Funny how things sometimes draw attention to their own weaknesses without really realising that that’s what they’re doing, for just as this year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special was a kind of in-between-point in the story of the Doctor’s new companion (of which more later), so it was also something of an in-betweeny story. Not that it was in any way poor (and in terms of the Steven Moffat seasonal episodes, it walked all over last year’s effort – while at the same time falling far short of the greatness attained by A Christmas Carol), and indeed The Snowmen made for a very diverting hour on Christmas Day; it’s just that other than fail to introduce us to the new girl (and lay a gigantic hint as to what’s ahead in Series 7b), it didn’t really seem entirely sure of what it was and where it was going, and so ultimately we were presented with an oddly-paced and unevenly-toned story that may have engaged us with its characters, but featured a plot that proved somewhat less than entirely whelming.
But first things first, there’s a new titles sequence to talk about!
Considering this is the titles sequence that’s going to be taking us into the 50th Anniversary of the show, it seems odd that Moffat wanted such a radical departure from the norm (especially as he can be such a traditionalist in other matters, as with the new TARDIS interior), but while the new opening titles look rather like an updated version of the spacescapes from Barbarella, they do also have something of the feel of the McCoy titles sequence – particularly when (after many years of fans suggesting it) Matt Smith’s face appears in the clouds; I was almost expecting a wink. I think the graphics will grow on me (they’re utterly bonkers, for a start, and I rather like my Doctor Who utterly bonkers), although the music (which has lost its relentless rattling quality) seems less assured.
Elsewhere, and in spite of the aforementioned problems, there was a lot to recommend. The opening sequence seemed just a touch superficial, the introduction to the character that will eventually become Dr Simeon rather cursory, although as soon as we hear the voice of Ian McKellen (a voice I wonder if we’ll be hearing rather more of as Series 7b progresses) we know we’re moving onto safer ground. Richard E Grant, cast as the older Dr Simeon, is however woefully underused, spending almost the entire running time under the mind control of the Great Intelligence, and being given very little opportunity to show us his capabilities. The scene that follows, in which both Grant’s character and the Snowmen themselves are more properly introduced, gives us a hint of how The Snowmen might have been expected to progress, and puts us in mind maybe of David Tennant’s last regular Christmas Special The Next Doctor, with rum goings-on in a heightened Victorian England.
And Steven Moffat, with this latest episode, is moving more firmly into Russell T Davies territory. For although Davies’ middle Christmas Specials were standalone mini-movie spectaculars, he would also from time to time use the seasonal one-offs as show-pieces for a new or departing character. The Snowmen is very much a showcase for Jenna-Louise Coleman. She makes a brilliant counterpoint to the departed Amy Pond, and although Moffat can’t help himself when putting a lot of clever and witty dialogue in his characters’ mouths, for once the new girl seems less like an amalgamation of River Song and her younger mother (as she was during Asylum of the Daleks) than a character in her own right; let’s hope this continues, because Jenna-Louise feels like a breath of fresh air after the self-involved previous companion (reminding me far more of the wonderful Sally Sparrow), and I look forward to seeing more of her. The working-class-girl-made-good storyline also felt right for a Christmas Special, and gave the character of Clara a more believable reason to be investigating the Doctor. This is someone who has worked hard to improve her station in life, and so it is less of a leap to imagine her making the right overtones during the “One Word” test than it was to credit some of Karen Gillan’s early storylines with any plausibility. The scene where she follows the Doctor to his TARDIS in the clouds was both magical and, by showing Clara’s uncertainty about what she had found and the man she had been following, rather more convincing than it otherwise might have been; the Doctor is in a huff thanks to the events of The Angels Take Manhattan (although it’s difficult to believe he might be in quite such a sulk as to willingly allow his favourite species to fall into as much danger as they very nearly do), so it makes sense that he’d park the TARDIS somewhere less accessible (and more ego-boosting; there’s definitely a hint of the god complex going on here) than usual.
