The Winter of Our Cautious Optimism

Review of The Snowmen
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

I'm not sure there's much more I could have asked for. (Oh, of course there is. A puppy is always nice, for example...)

Seriously, though, I think this is the best Christmas Special in a good long while (the best since Christmas Invasion, in my opinion). No episode is ever absolutely perfect, and I'll get to the parts that irked me later. Frankly, I wouldn't be much of a blogger if I couldn't find something both to love and to hate about any given story, but generally speaking, I have to say I quite enjoyed The Snowmen.

I think a great part of that is because it wasn't terribly Christmassy. That is, it felt like a "regular" episode (with a bit of extra time for plot development) that just happened to be set at Christmas, much like Nine's story The Unquiet Dead. Nothing except (here it comes - my first, biggest complaint) the über-sappy, saccharine explanation of "a whole family crying on Christmas Eve" relied on the specific time of year in order to make "sense."

And, to be honest, it just doesn't. It's not like no one else in London has ever - or even in that very year - lost a loved one right at Christmas. It happens to people the world over all the time. Why is this family's pain special? The simple answer is: it's not. (No more so than the loss of his most recent Companions is particularly special to the Doctor. But I'll get to that later.) That fact, combined with the overwrought emotional manipulation that plagues Moffat's episodes, make the denouement of this part of the story unsatisfactory.

As I was saying, though, the rest of the plot could have happened at any time during winter in any given year. OK, maybe the good ol' Victorian values the Doctor natters on about are somehow also required (though I can't say I'm entirely clear why), so we can qualify it to say "any time during winter in any of several years throughout the Victorian era." But that's just it - it was a Victorian winter episode, not a Christmas one. Not really. And I like that.

Instead, it added fuel to the fire of my own personal pet hypothesis about Series 7, which is based on the well-known fact that Moffat lies: They're not all one-off's. Clearly this is the beginning of a larger story arc centered on Clara/Oswin. I've got mixed feelings about that development.

On the one hand, I like the idea of tying the "Pond era" to the "Clara era" and the sense of a bigger puzzle to solve. It smacks of Something Big - "something impossible," as the Doctor himself put it - that has the potential to reset some of the things I don't like about post-Hiatus Who and give them a more definitive connection to pre-Hiatus Who.

On the other hand, is making the new Companion into this series' Crack in the Universe or Bad Wolf season arc really a good idea? Is the new-lead-character-as-plot-device concept sustainable after said plot has played out? Or will it damage our (the audience's) relationship with her later? I'm dubious, but as always I'm going to remain cautiously optimistic and let it play out before I make a final judgement.

Speaking of which, perhaps it's time to revisit my previous reactions to Clara based only on a few publicity shots. Given the two episodes in which we've seen the character (in her various incarnations), apparently she's a bit more than "another run-of-the-mill, modern Earth human." We'll have to wait and see exactly how much more, but there is at least a little bit of wiggle room there. So I'm glad there's more to Clara than meets the eye, but I am still forced to reserve final judgement.

Here, at least, she is an enjoyable character. She's got all those qualities of tenacity and "spunk" that make for a good Companion, and she's innately clever (as was Oswin). She knows the Doctor has a plan because he brought the umbrella, and she answers in non sequiturs just like he does. Note, for example, how he claims no responsibility for her presence in the TARDIS with a "You followed me; I didn't invite you," to which she replies, "You're nearly a foot taller than I am" before continuing to explain her train of thought.

So as an introduction to a new Companion (sort of), The Snowmen was a fine story. Of course, it also served as an opportunity for Moffat to indulge himself in several little in-jokes. For example, Clara's first TARDIS moment turns the standard quote on its head when she declares that "it's smaller on the outside." He also pats himself on the back a bit by making Vastra and Jenny the supposed basis for Doyle's Holmes stories and then having the Doctor play Holmes himself (with Gold's score imitating the theme from Moffat's Sherlock series as he does).

