Contains spoilers, although I’ll try and be as gentle as I can…
I really should know better by know than to allow myself to get too excited about Doctor Who specials. After all, they’ve had a pretty patchy history, with last year’s “The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe” the worst of the bunch. On top of that you’ll recall that I was less than happy with the way that the so-called ‘Series 7A’ ended with “The Angels Take Manhattan” so it’s not like I was feeling particularly in sync with the series at the end of 2012. But all the advance word of mouth about this year’s Christmas special was so positive, and all the preview clips released were so good, that I lowered my guard and allowed my expectations to rise rather too unrealistically – to the point where it would have needed “The Snowmen” to be one of the best Who outings in years just to meet let alone exceed them.
So without further ado: let me start by saying that my expectations weren’t so much vastly exceeded as they were completely shattered. I adored almost every moment of this hour of television beyond measure and reason. Which leaves me with a big problem writing this review, because where to begin? If I start with a list of favourite moments, it becomes a scene-by-scene breakdown of virtually the entire script. If I try to list my favourite quotes then I end up with a transcript of every exchange involving Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara Oswald, plus every single line uttered by that adorable psychotic potato dwarf Strax (Dan Starkey.)
All right, let’s start with Coleman who is absolutely brilliant here. I wasn’t entirely sold on her character in “Asylum of the Daleks,” but only because the opera-loving, soufflé-making Oswin veered dangerously close to being stereotypically “kookie” – and that was even before she was revealed as a self-delusional, insane Dalek! But there’s no such kookiness in the character of Clara we meet here, and Coleman is allowed to be fully wonderful in the part right from the moment when – after the Doctor walks away following their first brief encounter – you see her look back and forth between her two possible lives, make a decision, throw down her barmaid’s apron in the snow and hare off at full speed after him. She’s already all-in – and so are we. From then on, Clara confounds expectations brilliantly at every turn: when the Doctor tries to pack her off or leave her behind, she pops up again at his side seconds later. She can out-deduce the Doctor at every turn (which is amusing as the Doctor himself is so bad at it during his Sherlock Holmes impersonation) and her composure and intelligence shines through during the stunning, riveting ‘one-word’ interrogation sequence with Victorian Era Silurian supersleuth Madam Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and her wife Jenny (Catrin Stewart.)
Vastra and Jenny were first introduced to us back in “A Good Man Goes to War” and even then it was glaringly obvious that this duo needed to come back and have a long life in their own series of adventures. The only downside about that series 6 episode was that show runner Steven Moffat unfortunately killed off Sontaran wet nurse Strax who would so obviously have made an ideal third member of the spin-off cast. It’s clear that Moffat pretty quickly come to the same conclusion that he’d pushed the ‘kill your darlings’ mantra a little too far and that in this case Strax must live. How was his resurrection explained away? Err – it wasn’t, in a quite brazenly brilliant way. But it made the reformed trio the perfect ensemble to watch over the depressed Doctor we meet at the start of “The Snowmen,” the insular figure withdrawn from the universe and refusing to involve himself any longer in the affairs of the Earth.
I know that Strax is there to inject the comedy moments and is therefore best used in small concentrated doses, but oh! how I want the spin-off series featuring the three of them to be a reality. Strax’s best scene was early on and involved a mind worm, which was the most hysterically funny thing I’ve seen in Doctor Who since Donna Noble reconnected with the Tenth Doctor via the medium of mime in “Partners in Crime”. The Doctor’s teasing of Strax was a constant delight, and the visual gag of a Sontaran in a Victorian butler’s outfit just cracked me up every single time (“If you attempt to escape you will be obliterated. May I take your coat?”) If this had been an American production then this would surely have been an intentional ‘backdoor pilot’ for the forthcoming new spin-off ‘Vastra Investigates’ and frankly if the BBC doesn’t pick up on this and make it happen then I for one will be calling upon the ritual sacrifice of whoever happens to be the Director-General by then on the grounds of gross stupidity.
With all of these choice characters vying for the spotlight, it would have been very easy for everyone else to get squeezed out. Of the main guest cast, only Tom Ward (Silent Witness) actually loses the battle: his Captain Latimer gets a couple of sparkling scenes early on (“You have a gentlemen friend?” is his primary question of Clara even as his house comes under alien attack) but thereafter becomes a glorified background extra along with the characters of his two children and their maid. But more importantly, it’s vital that the evil menace succeeds in holding its own and not getting squeezed out of the show – and it’s mostly due to Richard E Grant’s ability to transform a frozen sneer into a chillingly malevolent three-dimensional character by force of actorly will alone. His Dr Simeon could so easily have been a one-note panto performance yet it’s anything but when left in his hands. The iconography of the killer snowmen and the icy governess also stand up well considering the limited screen time they get (probably just as well in the latter case, as the CGI involved there is really only ‘average’). As for the Big Bad behind them all, again it’s the performance that makes something of a bit part into so much more: cast Sir Ian McKellan in the role of a lampshade and he’ll still manage to steal your show out from under you, and he nearly does so here despite being called upon to supply the voiceover to something that looks like a cross between a giant popcorn machine and a lottery number randomiser.
