Jenna-Louise Coleman, playing the Doctor’s new companion Clara, has certainly received the most protracted and complex introduction into the series of any regular cast member ever. She made a surprise appearance in the opening episode of this season, “Asylum of the Daleks”, portraying not Clara but a different character named Oswin Oswald, a crew member of a far-future spaceship who died after having been captured by the Daleks. This year’s Christmas special (like “Asylum,” written by showrunner Steven Moffat), was expected to be the episode that would see Clara introduced and begin her traveling with the Doctor. But Moffat, the master of unexpected plot twists, has faked us out again—apart from one brief glimpse, the Clara we see in this episode is not the companion-to-be. After the events of “The Snowmen,” while we can definitely welcome Jenna-Louise Coleman aboard Doctor Who, Clara remains, for both us and the Doctor, an enigma.
Coleman showed in “Asylum”—where she spent the whole story isolated from the rest of the cast - that she has a mesmerizing screen presence, even confined to sitting in a chair, communicating with other characters only over monitor screens. Given far more scope in this episode, she is even more impressive, right from Clara’s first appearance. A barmaid working in a London tavern of 1892, her attention is caught by an odd snowman that seems to have appeared instantaneously, just as her back was turned. The Doctor (Matt Smith), happening to pass by, takes a brief interest in the snowman, and there is an immediate spark between him and Clara. However, the Doctor has changed—he is no longer interested in solving mysteries, or in making new friends, and simply walks off. Intrigued, Clara impulsively pursues him, leaps onto his carriage, and an amusing shot of her upside-down face saying “Doctor who?” launches us into the titles.
The feeling of the show entering a new era is only increased by the unveiling of a new title sequence and theme music. During the five previous episodes, the production team experimented a little with the titles, fiddling with the colors and the texture of the logo, but now we have an entirely new sequence. On the whole I like the changes, particularly the toning down of the bombast of the previous titles—no thunderclaps or lightning flashes, and the blaring fanfares are also now not so prominent. The last part of the sequence (also utilized for the closing credits) is particularly effective, strongly evoking the vortex used in the title sequences of the 1970s. But the first half is a bit of a mess—it seems to be just a random assortment of images swirling around without much rhyme or reason. It is nice, though, to have a brief glimpse of the Doctor’s face in the titles for the first time since the show was brought back (something that was a fixture of the classic series for all the Doctors apart from the very first one). On the other hand, I could have done without the final gimmick, in which the TARDIS flies towards the camera and the doors open to reveal the opening shot of the first Act in exactly the same way the menus appear for the DVD releases of the classic series.
Later in the episode, we will discover that the interior of the TARDIS has also been completely revamped. Michael Pickwoad, the vastly talented production designer largely responsible for Doctor Who being one of the best-looking shows on television over the last two years, finally gets the chance to put his stamp on the show’s only standing set. In keeping with the changes in the Doctor’s character shown in this episode, the whimsy of the previous interior has been dialed back to something much more austere and streamlined. The feeling is once again of being at the control center of a machine, a vehicle, rather than entering a wizard’s home. The only part of the new interior I don’t like is the set of counter-rotating rings of lights at the top of the time rotor—an unnecessary embellishment that would be more at home on a game show. Hopefully, directors of future episodes will not feel the need to show these things spinning around madly every time the TARDIS takes off. Other than that minor complaint, though, I have nothing but praise for Saul Metzstein’s direction of this episode.
As I wrote in my piece on “Closing Time” last year, the idea of the Doctor going into retirement—becoming fed up with his unending life of travel, exploration and (usually) doing good deeds throughout the universe—dates back as far as Douglas Adams’ tenure as Doctor Who script editor in the late 1970s. Adams, advancing the idea in his characteristic comic manner, had the Doctor retiring more or less on a whim. Moffat, however, makes it a logical development of recent events. In the wake of the loss of his close friends Amy and Rory in “The Angels Take Manhattan”—a loss at least partly attributable to his inability to keep himself from dropping into their lives and dragging them into his adventures—it’s not at all surprising that the Doctor has become disillusioned and withdrawn. As he says, “Over a thousand years of saving the universe… Do you know the one thing I learned? The universe doesn’t care.”
