On Christmas Day, the BBC (and BBC America) released the latest Doctor Who holiday special, “The Snowmen.” 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 voice who should not be there.
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” left off, and tying together plot threads, both old and new, to add 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” 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.
This revelation is confusing, but then, River Song (Alex Kingston) is introduced at the time of her death first, and we see her many times prior to that, so now the thinking turns to this being an earlier version of Oswin. Viewers and the Doctor alike assume Clara will easily survive any dangers in “The Snowmen” because she eventually must crash on the Dalek prison planet and encounter the Doctor again.
The explanation as to why the Doctor doesn’t recognize her immediately should be obvious, but I don’t feel it is, until the dialogue points out that the Doctor only heard Oswin in “Asylum of the Daleks;” he never saw her. It’s easy to overlook that fact, since we, the viewers, saw her so much in the episode, which resulted in her sad fate.
And then Clara dies. Again.
This is where “The Snowmen” jumps from good episode to great episode. It’s such an unexpected twist, which packs a heck of a wallop, that it catches everyone off guard. The Doctor’s assertions that she died twice, so he must go look for her, because she has to still be out there somewhere seem insane, and yet, fans will know that he is right. There are few clues to what exactly Clara is, or what is happening to her, but it’s the set up for an enticing new adventure.
Personally, I feel like Clara could be an earlier incarnation of River. She calls the Doctor clever boy, something River does, and kisses him. The problem is, we know that the Kingston incarnation of River is the one that marries the Doctor, and she is the last body River will have. So it doesn’t make sense for Clara to exist as another version of her.
Another clue is that Clara knows “pond” will be a word that catches the Doctor’s attention. While she doesn’t seem to have all the memories of her previous encounter with him, she definitely knows things about the Doctor, even if it’s subconsciously. The Doctor doesn’t believe in coincidences, and neither do the writers of this show, so that has to mean something.
Might River have somehow have escaped the library computer? Or could her love be so strong that something else is afoot? Maybe the Doctor is right, and the universe owes him one? It’s all very confusing, but like the best of Doctor Who, it will most likely work itself out in a surprising and exciting way.
Should Clara prove NOT to be River, she better get her stinkin’ lips off of the Doctor! He is spoken for!
Either way, though, Clara will be an 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 hasn’t grabbed me immediately, but given the way the character has been set up, there is little doubt she will leave her mark as a very memorable companion.
This Clara story will likely be a major part of the rest of series seven, but something that has been teased for awhile is the question “Doctor Who?” It’s an innocent query in earlier episodes, becoming more common and important during Smith’s tenure. “The Snowman” uses the joke often enough that is ceases to be just a laugh. This is obviously part of a bigger trend that will come to a head, and in case anyone missed it before, this special, with its frequent repetition, leaves no doubt that one should notice the question.
Aside from all this fantastic big picture stuff, “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.
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.
One thing some fans may have missed is that Clara works at a pub called “Rose and the Crown.” During the Bad Wolf arc of the Doctor Who reboot, Rose and the Doctor meet Queen Victoria in 19th century England. This has to be connected to that.
“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. If the writers are lucky, this could open the door to new fans picking up the old serials.
Or it may just be the first of the many callbacks that will surely be referenced in the upcoming 50th Anniversary year.
All of which makes “The Snowmen” my favorite Doctor Who Christmas special thus far. Stellar job. Now I cannot wait for series seven to resume in the spring, a glimpse of the coming plot making anticipation soar so much higher than it already has, a considerable feat.