Doctor Who 2012 Christmas Special review: The Snowmen

Posted: 1 January 2013 in entertainment, television
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Doctor Who: The SnowmenThe foundations for a 50th anniversary year of adventure, fun, and mystery are laid with The Snowmen whilst showing that no one can sneer as effectively as Richard E Grant and that all disembodied alien intelligences should be voiced by Shakespearian knights of the realm.

I said I’d feed you. I didn’t say who to.

“Written by Steven Moffat, based upon a fleeting notion that Douglas Adams had in 1979” may have been a more apt writing credit for the 2012 Doctor Who Christmas Special as the concept of the Doctor tiring of saving all of space and time and withdrawing into a reclusive existence was first postulated as The Doctor Retires by the legendary Douglas Adams during his stint as script editor.

Also known as Sunburst, the idea was intended as the genesis for a 6 part serial to conclude the 17th season of the classic show but producer Graham Williams nixed it on the grounds that it would be seen as “sending up” the series. On this occasion the instincts of the oft-maligned Williams were correct. Though Tom Baker could have undoubtedly done reclusive and sulky (check out his brooding presence at the beginning of the Hornet’s Nest audio series) the virtual standalone nature of stories during that era precluded the emotional character and story arc required to drive the Doctor into “retirement”.

21st century Doctor Who is a very different animal as numerous narrative “beats” can now be planted across several stories and in order to build to major events in terms of plot and emotion with high concept payoffs. The fall of the Ponds in The Angels Take Manhattan and the Doctor’s heartbreak at their loss was an entirely believable way of provoking him to withdraw from the affairs of the universe. Being annoyed in the wake of The Horns of Nimon was not believable.

Good evening. I’m a lizard woman from the dawn of time, and this is my wife.

Set aside all cravings for further Torchwood outings! What is needed for 2013 and beyond is The Paternoster Gang! Otherworldly mysteries set in the last years of the 19th century as investigated by Madame Vastra, the lizard woman of Paternoster Row (Neve McIntosh), her beautiful assistant Jenny Flint (Caitrin Stewart), and their mysterious henchman Strax (Dan Starkey), whose countenance was too abominable to be photographed. Steven Moffat has said that if he had the time outside of his commitments to Doctor Who and Sherlock he’d address the clamoring and create a spin-off featuring the popular trio. The masterstroke in The Snowmen was the resurrection of Strax into the role of butler. From confusing Madame Vastra’s offer of help to the Doctor as an offer of grenades to the multiple instances of forgetful handling of a memory worm, the scenes between Strax and the Doctor are amongst the funniest ever seen in the series with perfect timing from Starkey and Matt Smith.

The Victorian era has always been a ripe setting for Doctor Who as it owes many of its roots to the scientific romances of Jules Verne, H G Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, especially The Time Machine and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Anachronistic technology and elements appeared in the likes of The Evil of the Daleks, The Talons of Weng-Chiang and Ghost Light long before the term “steampunk” entered into common usage in the late 1980s. The Doctor is basically a Victorian explorer in time and space so it’s no surprise that all his eleven incarnations to date have donned a late 19th century silhouette in terms of clothing. Whether dressed as “Sherlock Holmes” (a cheeky little in-joke to Moffat’s other acclaimed award-winning series) or in the manner of Jack Wild’s Artful Dodger from Oliver!, Matt Smith’s Doctor looked completely at home in the London of 1892. Thankfully Series 7b will feature at least one further story for Vastra, Jenny and Strax as revealed in the “Coming Soon” segment at the end of The Snowmen. The follow-up appearance is rumoured to occur in the Mark Gatiss penned story (possibly entitled The Crimson Horror) guest starring Dame Diana Rigg. Perhaps the Eleventh Doctor and River Song can be straned in 1892 for a few stories in a manner akin to the exile of the Third Doctor and his adventures with UNIT…

Now whilst Big Finish are currently only permitted to use the first eight Doctors and their companions in their Doctor Who ranges, and absolutely nothing from the new series, perhaps a minor tweaking of rights could happen to allow the Paternoster Gang to appear alongside Henry Gordon Jago and Professor George Litefoot?

It’s smaller on the outside.

In many classic tales of derring-do the heroine has a unconventional journey from the world of the familiar with into realms of adventurous make believe. Whilst Alice tumbled down a rabbit hole into Wonderland and Wendy was carried aloft by Peter Pan into Neverland, Clara Oswin Oswald’s journey into the insanely wondrous and paradoxical world that is the TARDIS came via a seemingly never-ending climb up a “stairway to heaven”. But why was the TARDIS sat atop a cloud? Couldn’t the Doctor have just parked her at Madame Vastra’s house?  He could have easily forgotten which cloud was his…

Whatever the reasons for the Doctor parking “sexy” atop a cloud the special effects team at The Mill captured the surreal fairy tale nature of the scene beautifully. The camera shot that followed the Doctor and Clara directly into the TARDIS console room may have been technically impressive, the grandstanding of the moment where an incoming companion is expected to make a comment about the paradoxical dimensional nature of the TARDIS’s exterior and interior has now worn thin.