It seems very appropriate that the Doctor creates a retreat for himself in the London of 1892. The Victorian era is a period that the show has always had an affinity for, with the classic series setting stories there several times—“The Evil of the Daleks” (1967), “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (1977), and “Ghost Light” (1989) are all high points in Doctor Who’s run. In 2005, Victorian-era Cardiff provided the backdrop for the revived series’ first historical episode, “The Unquiet Dead.” The period is also the source of a lot of our standard Christmas imagery, making it particularly fitting for a Christmas special (as seen in 2008’s “The Next Doctor,” and even the ersatz Victoriana of 2010’s “A Christmas Carol”).
But the significance of the Victorian milieu goes beyond providing the opportunity for the show to present a sumptuously realized period background for the story (something at which the BBC costume and production design departments have always excelled). The Doctor himself has always borne the influence of this period in his manner of dress, especially the original Doctor, William Hartnell. His successors in the classic series tended to tone down or caricature the Victorian element in their costumes, but it returned in full force with Paul McGann’s short-lived Eighth Doctor in the telemovie that failed to lead to a revival of the series in 1996. When the show actually returned nine years later, it made a deliberate break with the past by putting Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor into a leather jacket. Only in the last year or so, with Matt Smith sporting a long green coat in some of the later episodes of the 2011 series, has the Victorian element slowly crept back into the Doctor’s silhouette.
In this episode, though, the Doctor is presented as fully Victorian, a rather grumpy figure in a dark frock coat and a tall hat that recalls one occasionally worn by Patrick Troughton. Sometimes in Doctor Who, it’s necessary to suspend one’s disbelief at how the people the Doctor encounters generally seem to cope with his odd outfits without comment, but not here. It’s disconcerting to see the Doctor, whose clothes usually set him apart from the times and places he finds himself in, fitting in so well. No better method could have been found to visually indicate how the Doctor is trying to suppress his usual nature. And, of course, there’s a lovely payoff later when he finally takes an active part in the story, and discovers he has unconsciously put on his normal bow-tie before doing so. As he turns back towards the Doctor we know, so too does his outward appearance.
With the Doctor initially refusing to get involved, Moffat needed someone else to take over his usual role of getting mixed up in strange events and setting the story into motion. For this purpose, he makes great use of three characters that he created for 2011’s mid-season finale “A Good Man Goes to War”. The pairing of the Silurian investigator, Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and her maid/lover, Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart), had made a great impression on their first appearance and were a natural choice to bring back for this story, since they were already based in the correct time period. Adding the Sontaran warrior Strax (Dan Starkey) to serve as their butler was an inspired touch. Together, the three make a kind of steampunk Scooby Gang, no doubt already inspiring plenty of fan-fiction writers. It’s certainly easy to imagine a spinoff series being developed around these characters.
Vastra, in a very Doctor-like manner, confronts the villain of the piece, Dr. Walter Simeon (Richard E. Grant), who she has determined has some connection with the strange snowmen that have been appearing. The concept of snow (or rather, an alien intelligence distributed among snow-like flakes) that can mirror the thoughts and feelings of those near it is another neat idea of Moffat’s, and he develops it well. The snowmen, with their wide, grinning mouths full of shark-like teeth, are a quirky and memorable monster design, no doubt appropriately scary for Doctor Who’s younger viewers. It’s probably fortunate, though, that we never see them actually move—like many other Who monsters, they are at their best when looming menacingly, rather than lumbering slowly in pursuit of some luckless victim. In fact, apart from the implied massacre of a few nameless workers in the teaser, the snowmen have a fairly minor role in the story. The main focus is a contest of wills between the mysterious intelligence, Simeon, and the Doctor.
Richard E. Grant has had two previous, rather tangential brushes with Doctor Who—although both of them, oddly, involved playing the Doctor. Back in 1999, in Steven Moffat’s hilarious spoof of the show written for Comic Relief, The Curse of Fatal Death, he was one of a whole line of well-known actors playing later regenerations of the Doctor, being given about a minute of screen time. Then, in 2003, he created a putative Ninth Doctor for a web-based animation, Scream of the Shalka by Paul Cornell, which would have led to further adventures had the whole project not been derailed by the announcement of Doctor Who’s return to television under Russell T Davies, and relegated to a footnote in Who history. He certainly makes more of an impact playing a villain, giving Simeon an appropriately frozen intensity at all times that suggests this man hasn’t so much as smiled in decades. The flashback scene at the top of the show makes it clear that as a boy, the painfully shy, introverted Simeon avoided all other company, making him an easy target for the manipulations of the intelligence behind the snow. (Incidentally, while it’s great that the show managed to get such a high-profile actor as the wonderful Ian McKellen to provide the voice of the intelligence, hearing Gandalf’s distinctive tones emanating from a giant snowglobe wanting to rule the world was possibly the most unsettling aspect of the whole episode.)
