Tuesday, December 25, 2012

When The Snowmen Bring The Snow, They Put A Great Big Smile Upon Somebody's Face

'As humanity celebrates, so shall it end!' Ever since yer actual Doctor Who was revived with such spectacular success by the BBC in 2005, the long-running popular family SF drama's annual Christmas specials have featured, to a greater or lesser degree, writers (both of them) having loads of fun playing with a variety of Yuletide clichés and all that festive malarkey. It's true that often these elements have been included specifically so that they could later be subverted or parodied – remember, dear blog reader, we had killer Christmas trees and Bad Santas during the very first Christmas special. But there has also been no shortage of genuine proper upbeat seasonal spirit on offer during the last seven years. Christmas songs, the pulling of a few crackers, the family Christmas dinner, fun in the snow, The Doctor coming down a chimney and his getting to snog Kylie under the mistletoe. That was certainly a Christmas to remember. If you're still dreaming of a white Christmas, however, you might want to think again. The traditions of Christmas (no matter how slushy and sentimental) have been very much observed by Russell Davies and, of late, Steven Moffat their very selves. This year, however, it was all a bit different. The Snowmen is - and this blogger genuinely finds himself surprised at writing this sentence - the first Doctor Who Christmas episode, at least, in the modern era, to push festive celebrations pretty much out of the window and into the handily placed snow-drift below. The word Christmas is barely even spoken in The Snowmen (I think it first crops up about ten minutes from the end), and while the episode is set on 24 December, it is little more than a subtle background feature to the events featured, rather than a particular focus of the story. In short, dear blog reader, this is a Doctor Who Christmas special in which Christmas, itself, is given a bit of a 'Bah! Humbuggering.' Top hats, as well as bow ties are, it would seem, cool. Mind you, so is ice.

'I said I'd feed you. I didn't say who to.' So, it's Christmas Eve 1892 and the falling snow is the stuff of fairytales. But, when the fairytale suddenly threatens to become a nightmare and a chilling menace hovers  (metaphorically) over the Earth in the shape of the evil Dr Simeon, an unorthodox young governess, Clara, calls upon The Doctor for help. But, as you may have noticed, The Doctor is in mourning for friends lost. He's reclusive and determined not to engage in the problems of the universe again, Why should he, he always does that and, what does it get him? Another year older and lonely as the Man in the Moon. But, as three old friends return to help, will The Doctor really abandon mankind or will he fight to save the world – and Christmas – from the icy clutches of this mysterious menace. Go on, guess. The Snowmen, whilst on the surface being the first Doctor Who Christmas special that's not, actually, about Christmas per se, is also - and, by a very considerable distance - the most sombre of the festive episodes to date. (On that score, it even beats Voyage of the Damned. And, in that one, they killed Kylie!) Yet, for all that it would be entirely wrong to describe The Snowmen as an overtly dark and grim tale. Yes, it has its share of scares - and the design of eponymous titular The Snowmen themselves is truly terrifying - there's also a rather weighty theoretical debate about free will lurking somewhere at the heart of the story which, in lesser hands, could have rendered the episode desperately ponderous and arch. But, it's saved by the things which usually save Doctor Who from an attack of the yawn-inducing. There is a highly skilful juggling act being performed here in terms of both tone and presence. And, in places, it's very funny (notably the 'Memory Worm' scene early in the episode). Nevertheless, it has to be noted as ironic that the one year when the Doctor Who Christmas special gets moved to an earlier time slot – it was broadcast at 5.15 instead of 6.00 thanks largely to the BBC's desperation to keep Call The Midwife and Downton Abbey apart in the schedules – is, it would seem, the one episode when it least seems to suit the late afternoon. This is a Doctor Who which really deserved to be placed well away from the cherry trifle and the flaming Christmas pud. A Doctor Who more in keeping with cold turkey sandwiches and the last of the Bailey's when everyone's got over feeling just a shade bloated and nauseous. The story itself is something of a linear tale which is told in an effectively 'straight' fashion. The Snowmen doesn't whiz around in time - like A Christmas Carol or The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe, for instance - but, somewhat in the style of many vintage period Doctor Who stories, it has an intriguing, progressive, chronological narrative. It also fuses The Lord Thy God Steven Moffat's evident (and, already well established) love for Victorian literature with his even more well-noted appreciation for Doctor Who history. It mixes the minimalist with the grandiloquent, the highfalutin' with the spectacularly down-to-earth. Moffat (Thou Shalt Worship No Other Gods Before He) stated in pre-publicity that he wanted an 'epic' quality to the Christmas special. He compared the withdrawn Doctor seen at the start of the episode to the characters of the First Doctor (William Hartnell) in 1963 and the Ninth (Christopher Eccleston) during the 2005 series. And, given a script of some depth and layering, Matt Smith pulls in a terrific, shaded, nuanced performance worthy of both of those fine actors and seven more besides. Perhaps most importantly, The Snowmen also a very impressive (second) introduction for the show's latest companion. Incidentally, Mister Moffat, that should be 'to whom' not 'who to'!

