Too much is more than enough in ‘Doctor Who: The Snowmen’
In columns past, much praise has been heaped upon Doctor Who head writer and executive producer Steven Moffat’s tight, yet intricate, plotting. And, as it’s been a little while since the new Doctor Who’s been visited around here, there’s some catching up to do. Some (potential) spoilers ahead:
At the end of series five, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), the fiery Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), the hapless Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) and the mysterious River Song (Alex Kingston) successfully discover the origin of the crack in Amy’s wall, the reason the Doctor was curious about Amy in the first place. Someone – or something – causes the TARDIS to explode, resulting in a breaching of the universe and the rewriting of all of history. Using particles from the old universe preserved in the Pandorica, the Doctor restarts the universe, temporarily removed from the timeline and recovered only by Amy’s powerful memories of him.
In series six (all of this we’ll be covering in more detail in the future, by the way), the Doctor and his companions find that the planet Earth has been infiltrated by a memory-altering race (Or is it a religious order?) called the Silence who’ve arranged for River Song to act as an assassin, with the Doctor her sole target. She succeeds, sort of, and the Doctor – once too “high profile” and too big a target for his enemies – is able to work a little quieter and leave less of a mark on the universe. That, and River Song is Amy and Rory’s daughter.
After the series six finale, The Wedding of River Song, Moffat and the BBC decided to bring back Doctor Who in a bifurcated series seven: There was a Christmas special in 2011 – The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe – but instead of returning in the spring, series seven broke with British production tradition and premiered in the fall of 2012. Pushed heavily in the United States, the first episodes of series seven – beginning with Asylum of the Daleks – were bigger, louder, and a little less tightly woven than the previous series. Instead of giving the American audience more Doctor Who, Moffat (also one of the minds behind the deliriously successful Sherlock) adjusted the show’s style to better fit with what he thought American audiences wanted, not always to resounding success.
After The Snowmen, 2012’s Doctor Who Christmas special, there are eight episodes left, including another written by Neil Gaiman (after The Doctor’s Wife). The Snowmen doesn’t quite serve as the halfway mark, but it’s definitely a change in tone and focus: After Amy and Rory’s exit in The Angels Take Manhattan, the Doctor has taken up semi-permanent residence in Victorian-era London, due mostly to the presence of friends – and former companions? – Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart) and the Sontaran nurse, Strax (Dan Starkey). Like any pouting child, the Doctor sulks about insisting he’s “retired,” but never too far from those that would convince him to get back in the game.
He gets his chance just happening by the Rose & Crown pub, when perky barmaid Clara (the returning Jenna-Louise Coleman … we’ll get back to that) notices a snowman forming on its own, and is intrigued. Questioning the Doctor, his obtuse answers intrigue her further, resulting in the charming courtship, of sorts, that takes place with all modern Doctors and their companions; he insists she forget about him, she presses forward. Repeat.
The Snowmen spends a considerable amount of time establishing Clara’s life, specifically her double life as “Miss Montague” the stern governess for Captain Latimer (Tom Ward) and his two children. It seems their former governess died the previous year by drowning in a pond on their estate, and the villainous Simeon (Richard E. Grant) is conveniently interested. Now a servant of “The Great Intelligence” (voiced by Sir Ian McKellen), Simeon and his living snowmen are a part of a greater, evil plot.
There’s a lot that happens in The Snowmen, and most of it, unfortunately, is tailored to Steven Moffat’s particular overindulgences: Madame Vastra and Jenny are established to be the basis for Sherlock Homes and Watson, continuing Moffat’s fascination with fiction and storytelling. At one point, the Doctor tries to pass himself off as Holmes (a fictional character portraying a fictional character), and Clara’s portrayal of a stern, yet caring governess has more than a little in common with Mary Poppins. She even ascends to the heavens using an umbrella (it makes sense in context). Even the name “Simeon” is a clever wordplay on “simian.” Who better to be the archenemy of a reptilian detective than a primate? The meta riffs get to be a little much.
When the story does kick in, it’s comfortably Doctor Who: The Great Intelligence – an obscure returning villain from Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor era – hopes to use the drowned governess’ DNA, a perfect fusion of human and ice crystal, to evolve and conquer humanity. Simeon’s involvement is a little spotty, and it’s too bad, too. Richard E. Grant once voiced the Doctor for an animated special (Scream of the Shalka) produced between the 1996 Fox television movie and Russell T Davies’ relaunch in 2005; his appearance here likely negates a future appearance as “the Shalka Doctor” and a proper realignment of continuity. (Admittedly, a minor complaint.)
Jenna-Louise Coleman is delightful as Clara, revealed teasingly to have a connection to her earlier appearance as Oswin Oswald in Asylum of the Daleks. She’s vivacious, independent and mischievous in a more confident manner than Amy Pond’s unearned arrogance, and the chemistry between Matt Smith and Coleman is a great deal more interesting than his non-starting relationship with Alex Kingston’s River Song.
Again, though, with Moffat’s overindulgence: Clara is solidly introduced, but used sloppily to provide drama for the last third of The Snowmen. Like Amy before her, we’re told she’s important because the Doctor says she’s important, yet her slowly introduced cosmic significance might be too big a challenge for Moffat to tackle. In an episode of the show where the phrase “Doctor Who” is uttered far too many times, just short of referring to the Doctor as such (Simplifying the show for American audiences, perhaps?), a character like Clara, or Oswin, or whatever her character will ultimately be named – wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey and all that – could finally prove to be out of Moffat’s considerable reach.
Whatever the quibbles, this is still Doctor Who, the tale of a time-traveling super-scientist who rescues existence on a regular basis. The new opening credits, with a hint of Matt Smith’s face strewn across the stars, and the Doctor’s new TARDIS console – redesigned after his troubles in The Angels Take Manhattan – hearkens back to the show’s 60s and 70s heyday, and is excitingly breathtaking. The character has a rich history and, because of his predilection for overindulgence, Moffat seems to be the right man to explore what it means to be the Doctor, what it looks like when a hero carries that weight on his shoulders, and perceives life like an unfolding story that encapsulates all of time and space. Matt Smith, with his petulance and anger and playfulness, is the right man to bring him to life. It’s really very nice to see them all again. B-
Check back on January 18 for the triumphant return of Is There A Doctor In The House? with the season five episode Vincent & The Doctor. Catch up with my reviews of the first batch of season five – The Eleventh Hour, The Beast Below, Victory of the Daleks, The Time of Angels, Flesh and Stone, The Vampires of Venice, Amy’s Choice, The Hungry Earth, and Cold Blood – and be sure to let us know what you think in the Comments!