Review: ‘The Snowmen’

Around this time last year, I wrote that the function of the Doctor Who Christmas special – if we must have such things, although that’s a whole separate argument – should be to entertain people who don’t usually watch the show, and entice them into full-time viewership. It would be nice, for example, if someone were to be amused and interested by a Christmas episode, to the extent that they then checked out the next series, before then looking into the recent history of the show starting with Eccleston, and then eventually delved into Classic Who and realised how much better that was. I don’t have the viewing stats to hand, but I’d be willing to bet that at Christmas there are a good number of people watching Doctor Who that normally don’t – in the houses of Who-obsessed relatives, for example – and this is thus a good chance for the writers to evangelise.

Emily and I watched this episode alone, and I was glad that we did. Because while it felt more Whovian than last year’s instalment, it was practically impenetrable. Despite the hopeless Neela Debnath’s insistence that “it works as a standalone due to the simple story and the self-contained nature of it” (a comment I suspect she wrote about halfway through her first viewing, and then forgot to delete), you really can’t watch this without knowing what’s come before. It’s like trying to watch The Two Towers without seeing Fellowship of the Ring first. It hangs together as a standalone narrative, in that it adheres to the three-act structure, but the character’s motivations are going to be one big haze, and you’ll spend most of your time wondering why Vigo Mortensen doesn’t want to be king, wishing that John Rhys Davies would shut up (more on that later) and wondering why on earth Liv Tyler is there at all.

It’s just about enough to be told, for example, that the Doctor has suffered a loss and that this is what’s made him grumpy. Certainly this is not a man that you’d want to see leading a family drama series in his current state, and not someone you’d necessarily like if you didn’t realise that he was normally a lot chirpier. He’s become the burned-out cop who is hauled back in for one last job, engaging with society only reluctantly, and living in a castle on a cloud. Knowledge of the supporting characters, too, is inessential – although it would help, surely, to know that The Doctor is being assisted by two alien races (fine, the Silurians are more like flatmates) acting very much against type. The inexplicable return of the previously deceased Sontaran is mentioned only briefly, as the Doctor tells Clara that “another friend of mine brought him back”, so this is presumably something that Moffat is going to be explaining at some point in the future, in that smug-but-annoying way he does.

Then it gets to the last ten minutes, and all hell breaks loose.

Clara Oswin Oswald – as a standalone character – just about worked. We learn almost nothing of her past or motivations during the hour or so that we get to know her; one would assume that she keeps her double life a secret because class warfare was so rampant. In terms of both costume and voice she flits between being Mary Poppins and Nancy, the barmaid from Oliver Twist – her red button-up dress is a direct homage to the latter, and when she’s first seen collecting mugs in the Rose and Crown I half-expected her to start singing a chorus of ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’. Later, she is seen climbing a stairway that leads to the cloud where the TARDIS is parked, and – oh, well, one thing led to another.

I spent the first five minutes wondering why on earth the Doctor failed to recognise Clara, before recalling that the last time we saw her, he didn’t – or at least he saw nothing except a Dalek shell. The voice conjures up memories but it isn’t until the soufflé reference that the penny finally drops, before rolling down the drain of ambiguity into the sewer of general confusion. Because let’s face it – if you didn’t know that the actress who played Clara appeared in the last series as a marooned traveller with a very similar name who turned out to be a Dalek, you’d be hopelessly confused even when it was shown in flashback. It was explained, but even the explanation was unnecessary, because if you know what they’re talking about you don’t need to hear it again, and if you have no idea then someone else in the room will be able to explain it better than Moffat did. It was a shoehorned explanation, no doubt submitted for the approval of the board, rather than anything that worked from a writing standpoint.

Of course, the next season’s arc is established even before we know the title of the first episode: it will be Clara / Oswin / Jasmine and her mysterious omnipresence. One assumes both from the ending and from the trailer that followed ‘The Snowmen’ that he’ll meet at least one more version of her and that they’ll travel together – or perhaps the unnamed Oswin that we saw in the episode’s final scene is simply another incarnation who will meet their doom at the end of the first episode, like a highly condensed version of Blackadder, and the whole thing’s going to become incredibly stale in about three seconds flat. Killing a future companion once is one thing, killing them twice is intriguing, but if this is something Moffat’s going to do every week it’s going to get very dull very quickly. I shouldn’t be surprised, of course – our chief writer is renowned for self-borrowing and a companion who meets multiple deaths over and over again is something he’s never done before in the show, ever.

