Doctor Who: The Snowmen


Things like last year’s Doctor Who Christmas special, “The Snowmen” are the reason this site exists: When I first saw it, I thought it was a decent episode – that its main flaw was that it relied too much on setting up questions to be answered in later episodes, but I was eager to see those questions resolved all the same.

Now, armed with the knowledge given to me by this past year of Doctor Who, I can make a more definite appraisal of this episode, and thus I can safely say that I really don’t like it.

In many ways, it typifies writer and showrunner Steven Moffat’s approach to the show, of late – we get armfuls of banter, grand spectacles filled with raw emotion and theatrical symbolism, goons with creepy faces, recognizable references to the classic series… but it’s all done without any sense or consistency, and so quite a lot of it just doesn’t work for me.

But even if there actually was some logic to any of it, I probably still wouldn’t like this episode, for two big reasons: The hero and the villain. But we’ll get to that in good time.

We start with a young boy, making a snowman and deliberately avoiding other children (Because this is a Moffat episode, our new recurring characters need to start as children who behave exactly like they do as adults – I don’t really dislike this, but it wears thin after a while, like so many of his hallmarks).  Now, if you start with an isolated kid expressing himself creatively, he’s either the hero, or the villain – and it becomes obvious that this little fellow’s drawn the short straw, as the snowman starts repeating his bitter mutterings back to him, in the voice of Sir Ian McKellen.

Fast forward to late-Victorian London, where the boy has grown up into Richard E. Grant, who’s busy making out with the Doctor’s worst enemy in robot suits… I mean, pledging his eternal loyalty to a freezer full of Gandalf the White’s dandruff, which forms into an army of evil snowmen and eats people up.

A goon with a creepy face that makes no sense! Take a drink!

Now, to be fair, the concept of sentient and malevolent snow is a really scary idea, but it isn’t really handled well here – the most we get out of it are a poorly-rendered CGI ice lady and the evil snowmen. And considering the evil snowmen are conjured up by an imaginative and friendless child-at-heart with the help of his imaginary companion, I’m tempted to write this entire episode as a single Calvin and Hobbes reference that got blown way out of proportion.

Anyway, one of the evil snowmen escapes, and draws the attention of Clara, a young girl working in a bar. Since Moffat has become so proud of inventing the Weeping Angels that he sometimes forgets that he isn’t writing for them, the snowman stays still once Clara notices it. She’s confused by this, and goes to ask the Doctor about it. The Doctor, knowing the start of an adventure when he sees one, turns Clara down – he’s still mourning the deaths of Rory and Amy from last episode. Instead of the traditional black, though, he’s expressing his sorrow with an outfit that’s the one thing I unequivocally love about the episode. I take an interest in costume design, and so I really like what’s been done to Matt Smith’s signature outfit – it’s been very obviously altered for a more Victorian feel, while still being recognizable his.

Clara is persistent, though, and follows him as he tries to escape, finally saying “Doctor Who?” before we cut to the redesigned opening titles (Where Matt Smith’s face rushing past is a nice touch, but overall the sequence has way too much going on visually, the TARDIS doors opening at the end look really amateur, and I don’t like the new theme tune). And this is where the problem with Clara starts to show – she’s an utterly generic Moffat character, and we really need someone with a little more depth and uniqueness as a companion. The only non-plot-related trait that separates her from anyone else is her occasional groan-worthy audience-pandering line –  she completes the unholy trinity of these by supplementing her “Doctor who?” with “You need a doctor” and “It’s bigger on the inside” within the first half-hour of the episode. Wait, actually, forget that last part – when she first sees the TARDIS, she actually says “It’s smaller on the outside”, which is even worse because of how forced it is.

Anyway, we check back with Richard E. Grant, who is ambushed by Shurfine Holmes – a group of Victorian-era vigilante detectives and allies of the Doctor consisting of Encyclopedia Green, Li’l Miz Submissive and Komedy Klingon. In the Doctor’s time of mourning they’ve provided him with asylum, secrecy and predictable but decent humor. Now, they try to get him to help after Grant brags to them about how unstoppable his plan is.

Meanwhile, Komedy Klingon fails to wipe Clara’s memory, and she escapes. The Doctor is apathetic, but his interest is piqued when she discovers the TARDIS, at the top of a space-warping staircase into the clouds. This is a fantastic scene, in the literal sense – the visuals, music and staging combine to give a fairy-tale air to the entire thing, and once again I’d be much more on board if it made any sense at all. I see no reason why “The Doctor is isolated” should translate to “The Doctor has moved his TARDIS to on top of the clouds, so it looks cooler when the ordinary little girl discovers it.”

The next morning, it’s revealed that Clara moonlights as a Julie Andrews impersonator. Her knockoffs of Jane and Michael Banks have bigger problems here than disobedience, though. They’ve been haunted by visions of their dead mother, who died of hypothermia in a frozen pond – geddit, folks? Pond? Like, Amy Pond? Gee, I bet that won’t be important in any way…

When Clara learns about this, she goes to Shurfine Holmes, where Encyclopedia Green forces her to listen to a barrage of exposition, and calls up the Doctor to listen in. When the Doctor hears the part about a pond, he rushes off to investigate.

At Richard E. Grant’s house, Gandalf’s beard hair reveals its supremely uninteresting plan – to prove its snowy worth, it’ll overthrow the Earth. Before the night is done, its plan will be unfurled, and by dawning of the sun it’ll take over the world. Narf!

“Are you pondering what I’m pondering, Doctor?”