The episode is not perfect, but then what hour of television is? Things do flag a little and lose coherence at almost exactly the same moment Clara is sidelined (and that’s no coincidence, either.) There’s an effective and wonderful showdown between the Doctor, Simeon and the Big Bad but this is immediately undercut by a hokey lightning-filled Fatal Attraction-style second wind for the Big Bad which doesn’t make much sense. Not only is there a roll-your-eyes moment when Vastra is denied her woman-of-action pay-off by getting knocked senseless by one of Simeon’s flailing limbs, but the whole thing is resolved by other events coincidentally happening elsewhere at just the right time. It undermines what the Doctor has just achieved by intelligence and strategy, but at least it wastes no more than a couple of minutes of screen time.
I also wonder whether the mainstream audience might have got a little restless by the final sequences, which included (final spoiler warning here – this is a biggie!) the fact that one of the Doctor’s companions is killed off. That’s a bit of a downer for Christmas Day – we usually leave that sort of thing to EastEnders and Downton Abbey – and it’s only slightly offset by the fact that we know some version of Clara will return in the next run of new stories at Easter. While Jenna-Louise Coleman’s first appearance in “Asylum of the Daleks” looked at the time like a clever one-off way of giving fans a surprise advance taste of the new regular, her part there turns out to be far more significant in hindsight. Moffat – having promised to give the new companion her proper début in the Christmas special – both keeps his word in the final 30 seconds while also pulling the rug out from under our feet at the same time, because the Clara we get to know before then is no more the new companion than Oswin proved to be. Given that Coleman is actually playing two versions of a character here (not just barmaid Clara but also perfectly prim governess Miss Montague) I wonder how many more roles Jenna-Louise Coleman will end up playing in Doctor Who, and whether she’ll tot up more incarnations than a certain renegade Time Lord of our mutual acquaintance before she’s done. And was Clara happening upon the single-word answer of “Pond” just coincidence, or point to a more significant character trait/ability linking her to her other appearances across time? It all makes for an immediately deep and mysterious background for the character, although on the other hand I do hope this is not the start of another fiendishly twisted ongoing multi-series plot arc à la Amy Pond. We need a break from that.
The other part of the climax I’m not sure will work for the mainstream audience is the final reveal of the identify of the Big Bad. For full pay-off, this requires the viewers to have in-depth knowledge of a couple of Doctor Who serials not seen on television since 1968 – and moreover never will be again as the tapes were purged from the BBC archives in the 70s – which makes this possibly the most audacious, long-distance and niche callback in television history. For a hard core of Who fans this was nirvana; for everyone else, it was probably a bit of a confusing letdown after the build-up. [Full disclosure: although I was far too young to have ever seen the original serials before they were wiped, it so happens that the Target novelisations of the stories in question were two of my absolute favourite books of all time as a kid – so I was emphatically one of that fan niche who not only very much ‘got it’, but was enthusiastically punching the air in delight as the hints came together.]
Despite these few concerns, I still have no reservations in declaring this the best Christmas special the show has ever had. Not that this is quite the gushing commendation it might perhaps appear on the surface, given how weak some of those past Yule outings have been. Several have had decent first halves with strong guest stars which then descend into panto runaround confusion in the second (“The Runaway Bride,” “The Next Doctor,” “Voyage of the Damned”); or become so enamoured with being magical Christmas fairytales that they’ve forgotten to be good episodes of Doctor Who at the same time (“A Christmas Carol,” “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe”) or else junked the Christmas theme altogether in order to pay off a Doctor’s final dramatic arc (“The End of Time Part 1”, which in any case suffered from a profound narrative collapse which meant the episode survived only through the strengths of one single scene in a café and a bravura performance from John Simm.)
The best of the specials to date was the first of them, “The Christmas Invasion”. Partly that’s because it was the intended season 2 opener that had to be repurposed into a feature special at high speed when the programme got handed the Christmas Day slot in 2005, which saw the story get retrofitted with Yuletide trappings and expanded to fill an hour; but mostly it’s because it was a special worthy of the name as it had a more important purpose, being as it was the critical introduction of the Tenth Doctor and the need to ‘sell’ the idea of regeneration to a new generation of viewers who had never seen it before. It worked because it absolutely had to or else we wouldn’t still be seeing new episodes of Doctor Who today; and in many ways, the 2012 special is almost as crucial. It’s probably the most important instalment of the show since Matt Smith’s introduction in “The Eleventh Hour” in April 2010, being a quite major reboot of the show in time for the 50th anniversary which not only introduces a new companion and a darker, more pensive Doctor but also new opening titles, a new outfit for the Doctor, and a completely different Tardis.