More than this, is it really necessary to have – once again – a companion that’s the centre of the show? Oswin’s been described to me (by Gareth, summarising) as a plot device with a pretty face, in much the same way that Amy / Donna / Rose were consigned similar fates. Admittedly some of the Classic Who companions were pretty vacuous, but their role was solely to be reactive rather than proactive – responding to cataclysm rather than being the cause of it – and at no point did the show really suffer for this. The role of the companion, we’re constantly told, is to be our eyes and ears into the Whoniverse – the person to whom we’re supposed to relate – and while I don’t really believe that this has to be the case, Moffat’s alternative is another example of him writing characters to fit the plot, rather than the other way round.

There were several other things that annoyed me.

1. Richard E. Grant. I know that telling a coherent story in the space of an hour was always going to be a stretch, but is it really fair to ask one of the finest British actors around to appear in Doctor Who as the villain and then give him nothing to do except look menacing and growl a bit? It was like watching all those character actors in Harry Potter, standing around and muttering their two lines of dialogue before cashing the cheque and heading off to The Late Show for the publicity interviews. Both the snowmen themselves and their creator were a colossal McGuffin – the episode was really about Clara, and we knew that – but by the end of the story we still knew next to nothing of Simeon’s motivations or backstory, and his entire presence seemed a bit of a wasted opportunity.

2. Strax’s use as comic relief. Come on, Steven. It’s not enough that you have a lactating Sontaran – you have to turn him into the “short, funny character”? It’s Gimli the dwarf all over again. I’ll grant you that the sequence with the worm was amusing, but when Strax appeared for the third time in the hallway asking about grenades I was about ready to put him in the oven and cover him with tuna or butter (god knows the episode had enough cheese already, but we’ll come to that).

3. The ending, in which the snow melts because a family is crying. Read that again. The snow. Melts. Because. A FAMILY. Is CRYING. Onscreen  it was bad enough, albeit glossed over with lots of soft lighting, mournful looks and Murray Gold schmaltz. Condensed into a sentence in the cold light of day it is exposed for the atrocity it was: a dreadful, third-rate finale unworthy of any family show, least of all this one. Only Russell T Davies has written worse.

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4. The excessive use of ‘Doctor Who?’. It’s bad enough that they do it once. I got to three. There may have been more; I stopped counting.

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It wasn’t all bad, of course. The new titles and theme music work well – gone is the irritating counterpoint that cluttered Murray Gold’s earlier arrangements, and the drums have been turned down. It’s still too loud and too brash but it’s edging closer and closer towards the versions that actually worked, even if the backdrop now looks quite close to what the Beeb were doing in the eighties during Sylvester McCoy’s run. To give you an idea, here’s the two of them side by side.

We may never go back to the sinister (and quiet) moodiness of the original, but this may be the closest we get, and whatever happens next, this was a step in the right direction. Likewise, the stripped-down TARDIS interior – reflecting a colder, moodier Doctor – was a throwback to the classic console designs of old, and when the doors opened for the first time I almost cheered.

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Mention should also go to the striking visual approach they took – from the writing in the snow in the opening scene to the washed-out colour in the gardens of the Latimer residence, where Clara and the children were saturated against a subdued background in a subtle rendering of the tricks Spielberg was using in Schindler’s List. It really was very effective, particularly in HD, and a welcome change from the excessive browns that ruled the roost the last time Jenna-Louise Coleman made an appearance. The snowmen themselves were similarly impressive, although we saw too little of them for any lasting impression to be made – that’s probably for the best, as excessive sight of the monsters was one of the nails in the coffin of the Alien franchise, but suffice to say they resembled an evil version of Michael Keaton’s Jack Frost character.

