There is an image in the latest Doctor Who Christmas Special, The Snowmen, that perfectly encapsulates the scope, magic, and wonder of this program. A scene which could have been plucked from one of my childhood dreams. A moment so quiet and so beautiful that it says everything without speaking a single word.
More on that later.
The Snowmen is an episode of pieces. Characters, motifs, elements, and moments that all serve as pieces to the puzzle of a story. I’m just not sure if they were pieces to the same story. There is a lot in the episode that I liked. Some of it I loved. There is also a great deal I did not like. Although it’s hard to say if I didn’t like them because I thought they were bad, or because I feel they don’t really fit with the other pieces.
I’ll start off by talking about things I enjoyed:
Matt Smith was brilliant. At this point it almost goes without saying that he is genius in the role. Easily one of the very best Doctors of all time. Probably the best since Tom Baker. His hunched over Scrooge performance during the first half of the episode was absolutely perfect. He looks like a Dickensian character come to life. You get the sensation that he is worn down by the weight of the universe. Smith was able to communicate everything with a certain setting of his jaw or twitch of his eyes. I have to be honest and tell you that he pulls it off far more effectively than David Tennant. Whenever Doctor 10 had to be morose it felt out of place. Like, “You were just running and skipping around two seconds ago. Why the long face all of a sudden?” With 11 you see the transition. A clear line of events has brought him to his dower state and you can still see elements of his funnier, crazy self bubbling through every now and then. Some of that comes from the writing and a lot comes from performance. It made his return to form by the end of the episode so much more thrilling because you watched him progress and change.
I am totally smitten with Lady Vastra, her wife Jenny, and their Sontaran named Strax. These three are complete gold. Three strong, clearly defined personalities working seamlessly together as an entertaining trio of Victorian sleuths. They need a frigging spin-off. I don’t care what it takes, this needs to happen. If Jack Harkness can get his own lame show (I have a whole article about Torchwood coming soon) why can’t these guys? I heard that Steven Moffat said he thought about it but decided against the idea because it would be too complicated to run three shows at once. Russell T Davies did it. So what’s the problem? Get a different show runner if you need to, just PLEASE make this a reality.
Within the context of this story they don’t serve a great purpose. They operate more as a catalyst for getting The Doctor more involved in the situation on Earth, while simultaneously assisting in his chosen isolation, than as part of the main plot. That is absolutely fine by me as long as they’re around.
The new opening credits were everything I wanted out of an opening. What a cool homage to the intros of the past. It’s big, bright, colorful, spacey, and there’s a quick formation of Matt’s face in some space clouds. New and classic Who united.
I also really like the new Tardis. It might be my new favorite since the Eighth Doctor’s in the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie with Paul Mcgann. Matt’s original interior was fun and whacky and cluttered with stuff and I liked that too. Sometimes though I felt it had a bit too much going on in it. There were moments when it was a little too hard to focus on the characters because of all the interesting knick knacks gleaming around them. This feels more like a space ship. It also blends in elements of the original Tardis which is a welcome addition. Anything which blends old and new, cementing cohesion, is fine by me.
Obviously the episode was meant to be the introduction of newest companion Clara Oswald. Companion episodes can be tough. We need time to establish a relationship with this new character invading a world we already know so well. Because of that, the topic of Clara will be my transition point into the things I didn’t enjoy so much.
When Jenna-Louise Coleman made her surprise appearance in Season 7’s premiere episode, Asylum of the Daleks, I had a sinking sense of dread. I didn’t like her. Not the actress. The character. She annoyed me. A lot. She was like River Song, but with a bit of The Doctor as well. Her cutesy, flirty, quirky attitude just didn’t work for me. Probably because we’ve seen that on the show already. So when her character (spoiler-but you shouldn’t be reading this if you haven’t seen Asylum of the Daleks yet anyway) dies at the end, I thought, “Oh, maybe she’ll be someone else. Or maybe a different version of the same character.” That put me a bit more at ease.
And I liked her in this. Well, until about 3/4 of the way through. She seemed genuinely in awe and fascinated by the mystery of The Doctor and the Tardis. Seeing her pursue The Doctor, and him failing to avoid her, was charming. You knew they were going to join up at some point but there was no real rush in getting there. We were able to reacquaint ourselves with The Doctor and the Whoniverse again.
