The Snowmen in Perspective
Guest contributor Michael Coats takes a look back at last year’s festive special.
Merry Christmas! We should all by now be horribly unprepared for Matt Smith’s departure in The Time of the Doctor, and yet quite prepared for Peter Capaldi’s arrival in the same episode. But first, let us get into the TARDIS and travel back in time 12 months and take a retrospective look at 2012’s The Snowmen, and see what we can glean from it and how it fitted in with the rest of Series 7, now that we’re armed with foreknowledge. Dangerous thing, foreknowledge.
What is immediately clear is that The Snowmen, in contrast to the previous Christmas Special, 2011’s The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe is very focused in what it wants to be, chiefly a companion introduction episode a set at Christmas, with a twist. It is also very clear in its aims: to show the Doctor moving on from the loss of Amy, introduce Clara as the companion and reintroduce the Paternoster Gang as recurring characters and to reintroduce The Great Intelligence as an enemy, thus preparing the board for Series 7B, as it were. So, let’s jump in with a rousing cry of “Geronimo!”
Dark Clouds Over The Doctor
We last saw the Doctor distraught at the loss of best friend Amy Pond. (Although there are hints, both in the boxset exclusive minisode The Inforarium and book The Dalek Generation that the Doctor didn’t take a straight path from Amy’s garden in 1997 to Victorian London). We pick up with him having taken the TARDIS up above the clouds, and having taken retirement from saving the universe, an idea that was originally the basis of a rejected Douglas Adams script.
There are some who would call this an overreaction, but I would disagree. It is not without precedent, even within a Christmas Special: it is implied in The Runaway Bride following the loss of Rose (and outright confirmed in Turn Left) that the Doctor would have committed suicide in defeating the Racnoss if it wasn’t for Donna’s presence. Whether he loved her or not and this being a believable reason for wanting to do so; the fact remains that he had only known Rose for two years of his life. By comparison, as well as being ‘The first face this face saw.’ and a combination of elder sibling and best friend Amy was a constant that he knew over a period of 300 years in his life. It’s also not just the loss of Amy (and Rory), it’s the view that the loss of Amy was the final straw (and, to a degree, his fault).
Clara The Light That Pierces The Clouds
Some have been critical of the Doctor ‘brightening up’ too quickly when he sees Clara. I’m going to have to disagree (and as this is about to introduce some psychology, I apologise in advance). The Doctor’s attitude throughout the episode is a realistic representation the Kübler-Ross Model of the five stages of grief, if you bear in mind that the stages can be gone through many times and not necessarily in a linear order.
The first stage; denial and isolation is evident through the Doctor living on a cloud high above the Earth, far away from where his loss of Amy occurred (in terms of time and place, Amy’s prediction that he wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon sadly rings true), and adopting a non-interventionist policy towards the affairs of the Earth. It is also evident in that when he is dragged into investigating, he uses humour as a defence mechanism through his Sherlock Holmes impression; by becoming someone else, he is denying who he is and what he has experienced.
The second stage; anger, is easy to spot. The Doctor lashes out at those who just want to help (Strax, as well as Vastra and Jenny), those who are…well, a bit daft (Strax again), those who disobey his instructions (Clara, possibly because he feels if Amy had obeyed his instructions he wouldn’t have lost her), as well as disdain for things which he feels are beneath him (Victorian values).
The third stage; bargaining, is easy to pinpoint, but a little unusual in that it involves bargaining the life of another dying person, but is still applicable in terms of of the grieving process for Amy and Rory. He makes a bargain with the universe that Clara’s life will be spared if he saves the Earth, and he makes another when he asks if Clara will come away with him if he saves the world (though this is also partly acceptance, the fifth stage, but more on that later).
The fourth stage; depression, is harder to pinpoint, but the fact that he was up on his cloud for so long and felt that saving the world/universe was no longer worth it if he lost every friend (or lover) he made along the way is significant, as is his statement ‘It was my fault.’ regarding Clara’s fall.