In place of the “coral desktop theme” of the Eccleston/Tennant eras and the “everything-including-kitchen-sink-thrown-at-it desktop theme” (seriously, there were hot and cold taps!) of Matt Smith’s first two and a half series the new interior harkened back to the more clinical interior of the 1970s. A logical narrative explanation for the change would be that the previous console room constantly reminded the Doctor of Amy and Rory given that it was created the day he met little Amelia Pond. It’s amazing how experiencing certain environs and locales can dredge up painful memories of loss.

Despite increased studio space and budgets none of the 21st century TARDIS interiors have come close to capturing the majestic wonder of Peter Brachacki’s original interior as first seen in An Unearthly Child in 1963. Even the wooden console room of Tom Baker’s third season and vast library-like chamber of the Paul McGann TV Movie outdo the most recent console rooms.

Along with the change of TARDIS desktop theme came another bombastic reworking of the theme music by Murray Gold that strays further and further from the Ron Grainer/Delia Derbyshire original with each update. The opening credits were also revamped into a colorful pulp sci-fi nonsensical kaleidoscopic mess with the Doctor’s face being included for the first time since 1989‘s Survival.

In the early 1970s the combination of the haunting opening credits and the masterfully frightening music, including the sinister “howlround”, placed millions of viewers (including this one) behind the sofa. Nowadays the theme tune has virtually become a singalong with accompanying colorful visuals heralding the beginning of yet another 45 minute romp as opposed to a 25 minute mini-Hammer Horror production. Steven Moffat has proved that he capable of providing “gothic horror” tales to match the likes of The Ark in Space and Pyramids of Mars so let’s have the wrapping to match. The production team must cease trying to go bigger and better all the time. Like wood that has been painted time and time again the opening sequence needs stripping back to the barest aspects and begun all over again.

Carnivorous snow meets Victorian values and something terrible is born.

Finally in the heartless walking sneer Dr Walter Simeon the Doctor was once again delivered of a worthy humanoid adversary to moralise with and ultimately defeat. Now if Richard E Grant isn’t at the top of the list of actors automatically called upon when a sneering villain is required then he must be pretty damn close. Simeon was effectively an Ebenezer Scrooge who had never been visited by any of Charles Dickens’ Ghosts of Christmas. Grant’s appearance in the canonical television incarnation hadn’t been so much a matter of “if” but rather “when”. He’s appeared alongside future Eighth Doctor Paul McGann in cult classic Withnail and I; portrayed the “Conceited Doctor” in Doctor Who and the Curse of the Fatal Death (a four part spoof written by Steven Moffat for Red Nose Day 1999); and starred as the Doctor in Doctor Who: Scream of the Shalka. The flash-animated Scream of the Shalka was produced to celebrate the series’ 40th anniversary and intended to be an official continuation of the television series with Grant as the Ninth Doctor. This was nixed by the revival of the series and the casting of Christopher Eccleston as the official Ninth Doctor for television. Subsequently Grant’s incarnation has been referred to as the “Shalka Doctor” or the “REG Doctor”.

Run, you clever boy, run. And remember.

Is Clara Oswin Oswald related to Rory Williams with all this dying and resurrection going on? Jenna Lousie-Coleman’s somehow seems to be the same person given that her feisty, strong-willed and flirtatious interaction with the Doctor on both occasions. Her presence was the clarion call that the Doctor required to summon him back into adventure, and though Coleman is shaping up as a worthy foil for Matt Smith, Moffat needs to keep her alive for several episodes in a row so as to allow her to develop her character and connect with the audience properly. There’s obviously an intricate concept involved with Clara and her existence and it’s to be wondered if another mystery of that nature is required after the saga of River Song’s identity.

If Clara turns out to be a descendant of River then heads across the globe will explode with the timey-wimeyness of it all. There’s certainly a giant tease of some variety underway given that the latest Clara Oswin Oswald was shown to have been born on November 23 1866 – and as any half-hearted aficionado will tell you 23rd November is the day that Doctor Who was first transmitted in 1963.

Well, we can’t be in much danger from a disembodied intelligence that thinks it can invade the world with snowmen.

The revelation of the Great Intelligence as the true villain of the The Snowmen was a punch-the-air and shout of “Yes!” moment of excitement for the fanboys and fangirls as Steven Moffat once again clearly displayed his knowledge and love of Doctor Who. The Grand Moff also demonstrated how to use correctly employ continuity in a long-running production. It detracted not a jot from the plot if the casual viewer had never heard of the Patrick Troughton classics The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear. It was a moment for the fans to smirk over the references to snowmen conquering the world and the 1967 map of the London Underground. Doubtless the really picky fans are bound to point out The Web of Fear and the accompanying Yeti invasion of the tube was transmitted in 1968. And then that will lead to the entire UNIT Dating controversy…and then all the fan theories that the Great Intelligence is in fact Yog-Sothoth, one of the Great Old Ones…

Meanwhile let’s just revel in the fantastic credit of “Voice of the Great Intelligence: Ian McKellen”. New rule, from now on only Sirs and Dames who have performed Shakespeare are permitted to voice Doctor Who monsters. Daleks and Cybermen excluded as Nick Briggs does those rather well…

Watch me run.

With the return of a classic villain from the era of the much-loved Second Doctor and the launching of new mystery in the shape of Clara, Steven Moffat has laid the foundations for the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. Now will we get a classic element in each adventure of the birthday year?

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