This review is rated “Shhhhhhhhhhh” for Spoilers. Please don’t read on if you haven’t seen this episode as major plot points are discussed.
England 1842 and a lonely young boy is befriended by the snowman he made.
Fifty years later, and the embittered Doctor Simeon is looking to that make that particular one the last that mankind ever sees, but another doctor is in town – one that is lonely and embittered by recent losses. Can a governess warm this Doctor’s hearts and with it bring a hero out of retirement?
“The Snowmen” is one of those Doctor Who stories where there are plenty of things going and you need to have more than one viewing. On the surface, this is a nice little Christmas episode with Victorian trappings and killer Snowmen, but there’s a lot more to this episode than meets the eye.
Steven Moffat’s script is very much one where you need to be looking underneath the wrapping to get to the real present.
Moffat uses his characters are mirrors alongside each other. The Doctor and Doctor Simeon are the main ones for this, each reflecting the other’s bitterness and solitude. The character of Clara is, obviously, a mirror for the character of Oswin from “Asylum Of The Daleks”… and the TARDIS herself gets in the act as the console room reflects the Doctor’s mood.
Secondly, this script is one that appears to have one eye on the programme’s 50th anniversary. Yes, there are clear references to the Whoniverse’s recent history – a Doctor damaged by recent experiences, the “Scooby Gang” of MadameVastra, Jenny and Strax from “A Good Man Goes To War” and the “Doctor Who?” thread that’s been running since “The Wedding of River Song”, but this is a continuity that is steadily getting more and more comfortable with being referential in its own past – such as with the Doctor being cold and isolated alongside the reference by Vastra to him not wishing to interfere but only to observe (which has been a keystone to the Whoniverse since the Time Lords were introduced in “The War Games”), the new console room and the return of an old enemy.
Thirdly, this is a story which is unafraid to have fun at the author’s own expense with references to Moffat’s “Sherlock” when the Doctor becomes “Sherlock Holmes” along with a finely hidden musical reference to that series, along with some gags and jokes from other genre series.
Matt Smith delivers probably one of his finest, if not his finest, performance as the Doctor as he has to, in effect, play two characters linked, but almost independent from each other. At the start of the episode, he takes his incarnation of the Doctor and twists it with a darker edge similar to the early days of when William Hartnell and Christopher Eccleston portrayed the role to make the Doctor a multi-dimensional character (no pun intended). The humour is there all along, especially with the Matt’s performance alongside Dan Starkey in the role of Strax – which I’ll speak of later, but it has a darker “don’t touch me” edge to it. However, he has to suppress the Doctor’s curiosity and adventurer aspect of his persona, but in a “Doctor doth protest too much” way. He says that he doesn’t want to get involved in the ongoing crisis and that he wants to be left alone, but as the viewer we also see that the Doctor subconsciously protests against this attitude especially in the scene where the Doctor visit’s Captain Latimer’s house to see the pond and his right hand behaves independently of the rest of him.
However, we all know the Doctor as we know and love him is going to return and he does in what I call the “Superman II” moment when the Doctor realises that the tie has been wearing has changed into a bow tie along with his statement that bow ties are, indeed, “cool”. From there on in, he returns to being a show off, particularly to Clara, which sits alongside the Doctor’s attitude in “The God Complex” where he tells Amy that he wanted to be adored, as well as being funny, effervescent and sympathetic – particularly when Clara dies.
All along though, there is a sense that he is more overtly cunning than he has previously been allowed to be, particularly in the scene where he clowns around as “Sherlock” by making clearly incorrect deductions to get the real information from the Intelligence along with the scene where he and Clara escape from the Ice Governess and the Doctor panics to test whether Clara has the “right stuff” to be a companion.
Jenna-Louise Coleman probably has the toughest entry of any companion in the show’s near fifty year history as she has to sell a mystery as equal to the Doctor’s – in effect, she has to sell that Past Clara is the same person, or at the very least interrelated to Future Clara/Oswin, albeit from two different time periods, plus add in the fact that she is featured in the present day epilogue as Contemporary Clara/Oswin. This is cleverly shown through Ms Coleman’s performance by making Clara as cheeky and flirty as Oswin, whilst adding in an apparent imagination which may give further clues to Clara/Oswin, such as her stories to the Latimer children about being born behind the clock of Big Ben and inventing fish because she didn’t want to swim alone.
Other elements help to give clues to Clara’s back story including the use of Oswin’s muscial motif when she tracks down the Doctor and the perception filtered TARDIS and the referencing of Oswin’s well known lines such as her love for making souffles and “Run you clever boy”. However, this is a character who, like Rose and the Bad Wolf or the DoctorDonna, is going to have a “long game” and it’s going to be come April to see more of Clara Mark III when the Doctor starts adventuring with her, especially as the “Woman Twice Dead” figure large in forthcoming adventures.
