Review by Mark Bousquet
“THE SNOWMEN” – Series 7, Episode 6, Story 231 – Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Saul Metzstein – It’s Christmas time and new Companion time! Only, Christmas doesn’t have a lot to do with the story and the new Companion is .. well … you didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you? Because Sometimes (All Times?) Moffat Just Can’t Help Himself.
In my head, Steven Moffat sits at his typewriter (because as we learned from Stephen J. Cannell, all TV writers use a typewriter) with 8 billion ideas for every episode. Knowing this is too many, he spends a tortured fortnight (because he’s British) locked in his home office and pares and cuts and postpones 7,999,986 of these ideas. Congratulating himself on this massive success, Moffat then sits down to write his script in one long, fevered creative release. He sleeps for several days, wakes up, and reads his script. He is surprised to discover that of those 7,999,986 discarded idea, two or five or eight of those discarded ideas somehow ended up in the script. Realizing he should exorcise at least half of them, he realizes (having slept for several days) he needs breakfast and justifies not fixing the script by reminding himself that cutting 7,999,984 or 7,999,981 or 7,999,978 ideas is pretty darn good, so-
Is that a souffle cooking downstairs?
Make that 7,999,977 ideas cut.
There is a whole lot to like about the 2012 DOCTOR WHO Christmas special, THE SNOWMEN, but there are just enough little things that either do not work or alter things that were working or are simply different that I can hear the negative complaints coming from the ether. To be straight, if you have not enjoyed the Moffat/Smith Era, there is nothing here to suggest that you’re going to like the back-half of Season 7. I’m sure this won’t stop a good many of you from tuning in every week just to have something to complain about, and there’s nothing I can do about that. We’re all free to spend our time as we choose, after all.
I’ve talked from time to time about the differences in how enjoyable we find episodes that are new versus episodes that are old. I had plenty of issues with Season 6, but when I watch the season now, I find I like it better than I did at the time. Some episodes simply work better as 99 cent back issues, as opposed to four dollar contemporary buys. When I review Classic Who, I’m much more forgiving than I am of this week’s episode. I’ve tried to watch every Season 7 episode twice before reviewing it.
All of which is prelude to saying that THE SNOWMEN is a very good story, but I fully admit that I liked it more the second time than I did the first time. In my initial viewing, the negative aspects stood out more than the positive ones. At the end of the episode, I was happy with what I had seen, but like most of my Christmas gifts this year, I was also left wanting a bit more. Watching it again allowed me to appreciate the finer moments more than the downer moments, but it also made clear what I alluded to at the start of this reaction – that sometimes Moffat is a bit too clever for his own good for a showrunner of a program with a highly speculative and critical fanbase. After a half-season of mini movies, it looks like we’re back to the Season 6 idea of episodes being chapters of a novel rather than individual specials.
Now, there’s no definite indication that we’re going to get one continuous story – only that the characters and plots here will continue. (I’m guessing the Great Intelligence will be behind the new Cybermen, and maybe several more villains that show up this season.) We might very well be back to the Russell T. Davies “Bad Wolf Method,” where largely stand-alone episodes are punctuated by singular nods to a larger arc. THE SNOWMEN is something of a Rorschach test in this regard because even though we’ve known for a good long while that SNOWMEN was going to introduce Jenna-Louise Coleman as the new Companion, and even though Moffat offered an early season surprise by having her show up in ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS and then dying, she shows up and promptly dies again.
This is obviously intentional and the “Impossible Woman” angle is clearly a road this program is going to take, so on the one hand we can say, “Cool, here’s the new overall story arc,” or we can say, “Really? She dies again?”
In a year or two or five we’ll know how the Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara Oswin Oswald story turns out and we’ll be able to see how ASYLUM and SNOWMEN fit into the greater whole. For now, I will admit to being more disappointed than intrigued by this double death, but only because I was so enjoying this 1892 version of COO. Of course, I really liked the ASYLUM version of COO, too. (Are we all going to start calling her COO? Is that going to be a thing?) I liked how the first half of Season 7 just told stories and let the overall arc develop in the background, and I was ready to get Clara aboard the TARDIS and be off on more singularly-driven episodes rather than another long arc.
And let me stop myself by saying that we have no idea how the back-half of Season 7 is going to play out, so how much time you spend worrying about it is really on you, not the show. There’s a preview trailer that plays at the end of the episode where we can see Clara’s double death is a story point but we won’t know the emphasis until those episodes hit the air.
So do you really want to take the double death and complain about where the show is going when we don’t know?
Much more than RTD’s approach to being Doctor Who Overlord, Moffat’s showrunning has invited the audience to hypothesize about what’s coming, and an episode like SNOWMEN runs the same risk that the episodes in Season 6 ran in that the speculation about what’s not revealed can occupy more time in the audience’s mind than the story we actually just watched.
As I mentioned above, there is a lot to like about THE SNOWMEN, but everything that I liked came in bits and pieces. Where SNOWMEN is lacking is in the overall story. There’s a good story here about how an alien consciousness known as the Great Intelligence is using snow to manipulate a lonely little boy throughout his life in their hostile takeover attempt, but I don’t think Moffat really wants to tell that story. It feels like Moffat is far more interested in the Doctor/Clara dynamic, which is what I wanted him to be interested in. But he’s also got subplots spinning about the Doctor playing all Mr. Lonely Heart, about the returning detective agency of the Silurian Vastra and her human wife Jenny, and now their butler/helper Strax the Sontaran. These three appeared in A GOOD MAN GOES TO WAR and it’s nice to see them back, but Moffat seems more interested in them than the overall story about the Snowmen, too.
