Retrospective: The Snowmen
David Selby gives his thoughts on the 2012 special.
The ending of The Angels Take Manhattan pledged to turn Doctor Who upside-down. The loss of the Ponds was guaranteed to have a profound impact on the Doctor; but there were more modifications amidst the air of ‘New Who’ –a refined TARDIS, companion and even attire for the Doctor. But how did each area fare? And how successful was The Snowmen?
The Dark Doctor
The Doctor was referred to as the, “fourth member of the Paternoster Gang, a shadowy figure whose assistance was only sought in the direst emergencies” in the ‘bespoke prelude’ to The Snowmen. This initial formation of the Doctor’s altering mentality was due to events long before the special; back as far as The Angels Take Manhattan. The Doctor’s reclusive nature could hardly be blamed on solely the loss of the Ponds; a being as ancient and experienced as the Doctor would grow eventually to the ‘fallen angel’ stage; beyond the age of wisdom comes a severe age of downheartedness; a self-loathing and isolated temperament which derives from sheer loneliness. The Doctor was always heading for this, but with the sporadic Pond adventures, he remained stable, benevolent, and reasonably content.
The portrayal of the Doctor’s ice-like solitude (a well-thought link between the leitmotifs of the story as well as the villain and setting) was actually quite poor, in my opinion. It was one of the few times the writers got the chance to do it and he was still too ‘fun’. In some ways, it was almost as if the Doctor was forcing himself away from the universe reluctantly, just out of fear of a broken heart. It wasn’t the approach I was expecting, but if, and only if, that was Moffat’s objective, then it was a well-constructed idea.
There were more flaws, however. For a start, the Pond’s departure in The Angels Take Manhattan could have been analysed enough by the Doctor for him to gain information of their whereabouts; even if they couldn’t have met him in 1938 New York, they’d have still been able to arrange meeting with him at a later date, or simply in another country, via letters or telegrams (similarly, if River had been able to use her Vortex Manipulator, surely the Doctor could also?). Another area which I felt was misused was the Paternoster Gang’s significance to the Doctor – these are, after all, the people who risked their lives for him at Demon’s Run, being downright victimised whilst Clara is unjustly superior (yes, there were motives; Clara appeared as an enthusiastic character with great moral integrity to the Doctor, whilst the Paternoster Gang didn’t quite make the effort she did). I also believe that it shouldn’t have been Vastra who resurrected Strax (assuming it was Vastra); rather Rory – this would have had an impact on how the Doctor valued Strax, another illustration of his Scrooge-like characteristics, seeing memories of Rory in Strax and consequently choosing to block him out (reminiscent of Scrooge’s outlook on Fred and Fan).
A Companion in Clara?
I had my doubts about Clara. I was never a massive fan of Amy, though admittedly she has grown on me recently. I was worried that Steven Moffat would aim for a companion too exuberant and flirty (there have been a lot of extraverts in the new series; I believe it is now time for someone more reserved and introverted). He was also in another tough dilemma which my feelings were split on; should Clara follow the simple plot-line of a Victorian governess looking for adventure, or should she undergo a more complex and science-fiction related arc, with a satisfying relation to Oswin? I pondered on this right up until the special, until I finally made my verdict. So far, I think Moffat’s been making the right decisions where Clara is concerned.
Clara’s disposition, free of plotlines, was utterly convincing and very multi-dimensional, like Amy. But unlike Amy, I found her likeable. I enjoyed her fluctuating personalities; they were charming to watch and showed what a bright, autonomous character she was. Another thing I admired was her sheer passion as a companion, effectively pushing herself into the Doctor’s life. Her care for the children was astonishing and gave her visible complexity, whilst her death, as well as being a shock, established her as more than just a ‘Christmas companion’.
The Paternoster Gang
A Christmas story merits a certain level of comic moments and characters, which is to a degree what the Paternoster Gang served as. Strax was predominantly for humour, but as I stated earlier, his droll attributes could have been juxtaposition to having a sensitive backstory, too.
As for Madame Vastra (aka ‘The Great Detective’), she could have featured as a very Sherlock Holmes-esque individual, her persistence to ascertain the truth behind the Snowmen giving her a handful of Holmes’ qualities, on top of being abetted by her ‘assistant’, Jenny (Conan-Doyle also wrote for a duo of same-sex detectives, though not quite in the same way) – but in reality, Jenny seemed to be there purely to emphasize that her and Vastra were lesbians, and thus the relationship between the pair wasn’t at all convincing.
Transformed TARDIS & Titles
Was there a real need for a change in TARDIS? That’s what I found myself asking upon the confirmation of a re-designed control room. From a diverse perspective, however, the altering control room somewhat imitates the Doctor’s varying persona; cold, empty, expansive, lean and depressed of colour. It works well as homage to the Hartnell-era, using a similar console design to the original, leading well into the 50th anniversary. It wouldn’t be a bad move, say, to perfect the TARDIS to progressively suit the Doctor’s personality and indeed his physiognomies; in The Snowmen, the Doctor chose a costume which felt would have harmonised to a film-noir setting (a 30s New York story could have been saved instead for later in the series, and pursued an even darker narrative), with a few ‘Mad Hatter’ facets here and there. The TARDIS agreed with this move by using a principally ominous and eerie colour scheme, but it may be considered that when the Doctor returns to his former glory, which he no doubt will, the TARDIS could too. But so far, I’m getting to like the new TARDIS, and it will function well for what’s looking to be a madcap but also chilling adventure in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. In its grandiosity, the new TARDIS is splendid; possibly the best yet.
