TV There you are. Where were we? Right, then, Doctor Who’s The Snowmen. Wasn’t it good? Wasn’t it? Since it is Boxing Day as a write and and I've still the rest of the Olympic opening ceremony to watch (Danny Boyle's a fan of the TV Movie it seems) it’s also lucky that it’s the kind of episode which lends itself to bullet headings, section titles and lists. So even though I’m generally dead against that sort of thing in blog posts, resorting to * * * * * and the like, on this occasion, I’m going to crack on with bullet headings, section titles or lists. Do not expect this to be business as usual, but let’s face it, as episode go, The Snowmen was not business as usual either.
Well, sort of, because throughout The Snowmen, for all the Moffat-patented Christmassy whimsy of intelligent snow it’s not until later that I realised that in fact the Great Intelligence’s plan isn’t a parsec or two away from what the Nestene Consciousness has already achieved. This GI’s plan is to repopulate the planet with ice sculpted human beings something the NC has already achieved and has been using for decades creating plastic pals who think it’s fun to behead you. In other words, ironically at this point in their relative histories the Nestene Consciousness is a cleverer being that something presumptuously calling itself the Great Intelligence, which probably serves it right.
Elswhere, The Snowmen shares form with specials of previous years. In Richard E Grant’s frosty Walter Simeon, a Kazran like figure who the Doctor can’t save by wandering through his past (even when he realises he can be bothered) so simply deletes it, influenced instead by the (not so) Great Intelligence. The Victoriana of The Next Doctor and A Christmas Carol (albeit then thanks to a colony world harking backwards). Less developed but still present there’s also a family touched by tragedy caught up in it all ala The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. There’s also the kind of love conquers all, there’s nothing quite like the magic of Christmas resolution which can only really be acceptable on the 25th of a December.
But on top of that, it’s also a paradigm reversal remake of Rose in which instead of the Doctor pulling his new companion into an adventure, teasing her along, it’s the other way around. Moffat seems to be deliberately echoing that earlier episode throughout, from the Doctor saving Clara from the Snowmen hoard at the end of her working day, to her (rather than him) following him to his place of residence, to her later dashing into the TARDIS, stepping out, running around the outside and dashing in again. Perhaps I’m stretching the point, perhaps there’s a standard model, but the classic series rarely had companion introductions quite like this.
Since we’re here. My goodness. Now that the show’s been back for a few years, the companion figure is becoming increasingly difficult to get right. The new format, which has somewhat been remodelled on screwball comedies, demands that she be relatively feisty, well ok, very feisty, but without repeating what’s gone before. We’ve had mutually in love with the Doctor, crushing on the Doctor, friends with the Doctor, ambiguously attracted despite being married, married to the Doctor and now we have intellectually teasing the Doctor. I’ll theorise a bit later, but Clara has the potential to beat them all simply because like the Doctor, we can’t work her out. Clara who?
We know nothing about her. In her Oswin form, we were handed a slender bit of back story, of joining the Starship Alaska crew as Junior Entertainment Manager. This Clara person is a barmaid and governess, but beyond that we’re told nothing about her. This automatically makes her compelling. We don’t even know if these two characters are the same being, facet, reincarnations or … no, speculation later. The point is, companions in the new series usually come with a ready developed back story, a family, a mess of stuff and Clara Oswin Oswald has none at all. All she has is her force of personality.
Interestingly, the TARDIS Index File lists her under the same record. She was there and now she’s here, even though in describing her, they’ve essentially describing two (or three!) distinct fictional beings. The best bit is the final paragraph, one of those occasion when this wikia goes a bit QI. I’ll quote it in full to save me paraphrasing:
Clara's headstone in 1892 states that she was born on 23 November 1866 and that she died in 24 December 1892, meaning she not only shares the same birthday (though not the year) as Doctor Who itself but that she was also 26-years-old when she died — the same age as Doctor Who was when it was cancelled in 1989.Mind blown I know! I know! That’s Moffat at his most intricate, isn’t it? But wait, there’s more:
The Evil of the Daleks, which introduced the other Victorian companion, Victoria Waterfield, who also faced the Daleks and the Great Intelligence, took place in 1966, one hundred years after Clara was born. The oldest Dalek model to appear in her first story was also from Victoria's origin story and another of her stories (TV: The Web of Fear) was referenced in her second (a reference to the 1967 London Underground).This magnificent piece of detective work has to be more of a coincidence doesn’t it? Less of a coincidence than Victoria happening to be the star of this blog's title bar in Christmas week anyway. Let’s add that to the list of things to speculate about later.
