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. Andwhereas 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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