Thursday 27 December 2012

Reviews in Time & Space: The Snowmen

Doctor Who The Snowmen

The Doctor Who Christmas specials are something I feel very mixed toward. While the now annual tradition of sitting down Christmas evening to watch a new episode is something I look forward to every year, the stories themselves often leave much to be desired. While the first one, The Christmas Invasion, was a brilliant story that introduced us to a brand new Doctor in the form of David Tennant, later offerings have often been bland, forgettable or even outright bad (looking at you The End of Time). Once again the Christmas special is being used to usher in a new status quo for Who, featuring the first proper appearance of the brand new companion, a new TARDIS interior and even a sparkly new opening (featuring the face of Matt Smith, a classic trait that's been absent since Who's revival). Could The Snowmen be the first Christmas special to win me over in a long time?

Doctor Who The Snowmen Killer Snowmen

The setting is 1842 England, where the Doctor has retired from saving the universe and is lamenting the death of Amy and Rory - much to the dismay of his friends Silurian detective Madam Vastra, her human wife Jenny Flint and Sontaran butler Strax. When a barmaid named Clara seeks the Doctor's help after uncovering a plot by Dr Simeon and his army of living snowmen, the Doctor must spring back into action to face off against an old enemy from his past and save the world.

The Snowmen isn't the first time we've met the Doctor mourning the loss of a companion, but perhaps is the most effective. The Doctor has every right to be upset - to him Amy and Rory essentially died in the events of The Angels Take Manhattan, and the character we see here seems very different to the happy-go-lucky Time Lord the 11th incarnation we are used to. But with the introduction of Clara, he gradually reverts into the Doctor we know and love, but with a slightly more determined attitude not to repeat the mistakes of the past. The big question leading up to The Snowmen was whether Jenna Louise Coleman would be playing the same character she did in Asylum of the Daleks, and in true Stephen Moffat style the answer isn't exactly clear. Clara Oswald's personality is significantly toned down in comparison to the (rather annoying at times) Oswin Oswald, but similarities between the two are clear as day - even down to the repeated lines. The mystery behind Clara is something that will hopefully propel the series forward, rather than keep the Doctor looking toward what was lost like Ten was with Rose Tyler. Fingers crossed.

Doctor Who The Snowmen Strax, Vastra & Jenny

But even with such an impressive debut, Clara was completely overshadowed by Strax who stole the show at every given opportunity. The not-so-bright Sontaran warrior's answers to problems often involved blowing things up, and lines such as "Stay calm, human scum" and "Please don't noogie me during combat prep" will undoubtedly go down as some of the best comedy Who has delivered in a long time. The only question is whether Strax has cost the Sontarans their credibility as a threat...not that The Two Doctors did much to prevent that in the classic series anyway. Vastra and Jenny are a little more underplayed than Strax, but its great to finally see them in their own setting after coming out of nowhere in A Good Man Goes to War. Its a shame the Doctor Who writers don't seem keen to try out an alien companion, because these three are proof that the concept could definitely work in the modern format.

Doctor Who The Snowmen Dr Simeon

This year's Christmas special was one that seemed to aim to appease Classic Who fans more than ever, and that stretched much further than a revamped title sequence. First we have the villain of the episode (voiced by none other than Ian McKellen), which is strongly hinted to be The Great Intelligence - the alien entity behind the robot Yeti in the Second Doctor episodes The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear. Rather than  reveal the character outright, the story keeps it distant enough for newer fans not feel alienated by the inclusion of a 1960s villain whose two stories no longer exists, but plays the references so closely that even the Doctor doesn't fully recognise who he's up against. With the story having been set before Troughton's outings chronologically, it plays a little more interesting than a standard "so we meet again!" encounter. As well as being backed up by a legion of living snowmen (not quite "abominable" just yet?), the Great Intelligence is aided by the sinister Dr Simeon, played by Who veteran Richard E Grant (although this is his most canonical appearance to date).

Doctor Who The Snowmen TARDIS

Next we have the new look TARDIS interior, which is closer to its classic counterpart(s) than ever before. Gone is the wide open space and console full of steampunk kitsch and household items, replaced with a gloriously retro console donned with Galifreyan symbols. It's a darker, more closed in console room which uses a blue lighting scheme rather than the usual yellow/orange, but this is perhaps more reflective of the Doctor's mood going into the episode. How long this console room will stick around is yet to be seen, but its certainly already left an impression.

I won't deny that the episode ended with the typical "emotions conquer all odds" that most Christmas specials end with, but even that didn't spoil an episode than managed to hit every right button. Combine everything I've mentioned with the perfect Christmas setting (snow in Victorian London), stunning fairytale-like visuals (the highlight being Clara's ascension up a spiral staircase to the TARDIS above the clouds) and you have the perfect set up to what looks like its going to be a brilliant second half to season seven. 

The Christmas Invasion, consider yourself dethroned. The bar has been raised for future specials.

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