Then there's the "one word test." The climax of this bit, when Clara chooses her one word to get the Doctor off his cloud, is the ultimate conceit. Why is it that the Doctor has decided to "retire" after parting ways with Amy and Rory? Why is this particular Companion loss any more painful to him than, say, losing Adric? (Yes, he was kind of a twit, but not many Companions have actually died on the Doctor's watch. And no, the Ponds don't count, because they didn't actually die!) Or losing Sarah Jane? Susan? Jo? Donna? Even Rose? The idea that being deprived of his most recent Companions is enough to send him over the edge - more even than having to kill his entire race in the Time War - and make him give up on his whole centuries-long habit of exploring the universe and saving it along the way, "prefer[ring] isolation to the possibility of pain's return," is laughable to me. I never bought into that part.

However, the general story was fun. Using Vastra, Jenny and Strax as comic relief cheapens their characters a bit (and I should've realized the memory worm was a Chekov's gun), but I like them enough I could roll with it. I didn't think the Doctor making fun of/insulting Strax was particularly in character, but maybe that's supposed to be part of his current, cloud-hiding petulance. I didn't care for it either way, but what can you do.

As for the Great Intelligence part of the plot (I'm sad to admit that I needed the heavy-handed recap at the end to put it all together, though at least I know enough of my pre-Hiatus Who to pick it up when it's all laid out for me), it worked pretty well, aside from the sappy rain bit. It made for an interesting and sufficiently menacing enemy, and a good way to drag Clara into the Doctor's world.

This brings me to my second biggest peeve about The Snowmen. I was disappointed in the fact that, as my blogger/podcaster friend Paul Greaves pointed out, the fabulous guest actor Richard E. Grant (who did a bang-up job as both the "lick the mirror handsome" Tenth Doctor in The Curse of Fatal Death and as the Shalka Doctor) was drastically underused. He did a brilliant job with what little he was given, like the way he switched so immediately from a hardened old man to an uncertain, frightened child. I'm sad that once he finally appeared in the actual show, he wasn't used to his full potential, but at least he now has the distinction of having played two Doctors and another character.

Then there are the purely stylistic things to note, in particular the new opening credits and the new aesthetics of the TARDIS. I'm still undecided about the credits, but I did totally punch the air when Eleven's face made its brief appearance. That's the one thing that's been missing from the post-Hiatus credits, and I'm really glad to see its return. As for the TARDIS, seeing her exterior so beat up made me a little sad, but I think I like the new interior. The Circular Gallifreyan above the time rotor makes me smile, and although there still aren't roundels, the hexes give a similar vibe, and provide some continuity with the other post-Hiatus versions. Most of all, I like the fact that the color scheme has changed from the warm tones of the most recent interiors back to cooler ones of previous eras.

And while I'm discussing minutiae, here's another extremely minor detail. Because I'm usually not a continuity wonk, I was exceedingly pleased with myself to notice this, and feel compelled to pass it on. When Clara first climbs the staircase to the TARDIS, she is climbing upward in a clockwise direction. However, when we switch to the long-distance shot, the stairs go counter-clockwise! See for yourself. When she mounts the stairs, she comes toward us to screen right (her left hand on the outer rail); at the cloud tops, she comes toward us to screen left (right hand on rail). Somebody goofed! (Won't I just laugh myself sick if this isn't a simple continuity error.)

So as usual, when I stop to think about it I find find things to pick apart. Most of them didn't impact my viewing experience, and I quite enjoyed it while watching, especially the ties to the past. My overall assessment of The Snowmen, then, is that it still has some of the general recurrent flaws (as I see them) of the post-Hiatus era, but is doing its darnedest to incorporate aspects of the pre-Hiatus era as the first salvo, so to speak, in the celebrations of the show's 50th anniversary. Perhaps more importantly, it made me look forward to more of Clara's story.

And that's probably more than I can say of any other Christmas special to date.

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Comments

Wow, I read all of your comments, and there is so much to think about, I know I won't cover it all here.

It's amazing that I agree with a good deal of your points, but overall, disagree with your reaction to the show: I didn't like it at all. I have several reasons why, and it will touch upon some of the things you wrote about.

First of all, Clara - don't like her as a companion. When she appeared as Oswin the Dalek, I had similar concerns, and they panned out in the Christmas special. She's TOO witty and clever with words. I'm not talking about that ridiculous "pond" reference, either. Yes, lowercase "p." Is the Doctor now going to jump every time someone mentions a small body of water? Come on!

