The following review of The Snowmen contains spoilers. Please avoid reading if you haven’t seen the episode and do not wish to find out any details.
Some episodes are anticipated more than others. What with the current scheduling befuddlement, the presence of a new companion, a Christmas episode AND a new TARDIS interior are brought into the mix – not to mention THAT spoiler, and the new opening titles – then it is fair to say that The Snowmen is arguably the most anticipated episode of Doctor Who since The Eleventh Hour, and is one that represents a similar new start.
This isn’t to say the episode is perfect, but for presenting a really engaging new relationship for the Doctor, estranged from heroic deeds in order to wallow in the loss of Amy and Rory, it is most probably the best of the Christmas episodes, in my opinion pipping A Christmas Carol, The End of Time, Part One and The Christmas Invasion.
Anyone who has been reading Kasterborous for a while will know that there are certain things I demand from Doctor Who episodes. Scares, good monsters, compelling villains, pretty girls, interesting cohorts and an ingenious solution should all be important elements of the story. It’s arguable whether these are all present and correct in The Snowmen, but you certain feel as though Steven Moffat and director Saul Metzstein were on the same page, creating between them a watchable, entertaining and most importantly memorable Christmas treat that relies less on yuletide cheer and more on that most rare of things – a white Christmas.
The Snowmen also earns bonus points for not only casting two of my favourite actors (Richard E. Grant and Sir Ian McKellen) not only giving Life on Mars‘ Liz White plenty to do with not much dialogue (in the shape of Captain Latimer’s maid, Alice) but also introducing what is probably the most visually impressive opening titles the show has seen, a clever blending of old and new. Similarly, the new theme tune arrangement strays into retro territory, but given that we’re on the eve of Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary, this should come as no surprise – indeed, it’s a thrill to behold!
But what is most enjoyable about this episode – which I think it probably the finest meshing of classic and nuWho since Utopia – is the Doctor’s apparent amnesia. We’ll get to that later, however – first, the new star…
Ever since her unveiling earlier this year I’ve been anticipating the new character. Jenna-Louise Coleman’s initial appearance as Oswin in Asylum of the Daleks was of course a massive curveball, one that proved a massive surprise for fans while also giving us a slightly different angle on the character. This time around she’s both a “common” barmaid (in the “Rose and Crown”, timey-wimey-in-joke trivia fans) and governess for the two children of Captain Latimer, taking on a completely different accent and demeanour (although teasing her charges with a “secret voice”) following the sad drowning in a frozen pond (yes, significant once again) of the former governess the previous year. Strangely the pond has remained frozen all year round, as if someone wants to keep the old governess encased in ice.
[pullquote align=right]Has the Doctor’s deletion of his reputation (The Wedding of River Song and Asylum of the Daleks) been so powerful that he has forgotten his own past?[/pullquote]Despite denials that the Asylum Oswin and Clara were linked, it’s quite clear now that there is a connection of some sort, the “soft mystery” that will unfold over the coming episodes (when they arrive in the Spring). At this stage, of course, we know very little about either version, other than the name of the Victorian-era girl is Clara Oswin Oswald, that she has some resentment for the male dominated society of the time and that both incarnations have a thing for souffles.
Oh, and they’re both now dead.
To find the new companion dying again has echoes of Rory Williams about it, but there is something quite different in the tone of The Snowmen and the characterization of Clara that this turn of events not only came as a massive surprise but also didn’t feel like a retread. There is clearly something big going on with this girl – we just hope there is more to her than dying – she’s got the potential to be something a big more than the typical wise-cracking “sassy” lady that we’ve seen before (Sally Sparrow, River Song, Amy Pond, etc.)
Whether this is down to the actress or the writing of Steven Moffat is another matter. Clara’s response to being introduced to the TARDIS was perhaps the last element of comedy in the episode which started with a gloomy outlook and got progressively darker as it went on. The new interior to the time machine is, however, worthy of an article all of its own. Definitely smaller than the previous coral/junk shop versions, the new look for the Doctor’s home is suitably alien, futuristic and highly appropriate for the series’ 50th anniversary year. Apparently the smaller size is a consequence of moving to the new BBC studio in South Wales; while there have been some complaints from fans that the inside of the TARDIS has “shrunk”, were the previous two sets ever really used to their full potential? Other than Journey’s End, I don’t think so.
