The Snowmen Review
Clint Hassell gives his verdict on the 2012 Christmas special.
My long-time readers are aware that, while I appreciate the scope of ideas that Steven Moffat has brought to Doctor Who, I’ve been less than thrilled with the quality of his scripts since the start of his tenure as showrunner. While the latest Christmas special is not a perfect episode – there are two scenes that need to be cut, a glaring continuity error, and a lazy scriptwriting contrivance – “The Snowmen” represents one of Moffat’s most mature, carefully constructed scripts to date. In fact, I’m so impressed with Moffat’s Yuletide offering that I’m focusing this review solely on the script’s accomplishments, as compared to previous episodes.
1. The plot makes sense and lacks major holes.
The alien “snow” is slightly telepathic and responds to the memories of people around it. By exploiting the combination of a governess’ corpse, frozen in alien snow, and the dreams of her charge, the snow will be able to take on a more permanent, humanoid form. The snow is defeated because the majority of it is on the grounds of the Latimer estate, feeding off the emotions of a girl suddenly overcome with sadness by the death of Clara, thus “melting” the snow to “tears.”
This episode feels like classic Russell T. Davies: there is just enough of an explanation to make the plot palatable (if not believable), without so much as to encumber the story. I especially love that the snow responds to “memories,” and not “thoughts”; because most people remember snow as, well, snow, that is how it behaves, instead of springing to life to take the shape of the passing whims of every person in the area. Steven Moffat often overlooks these small points, but here, he chooses the precise words to keep the episode’s plot hole-free.
2. The episode starts with Clara.
Because we’ve met Clara, as Oswin, before, there is no need to spend the episode’s first act introducing her character, or demonstrating that she’d make an ideal companion for the Doctor. Instead, the episode’s teaser moves quickly from prologue to Clara – a musical cue denoting the significance of her arrival – and her first encounter with the Doctor.
Davies utilized the same situation, but to the opposite effect, in Series 4’s “Partners in Crime,” when he spent half the episode teasing the audience with near misses between the returning Donna Noble and the Tenth Doctor.
3. All of the companions are effectively utilized.
Madame Vastra and Jenny deduce Dr. Simeon’s ties to the alien snow and, in the Doctor’s absence, confront him. Clara pieces together why the pond is important, and recruits the Doctor’s help. Strax’s role as personal assistant contrasts the Doctor’s intelligence and pacifism. All four companions are instrumental in fighting the ice governess and protecting the Latimer family. Further, each companion fulfills a role distinctive to their character, and each features in at least one memorable scene.
This episode stands in stark contrast to, say, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” which contains five companion characters, none of whom are well-utilized. Nefertiti is present only to be kidnapped, the standard companion-in-peril role. While big game hunter Riddell does shoot at raptors, his inclusion is more to explain Nefertiti’s disappearance from the historical record – a plot point untouched by the episode’s narrative. Brian is introduced as a prelude to “The Power of Three.” What were Amy and Rory doing, again?
4. The humor is balanced and appropriate.
“Good evening. I’m a lizard woman from the dawn of time, and this is my wife,” may be the funniest line ever uttered on Doctor Who. What makes the line brilliant is that it is something that Madame Vastra would believably say. Rather than bend her character to fit a pre-written joke, Moffat’s script exploits the natural humor to be found in a lesbian, Silurian detective in Victorian England.
Strax-as-companion is awesome. The character is so well-written that the scene of Strax retrieving the memory worm played out exactly as expected, and yet was still hilarious. I literally laughed out loud at “Sir! Emergency! I think I’ve been run over by a cab!”
Far too often, Moffat-era scripts have incorporated “funny” characters played by comedic actors (the foppish robots in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” Craig Owens in “The Lodger” and “Closing Time”) or have portrayed the Eleventh Doctor as clownish, rather than eccentric or alien, in order to include moments of humor. By allowing more intrinsically humorous characters to provide the levity of the episode, Matt Smith’s performance is broadened to include a wider range of mature emotions.
5. The Clara/Oswin connection is quickly acknowledged.
It has been blatantly obvious since “Asylum of the Daleks” that Clara and Oswin are not the same character – Oswin is familiar with computers and space travel in a way that Victorian Clara could never be – nor is the curly-haired Clara from “The Snowmen” the straight-haired companion seen in clips from future episodes (and thank God for that, because, really, does anyone wish to see Digby, Francesca, or Captain Latimer ever again?). Oswin and Clara are, in fact, aspects of the same person, echoed through time. While that “revelation” came to the Doctor at episode’s end, clever viewers could see where Moffat had laced clues to Clara’s circumstance throughout “The Snowmen.” For example, why is “Miss Montague,” a loving, talented, dedicated governess, serving drinks as “Clara,” in a tavern? It’s the same character, leading two lives, each of which seems to contain some aspects of the true “Clara” – “Miss Montague” seems to reflect closely Clara’s true nature, yet she uses her real name and accent while waitressing at the bar. This subplot symbolically telegraphed the entire Clara/Oswin character arc within a few short scenes, and has astute viewers wondering how much of Clara is a fabrication.
6. The episode is rife with symbolism.
Note how often mirrors are mentioned in “The Snowmen.” Not only is Clara a mirrored aspect of the Oswin character from “Asylum of the Daleks,” but Madame Vastra and Jenny – inspired by the Doctor to use their talents for justice – serve as reflections of what Clara could have become, had she lived.
While the motif of the TARDIS on a cloud ignores a vital component of Who mythology – namely, that the TARDIS blends into its surrounding and is virtually unnoticed by passersby – the cloud symbol both served as metaphor for the Doctor’s aloof, uninvolved observer status, at the episode’s start, and gave us the poignant line about the cloud disappearing because “it rained,” at the episode’s end.
7. The “one word” test, administered by Jenny and Madame Vastra to Clara, may be the coolest scene Moffat has ever written.
Yes, it’s silly, and serves no real purpose – how does answering questions using only one-word answers entitle Clara to an audience with the Doctor? But, here’s what the scene does: the audience already knows that Oswin has quite a way with words, charming us all in “Asylum of the Daleks” despite having no real action and sharing scenes with but disembodied voices on an intercom. Clara is similarly talented, matching the Doctor in wordplay and traded quips, without missing a beat. Moffat has remarked several times that Jenna-Louise Coleman was cast mainly because she could talk faster than Matt Smith.
And just at the moment where we are seeing the potential that fast-talking Coleman has as clever Clara, Moffat writes a scene where she can only use one-word responses. And Coleman nails it, being every bit as compelling as before. You want us to fall in love with a new companion? This is how you do it.
I especially cheered Clara’s retort, “Words,” to Madame Vastra’s comments about the Doctor not being Earth’s heroic savior, and Clara’s final plea to the Doctor for help, “Pond” – an obvious homage to the previous companions, and an indication that Clara has some access to Oswin’s experiences. How else could Clara have known that “Pond” would elicit such a response? As an added bonus, the scene cuts to the Doctor, who is reading, and wearing the glasses he discovered he needed when last with Amy and Rory, in “The Angels Take Manhattan.” The shot even focuses on the glasses! To circle back and reference the past in such a poignant, affecting – and yet, subtle – way is truly remarkable, and demonstrates a craftsmanship of which I didn’t think Moffat was capable.