It’s become a staple now. Every 25th of December, Doctor Who returns to television screens for a between-series—or, in this case, since the series is split over the fall and spring, a mid-series—special, all of them ostensibly a Christmas special, although some with more obvious Christmas trappings than others. As the Christmas specials need to appeal to a wider audience base than the standard series episodes, they tend to be fairly disconnected (no arc plots, for example) and more light-hearted. They tend to aim more for pure fun than for thinking. There have been a few exceptions, of course, that are more connected to the main series and more significant. “The Christmas Invasion” had to introduce a new Doctor, for example, and four years later, “The End of Time” had to write that Doctor out. This year’s special, “The Snowmen” by Steven Moffat, is another one of these significant specials, having to appeal to its wider audience, introduce a new companion, and fit in with the continuity of the series it comes in the middle of. Given my general disappointment with many recent episodes, I went into this special with a certain amount of trepidation, but also a great deal of hope. This was an opportunity for great changes, but also an opportunity for things to go dreadfully wrong. At the very least, however, I was confident that it could not possibly be any worse than last year’s “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe”.
And thank goodness I was right about that. It’s considerably better than last year’s special (although my wife feels that it’s even worse, so go figure). That’s not to say that it’s a perfect episode. Indeed, it’s quite far from that. There are a number of problem areas from two-dimensional characters to a groan-worthy resolution. However, it is possible to watch the episode and feel entertained, laugh a few times, and even experience a moment or two of tense excitement. I would still consider it amongst the weakest Christmas specials, but it’s not all bad.
The episode actually opens quite strongly, with a bit of backstory about the villain, Dr Simeon, showing how his isolation from the world goes back as far as his childhood and helping to set up his motivations. As an introduction, it works beautifully. Unfortunately, Dr Simeon gets no other real character development at any other point in the episode. It’s a shame as Richard E Grant is a fabulous actor (he’s even played the Doctor twice before: first as one of the many incarnations in the spoof, “The Curse of Fatal Death”, and then in the animated web series, “Scream of the Shalka”), but you wouldn’t really know it from this episode since he gets so little to do. Dr Simeon stands around looking sinister and speaking quietly, but rarely actually doing anything. He makes a lot of threats, but never actually follows through on them (except when killing the nameless workers at the beginning). When his snowmen have surrounded the house, he tells the Doctor, “Release [the ice governess] to us. You have five minutes.” A full ten minutes of the episode pass before the Doctor returns to the door to find Simeon and his snowmen still waiting there. When Clara and the ice governess fall to the ground, they don’t even make an attempt to grab the broken bits of ice before the Doctor materialises the TARDIS around them.
In one sense, it’s nice to have a proper villain in the story for a change. Steven Moffat doesn’t actually write very many villains. Most of the time, the “threat” comes from misprogrammed robots (such as in “Girl in the Fireplace”), misunderstood monsters (“The Beast Below”), or races of creatures that have no individual identities (like the weeping angels or the vashta nerada). However, when Moffat does write villains, they tend to be quite two-dimensional (such as Simeon here or Madame Kovarian in Series VI) and never exhibit much actual sense of threat, so in that sense, the appearance of a villain is kind of pointless.
That lack of threat, I feel, is one of the major problems with “The Snowmen”, a problem that goes beyond just Simeon. The snowmen themselves only glower and rarely do anything to create a feeling of menace or danger. The ice governess is the only active “villain” in the story, the only thing that represents a credible threat, but that threat is totally ruined when the one person she manages to kill is brought back to life.
Indeed, Clara’s death/non-death is one of the major contributors to the lack of any real threat in the story. In previous reviews, I’ve pointed out the trend Steven Moffat has of never letting anyone stay dead, be it Rory’s multiple deaths, the Doctor resurrecting the minds of everyone killed by the vashta nerada, or the weeping angels transporting you back in time and letting you live out the rest of your natural life. The fact that dead characters never stay dead removes any sense of worry from the viewer. We know that, even if they die, they’ll be okay. Of course, we know the good guys will (almost) always win in the end, but what helps make a story tense and exciting is not knowing what losses the good guys will have to suffer in order to win. In Steven Moffat’s stories, the good guys never suffer any losses—not lasting ones at any rate. Even the final loss of Amy and Rory doesn’t really count as we know they lived a happy, full life and raised a family.
