The Snowmen

The SnowmenTARDISIt’s the third Doctor Who Christmas special I’ve reviewed (see here and here), and my favourite by a long way. I first saw it at BBC Television Centre in a very low-key, gather-around-the-telly screening for TV listings magazines at the end of November.

Sat beside me were Alison Graham and Patrick Mulkern from Radio Times. At the end, Alison turned to Patrick and said, “You’re going to have to explain all of that to me”. 

Nerd point – the version we saw didn’t have the new titles or music (in fact, I’m not sure we even knew they were in the works at that point). So I had to add in the bits that refer to them later on. Also, the ‘Sherlock’ sequence in the rough-cut actually played out to the Sherlock theme tune.

And so, from DWM #456…

DWM #456The Doctor Who Christmas episode has a difficult roundel to square.

This is the problem: The 25th is the programme’s biggest shop window of the year, so we have to see everything it’s got. However, it also needs to be a digestible treat for the millions grazing their way through Christmas Day telly. In the best possible way, Doctor Who must become another Strictly or Downton or Midwife. This isn’t the place to get into the complications of on-going storylines. (So you’d think.)

With that in mind, I reckon that when assessing how a festive story’s done on the naughty-to-nice scale, there’s a secret temptation to give it a bit of a bye. Almost as if it doesn’t really count. Skip A Christmas Carol or The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe (but, seriously, don’t) and you’re not going to have much of a problem getting up to speed with subsequent episodes.

That’s unequivocally not the case with The Snowmen which, let it be said, is the most successful Doctor Who Christmas episode yet. Actually, let’s not be shy – if tussled free of the festive wrapping, it stands up as one of the most successful episodes per se.

The wont of many a seasonal special is to give the characters a holiday from their usual business, but this one comes absolutely bundled up with Doctor Who admin. That might be part of the reason it works so well. There are old friends, crucial groundwork laid regarding Clara’s real identity (complete with callbacks to Asylum of the Daleks) and the brilliant reintroduction into the series of an old enemy, the Great Intelligence – which, slyly, returns in a story one ‘Abominable’ short of the villain’s debut tale in 1967.

In addition, The Snowmen represents an important turn in the show’s journey. It’s almost a full relaunch, getting it into the kind of shape that will take us up to the anniversary celebrations in November. New companion (kind of), new TARDIS, new costume, new titles, new music. New Doctor Who. More on those later. However, for all these reasons, this year’s holiday instalment is taking care of a lot of work, and thus feels utterly essential. What happens here matters.

The BBC press office has claimed that despite all of the above, viewers can still come to the story without any foreknowledge. That’s broadly true, but Steven Moffat nonetheless approaches this adventure with the self-confidence to assume everyone is roughly au fait with the main points: The Doctor’s lost his companions; he’s previously encountered another version of Clara; plus, that potato guy, lizard lady and – umm – other woman are characters we’ve met before. More than that, Moffat also assumes familiarity with his work elsewhere and flings in a tremendously cheeky Sherlock parody.

This is great fun, first with the assertion that “Doctor Doyle is most certainly basing his tales on [Vastra and Jenny’s] ‘fantastic’ exploits,” and then Moffat really going for it and laying out his thesis that the Time Lord – bedecked in deerstalker – would make a not-so-great detective. “Do you have a goldfish called Colin?” asks the Doctor, hopelessly trying to muster up some instantaneous, Cumberbatchian deductions.

(Wonder what old ‘Sixie’ Baker makes of his name being the go-to moniker for comedy animals…)

There are many stories being told in The Snowmen. One concerns Doctor Simian, played by Richard E Grant, revealed as a forlorn and pitiable character. Grant’s an actor who usually brings a sense of largesse to his performances, but in this story plays it more economically. His lines are remarkably few, and clipped and chilly. “I don’t see any food here,” cry his workforce. “I do”, he replies before feeding them to his monsters. Unlike most other foes, Simian never really gets into the business of trading quips with the Time Lord and consequently feels outside the normal hubbub of a Doctor Who story. It works tremendously well, particularly when we consider his initial depiction 50 years earlier as a friendless youngster, always on the outside. Now grown-up, his is an oddly lonely and therefore immutable evil.

