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Doctor Who Christmas Special Recap: Everything Old Is New Again

Back when it was announced that Steven Moffat was taking over for Russell T. Davies, he made a comment in an early interview about how his take on Doctor Who would be like a series of “dark fairy tales.” Likely realizing that phrase wasn’t the most conducive to garnering sci-fi fan support, he recanted the statement not long after, saying he’d misspoke, or whatever kind of jive doublespeak a showrunner uses when he has to cover his ass. In any case, while Moffat’s version of the series proper doesn’t warrant the label, his Christmas specials are most certainly dark fairy tales, and “The Snowmen” continues the tradition, although it centers around a Doctor in a decidedly less-than-festive mood.

The episode stops short of transforming the Doctor into a Grinch, which is a shame, because it would’ve been a bold move to showcase a Doctor with no patience for the holidays whatsoever — a harsh contrast to his attitude in all the Christmas specials that have come before. This is also one of the least Christmas-y Christmas specials yet, with only a couple throwaway lines referencing the season; drawing attention to the holiday would have been akin to throwing it in the Doctor’s face, and he’d then have had to demonstrate some annoyance with it. Variations on the rally cry “He should’ve done it this way … ” are commonplace now, seemingly with each new episode, so it’s probably better to not focus on what wasn’t but rather what was, otherwise I could be here for hours.

The meat of the action plot — the stuff with Dr. Simeon (Richard E. Grant) and his army of evil snowmen — was a convoluted mess that became progressively less decipherable as the episode moved forward. Please, please, could somebody see to it that the phrase “low level telepathic field” is never used in this series again? It would almost have been preferable to just have magic snow rather than weigh down the story with one overcomplicated development after another. If you have to go to these ridiculous lengths to bring snowmen to life, maybe you shouldn’t have bothered in the first place.

Much of it revolved around the Great Intelligence, a leftover alien entity from the Patrick Troughton era that featured in two stories from the ’67–’68 season five, “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web of Fear.” Both are lost stories with only a single episode each in existence, so they aren’t even the sort of thing the average fan can track down and check out on DVD. Not that it matters, as the Great Intelligence of “The Snowmen” seemed to have only cursory similarities to its sixties incarnation, and the Intelligence’s two primary features — the mechanical Yeti and the floating silver control orbs — were completely abandoned for this new outing, and in the end the disembodied creature is stopped by a crying family, which surely is a first for any Doctor Who story.

It appears, however, that this may not be the last we’ll see of the Intelligence, and the episode’s most noteworthy development in regards to it occurs when the Doctor is unable to remember its place in his own history, which is quite a WTF? moment, as the Doctor has a whip-sharp, almost perfectly categorized memory of the places he’s been, the people he’s met, and certainly the enemies he’s battled. Why has Moffat chosen to have the Doctor not recall this enemy, and where is this going? Does it have anything to do with Clara Oswin Oswald (Jenna Louise-Coleman), who we’ve now seen tied to two classic Who enemies in as many stories, as we approach the show’s 50th Anniversary?

Much like the invocation of the word “pond” in the story, nothing is coincidental. Clara’s situation is reminiscent of Scaroth from 1979’s “City of Death,” a character who’d been scattered across time (“The centuries that divide me shall be undone!”). At the close of “The Snowmen” we see a modern Clara Oswin — the one who’ll presumably be traveling with the Doctor over the course of the next eight episodes, though it seems unlikely that contemporary incarnation will be the last one we’ll be meeting. There are sure to be other Claras further down the road. At present, this “soft mystery,” as Moffat has dubbed it in interviews, is engaging and fun. Let’s hope it continues to be.

There can’t be enough praise showered on Coleman at this point, who is quite simply a breath of fresh air for this series, at a time when it so desperately needs it. I’ve not fallen for a new companion this hard and fast since Rose Tyler, who had the benefit of being there when the series relaunched, so that’s not even a fair comparison. This new girl just devours the camera lens; a more photogenic companion we’ve probably never seen. It was easy to understand the Doctor’s reinvigoration through her, because as viewers we were experiencing the same feelings, and the scene in which he gives her the TARDIS key, only for her to be lost seconds later, was a serious tearjerker; that was more moving than anything in “The Angels Take Manhattan.”  

Somewhere in between the reintroductions of Clara and the Intelligence, Moffat also reintroduced us to a trio of supporting characters last seen (the web prequels aside) in season six’s “A Good Man Goes to War,” an episode which is probably the nadir of the new series. Needless to say, these aren’t characters I was looking forward to dealing with again, so it was all the more surprising that the Silurian Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her human wife Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and the Sontaran Strax (Dan Starkey) all brought a great deal of fun, colorful shading to the Doctor’s world. In lieu of having a truly alien companion traveling with the Doctor on a regular basis, these are folks who seem destined to dip in and out of his life for the foreseeable future. Through Vastra and Strax it seems Moffat can say more about the Silurians and the Sontarans than he could with an entire army of each race.

I had mad, crazy love for both “A Christmas Carol” and “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe,” Moffat’s previous holiday outings, and hoped to feel the same about “The Snowmen,” but ultimately didn’t. Yet this episode held a much different function in the series than either of those entries, coming in the middle of a season as it did. Whereas his first two Christmas specials were entirely standalone tales, this one was anything but, steeped in the ongoing storyline as it was. What worked within it worked very, very well, and what didn’t was disastrous.  

Odds and Ends 

  • The new arrangement of the theme song as well as the rejiggering of the title sequence both scored big for me. No doubt they’ll be hated by many in the short term, but sooner or later people get over it and accept. Most noteworthy here was the brief inclusion of Matt Smith’s visage in the titles, which takes us back to Who days of old. It always seemed like a dodgy proposition to include the Doctor’s face in the opening titles of the new series, since it’s the sort of thing that could come across as laughable in a modern credit sequence, but I think they just pulled it off, as it’s fleeting and almost unnoticeable (I even had to rewind it for my wife as she didn’t see it at first).
  • The new TARDIS interior is less cluttered. Might the decision to change it up have something to do with the upcoming episode “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS,” and a need to present a design that can be expanded upon with greater ease than the previous console room?
  • Sherlock Holmes! Yep, Moffat went and did it — he finally gave fans the crossover they’d been begging for. First, the episode implies that Vastra and Jenny are Conan Doyle’s inspiration for Holmes and Watson, and then later on the Doctor barges in on Simeon dressed as and claiming to be the world’s most famous detective, which Simeon completely dismisses. (It stands to reason that someday the Doctor will finally meet Conan Doyle onscreen; surely it’s only a matter of time at this point.)
  • Speaking of Simeon, what a waste of a perfectly fine actor. Richard E. Grant deserved better than the one-note character he was given here. (Indeed, his reaction to the Doctor’s Holmes was probably his only good moment.)
  • The Snowmen were adequate, but the Ice Governess was a triumph, and was it just me or was her voice a ringer for Mrs. Bates from Psycho?
  • Within the context of Moffat’s version of the Doctor, the bowtie-in-the-mirror scene was a treasure.
  • For the hard-core fans: What was the point of a sixties-era map of the London Underground if the Doctor has no memory of the Great Intelligence? Again, Moffat’s need to throw in everything and the kitchen sink lost me.
Photo: BBC