Thursday, 27 December 2012

DOCTOR WHO – 'The Snowmen'

Thursday, 27 December 2012

written by Steven Moffat / directed by Saul Metzstein

The Christmas specials of Doctor Who have a unique potential to make fans of those who don't give the show a moment's thought during the year, as most British households containing Whovians will force their entire families to watch this seasonal episode. The eighth such festive special since Who's revival, "The Snowmen" was easily its best. There are various reasons for this, but it probably helped that the Christmas schmaltz was kept to a minimum (it was more of a winter-themed episode than anything trying to get us drunk on holiday spirit), and writer Steven Moffat tends to be at his best when an episode has a clear goal and intention. Here it was the introduction of a brand new companion in sassy barmaid/governess Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), whose first encounter with The Doctor (Matt Smith) echoed that of any newcomers to the series...

I was surprised and delighted by this episode. Everything about it just seemed to click with me; from the creepy teaser set in 1842, where an orphan boy's snowman starts talking to him (voiced by Lord of the Rings' Sir Ian McKellen), right through to the exciting climactic set-piece with a mansion besieged by vicious snowmen while the inhabitants try to avoid an icy corpse repeating Mr Punch's catchphrase. It was slick, fun, stylish and never anything less than supremely enjoyable. These seasonal specials tend to be at their best when they're set in a Dickensian Christmas (Moffat clearly agrees because both of his have been set there), but this time there was real substance to the postcard visuals. The whole concept really worked, as London was blanketed in "alien snow" that has seized the mind of the saturnine Dr Simeon (Richard E. Grant) and plans to take-over the entire world once it achieved a longer lasting form. Grant's had a connection to Who for quite some time now (often linked to the eponymous role), and he brought a great deal of skill to the villain. His unwavering expression of scorn was a delight, and it felt great to have a bad guy who didn't succumb to cheesiness in the writing. Dr Simeon was consistently focused and emotionless; the perfect foil to The Doctor's exuberance and bounciness. The scene where The Doctor gained access to Simeon's laboratory, posing as Sherlock Holmes (a very funny wink to the audience given Moffat's connection to the BBC's Sherlock, and fan's desire to see Benedict Cumberbatch's sleuth on-screen with Smith's Time Lord), was particularly good because of Grant's seething resentment of this silly interloper.

Of course, the most notable aspect of "The Snowmen" was the introduction of Clara as the next companion—which itself contained many surprises and brilliant moments. Any fears about the difficulty of replacing Amy and Rory evaporated astonishingly quickly, because Coleman was incredibly charming and engaging as a screen presence. The twist that she isn't really an East End barmaid but instead a posh governess didn't quite add up to me (maybe I missed something the first time?), but otherwise the character was a winner from the second she appeared. Sexy, curious, tough, courageous, clever, voluble... she felt like more of an equal to The Doctor than all previous nu-Who companions. Amy was always in awe of The Doctor (her childhood hero), and then given storylines where she was usually a plot-device of some description. Hopefully Coleman's character won't be eroded over time (remembering that Amy's own introduction was brilliant), because she has obvious potential to be the best companion yet.

And what about that twist? I don't think would have predicted Clara dying after being given the key to the TARDIS by The Doctor (who was just as beguiled by Clara as the audience at home), despite the fact we'd been given a clear sign that there's jiggery-pokery at work because Clara's doppelganger Oswin Oswald appeared in "Asylum of the Daleks". It seems that the remainder of series 7 will involve The Doctor trying to crack the mystery of the Oswald's—a companion who appears to be resurrected throughout time. Is it worth predicting what's going on exactly, though? If there's one thing we've learned with Moffat's work it's that the explanation will be very convoluted. I'm just wondering how it's going to work exactly: will The Doctor catch-up with the present-day Clara, glimpsed in the denouement, and make her his companion? Will that Clara remember the events of "The Snowmen"? How many times will these Clara's die and be reborn in another time and place? I have some reservations about the idea, but trust Moffat enough to watch the mystery unfold next year.

I'm genuinely struggling to pick at something that didn't work about "The Snowmen", but I thought it all hung together very well. It was great to see The Doctor in Victorian clobber; there was a beautiful moment with Clara discovering the TARDIS by following The Doctor up a retractable ladder to a spiral staircase leading to a cloud; the idea of returning to The Doctor's "gang" from "A Good Man Goes to War"—Sontaran manservant Strax (Dan Starkey) and lesbian detectives Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and Jenny (Catrin Stewart)—worked surprisingly well and didn't clog things up; it was one of the funniest episodes I've seen in a while (the worm that kept erasing Strax's memories, Clara's "it's smaller on the outside" comment about the TARDIS); it had its scary moments (the fanged snowmen and Ice Governess); moments of typical Moffat cleverness (rainy tears to melt the snow menaces); and we even had two extra treats of a brand new opening theme tune and titles (loved seeing Smith's face appear in the stars like old-school Who), and an updated TARDIS console room (smaller and cleaner with a classic feel).

Overall, "The Snowmen" was a very impressive episode on its own terms, but a particularly good Christmas special. It may have included elements that perhaps confused non-fans, but the core idea and motivations were clear and Moffat's sense of pace and effervescent imagination was firing on all cylinders. I just can't imagine anyone not being excited by the prospects of series 7's continuation next spring, or for how Steven Moffat's going to celebrate Doctor Who's 50th anniversary the same year. And Matt Smith... well, what can you say? Over three series he inhabits the role like a pair of gloves and commands your attention whenever he's around. We'll miss him when he's gone.

25 December 2012 / BBC1