I had a suspicion as soon as the events of Asylum of the Daleks were over that Steven Moffat might be on another Christmas Carol kick, and so it proved. The new series’ timidity over choosing a companion for the Doctor from anywhere other than the modern day led me to wonder if we’d seen the Ghost of the New Girl in the Future in the Series 7 opener, and here we had the Ghost of the New Girl’s Christmas Past (and a very brief glimpse of the New Girl in the Present), and so as soon as we met Clara I was waiting for her to meet her doom. The fact that she did so effectively two-thirds of the way into the piece is another example of Moffat reflecting one of his predecessor’s flaws, that of pacing. When Russell T Davies expanded his 45-minute episodes by a further third for the Christmas Day slot, it often left him with climaxes that seemed to take an age and unbalanced the rhythm of the story, and Steven Moffat falls into the same trap here. As much as we might want Clara to survive (and after the fantastic, “I never know why, I only know who,” scene in the new TARDIS, we really do want her to survive), it’s obvious she isn’t going to and so her fate is drawn out rather more than seems necessary.
Moffat pulls this around quite brilliantly though, for while it might have been a mistake to make the Doctor quite as moody as he did, the moment the Doctor realises there’s something funny going on with Clara, he snaps out of his figurative fugue instantly and rather than leading us off into new adventures in the usual casual manner, we are now looking at a set of stories in which the Doctor has a mission – and that mission is a person. I love how Moffat addresses his previous indiscretions, and if it was seen as a mistake to make quite so much of Amy Pond when the way the character was built didn’t seem to deserve it, the writer seems to be more than making up for that this time around. What was also utterly fantastic and unexpected was the way Moffat avoided the Davies trap of harping on about companions departed, name-checking them only in the one instance and in a way that advanced the story of the new girl instead. Much kudos for that.
I’m rather keen on the new TARDIS interior design, too. Although it has been rebuilt out of necessity, the timing of the new design couldn’t have been better planned (to reflect the Doctor’s despond), and the design itself seems to hark back to the best of both the classic and new series designs, creating a space that is at once both nostalgic and brand spanking new (and the fact that it seems slightly smaller feels appropriate too). Just right for the forthcoming birthday. It’s about time designer Michael Pickwoad had a go at the iconic interior, and he hasn’t disappointed.
Pickwoad’s designs elsewhere are as invisible as a master of the art would want them to be, with the exception of the glorious snow globe creation that houses the Great Intelligence – or the cognisant snow, if we’re coming back to the subject of the slightly confusing A-plot. And while McKellen was masterful and the snow-possessed Dr Simeon daft-but-somehow-appropriately-so, the Snowmen themselves seemed both rather easily disposed of and incidental to the action, making them a rather inessential – if beautifully designed – presence.
There are times when Moffat just can’t seem to help stopping an action sequence mid-flow for a couple of pages of snappy and amusing dialogue, and so it proved here, the resolution to what was otherwise a perfectly serviceable Ice Woman plot seeming to take an age to get through (and no more slow-mo fallings-off-buildings, please), and the introduction to the Great Intelligence right at the end, with the Doctor barely able to remember who they are, felt a little odd, rather than the reengagement with something special that it was evidently supposed to be. I suspect the Intelligence will prove vastly important in terms of the eleventh Doctor’s overall story, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the last episode in the next run were to be named “Silence Will Fall” either...
It’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of the excellent Tom Ward (not to mention Liz White), but then, Moffat’s Doctor Who is nearly always very regular-cast-centric, so even though the Christmas Specials have previously bucked that approach, on this occasion it’s hardly a surprise. It was lovely to see Strax, Madame Vastra and Jenny back, though (Strax proving a particularly welcome returnee, crap Master-like excuses for having survived death aside, and especially during the hilarious Memory Worm Sequence), and the ensemble nature of the story made it feel rather more Christmassy than it otherwise might (obvious trappings aside), giving the feel almost of the Doctor assembling his family to celebrate the season.
With the rather vague nature of the threat involved, The Snowmen may have failed to ignite in terms of its plot, but we have to be honest and acknowledge that in Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, the plot isn’t always the most important thing – remember Let’s Kill Hitler, anyone? And while this episode might not have been anything like as dazzling or as surprising as that, it was plenteously absorbing, beautifully acted (particularly by the regulars) and rather amicably good fun (in spite of yet another companion “death”, Clara – actually Elisabeth Sladen’s middle-name, in an obvious nod to the Sarah Jane Smith actress – apparently taking up the mantle of the new Rory), and the rewatch factor will almost certainly be pretty high, as is usually the case with Steven Moffat’s quite densely-scripted episodes.
But most certainly The Snowmen is just a stopgap, an interlude as we travel towards something far greater. For all that we were told we were being introduced to the new companion here, they’ve done it again. For the second time in 2012, they’ve practised a deception upon us and we’re going to have to wait a while longer to find out who the new girl is and why her timeline is so complicated. And for once, I’m looking forward to finding out.