It's that time of year again! It's that magical tradition, started seven years ago by Russell T. Davies when the BBC, pleased as punch over the wild success of the first season of the Doctor Who revival, granted the producer a special Christmas episode for the series.
In general, these episodes have been shown outside of the regular seasons of the program. The story arcs have been dealt with, and the writers have a generally clean slate on which to work. Also, it's Christmas: these episodes tend to be looser, less serious and funnier than your average episode.
But that isn't to say that these have been throw-away episodes. Far from it. The fact that these episodes have been events lends them considerable weight. And showrunners Davies and Moffat have not missed an opportunity to make use of these episodes as important moments in the show's canon as the need arises. The first Christmas special, after all, was The Christmas Invasion -- the episode that picked up the pieces from Christopher Eccleston's sudden regeneration, and gave his successor David Tennant a big public platform on which to establish himself.
Then there was The End of Time two-parter. Of course the departure of David Tennant was an event, and the budget and prominence offered by not one but two Christmas specials was an appropriate way to send him off.
But The Snowmen marks a bit of a departure from previous Christmas episodes. As Moffat and the BBC shift Doctor Who's seasons from a spring start to an autumn start, the seventh season of the revival has been split in half, with the Christmas special plunked right in the middle of things. And while Moffat has backed off the big season-spanning arc this time around, there are things going on around The Snowmen that the episode is a part of. There are real developments here that were seeded before The Snowmen, and which now promise to pay off (maybe) once the show returns for the season's remaining eight episodes, come April.
Steven Moffat has taken criticism from some quarters (including here) about the dip in the quality of certain episodes when compared to his initial offerings to the series' canon. We criticize, even though we anticipated this would be so. After all, writing an episode or two for a season is one thing, acting as a showrunner is another matter entirely. Moffat has basically had to write or have a hand in writing all fourteen episodes each year. He can't be delivering his A-game each and every day. It's just not physically possible.
So, when an episode stands out, I suspect it shows that something within particularly excites Moffat. Asylum of the Daleks stood out among the first five episodes of the seventh season, and I think a lot of that had to do with the shocking appearance of Jenna Louise Coleman as Oswin. And The Snowmen stands out as well, I believe, for the very same reason. With the mysteriously resurrected companion back to haunt the Doctor, Moffat's got something clever cooking up, and he seems excited. The quality of the storytelling in The Snowmen shows this to be so, in my opinion.
A full spoiler review proceeds after the break.
Following the events of The Angels Take Manhattan the Doctor has gone off to -- well, there's no other word for it, and Oswin calls him on it -- sulk. He has retired to England in the late Victorian era, parked his TARDIS atop a cloud, put on dark period gear and gone skulking in the shadows.
He is watched over by the motley trio of Pasternoster Row -- the sexy, scaly Silurian Madame Vastra, her lovely wife Jenny Flint, and their manservant, Strax (somehow resurrected from the events of A Good Man Goes to War, who has embraced his role of footman as only a Sontaran can). These three solve crimes in their spare time and desperately need to be made into a spin-off series.
But this does raise questions: why did the Doctor retire here? Is it because of this trio? It would be a hefty coincidence if he picked this spot so near the time and place of three of his close Earthbound friends. I suspect if the Doctor had plunked himself down in 1970s England, the Brigadier would be holding watch. That tells you how important these three are.
Then there's the life that the trio of Pasternoster Row live. If the Doctor really wanted to retire, wouldn't he take the Professor Chronotis route, find a place where he could truly hide in plain sight (like, as a Cambridge professor) and wait out history? Vastra, Jenny and Strax appear to actively solve mysterious mysteries. Much as the Doctor might claim that he's out of the saving game, he's positioned himself where temptation knocks every fortnight.
But maybe the Doctor is subconsciously waiting for something to break him out of his funk. It seems he doesn't know his own mind. When Clara Oswin arrives to offer him a compelling mystery to solve, he dons his old bow-tie without even realizing it. His left hand doesn't know what his right hand is doing, and his right hand wants adventure!
And boy does he get it with Clara Oswin. First appearing as a serving woman at a modest London pub, it's later revealed that she's moonlighting, and she's really the governess of a Victorian manor, well loved by the two children, Digby and Francesca, and also by their father (though he's too proper and Victorian to come clean about his attraction).
