SPOILERS: Watch the 2013 “Doctor Who” Christmas Special, “The Snowmen” before reading this. You have been warned.
The Doctor returned to our screens at last yesterday for the annual Christmas Day Special, but don’t expect the raggedy man to be all sunshine smiles and bow-ties. The Doctor has become a grim figure, living as a recluse in — really above — late Victorian London.
I was fortunate enough to be at a screening of the episode a few weeks ago with show runner Stephan Moffat and stars Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman, so I’ve had a bit of time to think about the episode.
“He stands above this world” — Lady Vastra
After the catastrophic events of “The Angels Take Manhattan” leave him without companionship, The Doctor “…never helps anymore” according to Lady Vastra. Wearing his crumpled stovepipe hat, The Doctor is now the man in the high castle, living in the TARDIS (with a new control room) high above the smog of London in 1892. As far as he is concerned, the Universe can just go and save itself for a change.
However, rather than another of the endless retellings of the Scrooge myth, this episode is playing with the idea of the isolated victorian that Scrooge embodies, both in the figure of the Doctor and in the form of the menacing Doctor Simeon (monkey boy?). Simeon runs an organization called Great Intelligence (G.I. for short) that is a front for a malevolent ice creature that happens to go by the same name. Simeon is an equally cold hearted man, standing as a representative of the emotionlessness often thought of as uniquely Victorian.
“What’s wrong with Victorian values?” — Doctor Simeon
Those are not the only Victorian tropes at play in this episode, though. The uptight attitude to sexuality is also in play, but still in a family friendly format. The Lady Vestra — the “Veiled Detective” — and Jenny — her “suspiciously intimate companion — are stated to be the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. What is also clearly stated in this episode is that Jenny and Vastra are lovers, something coyly hinted at in “A Good Man Goes To War” but still left to the imagination.
It is interesting to note that, although male homosexuality was illegal in Victorian England, female homosexuality was not. The story goes that Queen Victoria would not sign the law making lesbianism illegal, because she could not believe that sort of thing ever happened. As for lizard/human sexuality, well, I feel certain that that was certainly out of the queen’s range of understanding.
“I suggest we melt his brain using acid, then interrogate him” — Strax
The standout character in this episode is Strax, the potato-headed Sontarin, bringing some welcome comedic relief to a show that seems to be increasingly humorless, as the Doctor has been sinking into darkness. His interactions with the Doctor are some of the most interesting — and certainly the most hilarious — moments, not only in the episode, but in the entire new Doctor Who series. The “Who’s on first”-ish style memory draining slug bit had everybody at the screening howling.
Unfortunately, when I asked Moffat after the premiere whether Strax and company would be seeing their own show, he casually tossed off that “They have one, it’s called Doctor Who.” Hopefully this means we will be seeing more of them in the show, and get an explanation as to how Drax came back to life. And I’m not the only one thinking that the BBC is missing a prime opportunity not giving this cast of characters their own show. This could possibly be a great replacement to the greatly-missed The Sarah Jane Adventures.
“Good evening, I am a lizard woman from the dawn of time, and this is my wife.” — Lady Vastra
There are weaknesses in the plot, or at least overly convenient plot contrivances. The one part that especially smacks of “plot convenience theatre” is why Clara is taking a few days to work in a pub as a cockney, forgoing her responsibilities as a governess. She explains it in a few scenes, but it seems like a stretch just to get the character into London in order to meet the Doctor.
And, although I really liked the one word game is a wonderful scene, but Clara’s ability to pluck the word “pond” as to why the Doctor should help seems again too coincidental and contrived.
“Takes one to snow one.” — The Doctor
The Doctor suddenly turning his mood and playing the part of Sherlock Holmes seems heavy-handed. He’s suddenly engaged again with the chase, cracking bad puns — “Takes one to snow one.” Really? — and generally, well, acting like the Doctor. This sudden change just at the mention of the word “pond” is abrupt, almost as abrupt as his quick change back to Scrooge-Doctor in the next scene.
I came away from this episode with a major question: Is Moffat setting us up for a new Doctor romance? Or is there more to Clara than meets the eye? The flirting between her and the Doctor reminds me a lot of the flirtatious relationship he has with River Song, and I wouldn’t put it past Moffat to be playing us. Given that Clara has a remarkable gift for not dying, could she be regenerating somehow? But then why is this the first time “Clara” has seen the TARDIS in this episode. Then again, we’ve never seen the first time that River saw the TARDIS. In “Let’s Kill Hitler”, she knew the Doctor had a time machine and didn’t have the standard “It’s bigger on the inside argument.”
“Run, you clever boy… And remember.” — Clara Oswin Oswald
Despite a few short-comings, this years Christmas outing is a good deal stronger than last years rather disappointing “The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe.” That was an episode with a lot of promise but a story that never seemed to gel. “The Snowman” had a story that, despite a sentimental ending with a families tears defeating the frozen menace, still held together.
I’m really looking forward to 2013 and the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. How about you?
The Doctor has encountered the Great Intelligence before — but in the future. The Second Doctor (Patrick Troughten) fought the GI in “The Abominable Snowman” and later in the episode “The Web of Fear”, which takes place in the London Underground. Interestingly, “The Web of Fear” ties back into this episode, since it’s the Doctor in “The Snowmen” that banishes the Great Intelligence down to the underground, with the knowledge of a complete map to the 1967 London Underground that was on the back of a tin box. Even more interesting to H.P. Lovecraft fans is that the Great Intelligence is also known by another name: Yog-Sothoth.