The final stage, acceptance, is first displayed when he gives Clara the key, and also, as noted above, when he asks her to come away with him, and lastly at the end of the episode when he realises there’s another Clara out there. It is important to note that acceptance doesn’t mean that person is over their grief, it is the recognition that the person they are grieving is not coming back and that the world will never return to the way it was. In terms of the Doctor, it is acceptance that this is not what Amy would have wanted and of some of her final words to him: ‘Don’t travel alone.’
Some have also said seems confused thematically and doesn’t know what it wants to be. This is not the impression of the episode that I got, which is an episode with a clear theme of moving on from the death of a loved one, both of the Doctor and of Captain Latimer.
I have spoken briefly about the etymology of Clara’s name before in Asylum of the Daleks: In Perspective. It is incredibly fitting that Clara’s name means ‘light’, as this is what she is. Clara is the common denominator between the two men, and she is the instrument through which they do move on. Captain Latimer hasn’t fully moved on from his wife’s death and is distant from his children, relying on at least two governesses to deal with them, with the excuse that children ‘Are not really my area’. As well as Clara healing Latimer’s pain through his feelings for her, (presumably the first since his wife passed away), her death also heals the rift between him and his children. By her telling him that ‘They are (his area) now’, she is telling him that he can’t hide behind governesses any more, and would have to deal with them personally from now on. In terms of Series 7’s wider themes of death and rebirth, there is a wonderful symmetry in the fact that the sight of Amy and Rory’s grave was what caused the Doctor to stop travelling, while the sight of Clara’s gave him the impetus to start doing so again.
A Fairytale Machine
Also debuting in The Snowmen was a brand new TARDIS control room, created by production designer Michael Pickwoad (whose first job in that role was on the film Withnail and I, which featured Eighth Doctor Paul McGann and the man playing Doctor Simeon, Richard E Grant, fact aficionados). While more machine-like than the previous one, it still retains that ethereal quality that is inherent in the TARDIS, as well as harking back to the control rooms of the Classic era. Personally, I love it, my favourite bit being the rotating columns above the time rotor with Circular Gallifreyan inscribed on them. It is generally a fantastic piece of design.
There has been some criticism for a lack of in-story justification for the change, which I do not share, for two reasons: there is no way to provide this without a shameless As You Know sequence which kills the pacing and is solely for for the audience’s benefit. Secondly, it is there; but you have to look for it. How would you describe the new design of the TARDIS? The word I’d use is ‘Gallifreyan’, and this combined with his non-interventionist policy signifies the ultimate progression of Eleven’s self-hatred: despite being the incarnation most like Two, he has become what the latter most hated about the Time Lords.
The Paternoster Problem
Returning for the first time since 2011’s A Good Man Goes To War were the Paternoster Gang, made up of Silurian Vastra, her wife (an apparent new development from the aforementioned episode) Jenny Flint, and estranged Sontaran Strax. The first two’s return is generally welcome, and their marriage has been mostly well received. Jenny is a little underserved by the script (later rectified by The Crimson Horror and The Name of the Doctor), but I particularly enjoyed her sarcastic ‘At your service.’ and accompanying mocking curtsy to Doctor Simeon after he termed her Vastra’s ‘fatuous accomplice’. Vastra herself had a rather more substantial role, and the ‘one word’ scene between her and Clara was a highlight of the episode, and her non-judgemental protection of the Doctor along with the other two was was heartwarming. This had a beautiful payoff in The Name of the Doctor where he considered it his duty to go to Trenzalore and put himself in an incredibly dangerous situation out of gratitude for the kindness they showed him, so it was evidently was something that the Doctor was very grateful for.
Strax in particular has split opinion over his return, for a number of reasons, all of which I will attempt to address. The first is his being alive after he appeared to die in the aforementioned episode. I stress appeared here, because his last on screen action was coughing. Unlike Lorna Bucket, whose death was in depicted on screen, his fate is ambiguous. This makes logical sense, if you think about it, because Strax had his Sontaran armour which absorbed the blow to an extent, whereas Lorna took a direct hit from the energy blasts of the Headless Monks. I like to think, being a fellow nurse, Rory helped with the first aid (we know he kept medical supplies on him at all times) after the battle.