All of which ignores Jenna-Louise’s compelling performance demonstrating that Asylum of the Daleks wasn’t a fluke and that Andy Pryor and the production team have chosen another fabulous actress for the Doctor’s companion, on this occasion with the range to articulate multiple accents. Like Karen Gillan before her, there also some automatic chemistry with Matt, who genuinely seems energised by her. There are also few actresses with the guile to convincingly jump about outside an invisible spaceship shouting the owner’s name, at least not since Catherine Hicks in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
As she fell from the TARDIS, I gasped, both because I was watching a character who in the slender screen time I’d grown to adore unexpectedly dying at what’s supposed to be the most exciting moment for a companion, but also because of the audacity of it, especially on Christmas Day. It’s not quite Suzie being shot through the head in Torchwood’s Everything Changes especially with the ensuing throw forward, but it’s a rare occasion when an “emotional” death is wrapped up in an intellectual conundrum and that is different for Christmas Day, to have a piece of television which challenges the viewer in that way.
Almost every Christmas special has consisted of the Doctor brooding about something, usually it’s a companion, once it was his own mortality and it’s a trope that something will force him to snap out of it, rekindle his sense of adventure. The idea of the Doctor not becoming involved is an anathema, so it’s little surprise that he does eventually don the bowtie and step up. We don’t know how long it is since the last episode in his lifetime. Could be decades. Could be a century. He mentions being over a thousand years old, but again, it’s entirely possibly he’s been moping around for decades.
Matt’s very good at moping, just as he is everything else. But what’s surprising is just how much more mature he seems. I accidentally stumbled on my copy of Party Animals the other day and the photo on the back looks almost like a different actor. Like every Doctor before him, he’s physically aged into the role. Not as significantly as Tom, not yet, but when he stopped to look in the mirror at one point, I thought it would be the character acknowledging the passage of time (it was the bowtie). Not that his line readings have changed much. Writers will probably never know if their dialogue will be shouted or whispered, though his choices are usually just right.
“I am the lizard woman from the dawn of time - and this is my wife.” Aaah, Vastra and Jenny, you do spoil us. As everyone else has said, it’s ironic that on the day the Archibishop of Canterbury condemned gay marriage in the one address each year when people are listening and you’d think he’d instead be promoting peace and goodwill to all men and women, the BBC’s flagship family tv drama doesn’t just endorse it, but to such a degree that it’s interspecies. Oh bless you Steven for providing this antidote however inadvertent. This is why Doctor Who, like Shakespeare, is the closest thing I have to a religion.
Nevertheless, Moffat utilises the “keep them greedy” approach to their return, putting them central enough in the action that they’re able to pick up the curiosity slack early in the episode when the Doctor doesn’t give a toss, but again not so much that we learn all of their tricks. We still want that spin-off damn it. Aguably it’s Strax who has all of the best lines, having lost a few IQ points since he died leading to a Tribbianite understanding of life, albeit without the interest in women (unless he’s revealed to have a secret crush on Jenny and wouldn’t that be a complicated love triangle) (what else is the probic vent for?), and strange obliviousness to the Doctor’s racism. Yes it is. Isn't it?
Since it’s implied that Vastra is the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, let’s ruminate briefly on the great detective’s status in the Whoniverse. A glance at the latest edition of Ahistory indicates that as far as spin-off fiction is concerned, from Andy Lane’s All Consuming Fire onwards, Holmes is a full blooded character within this fictional universe and has been embraced to such an extent that it’s possible to conjecture that all of Conan Doyle’s stories, like Nigel Kneale's, are retrospectively canonical. Lane’s book suggests the author is fictionalising the exploits of real people, which isn’t contradicted by The Snowmen. Thank goodness.
New titles, new music, new TARDIS interior.
