shout-out to the fact that the episodes featuring the creature were missing from the archives. “Rings a bell,” he muses.

Still, it’s hard to be too concerned about the Great Intelligence. Even Jenny and Vastra have a bit of a laugh at the expense of the creature’s unambitious evil schemes. “Well, we can’t be in much danger from a disembodied Intelligence that thinks it can invade the world with snowmen,” Jenny observes. Vastra replies, “Or that the London Underground is a key strategic weakness.” This is a returning villain that isn’t treated with too much fanfare or affection.

The sound of the underground...

The sound of the underground…

It’s a nice in-joke, but Moffat goes out of his way to avoid making it an “event” in the same way that the return of the Silurians or even the Ice Warriors is an event. In fact, Moffat very clearly positions The Snowmen as the first Great Intelligence story, which manages to turn the Second Doctor’s encounters with them into a “timey wimey” thing, but also suggests that the most iconic appearance from the villain (in The Web of Fear) was an idea that it stole from the Doctor’s lunchbox. The decidedly Lovecraftian portrayal of the Great Intelligence in The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear was a lot more threatening.

Still, The Snowmen is very clearly intended as the lead-in to a bunch of episodes to mark the show’s fiftieth anniversary. There’s a nice celebratory atmosphere running through it, and a sense that Moffat is more concerned with setting up events to come than he is with telling a self-contained Christmas story.

He changed the desktop theme again...

He changed the desktop theme again…

“Now the dream outlives the dreamer and can never die,” the Great Intelligence boasts at the climax of the story. While the monster undoubtedly intended it as a threat, it’s quite a comforting thought for a show entering its fiftieth year.

You might be interested in our other reviews of this season’s episodes of Doctor Who:

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2 Responses

  1. I felt much the same. it did look much better than some other Xmas specials and went by agreeably enough. It does make you want to watch the coming series so job done.

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