Doctor Who: 705X “The Snowmen” Review
Reviewed by Adam James Cuthbert
After the underwhelming start to this current series, The Snowmen had a lot to live up to. Now, I’ve always particularly liked the standalone nature of the Christmas specials: with the exception of The Christmas Invasion, and Amy and Rory’s cameos, each special has featured a one-off companion. In a way, this makes the specials feel distinguished from conventional stories: it enables the writer to experiment with unfamiliar faces and their dynamic with the Doctor, all the while continuing to develop the Doctor’s characterisation. It offers the writer an opportunity to explore hitherto partly glimpsed dimensions of the Doctor’s character: a new companion, naturally, presents new insights. Until the debacle of The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, I’ve generally found the one-off companions to be sympathetic, suitably grounded individuals: they have their share of idiosyncrasies (and/or flaws) that establish their uniqueness, and, in the cases of Jackson Lake and Kazran Sardick, there was a genuine sense of partaking a journey with these characters; of discovering an inner nobility within themselves. The challenge the specials posed was to establish, unpack and detail someone’s backstory and characterisation within the timeframe, juxtaposed against the central imminent danger, and the resolution to the crisis. Boasting of the respectable guest actor hired for the role, the specials often benefited from the gravitas (David Morrissey, Michael Gambon) or credibility (Bernard Cribbins, Catherine Tate, Katherine Jenkins) the actor demonstrated in the role.
For these reasons, The Snowmen carried a certain element of risk. With Moffat’s predilection to experiment – in my experience, unsuccessfully – I was hesitant for a special to establish, so I believed, a recurring companion, whose next episode would be months away. Although news reports stated the next companion would hail from the 21st century, there remained the possibility that by purportedly introducing her in the special, she had somehow been displaced in time (the reverse of Ace in the Classic series?), only to be rescued by the Doctor. There also remained the mystery pertaining to Jenna-Louise Coleman’s performance in Asylum of the Daleks, and the connection between her incongruous appearances: was this simply a case of casting the same actress twice, as a vehicle for her acting abilities? The ending of The Snowmen has since revealed Clara is “the woman twice dead”. The Doctor will seemingly travel with the version of Clara that exists in the 21st century, last seen visiting the necropolis where her 19th century counterpart was interred, as if to emphasise the ominous nature of her survival. I’m personally not enthusiastic about this decision. If the River Song arc is any indication of the route Moffat will take with Clara, then I fear for the worst. I’ll refrain from judging Jenna as the companion, yet, until later developments, but if 19th century Clara foreshadows 21st century Clara’s personality, again, it’s not encouraging. I’d rather not see another companion display sexual attraction towards the Doctor (the kiss in this episode was wholly superfluous to the character’s more positive, redeeming traits).
As the story commences, Clara is working as a barmaid at The Rose & Crown. It’s revealed she leads a double-life as a governess for the children of Captain Latimer. Latimer is emotionally estranged from his children, implicitly following the death of his wife. Latimer has since developed an infatuation for Clara, and is devastated when he’s informed she has a “gentleman friend”. Tom Ward’s understated performance was shamelessly underdeveloped. The narrative suffered from a density of characters that suppressed any potential poignancy and drama between father and governess, as a surrogate maternal-figure for the children, consummating a relationship, only for said relationship to be sundered as Clara’s torn from his arms. Latimer is overwrought, but Clara’s death reunites father and children. As it stands, Latimer occupies a similar position as previous incidental characters (e.g. Lorna Bucket, Sam Garner) in Moffat’s stories of late. I find their underexplored history and characteristics potentially captivating, whereas I feel only apathetic towards the main characters. This is inevitably due a novelty with a limited ‘shelf-life’ and appeal. Case in point: the Paternoster Gang. While I can understand their inclusion as recurring allies of the Doctor, I find the premise to be flawed: they are one-dimensional gimmicks, attributed undeserved credit, whereas characters of estimable depth and subtlety by comparison, as with Latimer, are diminished in their screen-time.
Similarly, Richard E Grant’s entertaining performance as Doctor Walter Simeon, a decisively callous antagonist whose disregard for humanity stems from a warped childhood, as the instrument of the maleficent Great Intelligence, would have benefited from additional opportunity to flesh out Simeon’s considerable complexity and backstory by measure. As it is, we leap forward fifty years in a matter of seconds, our only insight into his peculiar mind-set being an asocial child building a snowman.
