As I did with the last batch of episodes, I’m marking Doctor Who’s Christmas episode, The Snowmen, not with a review, but with ten thoughts. As usual, there are spoilers if you haven’t seen the episode.
1. “Clara Who?”
Having the Doctor ask this question is, on the face of it, a nice inversion of the “oldest question” – which Clara herself asks at the end of her glorious pre-credits introduction. But of course, by the end of the episode we are told her full name – and that’s where the mystery just begins to deepen.
Both Oswin and Clara are dead – is the glimpse of the woman we see at the very end of the episode our first sight of the genuine new companion? Or is she going to end up dying more often than Rory and South Park’s Kenny combined?
In Douglas Adams’ City of Death (penned under the pseudonym of David Agnew), the Doctor faces Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth. Splintered through time, the Doctor meets versions of his foe in Renaissance Italy and modern-day Paris, and finds documentary evidence of many others scattered throughout history. Is something similar happening here?
2. The new titles
I was never a big fan of the “ice and fire” titles introduced with Matt Smith’s debut episode. While they were an obvious technological improvement upon the sequence which they replaced, it also felt like they were aping their “two colour schemes” setup a little too closely. Recent episodes’ “Instagramming” of the titles signalled the production team’s own dissatisfaction with them, perhaps – so it’s no surprise we’re treated to a new sequence now.
The new graphics maintain an element of Smith’s titles, but also carry visual references to most, if not all, of the title sequences that have graced the programme since its first broadcast in 1963. The reintroduction of the Doctor’s face in the titles – a staple from Patrick Troughton’s first
episode season to Sylvester McCoy’s last – is a nice touch, and done with uncharacteristic subtlety.
3. The Mary Poppins touch
Clara’s prim-and-proper governess has more than an echo of PL Travers’ stern but magical nanny. It’s a character that, in her more mysterious book form at least, would be a worthy ally for the Doctor.
It’s not just Clara’s day job that evokes such thoughts, though. The hidden fire escape, the transcendental spiral staircase, and the blue box in the clouds – all lend an air of magical fantasy that is wondrous, Christmassy without being cloying, and feel like they belong in one of Travers’ tales.
4. “I’m a lizard woman from the dawn of time. And this is my wife.”
Madame Vastra and Jenny, first seen as old friends of the Doctor in A Good Man Goes to War, get more screen time here. Their relationship with each other – open, honest, married – may have been forged a couple of years ago, but when the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales chooses a Christmas message to focus on campaigning against marriage equality for same-sex couples, their appearance on the most-watched TV channel on Christmas Day is delightfully subversive.
5. “It’s Sherlock Holmes!”
Two references to Conan Doyle’s greatest creation in one episode? Yes please. If the veiled detective were in fact the inspiration for the stories in the Strand magazine, and Jenny formed the basis for Watson, it would explain the readings of homoeroticism between 221b Baker Street’s residents that have been foist upon the pair ever since – and which, of course, Steven Moffat makes fun of relentlessly throughout the modern day Sherlock series.
Talking of which, as the Doctor strides into the GI offices claiming to be the great detective (and demonstrating that his powers of deduction are, to put it bluntly, rubbish) Murray Gold’s score bursts out into what sounds very much like a homage to David Arnold’s theme to Sherlock.
6. What a delightful butler. He’s so violent.
Strax, the Sontaran warrior-turned-nurse-turned-butler died at Demon’s Run. He’s such a delicious character, though, that I can understand Moffat wanting to revive him. In story terms, the Doctor says that “a friend” brought him back. Was this a throwaway line to explain the return of a previously dead character – or will it have implications now that we know Clara/Oswin has already died twice?
It’s worth pointing out Dan Starkey’s work in imbuing Strax with such warmth when under so much prosthetic make-up – while being so completely different from his other BBC Wales prosthetic role, as Randall Moon in Wizards vs Aliens.
7. “You’ve redecorated…”
We’ve still only got brief glimpses of the new TARDIS interior, which is as it should be. The hexagonal console seems to hark back to the old 1960s version, but there are flashes of the Gallifreyan language – intricate circular motifs – invented for the 2005 relaunch.
It didn’t wow me, I have to be honest – but it shouldn’t. While it’s the series’ only standing set, Doctor Who works best when outside of the TARDIS’ confines. The less we see of that interior, the more action we’ll get.
8. “The only force on Earth that could drown the snow – a whole family crying on Christmas Eve”
Like Russell T Davies before him, Steven Moffat isn’t afraid to come up with a story resolution that goes for a romantic truth over a more scientifically plausible explanation. It may send the more literal-minded fans into a tizzy, but I love it.
9. The London Underground a strategic weakness?
Over the last couple of years, the Doctor Who team have created a number of teaser scenes for their website, on iTunes, etc. – and have falsely described them as “prequels”.
A prequel is a story that has been created after, but is set before, a previous one. Star Wars episodes I-III are prequels: the Hobbit novel was not a prequel to The Lord of the Rings (although you could argue that the Hobbit movies are prequels of the LOTR films). And the additional Doctor Who scenes of recent years have not been prequels.
However, The Snowmen is a genuine prequel. We see the genesis of a foe, the Great Intelligence, that Patrick Troughton’s Doctor fought twice – first in the Himalayas in The Abominable Snowmen, then a year later in The Web of Fear. That story was set primarily on the London Underground, in a London that had been taken over by the Great Intelligence. It’s one of the stories that has been hit by the gaps in the BBC’s archive: only one episode remains. There are many reasons to be sad about this, not least because it is the story which introduced Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart to the Doctor who family, Nicholas Courtney playing the role which, once promoted to Brigadier, would become a household name.
10. Happy birthday Clara – and happy birthday, Doctor
Clara’s gravestone marked her birthday as November 23 – the same as Doctor Who itself. I am surprised that they didn’t go the whole hog and have the year of her birth as 1863, though…
2013 will be the series’ fiftieth anniversary. If the presence of the Great Intelligence in this story is anything to go by, the anniversary may well be marked by further references to previous stories. Any long-standing fan will remember the days of anniversaries during John Nathan-Turner’s reign as producer, when stories got overladen with back references that alienated the wider audience.
I’m sure Steven Moffat will be anxious to avoid that happening again. Not least because looking forward, and never being afraid to change its own rules, is what has kept Doctor Who fresh for five decades. There could be no better birthday present than to create a whole slew of new, deadly foes for the Doctor to vanquish.
Watch him run. And run.