Then she kissed him. That’s all right, kinda. The thrill of the adventure and all that. But after kissing him she changes. She turns into Souffle Girl. The flirting comes back with a vengeance. Rapid fire dialogue explodes from her mouth, supposedly to emphasize how she is capable of matching wits with The Doctor. I stopped caring about her.
Firstly, there’s no real lead up to her kissing him. It’s just become the standard that companions do that now. Secondly, why does almost every female character Moffat comes up with have to be so flirty all the time. Not only that, but the same kind of flirty. This cocky flirtation that felt perfect for River Song, was forced with Amy Pond, and tedious with Clara. I don’t mind a little flirtation, but it’s just so blatant. There’s an opportunity to create a new kind of character with a fresh personality. Instead resorting to a different premise for the origin of the character and the same personality we’ve seen before.
I know Steven stated he cast Jenna-Louise because she can deliver lines even faster than Matt. My problem with that is Matt spits out exposition so quickly and passionately that you need a second to go, “Hold up…What?” That’s partly what made the dynamic of Amy, Rory and The Doctor work. The Doctor unleashes techno babble, Rory says, “Huh?”, and Amy translates.
They balance it out. When you have two characters sounding like a VHS on fast-forward, there is no entry point for the audience. Again, it makes it hard to care. But, this is just her first episode, so I’ll reserve judgement. I’m only saying that in this particular story, that character trait didn’t work.
Carnivorous snowmen with white Jack-O-Lantern faces and sharp teeth is a simple and pretty cool image. Moffat is known for making the mundane terrifying. A small boy asking for his mummy. Angel statues that creep up when you aren’t looking. Practically invisible dust piranhas. Malicious Frostys fit right in with that tradition. If they were given more to do they easily could have been one of Doctor Who’s more memorable monsters. That’s the problem. Other than flashing their teeth, eating a random group of guys we know nothing about, and standing around, they don’t do anything.
On top of that you have a great actor like Richard E. Grant (who is no stranger to The Doctor. He played him in an animated adventure called Shalka) as the main villain, the bloke responsible for this growing army of snow people, and HE doesn’t do anything but stand around looking pissed off because kids used to make fun of him fifty years ago. He is a one dimensional villain who is completely wasted on an actor of Grant’s caliber.
The idea of a young kid being so scarred by bullies that he removes any human warmth he may have had and literally allying himself with people made of ice is a great concept. There is a lot layers on there that would be interesting to explore on its own. Hell, the whole concept of snow using the minds of humans to give itself life would be great in another story. Perhaps as a third or fourth adventure for Clara and The Doctor. In this story, all of that is pushed aside and almost completely absent. The baddies are only there to give people something to run away from. I have no problem with that. Except that it is distracting from what’s important, which is getting to know Clara.
One of my favorite companion episodes is Smith and Jones. It’s the first episode featuring Martha Jones. It takes the idea of putting characters in a situation where there is no escape and having to be smart to figure out a way to survive. The villain is just an alien that lives off blood. No other explanation is needed. By having such a simple villain and a simple (if extraordinary) situation that increasingly gets more complicated, you are free to see how The Doctor and Martha fit together.
I can’t help but think that if some stock villain were used here that the episode would have been more effective. Maybe a monster we’re already familiar with, like in The Next Doctor, or one with a clear goal. I liked the idea behind the Snowmen, I just felt that they would work better in another story.
Steven Moffat has been criticized as being too complicated with his scripts. I think that’s all Hogwash. (That’s right, Hogwash. I went there.) Doctor Who should be big and complicated. He runs around all of Space and Time, how could things ever be simple? I think that this story was one example of how he was needlessly complicated. Or the complexity was misplaced. Having the workings of the monsters be complicated yet underdeveloped made the whole thing uneven.
Almost all of this is acceptable because of that one scene I was talking about. Clara, in her pursuit of The Doctor, discovers a camouflaged ladder that leads into a sky. There she finds a winding and impossibly tall staircase which takes her to the top of a cloud. Sitting there, with wisps of clouds at its base, is the Tardis, now dirty from The Doctor’s neglect. Clara circles the blue box, her face a portrait of amazement, with all of space twinkling just above her head.
Nothing is said. Nothing has to be.
At least, not in words.
And that is magic.
I could tell you what it means to me, but I’d rather let it speak for itself. If you haven’t already, (and seriously, why haven’t you?) watch The Snowmen. It’s not perfect. But it’s all worth it to walk up those stairs and find that man who lives on a cloud.