That said, there is one moment in this episode where things actually became tense and, for the first time, I started to feel a credible threat. The Doctor’s use of the memory worm to defeat the Great Intelligence was particularly inspired and seemed a great way to wrap up the problem. But then it didn’t work. The Intelligence taking over Simeon’s body and freezing the Doctor was even more of an inspired moment. The Doctor rarely comes under any kind of direct threat these days. Worded threats get spoken, but nobody ever directly opposes him. Even Daleks never actually fire at him. However, this time, the villain actually physically attacks the Doctor, and for a brief moment, it looks like the villain might actually kill the Doctor. For just that brief moment, there is a true credible threat.
There were so many ways this could have resolved and kept the threat real. Vastra could have regained her senses and attacked Simeon with her sword, distracting the Intelligence long enough for the Doctor to escape and come up with a new plan. The Doctor could have retreated back to the house and told the others to think really hard about rain, knowing that the Intelligence had a link to Clara and Captain Latimer’s family.
Alas no. Clara dies and everyone cries. And the crying defeats the Intelligence. This resolution is problematic in more ways than just being yet another “love defeats all” ending (an ending that is far overused on the show these days). It fails to work in the same way that the resolution of “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” fails to work. It’s passive. Nobody actually does anything to defeat the Great Intelligence. They cry because they’re sad (which is fair enough; their governess just died after all), and that just happens, by pure chance, to defeat the Intelligence. They don’t actively try to defeat the Intelligence; they just do. Even the “love defeats all” resolution could work if someone were simply active about it. If the Doctor had gone back to the house, as I suggested above, and told everyone, “Don’t be afraid to cry. Show the Intelligence how your really feel!” then, at least, somebody would be actually doing something. Coincidence can set a story in motion, but coincidence should never end it.
The use of the Great Intelligence, itself, is an interesting choice for this story and a nice nod to the past (the Great Intelligence first appeared in the second Doctor stories, “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web of Fear”). That said, the Intelligence is very different in this story than it is in the previous two. As the two Patrick Troughton Great Intelligence stories are both set after this one, it seems clear that Moffat is attempting an origin story. The Doctor showing the Intelligence the map of the London Underground nicely sets up the Intelligence using that as its invasion point in “The Web of Fear”. However, in “The Abominable Snowmen”, it’s made pretty clear that the Intelligence has been residing in the Tibetan monastery for several centuries, meaning it shouldn’t be in London being created by Dr Simeon. Still, Doctor Who has had much worse continuity errors in its time. What is odder, is the Doctor’s apparent forgetfulness. When he shows the Intelligence the map of the Underground, it seems deliberate. He seems to know exactly what he’s up against. Why else make such a big deal about the map? However, at the end, as Vastra and Jenny are scoffing at the threat the Intelligence could pose in the future, he looks at the business card and remarks softy, “The Great Intelligence. Rings a bell. The Great Intelligence.” It looks very much like he can’t quite remember his previous encounters.
Now, in the Doctor’s personal timeline, many centuries have passed since the events of “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web of Fear”. It makes sense that he doesn’t have a perfect memory of everything that happened during his second incarnation. However, I find it very unlikely that he would forget the Intelligence itself, especially since “The Web of Fear” is the story where he first meets Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart, then only a colonel. It’s very hard to accept that the Doctor would forget his first encounter with a person who would go on to become one of his closest, dearest friends, one of the few people he maintains ties with over multiple incarnations. Perhaps this is a hint of a future mystery—something playing with the Doctor’s memory. We shall see.
Of course, this story attempts to present a rather different Doctor, one who has withdrawn from the world and no longer helps people, and it does a pretty good job of showing a grumpy Doctor and a Doctor who finds it hard to resist the temptation to move back to his old life. However, it never really succeeds at convincing that the Doctor hasn’t helped people for a long time. Part of the problem is that the tragedy of Amy and Rory’s loss is not a very successful tragedy—something that is the fault of the previous story, “The Angels Take Manhattan”, and not this one. However, the fact that all the Doctor’s non-involvement happens between episodes, off-screen, doesn’t help either. It would have worked much better if the Doctor had only recently arrived in Victorian London with the intention to stop helping, but not quite managing it. Of course, the eleventh Doctor has already displayed a tendency to sulk for centuries at a time, so this is only a minor issue that I have with this episode. Even if it’s hard to accept how the Doctor got into the state he’s in, he is presented believably from that point on, and his redemption is easier to swallow.
One thing that I don’t quite get, however, is why the Doctor set the TARDIS up on a cloud. Sure, it makes for a very pretty stair-climbing sequence and fits the whole “fairy tale” idea that Steven Moffat is so fond of, but there’s no in-world explanation for it. I don’t dispute that the TARDIS is capable of it. We know it can extend its force field and that it can turn invisible. However, why bother? Why not just set the TARDIS down in a dark alley? It comes across as something that is there purely to look nice and no other reason.