The Doctor: “Don’t try to run away; stay where you are.”
Clara: “Why would I run? I know what’s going to happen next, and it’s funny.”
Meanwhile, the Doctor tries to deal with Clara, in a laugh-out-loud sequence involving Strax and a “memory worm”—a not very convincing alien which looks like an escapee from the late, lamented Sarah Jane Adventures. The scene is particularly admirable not only for the comedy, which Dan Starkey and Matt Smith execute with impeccable timing, but also because of the way that (in retrospect) Moffat uses it to hide in plain sight the method by which the Doctor will deal with Simeon. As always with Moffat episodes, the script is packed full of plot elements and lines of dialogue with multiple purposes.
The interaction between Smith and Coleman fizzes along, and they already feel like a well-practiced team as the Doctor and Clara face their first shared danger: the snow starts picking up thoughts from Clara and creates a horde of the menacing snowmen around them. After they escape, the Doctor still wants nothing to do with any possibility of companionship, but Clara easily evades Strax and follows the Doctor back to his hidden TARDIS. There’s some lovely imagery as she finds herself climbing a ladder and a huge, invisible spiral staircase leading to a cloud-like platform, and knocking on the door of the police box. At this point it’s easy to imagine this girl as the Doctor’s new companion, but Moffat has something more complex in mind. And so she reconsiders, and heads back down the staircase before the Doctor can find her.
The next day, we discover that Clara is leading a double life—in the course of a carriage ride, she transforms herself from Oliver Twist’s Nancy into a prim Mary Poppins. Both the character and the actress playing her get to show off their versatility as, with sculpted enunciation worthy of Julie Andrews, Clara resumes her role of governess to the two children of Captain Latimer (Tom Ward), a widower who is clearly smitten with her—when his house is later invaded by all manner of weirdness, the thing that most arrests his attention is the Doctor trying to pass himself off as Clara’s “gentleman friend.”
Clara learns that one of her young charges, Francesca (Ellie Darcey-Alden), has been having nightmares about their previous governess, who drowned some weeks ago in the ornamental pond in front of their house. When she notices that the pond is still frozen over even though the snow everywhere around it has thawed, Clara realizes she needs the Doctor’s help. But attempting to find the TARDIS again soon brings her to the notice of Jenny, who takes her to see Vastra. The Silurian tells Clara that she, Jenny and Strax act as the Doctor’s gatekeepers: “We assist him in his isolation, but that does not mean we approve of it.”
The scene between Vastra and Clara is an excellent one that gives Coleman her first chance to portray Clara as something deeper than cute and perky. Vastra demands that she restrict herself to one-word answers to her questions (“Truth is singular; lies are words, words, words”), and Coleman adroitly shows Clara carefully thinking through each response. She even sometimes gains the upper hand; when she suggests that the Doctor should help her out of kindness, Vastra is goaded into expressing her own disappointment with the Doctor’s inactivity (“The Doctor is not kind… He stands above this world and doesn’t interfere in the affairs of its inhabitants. He is not your salvation nor your protector. Do you understand what I am saying to you?”). Clara’s retort is simply: “Words.” Impressed, Vastra proposes a final test:
Vastra: “Give me a message for the Doctor. Tell him all about the snow and what fresh danger you believe it presents. And above all, explain why he should help you.” (As Clara starts to speak, Vastra stops her.) “But do it in one word.” (Off Clara’s expression:) “You’re thinking it’s impossible such a word exists, or that you could even find it. Let’s see if the gods are with you.”
This powerful scene is a great example of Moffat’s talent for adding depth to his plotting by seizing the chance to create resonances with earlier stories—resonances that can’t possibly have been planned in advance. Here, he must surely have started from the realization of the coincidence that Amy’s surname could also signify one of the crucial elements of this story. From there, the whole one-word-only thing must have been built up, so that the scene could reach its climax with Clara producing the only word that could break through the Doctor’s isolation: “Pond.” A costuming choice adds the final touch: up to this point we have seen the Doctor using the glasses he took from Amy in the previous episode—his only physical memento of her. After he hears the magic word, the glasses come off, and are not seen again.
