This review contains spoilers.
For the first time since the series returned, this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special is stuck right in the middle of a season; playing a pivotal role in the series’ narrative. ‘The Snowmen’ may seem like the typical Christmas Who with its plays and twists on traditional Christmas themes but the series’ vital rhythm has lead to, for the first time, the creation of a Christmas story that doesn’t simply feel like a bit of fluffy fun but instead absolutely essential to the ongoing story.
Steven Moffat’s story instantly feels refreshing. The Doctor is back in Victorian England and looking superb in his Patrick Troughton-esque costume and stove pipe hat. We are introduced to a suspiciously slimy character in the form of Doctor Simeon played marvellously by Richard E. Grant. It seems almost a shame for Grant to be playing a main villain as it almost scuppers his chances as playing The Doctor again (not that it stopped Colin Baker). For some unforeseen reason, snowmen are appearing and coming to life, no doubt because of some mischief caused by Simeon.
‘The Snowmen’ feels different to just about every other Christmas episode. Past criticisms of stories have revolved around playing too heavily on the joviality of the Christmas season and ignoring the fact that it has always been a time for spookiness, chills and M.R. James ghost stories. This episode takes full advantage of this, not just in its setting but in its overall narrative too. There may be alien skulduggery at work but the application of its methods is thoroughly Jamesian, perhaps even Dickensian. An Intelligence is at work, trying to build an army, at first out of snow. The main crux of its plan revolves around a dead governess who died in the frozen pond of a large house. So far, so Jamesian. The old governess is coming to one of the children in a dream, returning to haunt her from the icy pond in which she died.
Jenna-Louise Coleman returns as Clara the barmaid/nanny. We last saw her as Oswin the Dalek in season opener ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ and now she mysteriously appears to be the same person, only in a different time and unaware of her experience with The Doctor. Her character is wonderfully bubbly and quite mysterious though hopefully her storyline (which we shall return to later on) hints at a more interesting character than what is currently presented as her persona is as typical as Doctor Who companions come.
Another aspect that makes this story work so well is the return of three characters from ‘A Good Man Goes to War’; Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Lady Jenny (Catrin Stewart) and Commander Strax (Dan Starkey). These seem to make a rather motley gang for The Doctor to be a part of, even if he is sulking away having retired after losing the Ponds in New York. Much of the comedic relief comes from these characters, whether its Strax the Sontaran applying his hilarious war based philosophy to the most basic of problems (his solution to most of the problems is usually grenades) or Vastra and Jenny playing against the feelings of the time with their bold sexuality.
These fun moments are balanced nicely with the more frightening elements of the story, of which there are some excellent moments. While Moffat hilariously send up his other program with The Doctor pretending to be Sherlock Holmes, the contrast between moments like this and the ice lady blue-print coming to life is delicious. The balance is perfect; quite possibly the most perfect it’s been for an age.
The Great Intelligence is the true foe behind the sentient snow; an enemy that hasn’t been seen properly since 1968’s ‘The Web of Fear’ (and not counting the vaguely humours, 1990s spin off Downtime). There are some wonderful hints at this story, from the London Underground lunch box to Vastra humorously digging at the absurdity of trying to take over the London Underground (the very plan of the Intelligence in ‘The Web of Fear’). The only misgiving about using The Great Intelligence is missing out on the opportunity to bring back the Yeti; robotic versions of the abominable snowmen that the Intelligence has used in its previous stories. It’s a minor issue; the only real misgiving about the story and one that will bother very few considering the stories are missing and only able to be experienced through audio, books and two surviving episodes.
It becomes clear that for the Intelligence’s plan to work, they need the ice lady to blue-print their army. Trapping her in the house which is surrounded by vicious looking snowmen, the story becomes a tense run around until finally getting back to the Tardis, which rather quaintly has been situated on a cloud throughout the story. It has also had a redesign which is looking great, harkening back to the more retro consoles of the 1980s.
The mystery around Clara deepens further when she again dies after falling off the cloud. She has now become “The Girl Who Died Twice” which sounds rather familiar but is at least a bit more exciting than “The Girl Who Waited”. Her death in the end saves the day, with the household crying at her death causing salty rain to melt all the sentient snow. The ending seems a tad twee, at least until The Doctor realises who she is. The mystery is set, The Doctor’s curiosity is alight and next part of the season looks extremely exciting indeed.
Images from Digital Spy and the BBC.