The most significant part of “The Snowmen” is, of course, the introduction of new companion, Clara Oswin Oswald—along with the mystery of her true identity. It was pretty clear that there would be some sort of link between Clara and Oswin from “Asylum of the Daleks”, and this episode makes that explicit, even if it doesn’t explain exactly what that link is. I rather liked Oswin in “Asylum”, mostly down to Jenna Louise Coleman’s performance, and I still kind of liked her in “Snowmen”, again mostly down to her performance. Coleman brings a certain energy to the role that helps keep the viewer's attention. Unfortunately, as we get to know her in this story (or more precisely, don’t get to know her), she begins to exhibit the same problems as Dr Simeon and all the other characters in this episode: two-dimensionality. Who is Clara? I don’t mean technical details about her history. I understand there’s supposed to be a mystery about her identity. I’m referring again to her wants and desires, her motivations. We learn that she lives some sort of double life, both as a governess and a part-time barmaid. In times of stress, she reverts to a Cockney accent, indicating that’s her native accent. But we never get a hint as to why or how she accomplishes these things—and seeing as this version of Clara dies in this episode, we probably never will.
Part of the problem is, she never does anything that doesn't relate directly to the plot. But that’s not how real people work. No matter how invested we are in something, we have moments where our concentration slips, moments when we say something or do something incongruous to the situation. From the moment Clara first appears, everything is directly related to the main plot. There’s never a moment when Clara just gets to be Clara. The closest we get is her talk with the bar owner, but even that is just to set up her going to her other job, which is even more directly related to the plot. I’m not saying we need to see long segments of Clara’s home life. It only takes a few small strokes to add a little more dimension and make her feel like a fully rounded character.
Instead, what we end up with in “The Snowmen” is yet another female character who has no identity beyond the man in her life—the Doctor. Worse, her only function in the story is as a “manic pixie dream girl”, a quirky character whose sole function is to re-energize and motivate the male hero. This sort of thing is becoming incredibly tiring in Steven Moffat’s writing. He even ups the ante here by killing her off and making her a “companion in the refrigerator”. (The “woman in the refrigerator” is a trope named after events from Green Lantern #54, in which the Green Lantern finds his girlfriend dead and stuffed in a refrigerator. The trope refers to the incredibly common tactic of killing off female characters in order to advance the male hero’s story arc. While the reverse does sometimes happen, it is much rarer.) I apologize for sounding so bitter, but I really would like to see something different for a change. (See here for more of my thoughts on this problem.)
I actually thought Clara and the Doctor’s first encounter in the opening of the episode was very good—up until Clara runs after the Doctor. Until that moment, we saw a believable interaction between two people who happened to bump into each other. As the Doctor leaves, Clara starts to return to the bar where she works, but then suddenly runs after him, catches up to his cab, and quite amazingly climbs on top. But why? What reason does she have to follow after him like that? Her encounter with him is weird, sure, but we haven’t learnt enough about her yet to accept that she chases after weird men. And we don’t learn enough about her later to make us understand retroactively, either. The rest of the episode continues in much the same way. She does things because the plot requires her to, not because we have any clear idea of her character.
The other characters don’t fare a whole lot better. The Paternoster Gang of Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax all first appeared in the Series VI story, “A Good Man Goes to War” (although, at the time, Strax was not part of the gang). All three of them were much better characters in their first story, even if there were so many characters in that story that none of them got much individual attention. It’s interesting, as “A Good Man Goes to War” is one of Moffat’s better recent scripts, and actually does a much better job with characterization than usual for him. It’s almost as if having very little time with any individual character forced him to work harder to make each character more identifiable. Or perhaps it’s that so little time with each character makes me as a viewer, more forgiving of a lack of development. Either way, the addition of more time fails to add anything new to these characters.
Jenny, for example, is characterless in “The Snowmen”. She says a few lines here and there, but hardly does anything at all the entire story. She was far more active in her limited role in “A Good Man Goes to War”, proving a foil to Vastra’s excesses and taking part in the final battle against the Headless Monks. We even got to see a little bit of actual affection between her and Vastra. In “The Snowmen”, we get told explicitly that they’re married (confirming the lesbian relationship that is only hinted at in “A Good Man”), but we never see any moments of actual affection between them.