With the turning point reached, the Doctor leaps into action, and almost immediately penetrates to the heart of Simeon’s scheme, running rings around the man with the sort of hyperactive wackiness (“Big globe-y thing!”) which normally sets my teeth on edge. Here, though, it works well, feeling like a release after the Doctor’s previous glum disposition. It’s also helped along by a very funny nod to Moffat’s other hit series, Sherlock. Accompanied by a music cue very reminiscent of that show, the Doctor enters dressed as the classic Sherlock Holmes, deerstalker and all, and starts throwing out deductions—all of them comically wrong—to keep Simeon off-balance. (Amusingly, earlier Simeon had told Vastra that Conan Doyle was “almost certainly” basing his Sherlock Holmes stories on her exploits.)
Finding a clue that leads him to the Latimer estate, the Doctor quickly works out that the drowned governess in the pond was being used by the alien intelligence to gain an understanding of the human form, so that it could create an army of minions more capable than the clumsy snowmen. Sure enough, Clara and the children are soon being menaced by a living ice sculpture in the shape of the woman (a beautiful effect, although unfortunately its movement can’t help betraying its CGI nature). The Doctor manages to temporarily disable it, but the house is surrounded by snowmen as Simeon arrives and demands that the creature be surrendered to him.
Another wonderful, extended two-hander scene between Smith and Coleman follows as the Doctor, followed by Clara, leads the ice creature up to the roof of the house to keep it isolated. Clara impresses the Doctor greatly with her quick-fire deduction that he has moved the cloud platform holding his TARDIS to hover over the house, and they escape up the ladder and staircase, drawing the creature after them. At the top, the Doctor quickly immobilizes the creature, and Clara finally gets to see inside the TARDIS. (And I must compliment director Metzstein here on showing the Doctor walking into the console room from outside the box, right up to the console and operating the controls, all in one seamless shot. I don’t remember that ever being achieved on the show before.)
The scene where someone gets introduced to the TARDIS is one of those fundamental Doctor Who sense-of-wonder moments that never gets old, and Smith and Coleman play this one perfectly. When the Doctor gives her a TARDIS key (“I never know why; I only know who”), the reappearance of the sweet, wistful theme we have already heard a couple of times in this episode (and also in “Asylum of the Daleks”)—clearly destined to be Clara’s personal theme—makes it a magic moment.
Clara: “What’s this?”
The Doctor: “Me, giving in.”
It’s a real moment of triumph for both of them, and it seems that now the Doctor has definitely acquired his new companion. But again, Moffat has something else in mind. In the most shockingly unexpected plot turn of the episode, the ice creature, having escaped its confinement, grabs Clara and drags the two of them off the cloud platform, falling to the ground far below. The creature is smashed, but Clara is also fatally injured. The Doctor uses the TARDIS to retrieve her and bring her back inside the house.
With the story we were expecting suddenly twisting into something darker and more tragic, a guilt-ridden Doctor coaxes Clara into agreeing to come away with him if he saves the world, the way “the green lady” told her he used to do. Vastra points out that he is trying to make a bargain with the uncaring universe—he’ll save the world if it lets Clara live—and “I don’t think the universe makes bargains.” The Doctor reacts angrily, but that’s at least partly because he knows that she is right, and they head off in the TARDIS to confront Simeon in his office. It has to be said that Simeon is probably not the most challenging role Richard E. Grant has ever had to play, but he makes the most of his final scene, when he shows the man almost visibly collapsing into himself as the Doctor reveals how the intelligence has been manipulating him since childhood.
It would be thematically appropriate for the controlling intelligence to be finally vanquished at this point. The Doctor has been prodded into action, breaking him out of his apathy; he has penetrated the lair of the villain and revealed its true nature; and he has found a way to defeat it by breaking its link with Simeon. It would take only a few trivial changes to the script to end the snowy menace once and for all here, leaving the remaining events of the episode unaltered. But Moffat has one more clever twist he wants to show off.
