Doctor Who: The Snowmen spoiler-free review

Review Simon Brew 12 Dec 2012 - 21:57

Here's our spoiler-free look at the Doctor Who Christmas special, starring Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman

There are no plot spoilers in this review. Nor any hints hiding in here. It's just our reaction to the episode, without giving story away.

Since the show was revived back in 2005, the Doctor Who Christmas special has featured, to varying degrees, lots of Yuletide staples, and no shortage of festivities. Granted, these have tended to be subverted to various degrees – we had dangerous Christmas trees the one year, remember – but there’s been no shortage of upbeat seasonal spirit in there too. Christmas songs, crackers, a big nosh-up: the traditions have been very much observed.

Here? Not so much. There’s not even a tap with a drop of lemonade in it this year.

Meet, then, the first Christmas special in the modern era to push festive celebrations pretty much to the sidelines. The word Christmas is barely even spoken, and while The Snowmen is set on and around December 24th, it’s a subtle, important background feature, rather than a particular focus for much of the running time.

Furthermore, The Snowmen is also the most sombre of the festive episodes to date. It’d be wrong to call it outright dark, as there’s a skilful tonal juggling act at work here. But the one year the Doctor Who Christmas special gets moved to an earlier time slot – it’s on at 5.15pm – is the one when it least seems to suit it. This is, though, the catch-up TV era. No longer does the Yuletide Who have to take into account the fact that everyone’s eaten or drunk too much. The Snowmen certainly doesn’t.

From the off, it’s an episode that sets the scene really very well. It's Victorian times, 1892 to be precise, and so there’s snow, horse-drawn carriages and dimly lit streets. Even before the credits have rolled, the story introduces moments of horror too. They’re new credits too, incidentally, which we’ll leave you to discover for yourself, short of to say they’ve got more nods to Who of old now.

Back to the episode, though, and there are slightly creepy moments (as opposed to outright jumps), that feel more effective because the tone of the story supports them immensely well. We also get a strong and very tempered performance from Richard E Grant.

Furthermore, it’s a linear tale that’s being told here. The Snowmen doesn’t zip around in time, and in the style of many classic Doctor Who period stories, it tells an interesting, chronological tale really very well (we perhaps take for granted the excellent craft behind the scenes of the show, but it’s firmly evident again here). It also fuses Steven Moffat’s evident love of literature with his even bigger appreciation for Doctor Who history. But perhaps most importantly, it’s also a very, very impressive (second) introduction for the show’s latest companion.

This is a spoiler-free review, so if you’re after specific details, you won’t get them from this review. But we can give you our thoughts, and immediately, it’s looking as though Jenna-Louise Coleman’s character, Clara, is a very different companion to the ones we’ve been used to of late.

Coleman puts in an excellent, not easy performance here, but credit too to Steven Moffat, who’s written an immediately intriguing character. Again, without spoiling anything, Clara’s the opposite of the Doctor in The Snowmen. She’s upbeat and energetic, without being bubbly. When we meet the Doctor himself though, he’s not in a good way. There’s no clarification as to how much time has passed between The Angels Take Manhattan and The Snowmen, but there’s a sense that it’s quite a lot (that’s guesswork, to be clear). He’s a seemingly-broken Doctor, one who’s taken a backseat from the world following the loss of Amy and Rory from his life. It's not a factor that dominates the episode, rather one that underpins it.

The Doctor has been at a low ebb before, of course. However, Matt Smith puts in quietly impressive work here, that reflects the tone of the material, and the changes in his character. How does his relationship work with Clara? Let’s put it this way: it’s got us really intrigued to see what Steven Moffat has in mind. It's best we leave that question there.

For all our talk of quiet, darkness, and a downbeat lead character, that doesn’t mean that The Snowmen is without its joyous moments. It may be less on the jovial side than you may be expecting (to its benefit here, we’d argue), but Moffat’s flair for comedy and one liners is still very much present and correct. Without breaking the fourth wall, he’s clearly having a lot of fun playing with his audience too. There’s a moment involving Smith in the middle of it all that’ll bring down whatever house you happen to be watching the episode in.

Most intriguingly, though, The Snowmen feels like a little bit of a shift in Doctor Who, as it enters a prestigious anniversary year for the show. Things seem to have been shaken up quite quietly, and with Coleman on board, we have high hopes for the Doctor’s adventures throughout 2013. It already feels just a little different.

The Snowmen certainly bodes very well for the year ahead. It’s a lower key story on the surface, perhaps, albeit an episode that proves once again Moffat’s skill for introducing major new characters. It’s also an excellent Christmas special, and quite a serious one. And
whereas seasonal outings for Doctor Who have proven quite divisive in recent years, we suspect this one is going to have a lot more people on its side. It's very much worth your time.

