Saturday, December 29, 2012

Doctor Who - The Snowmen (S7E6)

Merry Christmas, kids! This year, your present is CEASELESS NIGHTMARES!
Ever since "The Christmas Invasion" ushered in the tradition of Doctor Who Christmas specials, the series has struggled to deliver episodes that match the wit and invention of its non-seasonal outings. At this point, being disappointed by the Christmas special seems as much of a tradition as the specials themselves. Personally, I've never found the specials to be as good or bad as a lot of the fans do, but as just mediocre-to-good episodes that get a lot more attention paid to them because they air apart from the rest of the series. Even last year's much maligned "The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe" struck me as fairly innocuous, rather than something to get angry about.

This year's special, "The Snowmen", seems to be a textbook example of an episode which, if aired as part of the regular run of the show, would not be particularly remarkable. The central conceit that a Victorian doctor (Richard E. Grant) is using a kind of psychic snow in order to create an army of killer Snowmen working for the malevolent Great Intelligence (voiced by Ian McKellan) is not exactly outside of the parameters of what the show would normally do, and it could easily have been aired at any other time of the year regardless of the festive connection. Yet because the episode is singled out and aired as a big event in its own right, it attains a level of importance which it doesn't have or, frankly, deserve.

That's been the problem for the show for the last couple of years; it has these episodes that air at Christmas as EVENT TELEVISION, but none of them are really momentous in their own right. "The Christmas Invasion" worked best because it functioned as a way of introducing David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor in a big, flashy way, and as such had a reason for airing as its own thing. Every subsequent special has just been another episode of Doctor Who (some of which were regrettably stretched out to feature length, which "The Snowmen" mercifully isn't).

"The Snowmen" does have something momentous in it, though, since it sort of acts as an introduction to the new companion, Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman). And it is only "sort of" an introduction to her, since Coleman was already introduced on the show in "The Asylum of The Daleks" as a human consciousness unwittingly trapped in the body of a Dalek. As was the case in that episode, Coleman's character winds up dying before the hour is up, suggesting that either there is some past lives/Cloud Atlas stuff going on, or that writer Steven Moffat really doesn't like Coleman. Either way, we'll have to wait until the New Year before we discover if she's going to be the Kenny/Captain Scarlet (delete depending on your cultural frame of reference) of the show, but as in her first appearance she came across as a fun, lively presence, even when lumbered with a Cor Blimey Cock-er-ney accent.

The greater significance for the show in general is that the arrival (not to mention the departure) of Clara/Oswin re-energises The Doctor, who seems to have fallen into a depressed state following his separation from The Ponds in "The Angels Take Manhattan". Though he has assembled his own team of misfits around him so as not to travel alone again, he's not the go-getting do-gooder that he once was, and it takes something seriously weird and creepy like killer Snowmen (sure to go down as formative traumas for thousands of small children) to bring him back to himself, and it was delightful seeing Matt Smith make the 180 degree turn from maudlin to manic when he finally confronted Doctor Simeon (Grant). As is often the case with Moffat when he isn't allowed to play with complex story structures, the actual plotting was a touch rote and the big emotional moment felt a little cloying (the Great Intelligence is defeated by tears!) but the dialogue was very funny, the pacing thunderous and the characters just the right side of wacky. It was just that for about 80% of its running time, all these elements were in service of an episode that didn't really amount to much.

Which is where Clara comes into the equation. Having witnessed her death, The Doctor suddenly realises that she and Oswin seem to be one and the same, but since he never actually saw her face the first he didn't make the connection. The episode ends with a third version of Coleman walking around the contemporary graveyard where her Victorian namesake/doppelganger is buried, unaware that she is on a collision course with destiny in the form of The Doctor. It's a strong, exultant ending that nicely sets up the second half of the seventh season, though as was the case with The Ponds' long goodbye, it kind of feels as if Moffat is dragging his feet when he should be sprinting. Here's hoping that the new blood and new mystery will give the show as much renewed vigour in the New Year as its hero displays in the final moments of "The Snowmen".

Rating: 7/10


- Speaking of The Doctor's crew, I greatly enjoyed the contributions of the Sontaran Strax, who was a nicely dunderheaded foil, whether he was repeatedly getting his mind wiped by a kind of disgusting worm or threatening to destroy Clara before then offering to take her coat. I like how Moffat seems to enjoy bringing back the same handful of characters for little moments like that, as if he is carefully cultivating the world of the show as something more than just The Doctor, his Companion and whoever shows up that week.

- Richard E. Grant seemed a little wasted in this episode considering how important his character seemed to be going in to it. Then again, this was an episode which was more about The Doctor and Clara than it was about the scheme they were trying to foil, so I guess that makes sense.

- I'm excited and a tad nervous about seeing where the show is going to go with the Clara stuff. Moffat can be good at the big picture stuff and at crafting great individual stories, but sometimes struggles to balance the two. We'll see.