Laying it on rather more thickly is Dan Starkey’s Strax. He’s both written and played with a palpable enthusiasm, and it’s great to see him back… however it was he managed to cheat death at Demon’s Run. Likewise long overdue returnees Vastra and Jenny, who feel so match-fit they must surely be the franchisees of their own long-running Victorian Doctor Who spin-off airing in a parallel not so far away. Their confidence is contagious, although I did feel the Silurian’s utterance upon arriving at Captain Latimer’s home was perhaps a little too pleased with itself: “Good evening. I’m a lizard woman from the dawn of time and this is my wife.” Try out your taglines in your own show, please.

All three come back to Doctor Who at a sprint, as does Jenna-Louise Coleman. The tale of Clara is the heart of this adventure. We worry about new companions, don’t we? Are they going to work out? Will we like them? We generally do, but that’s because they’re carefully tooled to fit the show. The creation, the casting: it’s been a long considered process in the hope the end result will please. Clara feels like a case in point. Moffat writes her almost as the über companion, and Jenna rises to that, seemingly effortlessly.

The point, early in the story, when she throws off her scarf and gives chase to the Doctor’s hansom cab is when she actually arrives. In the flash of that decision, she shows she’s got both the sense of adventure and humour required for the role. Yes, the new girl is going to work out fine.

Just in case, though, the script continues to reassure us. The morning after her meeting with the Time Lord, we see Clara awake, and then smile a huge smile. “I never know why,” says our hero later on, handing her a TARDIS key, “I only know who.” It all seems to make sense.

And yet – oh, I don’t know. Does it seem too prudish and too nerdy to wish that this time around the union could have been consummated without snogging? When I was eight, I always used to ask my mum to cue me back in whenever James Bond had stopped kissing the girl, so perhaps my relationship with Doctor Who echoes that, and it and I remain in an emotionally undeveloped place. However, with that caveat given, I want to carefully try and pick my way through this and hopefully not sound like some egregious super-fan threatening to yank the tape from his VHS of The TV Movie in protest at lips a-locking.

In one respect, I think I miss the charm and ambiguity of the “old alien and hot chick” (as Matt Smith himself has put it in recent interviews) bundling around together with no other remit than fun. It’s more screwball and interesting than flirting. Besides, flirting is what every other TV drama does. More than that, I can’t escape the conclusion that so many women characters in Doctor Who of late have been presented in this mode. Sure, they’re strong, and witty and clever. But they’re also attractive and sexually assertive, taking the initiative and throwing themselves at this romantically backward, super-geeky time traveller. Is it all, secretly, an exercise in wish-fulfilment?

I’ll let that thought hang, and leave you to decide if I’m being too buttoned up about the whole thing. But with that mini-essay aside, the fact of the matter is, Clara proves a huge success in this, her first ‘real’ adventure.

Oh, but then she’s dead.

This is an odd game Doctor Who’s playing with us. Twice, now, we’ve been duped into falling for Jenna’s character, only to have her taken from us (my fan gene throbbed at the birthdate on her gravestone: November 23, 1868). Is this just teasing, or is it getting testing? Will we withhold our affections third time around, in case she hurts us again? For what it’s worth, I don’t think we will. We’re starting to understand these rules, and it feels like, despite her fate, we have now properly ‘met’ Clara, and the next iteration of her character – who seems to be living in the present day, going by the glimpse we’re given – will essentially be the same person. Nonetheless, Moffat’s set himself a challenge, because when the following episode rolls around, we’re going to have sit through her first date with the Doctor again. And, I’m guessing, her first experience of his “smaller on the outside” time ship…

The revamped TARDIS interior has presumably been prompted more by the production move from the Upper Boat studios to Roath Lock than any real need to freshen up the visuals. Who cares, though, because it’s really something special. Production designer Michael Pickwoad’s take re-establishes the sense of opening a door into an enormous magical space which just shouldn’t be there (doesn’t the console look wonderfully lonely in the centre of the room?). That was something which never felt quite so obvious in the previous two versions, their grand fussiness and multi-levelled sets slightly obfuscating the reveal.