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Similarly, the cast acquit themselves well, and even Richard E. Grant made the most with what he had. Smith’s transformation from grumpy loner to the life-affirming Doctor we’ve come to love was executed with his usual panache – the divesting of Amy’s glasses, unseen but implied, was a particularly nice touch, and if he regained his zest a little too abruptly that’s largely the fault of the script, not the performer. Coleman’s job was to be feisty (which I’ve complained about before) but she was never less than watchable. Ian McKellen’s voiceover was competent, and complaints about comic relief aside, the Strax / Jenny / Vastra combination worked well – although I do wish that Moffat didn’t see the need to hammer home the lesbian thing as if it were something to be smug about (hey, look, Doctor Who is politically correct! Who knew?). It did, of course, mean that Madame Vastra got the episode’s best line, arriving on Captain Latimer’s doorstep with Jenny and Strax in tow and announcing “I’m a lizard woman from the dawn of time, and this is my wife”.

But as a whole, the episode probably got more wrong than it got right. Decent effects and a few big names do not a good story make, and it feels as if Moffat figured he could dump a few interesting characters into Victorian London, create a twisted version of Frosty the Snowman to scare the kids, throw in a few Christmas Carol analogies and then churn it out on December 25th without a single viewer noticing that he hadn’t actually given any of said characters anything substantial to do. It was an episode about the Doctor coming halfway out of the dark, and that’s probably what the show needed, but you can’t just build an hour-long character piece in a show like this if you’re not going to have something that at least vaguely resembles dramatic tension, and at no point – no point at all – did I feel that any of the characters were in any danger, neither from the snowmen or from the ice nanny, or from McKellen’s snow globe / talking plasma ball. Instead I spent all my time wondering who Clara was and where she came from, and given that (as I’ve realised this morning) I don’t actually care, that makes ‘The Snowmen’, for all its efforts, something of a failure. Humbug.

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6 thoughts on “Review: ‘The Snowmen’

  1. Hrm. I’m wondering if this is how people who enjoyed the films feel when they read my Peter Jackson rants?

    I have many things to say, but I’m going to scroll back up and re-read with an open notepad to make sure I properly gather my thoughts.

    Don’t worry, I’m not offended or anything, and I promise I won’t get capattacky, there are just things I’m surprised you didn’t mention and I need to make sure I didn’t miss mention of them the first time around.

    brb

    • reverend61

      it may be! Certainly I read them and think “Hmm, yes, but…”. I don’t say anything, though, because I don’t think you’re alone in your feelings about the Jackson films, and I have many of the same discussions via email with Gareth. The bottom line is that I think you both have a closer relationship with the source material than I do.

      But no, I’m not offended! Yours would not be the first eyebrows I’ve raised with this review. Re-reading it I wonder if I was a little harsh, but I also think I’m basically right, particularly about the ending (which I know was explained, but it still sucked).

      • Oh, you were absolutely right about the ending. As a whole, though, I thought it was fairly successful (see my 800 word comment below [seriously, sorry about that]) and it’s one that I won’t groan if the boy asks to watch it over and over again.

  2. You know, I’ve been hearing that a lot of people watch the Christmas Specials with family that might not otherwise be considered fans, and that’s something that hadn’t really occurred to me before, and might be why I don’t generally enjoy them as much. It’s something to think about, anyway.

    I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that until A Christmas Carol, we didn’t GET Christmas episodes on Christmas in the US, and we certainly don’t get them in the early evening. They’re on at the standard time of 9 pm when most everyone has already gone home.

    I clicked the link at the beginning and read your post from last year. It was lovely, but I have a feeling Gareth would not like me much since I’m one of those people that squee at the self-aware references.

    THAT BEING SAID – this was definitely my favourite Christmas Special since they’ve been doing Christmas Specials, and part of it might have just come from the joyousness that comes of having some time to watch “our” show with my sons that watch with me.

    Moving on to your numbered points.

    1. I agree that I wish they’d given Grant more screentime. He was completely wasted here, but I believe I saw that he’s coming back later in the season? I laughed really hard at this photo, btw.

    2. I LOVED Strax here! Maybe it’s because I was influenced by my boys, or maybe it’s because I still sometimes have the sense of humour of a child, but every time we were expected to laugh at him, I did. This is unusual for me, because in general, I’m not one of those people who laugh on cue.

    3. The ending WAS lame. I didn’t buy the whole thing at all and even after having watched it all the way through four times, it still doesn’t make much sense.