Another criticism is that Strax being a butler (blame certain fans if this is to your chagrin) and wearing a suit and being a bit dim makes the Sontarans as a whole impossible to seem scary or threatening ever again (although to some they never were, perhaps it’s because of looking like a potato with legs). To which my first response is: if we’re going to judge an entire race on one member, humanity is screwed (especially if its someone like Piers Morgan), and my second; this isn’t true; in The Name of the Doctor, the scene where Strax’s past is rewritten is all the more disturbing because it’s so contrary to what we’ve come to expect from him. I can see plenty of potential in how more traditional Sontarans would react towards him.
Some have also said that Strax’s humour is patronising to the younger viewers he is aimed at, but as children know when they are being talked down to and resent it, I’ve never understood that criticism, as the vast majority seem to love him. If you’re interested in what I think, personally, I think you’re all mad for wanting to know what I think (Why are you even reading this?), but more importantly, I enjoyed most scenes with him in, and I justified it as thinking how he would react in unfamiliar situations note how strategical and sensible he becomes when he gets involved in a combat situation.
Winter is Coming
Also returning after a much longer absence was The Great Intelligence, last seen in recently (mostly) restored 1968 Patrick Troughton serial The Web of Fear and which this episode also serves as an origin story for. Voiced magnificently by veteran actor Sir Ian McKellen, the Intelligence initially manifests itself in the form of a psychic snowflake that is also a mind parasite, and comes across an asocial boy, a young Walter Simeon. In a chilling idea, and one that gets more clever the more I think about it; the Intelligence gets its nourishment by turning Simeon into a kind of walking echo chamber. He only hears his own thoughts reflected back at him but magnified, leading to his adult self being a sociopath (and a Doctor, one ironically enough whose actor Richard E Grant depicted an alternate Tenth Doctor in 1999 Moffat-penned spoof The Curse of Fatal Death and an alternate Ninth Doctor in 2003 web-only story Scream of the Shalka) helping the Intelligence to gain human form and feeding innocent people to it in its now grown state, snow that has learned how to make and manifest as the eponymous Snowmen (regrettably not of the Abominable variety).
The G.I. was intending to use the frozen body of the woman who had been the previous and apparently abominable (seeing as the ice crystals could only reflect) Governess of Captain Latimer’s children (you have to question how she died, was she taking a swim in winter or something, or did she just fall in the pond?) to acquire knowledge of human DNA in ice crystal form, in order to learn how to manifest in a human form. The Doctor intended to save the day by utilising the Memory Worm, a creature which had earlier been the basis for a comedic scene between the Doctor and Strax, and had been implied to have been the means the Doctor erased the memories of those who had encountered him in Victorian London in the past. Having tricked the Simeon into thinking that he was carrying a piece of the shattered Ice Governess, the Doctor was able to to kill the Intelligence by erasing Simeon’s entire adult life… or so he thought. The Intelligence had lived long enough as an idea to outlive its host, and it was left to a dying Clara and a grieving Latimer family to save the day, the Intelligence is melted, as a result of encountering tears for the first time, which it proceeds to mirror.
My main problem with the resolution is not that of the resolution itself, what the nature of the snow was is established well enough and early enough in the plot;, and it’s also believable given Simeon’s characterisation that they wouldn’t have encountered tears before; although I do think the solution comes maybe perhaps a tad too abruptly. Above all though, it works because it defeats the Intelligence by means that are only a hindrance to it, rather than killing it, which I would never be able to buy (looking at you, Closing Time). The problem is that the survival of the Intelligence doesn’t quite make sense using The Snowmen alone as a frame of reference. However, it does make sense in the context of The Name of the Doctor, as this is one of the events the G.I. goes back and interferes with, and you can see the exact moment of interference in the timeline, because the Intelligence’s survival is touch and go and then it sort of semi-reboots, creating a stable time loop that ensures its own survival. This doesn’t diminish the effect of probably my favourite line of the special; ‘Now the dream outlives the dreamer and can never die.’ This harks back to a similar apocalyptic portent from 2010’s The Time of Angels that has come to pass (albeit with a different threat): ‘What if we had ideas that could think for themselves? What if one day our dreams no longer needed us?’ Chilling, in every sense of the word.