As for the title-sequence, I was surprised how much I took to it. If I’d have been told before The Snowmen that the faces would have worked, I’d have chuckled and dismissed the new titles as a tawdry gimmick trying too hard to be redolent of the classic era. Yet the faintness of the faces seemed to make them more attractive, and accentuated the significance of the show’s protagonists – it’s not The Doctor, Amy and Rory any more – it’s the TARDIS twosome – The Doctor and Clara Oswin Oswald. The whole scale and grandeur stressed that Doctor Who isn’t ‘just’ sci-fi; it encompasses a whole range of speculative fiction; this was epitomised by the bright colours and swift, darting shots as the TARDIS raced through the vortex. But this is most definitely the start of a very matchless, whimsical but wonderful era of Who.
Monsters and Villains
Both the adversaries in this story looked very promising – you had Doctor Simeon, the mysterious scientist with the menacing exterior, masking someone serving the Snowmen’s malevolent urges since being just a child; manipulated his whole life; his past shadowed by mystery and darkness. Richard E. Grant’s performance is good throughout this story; he appears truly intimidating as Simeon, but I don’t feel as if he got much of a chance to act.
I’m torn as to which direction the show should have taken with him; there was the obvious – a textbook baddie who plays for the Christmas special alone, his transgressions all assisting the Snowmen – or perhaps the opposite, the Snowmen’s actions are down to Simeon; some sort of motivation triggered the Snowmen to oblige to him (perhaps he created them?). Either of them could have worked for the story, but there was the alternative – Grant becoming a recurring villain; a regular fixture. He’d drag viewers in who were curious about what he’d do next, as Moriarty did with the Holmes books or how the Master did with the Pertwee-era, turning out each time to be one of the episode’s key stars. It would build up an intriguing plot, and a villain whose incentives are (or gradually become) clear is what the show is in need of. Whenever the protagonist changes as a character, it is surely logical to find him an enemy who turns his friends against him (take Clara; she’s new to the show, and thus the Doctor is new to her – whilst she trusts him, she’s led into believing that he has a ‘darker side’. This would allow Simeon to manipulate her and use her as a weapon).
Moffat chose, of course, to use him a Christmas villain, which was fine, only his use was very poor. I’m yet to see a Moffat villain with clear motivation and villainous tendencies which make them stick out – so far, Moffat’s villains have been minimized by either another storyline (in this case, the introduction of Clara), or one of his eminent monsters – in this case, the Snowmen.
Now on the subject of the Snowmen – they were supposed to make the story scarier, which I thought they failed to do. They were a great concept, but weren’t important enough in the story to have any significance. Saying this, they did augment the story in terms of excitement, dramatic tension and Christmas festivity, and work well as a highly atmospheric backdrop for Clara’s tale, which was of course the focal point of the narrative. Speaking of backdrops, the Victorian London setting also worked well, plus, it releases the option of an alternate timeline story in an advanced, steampunk-styled London later on in the series when the inevitable return of the Paternoster Gang comes about.
Something I’d been incredibly apprehensive about was the way the story was resolved. Essentially, anything which relies on a ‘reset button’ or a convoluted timeline to explain itself was going to dishearten me. The ending itself was, therefore, a massive, massive relief to me. From my perspective, it was ingenious; the destruction of the Snowmen was obviously water, but tears from Clara. Clara’s death was a good move, and opened up a realm of possibilities for the rest of the season.
The Clara arc is something which could either make or break the show, but if controlled with immense caution, could redeem Moffat for many of us here. Is Clara the same person as Oswin? Is Clara scattered through time? Does it link in with the Great Intelligence, Silence or both? Or is Clara actually River Song, splintered through creation after the events of the Library?
The presence of the Great Intelligence was another wonderful idea, obviously another technique of celebrating the classic series for the 50th Anniversary. Perhaps Simeon is the first in a long line of ‘hosts’ for the Great Intelligence, who will most likely make an appearance in the opener giving the nature of the story- but only time will tell…
Overall, my sentiments of this story are moderately high. Whilst I don’t feel it lives up to the quality of A Christmas Carol, which was a perfect adaptation of a literal masterpiece, The Snowmen was still the best thing Moffat had produced all year. I almost sense it is a reworking of Oliver Twist; the Doctor acting a little like the Artful Dodger, and Clara like Nancy – even following the pattern and dying. But The Snowmen stands alone as an episode, and is very strong. No, it hasn’t restored Moffat’s splendour as a writer in my eyes, but it’s began an arc which could, and that’s the main thing. Maybe Moffat is, after all, the right man for the 50th anniversary. I won’t raise my expectations yet, though. But if we have more like The Snowmen, the new series won’t be at all bad.
Final Verdict: 9/10