In late 1967, in the fifth season of the classic series, Patrick Troughton’s Doctor paid a visit to Tibet in the 1930s, where he faced a threat from monstrous Yeti controlled by a mysterious “Great Intelligence”—a strange, bodiless force that had the ability to mentally dominate its human servants, and wanted to generate a physical form for itself to enable it to take over the Earth. (In true Doctor Who style, underneath their furry exteriors the Yeti actually turned out to be robots.) “The Abominable Snowmen” was considered such a success by the production team that even before it was broadcast its writers, Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, were commissioned to produce a sequel. And so, just three months later, Troughton faced the Yeti again in “The Web of Fear.” This time the story took place in London, in what was then the near-future year of 1975, and the Intelligence was using the Yeti and an ever-expanding flood of web-like fungus to attack the city through the tunnels of the London Underground system. “The Web of Fear” turned out to be one of the most memorable and important stories of that era, not least because it introduced a character—Colonel (later Brigadier) Lethbridge-Stewart, played by the late Nicholas Courtney—who would become one of the linchpins of the series in the 1970s.
Haisman and Lincoln left the origin of their “Great Intelligence” as a complete mystery, providing an opening for someone like Steven Moffat to come along and advance his own explanation. As a long-time fan, I loved the ingenious payoff signalled by these knowing lines:
Jenny: “Well, we can’t be in much danger from a disembodied intelligence that thinks it can invade the world with snowmen.”
Vastra: “Or that the London Underground is a key strategic weakness.”
The Doctor: (examining Simeon’s business card) “The Great Intelligence… rings a bell…”
Regrettably, this payoff does come at a cost. Giving the Intelligence the capacity to survive independently of Simeon—in fact, to take him over and control him, zombie-style, to provide a few moments of further menace—means that the Doctor doesn’t actually get to achieve the neutralization of the threat. Instead, we have an unwelcome intrusion from the kind of bathos that doomed last year’s Christmas special. Somehow Latimer and his family’s reaction to the dying Clara (“a whole family crying on Christmas Eve”) creates an emotional force which overwhelms the snow at the house, and somehow this gets fed back into the controlling Intelligence, which somehow leads to all the snow suddenly just melting away into salty rain… Not even Matt Smith’s best efforts can make this remotely convincing. Fortunately, unlike with “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe”, this bogus fairytale ending does not undo all the consequences of the story. Clara is still dying, and there is nothing the Doctor can do about it.
It’s Clara’s death that prevents her story being a simple duplication of what Moffat did with River Song. Her full name—revealed to be Clara Oswin Oswald—and her final words to the Doctor (“Run, you clever boy… and remember”), link her beyond doubt with the Oswin who died in “Asylum of the Daleks.” Before this episode aired, speculation was rife about what the connection could be between the two characters, with a favorite theory being that Clara would travel with the Doctor for a time, then eventually, under the name Oswin, join the crew of the starship Alaska and—just as with River—meet her end in the encounter which was their first meeting from the Doctor’s perspective. But it’s clear now that something much stranger is going on:
The Doctor: “Oswin… It was her… I never saw her face the first time, with the Daleks, but her voice… it was the same voice. The same woman, twice! And she died, both times. The same woman!”
A shot of Clara’s gravestone (which, incidentally, gives her birthdate as November 23—the same as Doctor Who itself) dissolves to the same shot of it, now overgrown and weathered, in the present day. Another Clara—finally, the real companion-to-be—pauses next to it, oblivious, as she is telling a friend, “I don’t believe in ghosts.” Meanwhile, the Doctor is back in his TARDIS, setting off on his mission to find Clara—no longer avoiding his future, but running toward it.
The trailer which aired after this episode for the second half of Season 7 (which will start showing around Easter 2013) makes it clear that the mystery of “the woman twice dead” will be an important component in the next story arc. It’s exactly the kind of puzzle that was needed to bring the Doctor back to himself, and in the final analysis that is the main accomplishment of this episode. Taken as a stand-alone story, “The Snowmen” would be well-made and entertaining but nothing more—a traditional ’romp’ of a Christmas special no more significant than, say, 2007’s “Voyage of the Damned.” It’s the connections to the past and the inescapable set-up for the future that are the real meat of the episode—as well as the demonstration that with the pairing of Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman, the Doctor Who producers have come up with another winning team. April can’t come soon enough.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: Unfortunately, the Yeti stories of the 1960s mentioned above were victims of the BBC archive purges of decades ago—in both cases, just one episode out of six is all that remains. So instead I’m going to recommend another icy story with a (literally) cold-hearted villain—check out 1987’s “Dragonfire” starring Sylvester McCoy, with Bonnie Langford and Sophie Aldred.
For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.