This Clara Oswin Oswald has the same name as the Oswin we saw converted into a Dalek on the Daleks' asylum world. She has the same appearance, the same voice, and the same love of soufflés. She's also whip smart. When a mysterious snowman appears out of nowhere, she senses something's up and, when the Doctor wanders by, she knows that he's at or near the centre of things.
Furthermore, Oswin doesn't take 'no' for an answer. When the Doctor tries to brush her off, she follows him. She doesn't scream when Strax makes an appearance, and she stands around laughing (along with us) as the Doctor and Strax try to manhandle a memory worm to try and get Oswin out of their hair.
Jenna Louise Coulman nailed the part of Oswin back in Asylum of the Daleks, but until The Snowmen, she never got to act before Matt Smith face to face. With the two of them finally together in the flesh, the chemistry just roars. Coulman ably portrays Oswin as someone who sees the Doctor's silliness for what it is, and isn't afraid to point and laugh at it. At the same time, she also sees that the Doctor is someone who is at the centre of things, who can make things happen, and who can save the day.
It truly is a delight to see Coulman and Smith strike sparks off each other, and we can see the Doctor coming back into himself as Oswin lights up his world. So it is a doubly horrifying moment when Oswin's icy governess predecessor sneaks up behind and hauls Oswin away to her (second) death.
For, let us not forget, other things are happening in this story. Richard E. Grant's Dr. Simeon has spent the past fifty years talking to snowmen voiced by Sir Ian McKellen, and the insanity shows. And Moffat once again comes up with a conceptually frightening monster that matches the scare of the Angels and the Silence. I mean, snow with teeth? Snow that can read your thoughts and model itself after you?
The tie-in to the Great Intelligence and the two Yeti stories of the Patrick Troughton era of the program is nicely and subtly done, and it gives the monstrous threat an added dimension that pleases fans without alienating the younger audience. And while it is, I think, a departure from how the Great Intelligence operated in those two Troughton stories, it fits. This kind of retroactive continuity building is masterfully done, and it's a testament to Moffat that he does this, when only a fraction of the audience can really appreciate it.
Finally, there's the resolution. The use of the memory worm is nicely seeded, but still comes as a pleasant surprise. The Great Intelligence's final defeat is perhaps a little deus-ex-machina, but not offensively so. And the Doctor, who had hope given to him and yet ripped away, is given new hope. Clara repeats Oswin's very last words from Asylum of the Daleks, and the Doctor knows that something is up. How could Oswin die twice, centuries and parsecs apart? Who is she? And what is the universe playing at?
I have no clue. But I think Moffat has come upon something particularly clever. He's excited about this, and that has lent Asylum of the Daleks and The Snowmen an added spark. I'm pleased. I feel the show has a new spring to its step, and I'm looking forward to its return in April.
- I want to give a big shout-out to Greg Gick, here. I thought about him when Oswin saw the TARDIS for the first time, went outside to run around the perimeter, came back in and delivered an inversion on the traditional line. Back in my fanfic days, Chris Kocher and I edited Greg's story for Ninth Aspect, entitled Crescent, Cross, Star and Pentagram. In it, the new companion character Haleh Tabari has the same reaction, and says roughly the same thing: it's so much smaller on the outside. We scooped Moffat, seventeen years earlier.
- The Snowmen feels more like a premier than a mid-season event. The Doctor's new costume, the new console room and the new title sequence make the five episodes back in September feel like an appendix to season six. But I have to say that I liked them all. The Doctor's new costume hints at darker times ahead, as does the new console room. I especially loved the new title sequence. While it could ditch the extra sparkly tinkly bits to the music, the rest of it feels like a mash-up between Davison, Tom Baker and Pertwee's themes, and yet it's also its own.
- Soon after I learned some of the details of this story, I was swept up by an unfortunate comparison to South Park. "Oh my God!" I shouted. "They killed Oswin! You bastards!". Hopefully the show doesn't go there. But it is worth pointing out that Oswin now has a higher death-per-episode ratio than the Doctor, and far exceeds the next highest companion in this race, Rory.
- P.S. Note the date of Clara Oswin Oswald's birth: November 23, 1866.