    4. Agreed. It kills me when I’m talking to people who don’t watch regularly and they refer to the character AS “Doctor Who” so this just made me really angry, but I was able to quickly put it out of my mind becauuuuuuse…

    (since you used numbers, I’m going to use letters for my own points, hee)

    a. I quite literally squealed during the opening theme. I love the new score, and I love the new title, mostly for nostalgic reasons, yes. It worked for me, and when I looked over at the 13y/o to see what he thought (he, decked out in his fez and bowtie with his trowel and sonic screwdriver next to him), he had a huge smile on his face. Huge.

    b. I wasn’t sure what I thought of the TARDIS interior from the promo shots we got ahead of time, but when I saw it in action, I loved it. Again, nostalgia.

    c. I can’t believe there is zero mention made here of The Abominable Snowmen or Web of Fear. I let out ANOTHER squeal when I saw the GI stuff, and yet again when 11 handed off the Underground lunchbox. I had to pause it to explain the significance to the boy, and then he had to make a joke about how he thought it odd someone would want a lunchbox with Dumbledore’s scar on it. I laughed. He’s quite funny sometimes.

    d. “I’m a lizard woman from the dawn of time…and this is my wife.” WAS the best line of the episode, one that upon re-watching, we have rewound several times and giggled each time. My husband isn’t really a fan of the show (I KNOW, RIGHT?) but he will sit with us when it’s on, even if he’s only playing chess on his phone or something. Even he looked up and laughed a few times during the scenes with Mme Vastra, Jenny and Strax. I know other people are saying it, but I would WATCH THE CRAP out of a spinoff if they had one.

    e. Hee, deerstalkers are cool.

    f. Stop being such a Grumpy Gus from Grumpstown, I need you to speculate about Oswin with me because I’m tired of reading things like “Clara Oswin Oswald is actually an anagram for IC RANI SAD WOOL” (which, yes, it makes me laugh, BUT ZOMG JUST STOP).

    g. That’s enough points I think, and really, I probably should have written my own post as a reply to you, but I am sometimes lame like that.

    Hope your family is well and that you’re enjoying your vacation, but get back to posting regularly. 😛

  3. reverend61

    We’re at cross-purposes! You were replying while I was.

    First things first: that Christmas special thing. Interesting that it’s new. Also interesting that the Christmas special under Moffat has usually actually been *about* Christmas, which is more than you can say for anything that Davies did (he’d usually chuck in a couple of pop culture references, silly hats and a robotic Santa with a gun disguised as a euphonium). I give kudos to the chief writer for his efforts and I have to say I think he’s been on the ball with two out of three, which is probably why I got so cross about this one. I’d also say that I didn’t watch it with the boys, because it’s going to be a whopping great spoiler for ‘Asylum’, when we’re still only halfway through series 6. Perhaps if Em and I *hadn’t* watched this one on our own I’d have been more charitable, in the same way I was last year.

    1. if Grant’s coming back later, that’s fine.

    2. I, like you, laughed at Strax. I still think the comic relief thing is lazy writing! What can I say? I adhere to double standards.

    3. I had the ending ‘explained’ to me on a scientific basis, in that the snow responds to emotional states, and that the sorrow outweighed the fear. I can buy that, but it’s still lame. It’s like Gerda melting her brother’s frozen heart at the end of The Ice Queen. It sucked. It was worse than The Bear.

    4. Yeah, I don’t mind people calling him ‘Doctor Who’. It’s just that line is funny if you use it once in a series, but it must be taken out of the box sparingly. Moffat seems to be sprinkling it liberally throughout his stories at the moment, as if to make a point. (I suggest, BTW, you check out the Never Mind The Buzzcocks episode with Catherine Tate and David Tennant, which is on YouTube, in which she reveals that she knew absolutely NOTHING about the show when she took it on, even going so far that the Doctor was actually called Mr Who before earning his doctorate. It’s hysterical.)

    Glad we both like the new TARDIS and titles, both of which I thought were the strongest things about the episode. The titles, in particular, are *very* nostalgic.

    I can’t think of what Oswin could be. I have stopped guessing about these things because I’m never right. The answer is usually lame. But I did read someone who thinks that she’s Astrid Peth, sprinkled throughout history….

    • I am watching it right now.

      Sidenote: I wish we got this here instead of endless repeats of Top Gear. I ❤ Noel Fielding.

      Further sidenote: It's weird for me that I enjoy Tennant more as himself instead of as The Doctor.

      I saw people speculating that she's Astrid. I've also seen that she's a piece of the TARDIS, which is why she commented that it was "smaller on the outside."

      [shrug]

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