Most of the narrative is concerned with expository dialogue as the Doctor and his allies investigate the presence of unusual snow in the streets of Victorian London, ultimately confronting the Great Intelligence itself, voiced by Ian McKellen. I must confess a lack of familiarity with the Intelligence before viewing the episode. The Intelligence originally appeared in Henry Lincoln and Mervyn Haisman’s Second Doctor serial The Abominable Snowmen, wherein the disembodied consciousness sought physical form, possessing a Buddhist monk and old acquaintance of the Doctor, with intentions to consume the world. Here, the Intelligence, over fifty years, through Simeon, similarly conspires to attain physical form, whilst conquering the world with an army of menacing, sanguinary snowmen, in fact an alien mimetic substance resembling snow. Although the build-up to the Intelligence’s masterplan was sound, if unremarkable, and there hints of a dark and thrilling climax as snowfall began, the resolution was weak and abrupt. The family’s tears turn the snow into rain, a cloyingly disappointing resolution as Closing Time destroying the Cybermen with love.
One of the major issues I had with The Snowmen was the disjointed pacing of the narrative. I’m nonplussed about precisely what the story was striving to achieve, as it felt like sundry, disparate elements cobbled together, rather a coherent whole with consistent thematic developments. It is a whimsical, festive fairy-tale; an atmospherically brooding, nihilistic voyage of self-discovery for the Eleventh Doctor; a story of ‘alien invasion’ and ‘possession’; or a poignant story about family reconciliation at Christmastime? The highlight of the episode, by far, was Clara pursuing the Doctor up an impossible staircase to where the TARDIS is situated at vertiginous heights on layers of cloud. It was an engaging, even magical scene, showing Clara to be inquisitive and perceptive, when she realises she cannot be discerned by the citizens from beneath her vantage-point. Her pique and agog at this enigmatic stranger, whistling ‘Silent Night’ as he pulls down a ladder from nowhere, promptly vanishing into the shadows, was a fun scene. It enabled Jenna to convey Clara’s excitement and incredulity solely through the strength of her performance. I find myself appreciating such minute, incremental details, where the story is communicated through the grace of the visuals and performance. It was a refreshing change of pace from the earlier exposition and overlong, hackneyed ‘comedy antics’ of the Sontaran Strax. I’m chagrined there weren’t more, especially concerning the Doctor’s characterisation.
We are informed the Doctor has since retired to Victorian London, circa 1892. His days of saving the universe are over. This immediately raises a question: why; because of one woman? Although the story tries to convince us of the extremity behind the Doctor’s decision, it makes little sense within a grander context of the Doctor’s past history with companions. Also: why does this necessitate such a radical redesign of the TARDIS interior? While I can understand how the previous design might, to an extent, be associated with his travels with the Williams, as with his change in attire, the fact this goes unsaid within the story itself does little to justify the redesign. Furthermore, the Doctor’s darker turn is rendered pointless as he changes attitude, instantly brightened by Clara’s presence. My impression was Moffat was aiming to make the Doctor a darker, more mysterious figure; so his decision here seems contrary to initial interpretations. (Repetitions of “Doctor who?” do not have the same effect as tangible, credible drama between characters over their experiences.) After the protracted stay of the Williams had the effect of characterising the Doctor as childlike, I’d thought The Snowmen would represent a return to form for the Doctor. While I didn’t think highly of the Sherlock Holmes mock-up, the story’s reference to The Strand magazine, demonstrating an awareness of Victorian literature, strikes me as a possibility to have extended the allusions to Victorian literature and culture, with the twisting, labyrinthine city streets, enshrouded in winter-mist and snow, becoming the Doctor’s own trip down the rabbit-hole.
Overall Rating: 4/10
In conclusion, The Snowmen has only left me feeling dispirited by Moffat’s approach towards the show in recent years. Instead of presenting a self-contained story, with consistent, suitably deep, poignant themes and characterisation, as conveyed in earlier specials, The Snowmen suffers from a confused nature about its own intentions. An overcrowded narrative restricted strong guest performances and certain creative decisions were lacking in appeal.