This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
If you were looking for clues that Steven Moffat was taking this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special, The Snowmen, as an opportunity to do a bit of freshening up in advance of the show’s 50th anniversary year, you really didn’t have to wait long. A brand new title sequence, with a splash of Matt Smith, and a revised theme tune as well, suggested early on that things had changed a little. Later in the episode, the now well-publicised TARDIS redesign had been demonstrated too, with more than a nod to 70s and 80s Who in the console room.
Furthermore, by the time the credits rolled on the least-Christmassy Christmas special in the revived Doctor Who’s history, it was equally clear that sizeable plot threads had already been laid for the episodes that lie ahead in 2013. There was a lot to get your teeth into.
What, for instance, is the G.I., the Great Intelligence of the episode? Well, fans of classic Who will already know the answer, as Moffat has delved into the history of the show to reintroduce a formidable foe. Having previously appeared in The Abominable Snowman and The Web Of Fear (from the Patrick Troughton era), the Great Intelligence is a being who needs to find a physical form. Crucially, he survives The Snowmen, and you can’t help but suspect a further reappearance is on the cards. A shame we won’t get the ultimately frosty Richard E Grant again though. He was wonderfully sinister in a role that could easily have descended into panto villain, adding a creepy element to an already strong episode.
He, or the Great Intelligence, won’t be the main talking point here though. Instead, after another hour in her company, the mystery over Jenna-Louise Coleman’s new companion has deepened. Steven Moffat had already pulled a surprise in Asylum Of The Daleks, by revealing her apparent fate as a Dalek. This time, bluntly, he kills her. Moffat has thus taken the introduction of a new major character, and shrouded her in questions and mystery. Coleman is doing her part too, and there’s already plenty to explore.
We warmed to Jenna-Louise Coleman a lot. Whereas Matt Smith’s Doctor was quite a calm, subdued figure for much of The Snowmen, it was Coleman’s inquisitive Clara who was left to do good chunks of what’s usually his work. Where the Doctor would ordinarily be intrigued, she was. And whilst the Doctor was trying to retire, shaken by the events of The Angels Take Manhattan, Clara was the opposite. Interestingly, even in this episode she had a clear dual role. And more interestingly than that, even within this episode she seems to know too much. This isn’t a Doctor Who companion where the life of the Doctor is a complete surprise. Why is that, we wonder?
As for the Doctor himself, there are questions there too. Steven Moffat had admitted that he took some inspiration from the never-made Douglas Adams Doctor Who pitch, The Doctor Retires. As such, it’s a sullen, lonely and withdrawn Doctor that we meet in the early stages. Clearly hurt and hit by the impact of the aforementioned The Angels Take Manhattan – and the clear suggestion is that some time has passed since then – we still nonetheless find a Doctor who can’t completely detach from his role in the universe. Hence, the welcome reappearance – and surely this is the next Who spin-off in the offing – of Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax the Sontaran.
Which brings us to the funniest parts of The Snowmen. Moffat has a whale of a time with the comedy here, lightening the middle of the story with some very, very funny moments. The memory worm, for instance, and the way that he’s turned the once-sinister Sontaran into a brilliant comedy sidekick.
The comedic highlight though was pretty much without question.
Steven Moffat’s gift-wrapped gift to fans of his two big shows arrived in real style, as Matt Smith tried out the world of Sherlock Holmes. Well written, and beautifully played, all we need now is for Benedict Cumberbatch to turn up as The Master, and a nerdy Venn diagram is complete (throw in the tease of ‘winter is coming’ as well, and we couldn’t help but dream of a Game Of Thrones crossover).
The comedy was well judged in particular, as it added welcome chuckles to a Christmas special that was darker in tone than we’ve come to expect. After all, there’s a sadness at the heart of Smith’s performance in The Snowmen, that only seems to lift near the end when he realises that there’s a brilliant mystery to get to the bottom of. Until then, it seemed that the Doctor was going to have to deal with losing Amy and Rory, and killing Clara – or Clara Oswin Oswald to give her her full name – all in the space of two episodes.
Perhaps inevitably, with all this groundwork being developed, the actual main story itself felt just a little less interesting (even though we did get the booming voice of Ian McKellen in Doctor Who, hopefully not for the last time). The Snowmen had their sinister moments certainly (they weren’t in it that much though), but we were far more interested in finding out how the relationship and dynamic between the Doctor and Clara was going to develop (and her secret recipe for souffles). Furthermore, the one moment that fell just a little flat was the icy governess, which didn’t really convince. We’d have loved a bit more time with the wonderful Richard E Grant too.
For now though, we got lots of things here, in what was a very strong Yuletide outing. We’ve got a show that’s just slightly altered course, both with the introduction of a new main character, and the slightly different approach to the world of the Doctor. We got a gorgeous-looking episode, with some terrific production design and tightly measured direction. And we got a Christmas special that was willing to try something just a little different, and be rewarded for it. And we got the Sherlock moments too. Just priceless.
It’s full steam ahead then, with threads we can’t wait to be explored already being laid in place for 2013. The Snowmen ends Doctor Who‘s 2012 on a high, and by the looks of the trailer for what lies ahead, there are some sizeable treats being lined up for when the show returns in April.
A very happy Christmas to you all…!
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