This year’s Doctor Who Christmas special was called The Snowmen, and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. Set in Victorian England, the Doctor (Matt Smith) matches wits with the Great Intelligence, who is trying to use smart snow and ice to take over the world. Luckily, our hero has some help in the form of a very familiar face.
Normally, Doctor Who Christmas specials are nice, sweet, fluff pieces, not adding to major story arcs, just standing alone as a heart-warming story. The Snowmen chooses a different tack, picking up where “The Angels Take Manhattan,” the last regular episode that aired prior to this special, left off, and ties together plot threads, both old and new, adding to the series’ major arcs.
As the hour begins, the Doctor is moping, dressed as Scrooge, around the streets of Victorian England. His outlandish personality has swung to a negative light, making his depression a deep one, indeed, robbed of any want to help others. This is a sad Doctor, an isolated Doctor, who isn’t what the Doctor is supposed to be.
More than other recent actors, Smith lends an unstable and cartoonish quality to the role. While one may have a hard time imagining Tennant scouring the alleys quite so grumpily, it holds true to what Smith has built into the character. Amy always told him that he shouldn’t be alone, and now we get a small taste of what he is like when he is, cold and uncaring, apart from the world, literally, as he lives in the TARDIS atop a cloud. Yet, he has chosen Earth to brood on, which means he can’t possibly want to be alone as much as he claims to.
Not that the Doctor is completely left to himself. His travels have earned him some loyalties, and he is protected by some familiar faces – Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her wife, Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starkey). This is an interesting trio, and it’s not quite clear why they’re the ones who have taken up this mission. But it’s nice to see that the Doctor can’t just hide away. He has made some friends who are going to make sure that he’s OK. And they aren’t the only ones.
The Snowmen also introduces the Doctor’s new companion, Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman, Emmerdale). At first, one may be confused as to why Coleman is playing the part, as she recently guest starred as Oswin earlier this series in “Asylum of the Daleks.” That person could be forgiven for thinking she is someone new, since this would not be the first time an actress appeared in a one-shot before coming back to play a different, more central character, though I can’t recall it happening quite so quickly before. But as The Snowmen unfolds, it is pretty obvious, based on personality and dialogue, that Clara is Oswin, a fact confirmed late in the adventure.
As for more of the mystery of who Clara is and what she is doing in this time and place, I’ll leave that to later episodes. Suffice it to say, Clara’s mystery is only just beginning in The Snowmen, even after some very big, startling revelations.
Clara is a very interesting companion. Just the fact that she has a different perspective from everyone else, declaring the TARDIS “smaller on the outside,” rather than “bigger on the inside,” as is what other people say, proves that she has something new to bring to the table. Coleman doesn’t grab me immediately, but the character is well written with more than enough to hook the view.
Aside from all the fantastic big picture stuff, which plays more to the continuing tale of Doctor Who, The Snowmen is still a cool story in of itself. With Ian McKellen (The Hobbit, X-Men) lending his voice to the Great Intelligence, the villain is impressive. There are enough twists to keep us on our toes, the snowmen themselves are terrifying, and there’s a family at risk at the center of it, the sympathetic heart that a Christmas special needs. And The Snowmen is actually a prequel story to an old-school Doctor Who serial from the original run, in which the Great Intelligence attacks through the London Underground. So we get to see something that references a story many modern Who fans may not be familiar with.
There are a ton of fun moments, from the Doctor doing a poor Sherlock Holmes impression, to Strax’s encounter with a memory worm, to Clara continuously ignoring the Doctor’s instructions. Even in an hour that’s so dark, Doctor Who finds ways to keep its trademark humor.
Plus, the new TARDIS is stunning! It’s a little confusing that the Doctor would switch designs mid-incarnation, however, given all that he’s been through, I think a fresh start isn’t out of the question. This new set will definitely help to convey that. I greatly appreciate that the series gives us a moment to admire it, rather than just glimpsing it while in use.
The picture quality on The Snowmen is middling. Part of this is because the special effects are so-so. There are some really great bits to praise, such as the opening title sequence, with snowflakes falling over Old London. But the streets and costumes have that slightly-cheesy fake look that is a hallmark of the series. Combined with the particular hyper-real image quality often found in British HD shows, this release looks fantastic for a television broadcast, but certainly doesn’t come across nearly as sharp as most big-budget theatrical films.
That being said, colors are rich and blacks and bold and layered. The details, both visual and auditory, and well defined. The soundtrack is very well mixed, and with 5.1 DTS surround, viewers will enjoy every bit of the score, every tiny sound effect, and the crisp dialogue. Overall, the look is extremely smooth and professional, especially when compared to other British series.
The special features are disappointingly sparse. The Children In Need Special, entitled “The Great Detective,” is the best inclusion, but it’s very short. “Vastra Investigates” is another three minute prequel. But the behind-the-scenes featurette, “Clara’s White Christmas,” is equally brief, and there is nothing else included. This may be a single special release, but fans deserve a few more bonus features than what’s included here, especially given how full most Doctor Who releases are.
Doctor Who: The Snowmen is available now.