Like the 2008 series finale the Doctor has amassed a gang of companions in The Snowmen, but for very different reasons. Rather than protect the Doctor, his small team of friends are protecting his privacy, having consigned himself to parking the TARDIS on a cloud and generally sulking over the loss of the Ponds.
Bringing the Silurian/maid/Sontaran trio of Vastra, Jenny and Strax back together, the 2012 Christmas episode cashes in on the love for the reborn Sontaran Strax which followed his appearance in A Good Man Goes To War and builds on it, providing several standout comedy moments – most notably between the cloned warrior, the Doctor and a memory worm. It’s worth also mentioning that Vastra and Jenny seem more of a defined duo in The Snowmen, their roles more clearly defined (in several senses, if you catch my drift) and Neve McIntosh is particularly good. On her first appearance of Vastra she seemed a little too close to The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood‘s twin role of Alaya and Restac, but this time around she’s more dignified in the role of Scotland Yard’s secret weapon, a character that Steven Moffat self-indulgently claims in the script is the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes…
You only need to look at the Vastra/Jenny/Clara scene to see how much this dynamic duo has developed, or their confrontation with Doctor Simeon. Fuelled by disdain and a million miles from Withnail, Richard E. Grant was perfect as the human villain of The Snowmen, making a welcome first full appearance in Doctor Who almost ten years after his turn as the original Ninth Doctor (Scream of the Shalka). I’ve long been an admirer of Grant, and so was thrilled when he was cast. He’s got good form for playing bad guys (Grant played a villain in the Bruce Willis disaster Hudson Hawk, a film so over-blown and over-budget that delays in shooting meant that he had to drop out of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, thus launching the equally awesome Alan Rickman to stardom) but I think he’s possibly topped his previous villainous roles here, playing what turns out to be a misguided idiot (despite his title), driven by the power of the Great Intelligence.
Ah yes, the Great Intelligence, one of Doctor Who‘s most memorable classic era monsters that has managed never to return. The true force behind the Yeti in The Abominable Snowman, The Web of Fear and the spinoff video Downtime, the Great Intelligence – voiced by the incomparable Sir Ian McKellen – is a surprise addition to The Snowmen, one that is hinted to throughout with the repeated “GI” emblem representing the “The Great Intelligence Institute”. But while McKellen uses that wonderful, evocative voice bringing evil, monstrous life to what is little more than a bingo machine filled with fake snow, you might be distracted into thinking that The Snowmen is little more than a cleverly conceived prequel to the two Second Doctor stories featuring Yeti.
After all, the Doctor wields a London Underground jigsaw box, into which he places the frozen DNA of the Latimer family’s former governess. But this seems to be nothing more than coincidence. At no point does the Doctor realise that he’s up against a former foe, but after the enemy is defeated by tears for Clara’s imminent death, the Time Lord still doesn’t seem to get it. This provides a fascinating ending to a fun, dark and chilling episode, one that was suitably scary for younger viewers (although if you’re middle aged it might not have set your heart racing).
We all know that the Doctor has hundreds of years of adventures across time and space. But how could he forget the Yetis in the Himalayas or on the Underground (particularly when they are referenced in this very episode?). “The Great Intelligence Institute” rings a bell with the Time Lord, but he fails to explicitly recognize that he is up against an old enemy from the 1960s.
Why is this? Has the Doctor’s deletion of his reputation (The Wedding of River Song and Asylum of the Daleks) been so powerful that he has forgotten his own past?
It’s an interesting prospect, one that will no doubt be returned to at some point, whatever the story. But the rest of Series 7 is surely going to be about Clara Oswin Oswald and the mystery of the “twice-dead woman”…