The title sequence is a huge improvement over the cheap cartoonish ones we’ve endured the last two and a half seasons. Even though they’re a bit overly frenetic as they try packing in grace notes to virtually all the titles than came before it, and we could do with the sound effects being muted so they don’t intrude on the tweaked theme music, they still manage to be rather gorgeous. The Doctor’s new costume similarly contains echoes of many of his predecessors’ attire and is really quite lush, much nicer than the former geography teacher garb although it’s good to see the bow tie remain. As for the new Tardis interior – I’ll admit, I’m less taken with this development although I’ll doubtless come around to it. For one thing it seems so much smaller on the inside now, and feels positively cramped compared the spectacular Tardis set of recent years – did they need to claw back the room on the soundstage or something? The set is also rather gloomy, a more metallic gunmetal grey palette which in many ways feels like going ‘back to the future’ and thereby evoking the ‘starship Tardis’ of the classic series just in time for its half-centenary celebrations in 2013. In story terms, it does rather suggest that the Doctor is reacting to the traumatic loss of Amy and Rory in much the same way that an emo/goth teenager would respond to breaking up with his girlfriend by painting his bedroom walls a self-destructive black.
But let’s pull back from the interior for a second, and consider the Tardis in a wider context. The sight of the police call box sitting on a street corner has become a routine one in the series over the years to the point of cliché: long gone is the sense of wonder and magic that would have struck the first viewers in 1963 at the sight of a police box in a scrap yard or against an alien landscape. What “The Snowmen” seeks to do – among so much else going on in the hour-long airtime – is to give us a chance to see the Tardis anew through fresh eyes in order to provide a small reminder of what that initial enchantement of five decades ago must have been like to contemporary viewers.
In the early scenes we’re looking for any signs of a conspicuous blue box in Victorian London, but there aren’t any. Instead we get a ladder hanging out of thin air, which leads to an impossibly tall spiral staircase that ascends all the way to the clouds. And while Clara pauses to admire the view, the camera slowly tracks around to reveal – behind her, out-of-focus but unmistakable all the same – the familiar battered police box sitting on a cloud (sorry, super-condensed water vapour) as we’ve never quite seen it before. Tell me that this one sequence didn’t send a tingle down your spine, and I’ll help you put out some posters to help you track down the soul that you’ve clearly misplaced.
But the best is yet to come. The episode does something that every Doctor Who director worth their salt would have given their eye teeth to pull off in the last 50 years. It does it so unheralded and seamlessly that you don’t realise it’s happening until it’s done, at which point I for one really wanted to stop everything and rewind to see if I really had just seen it. The shot starts off high and wide overlooking the Tardis from one side, then sweeps around to become a ground-level steadi-cam shot that follows Clara across the Tardis threshold and into the interior without a single discernible cut or CGI effect. We’ve been told for years that the Tardis is bigger on the inside than the outside: here, finally, we experience that reality for the first time, and it’s actually better than we thought the moment ever could be. That it’s capped off by Clara subverting the usual “bigger on the inside” line in a simple yet effective twist on the familiar phrase is just the icing on the cake.
It was a truly sublime moment in a Christmas special stuffed full of brilliant touches. God knows I’ve had my doubts and criticisms of the show in recent years and been quite forthright about expressing them, so I don’t apologise for likewise gushing praise when I feel it’s warranted. And this not only warrants it, it calls for a whole extra post consisting purely of synonyms culled from the thesaurus entries for “fantastic,” “spectacular,” “superlative,” “brilliant” and “superb” for good measure. This hour of television reached deep inside me, located the eight-year-old within, and gave it a good, long-overdue wake-up call, wash and brush-up – and in so doing, made the adult me a Doctor Who fan all over again.
To sum up: it was so good that I bestowed upon it a rare accolade by watching it a second time before going to bed. I never do that with any TV show, but I did here. And what’s more, it was just as good second time through. Now that’s Christmas magic for you.
“The Snowmen” aired on BBC1 on Christmas Day and is getting numerous repeats across the BBC network over the holidays as well as being available on the BBC iPlayer. It was also broadcast on BBC America and in other countries on or soon after December 25. However, for the first time in recent years there is no immediate standalone DVD or Blu-ray release scheduled in the UK and it looks like fans may need to wait for a Complete Season 7 boxset if they want to pick this up for home viewing.