Anyway, the Doctor listens in on this plan, and shows up in full inverness-coat-and-deerstalker gear (A move which I’ll forgive, as writing a dark and realistic program like Sherlock must really wear thin on a writer like Moffat after a while) to monologue about how he’s figured out the entire motivation and backstory of the evil snow. I’ll note that he manages this by sonic screwdriver-ing the wooden door shut – which is so often said to be impossible that it was a huge plot point in the LAST FREAKIN’ CHRISTMAS SPECIAL YOU WROTE. But no matter – you see, the Doctor reveals that the evil snow is creating an army of evil ice men (ice men, not snowmen – completely different) which will plunge the world into eternal winter.

This is our first real look at the Great Intelligence – a classic series villain who is now retconned to be some mutant snow who was molded into evil snow thanks to Richard E. Grant’s bad influence. Now, in his classic appearances, his main schtick was that he could take over people’s minds without anyone else noticing, which, when combined with the snow motif, gives the perfect opportunity to do John Carpenter’s The Thing with the cast of Doctor Who. Instead, we’re just doing the regular Moffat sci-fi-fairy-tale thing, hence why instead of the paranoiac horror story, the first of the Intelligence’s evil ice men bursts into Jane and Michael Banks’ room, as Clara does her best rendition of “Stay Awake”.

The Doctor explodes the snowman, but complains about how he’s being dragged back into an adventure – but then, he puts on a bowtie, and since he’s fighting a cold-based villain, his inevitable catchphrase of “Bowties are cool” becomes a cold-based pun so abysmal it rivals Arnold Schwarzenegger’s constant quipping as Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin.

Shurfine Holmes follow the Doctor and subdue the evil ice man, but they’re followed by Richard E. Grant. The Doctor and Clara engage in some flirtatious banter as the ice man chases them to the TARDIS, which has a redesigned inside that I’m sort of apathetic about – I don’t like how dependent it is on blue and orange, but I do like how similar the design elements are to those from Star Trek – right down to the line of flashing lights. It looks more like a Star Trek bridge than the Abrams movie bridge does, I’ll say that.

Anyway, the Doctor’s busy giving the full new-companion spiel to Clara, when he begins to realize that she’s destined to travel through time, as can be seen in “Asylum of the Daleks” from last season. He’s so busy rambling about this, in fact, that he doesn’t notice when an evil ice man grabs Clara from the TARDIS and throws her to her death.

Now, originally I thought this was Moffat engaging in some well-deserved self-parody – how the Eleventh Doctor’s trademark long and obviously scripted speeches aren’t exactly useful when fighting monsters – but no, this is completely serious. And so, Clara is kept stable thanks to Shurfine Holmes’ advanced technology, as the Doctor rushes to confront Richard E. Grant. And he plays a trick when he does so, using some of that advanced technology to kill him…

…hang on, what? The Doctor straight-up kills a guy? Alright, he doesn’t directly murder Richard E. Grant, but it was obviously intentional and premeditated – first-degree in any court of law. Superman gets all the flak for breaking a man’s neck in Man of Steel (and no more word on that ‘til June, but boy howdy, is it deserved), but no one ever mentions how the Man Who Never Would just…does, without a second thought?

“I know what you’re thinking. Did he regenerate eleven times, or only ten?”

The blow is softened, though, as the Great Intelligence now turns Richard E. Grant into a zombie, for no reason at all other than to expose himself to the Doctor, who promptly defeats it by melting it. Yeah, because if evil snow can adhere and change into evil ice, then obviously it’ll be completely harmless if it’s only evil water.

The day saved, the Doctor now returns to Clara, who was killed so badly that even with the super technology, there’s only enough life left in her for a death scene. And she uses it well, making a cryptic statement to the Doctor that jogs his memory, and makes him realize that Clara and the girl from “Asylum of the Daleks” are one and the same. He’s excited now, using The Search Engine of Rassilon to look for her anywhere in time and space that he can find her, gleefully calling her “The Impossible Girl” as we cut to the credits.

And this is another problem with Clara: not only is she an utterly generic character, but they’re also trying to pull the same “Most important person in the universe” malarkey they did with Amy, Donna and Rose Tyler. I’m sorry, but saying over and over that someone is important doesn’t make them unique, or memorable. My favorite New Who companion is Donna Noble – an ordinary person whose life was forever changed by the Doctor, and who gave him a sense of perspective on his actions and character (mostly through the medium of bitchiness). But I don’t like her because she’s the most important person in the universe, I like her because she has a vivid character. She adds some flavor to her adventures with the Doctor that would be missing otherwise, and creates some interesting relationships. With Clara, it’s just more of the same we got with Amy, but even more generic without the wrinkle of Rory or the Girl Who Waited.

“The Snowmen” does suffer from relying too much on a mystery that never had a very interesting or coherent solution, but it’s not a very good episode to start with.

TWO THUMBS UP: The raw emotion behind the piece, the interesting visuals, The Doctor’s new outfit

THUMBS UP: Shurfine Holmes

THUMBS DOWN: The Doctor’s murder, the complete lack of logic

 TWO THUMBS DOWN: Clara, Richard E. Grant and the Great Intelligence

Tune in on the 31st, for a special feature I’ll be calling “Too Late Reviews”. I’ll be ringing in the new year by reviewing one thing from 2012 that I missed. Will it be the hit steampunk stealth RPG Dishonored? Joss Whedon’s triumph of ensemble drama, and my avowed favorite film of the year, The Avengers? His surprisingly deep horror deconstruction, The Cabin in the Woods? Team Spielberg’s poignant biopic Lincoln? HINT: It will be none of these things.

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