We'll have the spoiler-filled take on the episode after it airs. As always, do try and see it without finding anything out first. It's worth it.

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Glad to hear positive first impressions from Simon on this adventure, seeing as there's been quite a lot of uncertainty as to how well an episode with living snow would work. I'm already eagerly awaiting December 25th...

I am genuinely more excited for this than Christmas now.

"Whereas seasonal outings for Doctor Who have proven quite
divisive in recent years, we suspect this one is going to have a lot
more people on its side. It's very much worth your time..." Well, wait for people to start complaining even before they've seen it. I for one can't wait.
Plus, nods to old Who in the titles? I wonder if we'll see Matt's wonderful chin fly through the vortex.

I was wondering about this, and have to say, I'm perfectly fine with Christmas being at the forefront. Still, very excited now, especially for the new theme!!!

Okay den of geek, I'm trusting you... You haven't led me wrong before (well, not intentionally yet)

Just confirm, it's not as dull as last year, right? That is the only episode of Doctor Who I've ever fallen asleep during (and I've seen all of Trial of a Time Lord).

'Trust me, I'm Den of Geek.'

I'll not forgive them for praising last years Christmas special, or dissing on Amy's Choice... but they have a better track record than most :)

Well, this has given me more hope than I had last year. Oh, last Christmas was just embarrassing.. I sat down to watch the Christmas Special with a house full of my family (who have never watched an episode in their lives) and I promised a show filled with humour, powerful scenes and a clever script from Stephen Moffat. What I got, was.. Well.. Taps of lemonade. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe was really a much too silly episode when compared with the previous years, which was so infinitely clever and amusing. "Trust me, it's this or go to your room and develop a new kind of screwdriver. Don't make my mistakes!" That episode was a classic..

Me too! Total wipe out. I had to watch it two more times just to get through the tedious thing.

I'll agree it was hugely disappointing compared to the previous year, but the Christmas specials before that one had been pretty poor too. For me it's a Christmas Carol which is the anomoly, in that it was actually good, not last years.

Good to hear. If i'm honest, I was a bit indifferent to the trailer. Dark, non-seasonal, good story, good companion, new opening credits (if Matt Smith's face appears and winks, i'll die happy) - sounds good!

And will he be winking?

Anyone know if the new titles have a new theme to go with it?

Really looking forward to this and I'm hoping it will break the tradition of the xmas specials being a huge disappointment.

Something with a little more meat on it than the previous Christmas specials would be very nice. Sounds better than the Christmassy Christmas That Ever Christmassed stuff at least. Hopeful!

and I thought it was only me!

I'm certainly looking forward to this years special! A lovely review

I like that Matt Smith is getting more of an opportunity to explore the darker elements of The Doctor. He handles it very well. David Tennant could be a bit sugar and spice with him only giving little glimpses to a darker side. I'd love to see a return of the Vanguard, perhaps in Matt Smith's final series where he fights against his own potential to become evil.

No one's complaining yet. Clearly, Santa got my letter.

Sounds promising. Very promising. Moffat's tenure has been a bit up-and-down for me, despite the fact that his RTD episodes are some of my favourite thing ever on TV. With Coleman in the mix, it might just freshen things up. As much as I liked the Ponds, they've been on the show long enough for me. It really is time to move on. And by the sounds of this early review, and a couple more I've seen, it seems to be working!

You mean the Valeyard? A Vanguard is a submarine, LOL.

As long s it's better than last year, I'll be happy. Really, that was the only episode I haven't liked.

I haven't actually seen Trial of a Time Tord in a while and I couldn't remember how his name was pronounced so I checked on-line but obviously the buggers have spelled it wrongly and have thus done the same. Damn internet.

O.K., just gotta say...that has made my day. XD Thank you, thank you very much.

Didn't think last year's was bad necessarily, but there was a distinct lack of *writing* involved compared to the really tightly plotted previous special. There was a lot of 'character walks through woods in protracted dialogue-free sequence'. As many on this site have previously commented, it was almost as if the Moff had some other writing/production project running concurrently, one which received a bit more attention (and which I would still say is the single best bit of telly I've seen this year, setting the bar unfairly high given it was broadcast on the very first day of the year).

I'm very hopeful about this one!

"Nods to the old credits"

Don't want to spoil, but having been told from someone who's seen the ep...the credits do indeed (finally) have that feature that all the intros to old-who used to have. Which I can't wait to see :)

I was lucky enough to go to the BBC's press screening this Tuesday -- It's a wonderful wonderful episode you should all enjoy :)

Matt's face was put in very sublimely... wonderful to see again! And innovatively so...

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