Returning for this adventure are the aforementioned “Scooby Gang” of Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax and they add a continuity to the series and a credibility to the fact that once the Doctor touches somebody’s life, they’re always a part of his life.
Neve McIntosh as Vastra and Catrin Stewart as Jenny are brilliant in their twin roles as the Victorian crimefighters behaving more like the Steed and Emma Peel of the era rather than the basis for the Holmes and Watson for Dr Doyle’s works of fiction. Again, there appears to be a link between “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock” with Vastra and Jenny’s relationship mirroring the often mentioned “romantic” relationship between Sherlock and John – however, I don’t think Sherlock and John will be marrying anytime soon.
However, out of the trio, I think that Dan Starkey gets the best deal out of the returning actors in the role of Strax. Where Sontarans have usually been humourless and second string aliens behind the Daleks and Cybermen, Starkey elevates them to the top table by virtue of his performance as Strax. Yes, the character is single minded in so much that he wants to use military force rather than cunning and intelligence to investigate but he adds a sense of humour in this with his love of the use of weaponry (I want to see “laser monkeys”) and his heavy handed interrogation techniques.
In addition to this, he develops a comedy double act with Matt Smith which sparkles with the Doctor being the supposedly smart one and with Strax being the other supposedly smart one. They are an intergalactic Laurel and Hardy with Strax supplying quick comebacks such as in the “Sherlock Holmes” scene, their joint bumbling in the “memory worm” scene at the beginning of the episode and the constant put downs between the pair with the Doctor calling Strax a “psychotic potato dwarf” and Strax berating the Doctor on his apathy.
In fact, it is this trio who, along with Clara, who are the catalyst for bringing the Doctor back, not only by constantly pressing him about his isolation, but with the questioning scene where one word… “Pond”… piques his curiosity along with a remembrance of the man who he was.
On the side of villainy, you get Richard E. Grant in the role of Doctor Simeon and Sir Ian McKellen in the role of The Great Intelligence.
Simeon is basically a stooge for the Intelligence’s plans as in the cases of Padmasambhava in “The Abominable Snowmen” (1967) and Travers in “The Web Of Fear” (1968) who uses his loneliness as a seduction tool for its purpose. The Intelligence is the real villain – even to the point of “pulling the strings” of Simeon towards the end of the episode as it does to Staff Sergeant Arnold in “The Web Of Fear”.
Another area where The Intelligence of this episode is consistent with the previous episodes in which it features from the classic series with “The Snowmen” and that is the very fact of its use of snowmen as pawns. In the classic series, the “Snowmen” are the Yeti – fur covered robots – whereas in this episode they are literally snowmen who are the Intelligence’s footsoldiers.
However, the real fanboy moment is the Doctor himself having a bit of a geeky moment with his use of the London Underground (circa 1967) lunchbox which was the setting of “The Web Of Fear” along with his vague remembrance of the Intelligence.
There are a few apparently cosmetic differences to the programme which not only sets the tone for the forthcoming 50th anniversary, but also acts as a marker between Season 7a and Season 7b.
The opening credits are revamped with an updated theme tune and visuals which have returned to including a visual, albeit a shrouded one, of Matt Smith’s face as part of the titles which is a return to the style of the opening titles between 1967 and 1989.
But the real kiss to the past is the revamped console room. This is going to be something that splits opinion as there are some who are going to love the warm, magical quality of the previous eleventh Doctor console room and some loving the new one. My personal opinion is that they both suit the era of the programme with the previous console room being in an “era” where there is a spirit of magic where companions have names which have come straight from a fairy tale, whilst the new one looks forward by looking to the past with a clearly mechanical/Jules Verne style influence dominating the console room with classic series sound effects, proper switches, and rotating pieces at the top of the console. (I am really looking forward to the forthcoming episode “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS”).
This is a story that is less about Christmas – even though the story is set at Christmas with the Doctor even whistling “Silent Night” at one point – than it is about setting the direction of “Doctor Who” for the immediate future and acknowledging that it is based on a fifty year history for the programme.
With the ongoing mystery of Clara’s nature as well as a fiftieth anniversary to celebrate, old friends returning, and the prospect of “The Fall Of The Eleventh” rearing its head in the show’s longer term future, it’s going to be interesting to see where the Doctor and Clara runs… and whether there are going to be plenty of more plot twists and red herrings which will wrong foot the audience.
“Watch me run”… Yes, Doctor. I will be and I’m looking forward to where you’ll be taking my friends and I.