Now, I know we don't know if Clara is fully human (we can only hope she isn't), but she is humaniod at the very least. Even the Doctor isn't as witty and "clever" in her manner of speaking as both a Dalek and Victorian lady. I remember about 12 and a half years ago, the show "Gilmore Girls" came out. I remember watching it and the characters were far too witty in their manner of speaking. It was clearly written, thought-way-ahead of time dialogue, and hence, really dialogue? Those actors were spouting lines that would take the rest of us hours to think of, and we'd have to memorize from paper - which gave the show a degree of incredulity that was unsurpassed, in my opinion.

I am finding I am having the same trouble with Clara. I can tell it's an actress who has memorized "written dialogue." No one would say what she says. People might point out that this is true of the Doctor sometimes. Yes, but his character has evolved over decades, and his speech still seems somewhat limited in comparison to how "smart" hers is! I believe Moffat is writing her all wrong, and the actress playing her is going over the top with the "I'm so clever and spunky" bit. We've had that all before, as you have pointed out in previous posts, and I'm tired of it!

Yes, yes, spunky girl from our time period (because her "Victorian" spunky part had to die -why?) - we've heard this all before. Were Rose, Martha, Donna, and Amy not "spunky" and outspoken? How is she any different? That she might not be human, or remember things? Maybe she was a Time Lord? Big deal, it's in the presentation, and as far as I'm concerned, she's a carbon copy of companions in the past.

I fully agree with your points about the sentimentality of a whole family crying out in pain in Christmas - yuck. What was Moffat thinking? Also, the Doctor so bereft over the loss of his Companions: we saw Tennant's Doctor crying when he lost Rose, whom he loved, but he went on! Companion afer companion was lost in the past - you've already covered this - but I fully agree that this pouting over Amy (I don't think it's as much Rory) is not in character with the Doctor, if you look at his story as a whole. As we've talked about before, it seems unlikely he couldn't visit them, but even if he can't, according to the cannon - well, this is the guy who abandoned Sarah Jane.

It seems as these are requisite qualities for any companion these days:
1. young female - the younger, the better, but not a child- 18 years or older (how Alex Kingston ever landed the gig as part-time companion confounds me, but she is really good and deserves it)
2. Supermodel good looking
3. Smarter, better, more special, thoughtful, or creative in some way - than the other Companions in the past, to make her competitive, or at least, justify her Companion status
4. Usually single (I thank god for Rory, but he was under-used, and I think in some weak moment, Moffat seized an opportunity to blast us with the past, to the days of yore - Classic Who, and more recently touched upon with Rose and Mickey, Jack and whoever, Martha and Donna, you get the drift....)
5. From the 21st century, and as you said before, MR, usually white and British
6. Never as smart as the Doctor, but able to see things he cannot (which I think will remain the norm with Clara) - hence never a fellow Time Lord, as they are all dead - another reason I think the Doctor didn't like Jack - Jack knew too much!

My list is not meant to be comprehensive, inclusive, or unarguable. By all means, argue away! These are just my opinions. :-) I just find these companion trends a bit disturbing.

I think we still have reason to hope, with Madame Vastra and Strax. I, too, would love to see Vastra, or someone like her, as a companion!!!!

I think I will conclude this diatribe due to length and address other concerns in a new post. But one other thing: what was the reason for Clara's two jobs???? To show us her great depth? Who would want to be a Victorian bar maid? I can't imagine what that would be like! How did she manage to be a governess, a live-in, 24/7 position, virtually?? I know she told her boss at the bar she was "going away," but how long could she keep that up? It was Moffat's way of "showing us" she was different, like we were too stupid to figure that out. Couldn't she have just been a governess? Did it really lend so much to the story that she had two jobs?

Crickey. I did not like the story overall because it felt like we were being led too much (not the first time I have had this concern), Clara seemed an unlikely character, and I did not like Jenna-Louise Coleman's portrayl of her. I can only hope she grows on me. Also, even though Clara is unlikely, she is too much like prior companions. Why have new ones if they are all cut from the same mold?