An Unexpected Parody
What was wholly unexpected was the Doctor walking into The G.I. Institute while performing an impersonation of Sherlock Holmes, itself a reference to Tom Baker classic The Talons of Weng-Chiang. What follows is a gleeful descent into self-parody by Steven Moffat, sending up both his modern adaptation of it and Matt Smith himself, in something of a casting gag (Smith auditioned for the role of John Watson, but was rejected for being ‘too much of a Sherlock’). Composer Murray Gold is in on the joke, creating a piece that is reminiscent of David Arnold and Michael Price’s Sherlock theme. That’s not the only role that the Sherlock canon plays in the story, there is also the amusing inference that Dr. Doyle’s Sherlock was in fact based on Madame Vastra (presumably Watson was a composite character of Jenny and Strax?) and the Paternoster Gang’s exploits, as well as a pleasing reference to The Strand Magazine wherein the original stories were first published.
The story takes surprisingly little from its inspiration, Raymond Briggs’ classic The Snowman. Apart from the title and the obvious, the only real similarities are some slight thematic ones and and the ending with the Snowman/men melting away. It owes far more, at least thematically, to A Christmas Carol, which had been the inspiration for the 2010 Christmas Special of the same name. This time though, the Doctor is the one who has shut himself off from the rest of the world and is ‘halfway out of the dark’. We’re not quite done with the literary allusions though. One scene is a clear homage to Mary Poppins where Clara addresses the Ice Governess (while holding an umbrella) with the words ‘I regret to inform you the position is taken. Goodnight.’ There’s also a reference to a more contemporary piece of literature, the A Song of Ice And Fire (or to those who know it better as the TV series, Game of Thrones), series; Doctor Simeon and The Great Intelligence recite the motto of the series’ House Stark, ‘Winter is Coming’.
The Bigger Picture
Part of the reason the episode was such a success is due to the efforts of director Saul Metzstein, who managed to create the perfect tone of darkness, but with a somewhat magical quality about it. He’s also responsible for the first ‘over the shoulder’ shot (a single camera shot following a character from the outside of the TARDIS, through the doors, and into the console room) in the series proper (1993 documentary Thirty Years in the TARDIS beat it to the punch). Murray Gold also produced some fantastic tracks, including possibly the best rendition of Clara’s Theme yet in the form of Clara in the TARDIS.
The acting was generally top notch throughout, but it is stars that Matt Smith and Jenna Louise Coleman that rise above the high standard set by the rest of the cast. Both have a sort of role within a role (insert Inception noise here) and rise to the challenge with aplomb. The best scene of the special is one where less is more: it features the Doctor walking back to the TARDIS whilst whistling Silent Night to himself. It shows the Doctor as I believe he should be, immensely enigmatic and difficult to fathom.
As stated in the introduction, the aims of the episode were made pretty obvious, but how well did it achieve them? Well, in my opinion, Moffat did very well: the Doctor starting to move on from the loss of Amy was neither too drawn out or too short, and the debut (and death) of Clara Oswin Oswald were handled very well, as was the reintroduction of the Paternoster Gang. The only one where I felt where Moffat fell down a bit on was the return of the Great Intelligence, which isn’t quite fleshed out as much as the other plot strands. Both Sir Ian McKellen and Richard E. Grant are sadly underused as a result. Overall though, Moffat does a good job; peppering enough moments of humour and optimism so that the air of darkness doesn’t become depressing, and utilising some very clever ideas that make it a challenger (though probably not quite at that level) to 2010’s A Christmas Carol.