When SNOWMEN is simply reveling in the already fantastic dynamic between the Doctor and Clara, SNOWMEN works beautifully.
When SNOWMEN is simply reveling in the highly enjoyable dynamic between the Doctor and Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, SNOWMEN works beautifully.
But when SNOWMEN spends time with the actual story of the carnivorous snow, the Great Intelligence (voiced by Ian McKellan), and Dr. Simeon, SNOWMEN feels a bit bored with itself.
Based on this episode and the trailer, we know that all of these characters and plots are coming back. When it comes to Clara, Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, I’m all for it. I absolutely love the idea touched on here that the Doctor, grumpy after the events of THE ANGELS TAKE MANHATTAN, has set up permanent shop in 1892 London. He’s got the TARDIS parked in the clouds with an invisible staircase leading down to the ground. Vastra and Jenny are serving as the real life inspirations for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Along with Strax, they serve as the Doctor’s pseudo surrogates on Earth. Eleven is bound and determined to not get off his cloud and help anyone anymore because after 1100 years he’s mad that the universe doesn’t care about him and took the Ponds away from him.
Story points like that get old for me really fast. We know the Doctor isn’t going to sit up there forever, so why even introduce a plot like that if you’re not going to do anything with it? Right from the start, it’s clear that the Doctor enjoys helping out and enjoys his initial back-and-forth with Clara, so why do we have to sit through him insisting he doesn’t want to help?
Does it make narrative sense? Yes.
Do I want to watch it? No.
I’d be totally willing to watch a half-season of this set-up, though, because it works better stretched out than condensed. The image of the TARDIS sitting in the clouds with that staircase leading down to Earth is phenomenal, and the interplay between the Doctor, Vastra, Jenny, and Strax is thoroughly enjoyable. Give me a Doctor needing time to get over the Ponds, parking himself on Earth and in Victorian London, solving crimes with those three as he slowly warms up to Clara, and I’m queuing up early for every episode. Eleven’s got an old soul and he just seems to fit perfectly in Victorian London, and I had a good bit of fun watching Clara lead a double life, both as a barmaid and a Governess.
I’m trying not to get over-excited about the prospect of Clara as a Companion because in Ms. Coleman’s first two episodes she has been beyond fantastic. I love love love her intelligence, her rapid-fire style of talking, and her relationship with the Doctor. I could have done without the kissing scene, but the scene on the roof between her and the Doctor was as good as any scene between the Doctor and a Companion since Donna Noble was calling the TARDIS her temporary home. The Doctor and future Companion make their way to the roof and the Doctor challenges Clara to come up with a plan to escape the ice woman that’s at the window behind him. She tells him he already knows his plan, then uses the umbrella to pull down the invisible ladder.
This leads to Clara seeing the interior of the TARDIS for the first time, which brings up another one of those moments that people can potentially focus on more than the episode, itself. Which is this:
The TARDIS has a new interior. Gone is the steampunk-inspired console room and the copper walls and in it’s place we have a more conventional and, yes, more boring interior. Where the relaunch interiors have largely seemed chaotic, the new console room feels very much structured and planned. The console rooms during the Nine, Ten, and Eleven eras felt much more organic than Eleven’s newest model. You can see the original console’s design in the latest console, and the walls give a nod to the original design, too. We’ve still got plenty of funky, modern devices sprinkled around the console and we’ve still got stairs leading away from the console (I don’t know why I love that so much, but I do).
The new console room, the new opening titles (with a nod to the cut-out face of Classic Who lore!), the reworked theme song … my guess is that some people will absolutely hate them, but also that those bad vibes will be largely gone by the time the back-half of the season debuts.
Whenever that is.
The Doctor gives Clara a key to the TARDIS, but then she’s pulled outside by the ice woman and falls to her death.
You could see the rug being pulled out just because the Doctor was a bit too quick in giving her the key – you could just feel that Moffat was overplaying his hand in one direction in an attempt to make the swerve have a great impact.
After Clara’s death and temporary rebirth, the serial takes a nosedive in quality because there’s no more fun with the Doctor pretending to be Sherlock Holmes, no more funny interplay between the Doctor and Strax, and no more of Clara refusing to do what the Doctor tells her. We’ve got a story to wrap up and it’s a rather clumsy, ineffective, needlessly twisty end with pointless swerves and Clara’s death.
The only part of the ending that I liked was the revelation that the Doctor was unaware that Clara was the same/”same” woman from ASYLUM until she first mentions souffles, and then when she repeats her line telling the Doctor to “run, you clever boy, and remember.” The Doctor is genuinely intrigued by the same woman dying twice and he’s back with the twinkle in his eye and the spring in his step. It’s a good leap into the rest of the season but it casts SNOWMEN as being less about Christmas as it does being a prequel. I like my Christmas stories to be about Christmas, not just set at Christmas.
(Though to call myself out, I just published a kid’s Christmas story that isn’t as Christmassy as I like, either. It happens.)
There are so many great individual moments in THE SNOWMEN (and top-notch work from director Saul Metzstein) that it’s a shame the larger story didn’t quite come together as well as I would have liked. It’s still a highly enjoyable, if not great, episode, though, and I’m thrilled to have the Doctor back and Ms. Coleman along for the ride.
Even if she’s not official, yet.
Merry Christmas, all!
Review originally posted on December 12, 2012 at Atomic Anxiety.