The murky time vortex has been replaced by a Contact-like drift through the cosmos which vaguely references all of the previous title sequences and Matt Smith’s face peering out of a nebula which vaguely references the cover of the Eighth Doctor novel The Slow Empire. The new Dominic Glynn hewed version of the title music reintegrates some of the alieness of Delia Derbyshire’s original arrangement, though frankly going into the 50th year what we’d really want is Delia Derbyshire’s original arrangement which if you’re paying attention hasn’t aged and continues to resonate in and influence electronic compositions.
The decision to change these indicates The Snowmen is supposed to be something of a reboot that looks backwards across the history of the series and that’s also true of the new control room, a kind of submarine take on the white nightmare of the classic series. The space seems smaller, though with everything else happening we didn’t really get a chance to see Michael Pickwoad design at its best. There still isn’t a proper scanner, though opening a door and looking out is the more epic option. My favourite interior is still the TV Movie. It’s so ludicrously huge it fulfils the suggestion that the TARDIS has a whole universe within its walls.
Where to start? Murray's music packed with new themes and a homage to David Arnold's Sherlock track at the necessary moment? Pickwoard's atmospheric design elsewhere including the spiral staircase leading to a cloud and the Great Intelligence literally inhabiting a snow globe? The costumes especially on Jenna-Louise who it seems looks amazing in both spacewear and corsetry? The Snowmen with their Jack Skellington faces? Life on Mars's Liz White (who was once companion material) in a tiny little (and frankly slightly thankless role) as a maid? No, let's start with Ian McKellan voicing the not so Great Intelligence. Ian McKellan! In the month that the new Hobbit film is out. Not bad, Andy Pryor. Not bad.
Who is Clara Oswin Oswald? It is still possible that she is fragments of the same figure blown across time Scaroth like, but she keeps dying. Is it that she keeps being resurrected? Is she conscious of the other versions of herself? My initial thought after Asylum was that we and the Doctor would meet a new version in each episode and that she’d die by the end of each somehow like Kenny from South Park, only to magically re-appear the following week never conscious of her other selves but entirely the same character, the Doctor flummoxed as to why he keeps meeting her, a string of one-off companions who’re all the same companion.
The problem with that approach, however ground-breaking, are the merchandising implications, with licensees trying to work out if each of their stories would have to have the same structure, the Doctor meeting a Clara at the start of each comic, novel and audio only to be lost by the end. It’s also a big ask for the audience to be empathetic across so many different iterations of the character, having to carry their affection across these multiple personalities. It’s the Dollhouse problem in some respects despite it being an adorable actress playing loads of different characters who’re the same character.
Luckily, the trailer offers a few other suggestions. There’s talk of a girl who died twice but still lives, which suggests the Doctor’s going to be meet the very modern Clara in the graveyard and she’s going to be the girl he carries into time (with the prospect come Easter of at least the third introduction of the same character) (will it still be played from her pov or his?), trying to find out what links her to the other characters. Clones? Sisters lost in time? Or has she been planted to be the Doctor’s perfect companion ala Paul Abbot’s suggestion for the slot which he was given in the 2005 series before he dropped out, either by some future version of the Time Lord or someone else? River?
The other main thread is the not so Great Intelligence. The implication is The Snowmen is supposed to be a prequel to The Web of Fear. Will all of the stories in the upcoming year feed back into the old mythology, perhaps all be subtle prequels to classic stories somehow, one for each of the Doctors? Lord knows what they’ll do for Eighth given the dodgy connectivity with the spin-off media leading to no chance of a pre-visit to Edward Grove or appearance from Fitz. Grace can’t wander through can she? It’s going to be a celebrity historical featuring Puccini isn’t it? Unless we actually get the Eighth Doctor himself. Yes, that should do it.
A magnificent episode of the kind which you want to watch almost as soon as you’ve finished the first time, The Snowmen is clearly the best story of the seventh series so far, assuming, due to its weird structuring it can be included as part of that seventh series. What’s the boxed set going to look like? Will it include two Christmas specials? How is the series going to chime in international sales with a whole new bunch of stuff in the middle or is it being treated as two separate series? Is s8 actually beginning in Easter? I know, I’m effectively playing with the packaging. But can you blame me? It's still Christmas for two whole hours.