Vastra has a slightly larger role than Jenny in this episode, but it’s mostly to provide exposition (in her initial encounter with Dr Simeon) or to scold the Doctor. There’s no actual development of her as a character. We’re told that she’s the basis for the fictional Sherlock Holmes, but we never see this. We never get to see her doing any actual sleuthing (even the prequel “Vastra Investigates” does not involve any actual investigating). Indeed, this is a common fault of recent Doctor Who. We’re constantly told things, but never shown them. We’re told that the Doctor doesn’t help people anymore, but we don’t really see this (since he keeps helping Clara even while saying he’s not). We’re told that Vastra and Jenny are lovers but we never see a relationship other than mistress and servant. We’re told that Clara is really amazing, but all she ever does is run around after the Doctor.
Strax has a larger role than either Vastra and Jenny in this story, and it’s primarily as comic relief. The prequels heavily played up the comic relief aspect of the character and made him look as if he had no intelligence whatsoever, and this had me quite worried about how he would be handled in the actual episode. Strax was a fascinating character in “A Good Man Goes to War”—a Sontaran forced to be a nurse as a form of penance for crimes, a penance he found humiliating, but one that had obviously had a profound affect on him. Although he still talked rough (telling a young boy patient to rest and get well so that they could meet later on the battlefield and fight to the death), he clearly had a streak of kindness and a heart to him. There were hints of the aspects that “The Snowmen” would later play for laughs (not being able to tell the difference between men and women, for example, and calling women “boys”), but this was all part of a surprisingly nuanced character.
Mercifully, the comic relief aspect of Strax’s character in “The Snowmen” is not as bad as I feared, although he is very much the butt of most of the story’s jokes. Nonetheless, he is still not quite the character he was in “Good Man” and that’s a bit of a shame. There was an opportunity to develop a very interesting character, but Moffat chose to focus on the comedy route instead. Still, I would have to say that Strax is the most nuanced and interesting character in “The Snowmen”, even if he is not as good as he used to be. Despite the abuse he takes from the Doctor (and the Doctor says a lot of really nasty things to him), he does a very good job of ribbing the Doctor right back and even manipulating the Doctor a little. I loved the “Mister Holmes” exchange and the line, “Sir, please do not noogie me during combat prep.” We even get to see a bit of his nursing skills in his attempts to keep Clara alive.
Then we get to Captain Latimer and his two children, whose names I can’t remember without looking them up (Digby and Francesca). There’s a hint of the difficulties Latimer has relating to his kids (playing with the theme of Victorian values, which I’ll get into shortly), but otherwise these three are completely characterless. Digby is a stock young boy, Francesca a stock young girl, and Latimer...well, nothing really. We don’t even learn what military branch he’s a captain of.
I’ve focused a great deal on the negatives of this story, and while I feel there are a lot of negatives, it still manages to hold together and be entertaining, even occasionally gripping, so it’s not all bad. There are a number of individual bits that I actually highly like. There are certainly some very funny moments. Many of them involve Strax and they are not the ways in which the Doctor puts him down (with comments like “psychotic potato dwarf”), but with how Strax responds to them and gets the better of the Doctor in many cases. And the initial encounter between Simeon and the Doctor, where the Doctor pretends (badly) to be Sherlock Holmes, is priceless.
There is also a fairly clever examination of Victorian values running throughout the whole episode. Unfortunately, I do think this theme gets a little muddled by everything else going on, but it’s there nonetheless. Simeon wants to populate the world with living ice because that’s essentially what he already is. In Victorian times, men like him and Latimer were expected to be like ice, never showing emotion, and rising above the lesser peoples of the world. In many ways, the Snowmen of the title refer to Simeon, Latimer, and other upper class gentlemen rather than the literal monsters made of snow. Similarly, we see a glimpse of the classicism of Victorian England in Clara’s posing as a higher class woman in order to be a governess and the fact that her Cockney accent has to be her “secret voice”. I do wish the story had taken more time to examine this theme, rather than sacrifice it to drawn-out comedy like the memory worm scene (which took the joke too far by having Strax repeat the same mistake again). A more thorough examination of the theme might have actually breathed more life into the characters, allowing us to see the people behind the icy masks.
To finish up, I should briefly comment on the new title sequence: I’m not overly fond of it. It takes aspects of every previous title sequence the show has ever had and combines them together, but therein lies the problem. It tries to do too much and ends up looking a bit of a mess. The jury’s still out on the new version of the theme music.
Overall, “The Snowmen” is a problematic episode, one that exhibits the same issues I’ve found in a lot of recent Doctor Who episodes—in particular, two-dimensional characters and a lack of a credible threat. Still, it does manage to entertain and that, ultimately, is the primary goal of a Christmas special. I would argue that it has a few too many continuity references to truly appeal to a wider audience that doesn’t watch every episode, but it has managed to get one of the highest AI scores (an 87) of any Christmas special to date, so obviously the public like it anyway. And overall, I kind of like it too. At least it’s better than last year’s.