By Tree (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I think it's a pretty safe bet that if a fan dislikes a Companion, they're unlikely to enjoy the episodes she's (or occasionally he's) in. So yes, if you've not clicked with Jenna or Clara/Oswin, I can't see how you'd enjoy much about The Snowmen. I have not (yet, anyway) had the same negative gut reaction to her as you have, though your points are all well taken. Time will tell whether or not anything truly unique is there in the character or her portrayal. :)

By mrfranklin

Thanks, MR! I just feel like they are increasingly writing companions to be so much more than everyday, normal people (considering that they are all humans - I don't know if I'd have the same complaint for non-humans). When the re-introduction of the series, the series was specifically written to make Rose seem like your "average" person. She worked in a department store, had a boyfriend who ignored her, and lived in an apartment with her mother. Something special came into her life, and I think people could identify with her character - not with Billie Piper, of course.

Part of some of the British charm, I feel, is that it is not Hollywood. There are normal people who chose to be actors on well written shows. Obviously, not every show is well written, and some Brits turn to Hollywood, but I find there is more to like in the BBC than in American shows.

As Dr Who has progressed in this reincarnation, it seems like the companions are becoming more and more extraordinary, in the way they are written, how they act, and how they look. Maybe it's always been that way, I don't know. Clara just seems too snappy, too quick, too beautiful. Like I said, I hope she'll grow on me. :-)

By Tree (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

There have previously been extremely clever Companions. Zoë, Nyssa, Adric, Romana... all were meant to be unusually intelligent. "Special" in the way Donna was? Not precisely, no. But most of the Companions almost since the beginning have been physically attractive to one degree or another. Certainly more so than the Doctor himself. ;)

By mrfranklin

The difference is that previous extremely clever companions weren't also supposed to be normal, everyday audience-identification figures at the same time. (The only time the classic series ever made that mistake was Mel, and that's one of the reasons why her character just plain didn't work.) And, of course, their extreme cleverness was usually balanced with an equally extreme naivety and lack of common sense. Not something that modern-day companions are guilty of.

By solar penguin (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

You raise some interesting points. I'll have to think on that more. :)

By mrfranklin

I'll admit I'm not as familiar with the Classic Who, but I have been starting to watch - more recently, thanks to gift cards from the holiday! It is expensive to be a Doctor Who fan.

I would argue that Barbara and Ian were quite identifiable. I myself am an instructor, and I'm sure many people at the time taught (since the 19th century, the profession at the elementary and secondary age has been dominated by females). I teach at universities as well, and I find Barbara and Ian not so beyond the grasp of the every day man, but equally clever!

Perhaps times have changed, and there is not as much respect for teachers, but after watching a good deal of the first Doctor, I have a lot more in common with Ian and Barbara than I do with any modern companion.

Additionally, Susan, although a "Time Lord" technically, acted very much the adolescent. Even though she would be considered special as a Time Lord, she was introduced as being very intelligent, but then you had to wonder. Some of the things that girl did were what any 16 year old might do, and hence, very relatable.

By Tree (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

Ian and Barbara are among my all-time faves, and have been since I first saw them. I certainly find them relatable, and plenty clever in their own way. After all, Ian was really the hero of those early stories; the Doctor was primarily a plot hook!

By mrfranklin

They are my faves, too! They are solid companions who bring a lot to the story, and as you mentioned, Ian was the hero. I thought they were clever in their own way, too. :-)

I really like the stories with those two, but could do without Susan at times! Carol Ann Ford left the series for primarily the reason which makes her character so irritating - she is constantly doing stupid things and screaming! They didn't write that character well. I know they wanted a young adult for children to relate to, but frankly, for a Time Lord, she was quite the sissy! Plus, she always wandered off on her own and created her share of the problems.

At least Barbara didn't run around screaming all the time. I liked that she and Ian challenged the Doctor in those early episodes.

By Tree (not verified)

Okay, I took some time to jot down some points I want to cover!

