5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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Aw! It’s a Christmas miracle! A seasonal Doctor Who special that’s actually quite good!
We were steeling ourselves for the usual. Tinsel. Syrup (especially the syrup). Massive, massive quantities of snow. And an episode that we had already forgotten by the time the credits finished rolling.
And there’s all of that in The Snowmen. Except for the last part. Because for once what’s usually Christmas fluff is properly a card-carrying, fully-credentialled Doctor Who episode. How does Steven Moffat achieve this? By making a Christmas episode that’s not really about Christmas at all.
Is this a problem? Not to us it isn’t. We can see that if you’re a casual viewer, The Snowmen may have puzzled the bejesus out of you. Madame Vastra - wha? What’s the dealio with that potato guy? And who the hell is soufflé girl?
Yes, very bewildering. To all the people pushing back their paper hats to scratch their heads, we say let that be a lesson to you. You should watch a bit more often, shouldn’t you. The rest of us were as happy as festive little clams.
Which is not to say that The Snowmen is perfect. It’s actually got quite a lot wrong with it. But magically, none of it sinks the Good Ship Entertainment. We could see its faults (no change there) but we enjoyed the hell out of it anyway.
They start as they mean to go on, with lavish quantities of snow in a vaguely Dickensian setting: Christmas-a-go-go! And since New Zealand is hip-deep in hobbit fever, we all squealed “Gandalf!” as soon as the snowman started talking back.
Fast forward a bit, and our villain’s all grown up into Richard E Grant. We were underimpressed by him as the Doctor in Scream Of the Shalka, but he’s perfectly splendid here. This could have been a part with more ham than a deli, but he plays it so perfectly all you’re left with is a deep, deep chill. Wonderful stuff. It’s only a shame that this plot is treated so badly. It starts off with incoherence (what’s with the peasantry being fed to the Snowmen? It ends up going nowhere) and concludes in a blizzard of incomprehensibility. We like the ref to the Second Doctor villain the Great Intelligence, but none of it seems to make any sense at all.
And worse, none of it matters a damn. Because despite the Christmassy and villainy trappings, this is Clara’s story. We loved Jenna-Louise Coleman in Asylum Of The Daleks, and she’s riveting here as well. We haven’t liked a new companion as much since…well, when we think about it, since Sarah Jane. And that’s a long, long time ago. She’s smart, she’s capable, and she’s not overawed by the Doctor. Loving it so far: yes, she’s kind of like River in all those things, but with the annoyance factor massively dialled down. Long may it continue.
Anyway. On we skip, wiping the snow off our goggles as we go. After the really excellent rejigged credits and theme tune, with distinctive nods to the classic series (there couldn’t be, say, a half-century anniversary in the offing, by any chance?) Richard E Grant impresses us some more with the way he spits “and her suspiciously intimate companion” at Jenny. Yes, audience favourites Madame Vastra and the missus are back, complete with their potatoey sidekick. (Who was dead the last time we saw him, but let’s face it, when has that ever got in the way of an entertainer’s career? It certainly didn’t do Elvis any harm). Personally, we have an allergy to characters who are brought back solely because the audience likes them, because we think it’s lazy writing, but don’t mind us. We know this wouldn’t bother anybody else.
And it’s not to say they’re not terrific, because they are. We bet fans everywhere are begging for a spinoff. (We also bet they’re not going to get one, because Moffat is making one Sherlock Holmes already. As you can tell from the crossover bits he stuffs in to tease the fans longing for a Doctor Who appearance from the violin-scraping cocaine fiend himself.) Dan Starkey in particular, ping-ponging with panache from Sontaran to Sontaran, is wonderful as the Doctor’s second banana. We’re unthrilled to see the once-scary Sontarans reduced to buffoons, but if that’s the way it as, at least they’re really funny. Is it very Doctorly, though, to constantly be flinging comedy insults at him on the basis of his physiognomy? We don’t think so. It’s not the Doctor’s shtick to be speciesist.
After some comedy business with the memory worm (a direct lift of the flashy thing from Men In Black. Tut, tut), the Doctor after all that effort simply shoves the worm in a jar without even trying to wave it at Clara. What’s that about? It is, however, of a piece with the Doctor’s general ennui, because it’s not just the snowmen who are frozen. We can’t say we particularly like Matt Smith’s world-weary Doctor. We’re really not seeing the woe, doom and despair, the dark night of the soul: he mostly just seems a bit grumpy and can’t-be-arsed-ish. It’s rare we’re underwhelmed by anything about Matt Smith’s performance, but he’s not doing it for us here.
He can’t put Clara off though, because she’s determined to follow him up his ladder to nowhere. The effect for this, a black blur at the top of the ladder, is absolute rubbish, but we love the concept of the staircase and the cloud.