I love the comparative sleekness of what’s in there too, plus a terrific panel of very shiny lights, in a nod to 1960s futurism. Actually, the whole design, complete with a complicated ceiling fixture, feels like the thing that was buzzing around Peter Brachacki’s head back in ‘63, before budgets and deadlines grounded much of his ambition.

Not so sure about the Doctor’s new look, though. The hat’s a lot of fun, but everything else has a weird ‘cosplay’ feel, as if he’s a convention-goer dressed as a generic, frock-coated future incarnation of the Time Lord. Or maybe starring in a US remake of Doctor Who, where the tone meeting has offered up the keynote: ‘English gentleman’. The self-consciously urban leather jacket once worn by Christopher Eccleston is now defiantly consigned to a different era. One imagines it’s been repurposed as a dandy man-bag.

The titles, though? As far as I’m concerned, they’re a triumph. Yes, they mostly ditch the pleasing and somehow cosy claustrophobia of the time tunnel, but they’re fizzing with motion and incident, connoting a crazy kind of up-for-grabs universe. Plus, they seem to be paying homage to every prior title sequence, from the weird indistinct nebulas that evoke the original howl-around, to the tour around the galaxy that accompanied the Seventh Doctor’s stories, via the ‘classic’ series DVD releases and that final pass through the TARDIS doors into the story proper. Plus – yes! – the Doctor’s face is back!  Not so sure about the music, though, which to my ear has a tremulous quality and lacks a little in oomph. Maybe it’s a grower…

In previous years, Steven Moffat’s Christmas specials have been modelled on classic Yuletide texts. This time around the approach is more pick and mix. There’s a little Mary Poppins in there, particularly the point when Clara, in governess mode, ascends into the clouds via the TARDIS’ ladder. There’s also a vague kind of Dickensian feel by dint of the location, era and the grotesques populating the story. Plus a smattering of those MR James ghost stories, with the notion of a “cross” governess waiting under the ice for her moment to return from the dead. But mostly it’s all Doctor Who. Evil, snaggle-toothed snowmen popping up in snowdrifts, and snarling sentient snowflakes are indicative of the kind of twisted imagination that fuels this show at its very best.

As is the re-imagining of the Great Intelligence, which is now cast as some kind of reflection of the evil lurking in men. New Doctor Who has enjoyed several party pieces by invigorating old enemies, but this is one of the most surprising and fascinating treatments yet. It feels innovative for the show, a baddy that exists more as a concept than a mortal foe. And voiced – we should add reverentially – by Sir Ian McKellan. What a superb cameo and a testament to the programme’s continued pulling power. Whether he’ll return for further bouts of ADR, we’ll have to wait and see, but the way the ‘GI’ is seeded into this story makes me feel as though it’s going to become a renewed presence in Doctor Who.

That seems a very fine Christmas present to me. But, God bless Moffat, who at the eleventh hour presents one further stocking-filler. Like all the best gifts it’s very indulgent. I’m talking about the revelation that this whole hullabaloo is actually a prequel to 1968’s The Web of Fear. That this is an utterly spurious, unnecessary plot twist makes it all the more cherishable.

The Snowmen ends, much like A Good Man Goes to War, with the Doctor set on a new course, and keen to get going. While we at home returned to the fug of Christmas Day, he’s been there and done it, and put on a marvellous show to boot. For him, it’s all about a future that’s out there to be had. A big future. 2013.

Happy Who Year!


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