I fully agree with you about Richard E. Grant!!! He was utterly fabulous, but it's like they used him in the beginning, and forgot about him! They had to tie up his story at the end, and it was rushed. It seems like he was just thrown in there because they needed a menacing human face. It started out with him and then just became about Clara, without giving them equal time. Such a disappointment. I did enjoy Ian McKellan as the Voice, but wished more had been done about the story of the intelligence. It seems like all the Doctor has to say is: "It's an intelligence" these days and that's it. I suppose it was always that way, though.

I felt like the show started out with such promise - evil snowmen - and then failed to deliver. Moffat has done a good job in the past of taking ordinary, every-day objects and making them scary; he is known for that - the angels, shadows, etc... but it didn't really work here. The snowmen looked like demented Burl Ives wannabes from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Plus, you could melt them with your thoughts - not too menacing!

Oh, as to why the Brits love the Victorian period - it was their time in the sun. They controlled a good part of the world, they practically ruled the globe with their navy, and enjoyed a prosperity unequalled. But it was not meant to last. After World War I (and later II), they lost their Empire. It's their Golden Age.

I do wonder about each showrunner's attempts to out-do themselves each year. If every series is "big" and attempts "the impossible," then how are you going to out-do yourself each year? It's a race you can't win, and I think RTD finally gave up with that one. Eventually, you'll just have to concentrate on telling good stories, not making each series a seminal event.

I like the new stylistic changes. When Matt Smith's face appeared on the intro, I had a feeling that Moffat is harkening to the past for his ideas, LOL. It made me think there is more of that to come! I liked the new interior of the TARDIS, mainly for the blue tones. I thought it was a nice combination with the outside of the blue police box. I only saw "The Snowmen" once, so I will have to watch it again for more of these details. I will say I will check out that staircase error!

I am hopeful for the future, but as I said before, there are trends I don't like. Having said that, I still love the show, and can only imagine how Moffat must feel. It's hard to please the fans, and we only critique because we love it so much! I wouldn't spend the time I spend on Dr Who on anything else. I suppose that is my ultimate verdict. I feel like I spend a lot of time on what I didn't like, so I do want to say I love the show overall, love the stories, the writing, and the Doctor! If I were a showrunner, writer, or designer, I would simply turn off my computer and do my best job. I think we do see the very best efforts possible, and it shows!!!

By Tree (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I was also (as you read in the review) disappointed about how little Richard E. Grant was used. However, it was (technically) a Companion introduction story, so I can see how that got shunted to the side. As for the Great Intelligence (and even the "evil snowmen," to a degree), that's the beginning of the 50th Anniversary Fan Service. Check out the Two story The Web of Fear for what was borrowed. :)

I wasn't questioning why it was set in the Victorian era. Rather, why the Doctor found it necessary to emphasize "Victorian values" as part of what had allowed the Great Intelligence to do its thing.

I've said before I think it's ridiculous to try to outdo oneself every time. That's why the Daleks became boring, old hat, and not really scary during RTD's era, in my opinion. :)

The credits definitely hark back to earlier times. The Doctor's face (or more) appeared in the credits from Two through Seven. I loved having it back!

It's hard to deal with so many things that you (each individual fan) like and so many that you simultaneously dislike. I think the only person who's happy with (almost?) everything that's going on is Moffat himself. As I said before, that's because he's making the show he wants to see, which isn't necessarily what any other single person wants to see. ~shrug~ I'll still watch, and enjoy where I can. :)

By mrfranklin

Yet one would think Moffat would be making a show the fans would want to see and please his audience. It's troubling that something like that wouldn't be self-evident to him.

By Tree (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

He's outright said that he's doing stuff for the 50th that he, as a fan, would want to see. I think that's his interpretation of what other fans would want to see (but it's not necessarily true, as each fan wants to see something different). I don't think he's being deliberately obtuse.

By mrfranklin

I see. I had not read those comments. Of course it's subjective. If not every person, than at least camps of people! But you are ultimately right, every viewer is different. I don't think he's doing it deliberately, either, but he should know well enough than to assume that he knows that all the fans are the same, and that he knows what they want. :-)

By Tree (not verified)

And it's yet another companion with a special connection with Time, following Donna's metacrisis, Amy's crack in time, Rory's centuries as a centurion, and River's whole life story. Once or twice was interesting. But do we really need a similar gimmick five times in a row!?! Far from making me intrigued, it just made me think, "Oh no, not again."