Then Clara turns into her other self: why the governess thing is a secret we have no idea, but she’s especially sparkly as Miss Montague. (Dropping the gorblimey guvnor strike a light up the apples and pears cod accent helps.) We love the way she manages to put the pieces together without benefit of extraterrestrial life form, then it’s off to play parlour games with Madame Vastra. This scene, it has to be said, is kind of pointless. It only seems to be there in order to shoehorn in the detective pair, and the “pond” thing is just annoying. The Sherlock Holmes scene, fan-pandering though it is, is a tour de force. Yes, it’s a fast transformation, but the Doctor just is that mercurial: always has been. It’s fine by us.
They fling another adversary in: the ice governess. Perhaps they thought a scary ice figure as well as the genuinely frightening snowmen might be too much for the kiddies, because she’s more of a comic figure than anything. There’s no reason for her to survive (Francesca’s “I can’t” is just silly) and although entertaining, the runaround seems a bit gratuitous.
Then Clara plants the obligatory smacker on the Doctor. Sigh. He isn’t as opposed to it as he pretends, which leads to the boringly necessary question: what about River? The Last Night minisode implies that the Doctor has gone on his last date with her by now (although it by no means confirms it), but given how Moffat went on and on about River previously, it seems a point a bit too important to leave to a little-seen minisode. And then there’s River’s “Watch us run”, Clara/Oswin’s “Run, you clever boy” and the Doctor’s “Watch me run”. We hate the Doctor/River relationship so much we really don’t want to have to care about this whole issue, so tell you what, we won’t. Let’s assume it’s all over with River and cross our fingers.
And we meet a far more important character than Madame Vastra, Dr Simeon or the ice governess: the TARDIS. The console room has undergone a makeover very much in line with the titles and theme tune. We liked the previous one, but this is pretty too. The time rotor in particular is spectacular.
The Doctor finally clicks that he’s met Clara before. But she died then, and she dies here, so who is she? Given how disappointing Steven Moffat’s previous answers have been to his Big Questions, we’re not sure we can summon up the enthusiasm to worry too much about it right now. We only hope it doesn’t strangle the series the way the Melody/Song debacle did. But when the Doctor presses the key into Clara’s hand, she wasn’t the only one tearing up.
And just when you think the Doctor might have to do something, it’s all over. Evil is trumped by “the only force on Earth that could drown the snow: a whole family crying on Christmas Eve”. This is ghastly, true, but given how little slush there is in here compared to yer usual Christmas ep, we’ll give them that one.
If you think this review's rambling on all over the place, you're right, because we're following the structure of the episode. Not good. There’s so much else wrong with this too. The pacing is very uneven. Richard E Grant, one of the few actors who can be believable rather than smirk-inducing as a zombie, is absolutely thrown away. The entire ice plot feels surplus to requirements, there’s a whole lot of running and screaming to no end, the Doctor hardly does anything important and neither do the Vastra/Jenny/Strax trio.
And worse than that is what they do with the whole historical thing. Yet again, there’s no attempt whatsoever to be true to the period: Clara is totally contemporary in her outlook and her behaviour, and the entire Victorian period is dismissed with a modern sneer at “Victorian values”. How easy it is to look at another period in history and congratulate ourselves on how we’re so much better today. And because it’s easy, that’s what they do.
But, at least for the first viewing, you hardly even notice all that. If you do, it doesn’t seem to matter, as it’s entertaining from beginning to end. And for once, you can get to the end of a Christmas episode without having a vatful of syrup poured over your head. It’s not perfect, but we’ll take it.
MORAL: The snow must go on.
I ONLY KNOW WHO PART ONE
We love the way the Doctor puts his hand on the coach window over where Clara’s face is as he tries to put her out of his mind. Styly.
I ONLY KNOW WHO PART TWO
We were hoping the whole awful, terrible, tragic “Doctor Who?” thing was behind us. Nope.
THE VERY THOUGHT
That’s two, count ‘em, two low level telepathic fields in the same episode. Can we put low level telepathic fields in a chest with the sonic screwdriver and throw it overboard?
Richard E Grant’s not the only exemplary guest artist here: Tom Ward as Captain Latimer, manfully repressing his crush on Miss Montague, does an excellent job with a role that’s far too small for our taste.
IT’S LIKE THIS
The whole episode is stuffed full of allusions both to Doctor Who and to other series. “Pond”. The lingering shot of the Rose And Crown pub sign, with “Rose” most in focus. The Doctor wearing a scarf and taking it off as he says “This isn’t the kind of thing I do anymore”. Clara’s birth date (the day of the series’ first transmission) and her death date (26 years, the number of years before it was cancelled). The Mary Poppins thing with the umbrella. All fair enough, but we do draw the line at the heavy emphasis on “Winter is coming”. It’s fine to allude to things (like with snow/Snow knowing nothing), but to pinch someone else’s catchphrase wholesale pitches the audience right out of the story.