As for the episode itself, it could've made a good regular series episode, especially if expanded into a two-parter to fix the pacing problems. But it didn't really work as a one-off special. (Watching with non-fans, I had to explain even simple things like the "pond" reference, never mind the Great Intelligence!)

By solar penguin (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

While every Companion has to have "that special something" (or the Doctor wouldn't take them traveling with him), your point is well taken. I hadn't actually thought about the "special connection with Time" until you stated it, but now it falls under "what has been seen cannot be unseen." ;) I'm not ready to throw in the towel on Clara/Oswin's story yet, but I may be overly optimistic.

I totally agree about it being a good regular episode. I see the pacing issues as trying to introduce a new Companion in the midst of a story that needed full attention in and of itself. But I was happy to watch this at Christmastime instead of the more standard festivities-and-tears specials we've been subjected to in the past.

By mrfranklin

Excellent points, Solar Penguin - I did not think of it that way! Dare we even include Rose and the Time Vortex, or was that more happenstance? Even Martha lived "outside" of regular time for a year while battling the Master. However, I think that instance, with Martha, proved how resourceful she was, that she could travel the world while the Master controlled the Earth - with a little help from a perception filter. :-)

By Tree (not verified)

Good point, but I wouldn't include Rose or Martha, because that was just one thing that happened to them, rather than being the big gimmick that shaped their whole character. (e.g. Rose's experience of the Time Vortex affected the Doctor and Jack's characters far more than hers!)

But yes, they could be what indirectly inspired the current trend, so I can see why you consider them part of it.

By solar penguin (not verified)

I agree with you more about them being indirect, in their association with time. I think Rose took a chance with the Time Vortex, and it could have been any companion, so it was something that happened to her. I think, as you say, a trend started, and then it really momentum with Donna in that her connection with the Doctor was "predestined."

By Tree (not verified)
John Beckwith's picture

Compared to the other commentary, mine is admittedly simplistic. LOL Basically, tonight I got to see this episode with no expectations or foreknowledge, and I really liked the episode! It was fun to watch. The episode's positives were positive enough that I was able to overlook the episode's negatives.

I got a welcome laugh out of the many comedic lines such as (paraphrasing) "Sir! Sir! I've been run over by a cab!" and "Hello. I'm a lizard woman from the dawn of time, and this is my wife," followed by the maid's scream. LOL

Likewise, I genuinely enjoyed the beginning stages of romance/Companionship coming from the Doctor and Clara; there was a lot of fast-paced give-and-take between those two characters, and usually I'm not a fan of romantic comedies. i.e. It was uplifting to see a morose character like the Doctor back in his game with a timeless motivator like falling in love with a perfect match.

Finally, I agree with the assessment that this made an excellent winter episode and that the Christmas angle was unnecessary.

By John Beckwith
mrfranklin's picture

Sometimes I fee like I/we overanalyze, so it's nice to hear some simple gut reactions, too. They're equally valid! :)

By mrfranklin

When the Moff said this series would all be "one-off" episodes, I thought he was referring to two-part stories, like the Angels, Silurians and Pandorica in series 5, or the Silence or Gangers in series 6, not to the story of the newest companion, which would play out across the season. He did, of course, lie like a trooper about her story beginning with the Christmas episode, which frankly delights me.

By Tad Dunten (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I always assumed that "one-offs" meant no two-parters, but also that there was no overarching story arc. In fact, unless I'm mistaken, Moffat even said there would be no arc. But I'm with you on the surprise from Asylum - that was fun. :)

By mrfranklin

I was waiting to have a procedure done to check out my heart the other day, and I began to think about "Clara/Oswin." I wonder if she could be a Ganger, part of the Flesh, which "remembers." Wasn't the whole moral debate about the Flesh one of they believed who they were, and could remember, as the Doctor pointed out many times. I'm probably more wrong than anything, but it would explain her being in different times and remembering, eventually. Oh well, just a thought. The only thing was that when Clara died, she didn't "splat" into a pool of mess on the floor, but was buried. :-)

By Tree (not verified)
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