From the very beginning, this is fundamentally an episode which sets (and revels in) its own scene really well. It is Victorian times and so, obviously, the characters are all ankle-deep snow - yes, yes, just ignore that bit in the latest Qi which confirmed that since the years when Dickens was nought but a pup, white Christmases have been rather rare unless you happen to live in Norway. There's fog, horse-drawn carriages and dimly lit street lamps. There's taverns and urchins and stiff Victorian dads. Even before the credits have rolled, the story introduces moments of genuine horror. And a few of genuine humour too. Speaking of the credits, they're new. And yer actual Matt Smith's mush is all over them, which is nice. But, although some things have changed, others remain reliably consistent. As usual, 'it always begins with those two words.' Thus, The Snowmen clicks effortlessly into gear with a plethora of brilliant one-liners. 'In think winter is coming. Such a winter as the world has never known!' And: 'Sir, I am opposed to your current apathy.' And: 'The drowned woman and the dreaming child will give us form at last.' And: 'Talking snow. I love new things!'

Clara is, of course, completely different to previous TARDIS travellers but she embodies everything you could possibly want from a Twenty First (or, for that matter, Nineteenth) Century Doctor Who companion in the making, possessing a mind which runs so fast as to keep The Doctor on his toes and the kind of cheeky humour that serves a girl so impressively during yer average alien invasion. Jenna-Louise Coleman's chemistry with Matt Smith is - thankfully - instant, smart and just a wee bit naughty. 'You're going to have to take those clothes off!' It's going to be a true pleasure to watch her in future episodes. Once they've worked out how to bring a twice-dead woman back from the grave for the third time.
Clearly Steven Moffat thoroughly enjoyed writing the episode - you get that much from all of the Sherlock references! - and there's barely a word wasted in a tight, clever and witty script. 'Over a thousand years of saving the universe, Strax, and the one thing I've learned - the universe doesn't care.' In the sequences in which Clara climbs an invisible staircase leading to a TARDIS in the clouds, we get another iconic companion introduction, a sense of wonder dripping from every expression on Jenna-Louise's beautifully photogenic face. She really is very, very, very, very, very good in this, dear blog reader! I mean, really very good indeed. In that regard, this is probably the best opening for a companion since ... ooo, Captain Jack in The Empty Child, certainly. And, possibly as far back as Tegan in Logopolis. It beats The Eleventh Hour (just), and Rose (just) for sheer lack of back-story(!) and it pisses all over The Christmas Invasion from a great height in terms of verve and energy and compactness. In an episode about hidden secrets, double lives, changing moods and unsolved mysteries, Clara's story has kicked-off as a riddle, inside a conundrum, wrapped in an enigma. Which is good. We've already got a plethora of questions in that marvellously satisfying Doctor Who 'but ... but ... but ...'-way. This blogger imagines he's hardly on his own when saying he's really looking forward to seeing how they manage to get Clara back. Again.
Richard E Grant had previously played The Doctor on two occasions, as an alternative Tenth Doctor in the spoof Comic Relief special Doctor Who & The Curse of Fatal Death (1999), and as an alternative Ninth Doctor in the animated story Scream of the Shalka (2003). Smudger recently commented that Grant was 'born to be a Doctor Who villain. He pitches it on that perfect level and tone.' And that's spot on, even though he's in the episode far less than you might expect. It's the kind of part Grant was born to play, all cold stares (s'cuse the pun), icy glances (ditto), acid-tongued bombs of pith thrown in from the sidelines and a fantastic death scene. But Simeon ('and his exceptionally secret institute') is, actually, a mere straw dog when compared to the episode's real villain. That is yer actual Sir Ian McKellen pulling out his best 'really very sinister voice indeed' as The Great Intelligence. That was a well-kept secret, incidentally, the fact that this was a sort-of prequel to a classic Patrick Troughton story from forty five years ago. The reference to 'a 1967 map of the London Underground' probably flew right over a lot of viewers' heads but, one imagines, a fair number of chaps in their forties with beards would have been leaping up and down on the sofa at that point. Of the rest of the supporting cast, the kids were adequate enough, Tom Ward got a couple of good lines but his was something of a limited part as, sadly, was that of lovely Liz White from Life on Mars who only had a handful of lines and one good fainting scene. That said, it's always nice to see Dan Starkey, Catrin Stewart and Neve McIntosh back on the show as a fantastically bizarre (and really funny) triple-act. 'Good evening, I am a lizard woman from the dawn of time. And, this is my wife!'

'I don't think the universe makes bargains.' In a script that was part Mary Poppins, part The Secret Garden and part The Snow Queen there were many stand-out moments. There was the beautifully structured Madam Vastra/Clara 'words' scene. I loved that. And the Sherlock references. And: 'You can't conquer the world using Snowmen. Snowmen are rubbish in July!' And: 'Nice to see you off your cloud and engaging again.' And the line by which the episode will probably always be remembered: 'I never know why. I only know who.' I adored the umbrella sequence - a witty visual nod to The Avengers four episodes ahead of yer actual Mrs Peel's presence on the show and a critical summation of the building relationship between The Doctor and Clara as the episode progresses. 'Carnivorous snow meets Victorian values. And something terrible is born. And, what a plan, a world full of living ice people. Oh dear me, how very Victorian that is.'
The Snowmen is Steven Moffat's finest Christmas special to date but it's also, it would seem, a veritable manifesto for what is to come in 2013; preparing us for the rest of series seven and the fiftieth anniversary with mysteries yet to be unwrapped. What happens next? Your guess is as good as mine. But that little trailer at the end promised more than this blogger his very self dared to hope. 'That's the way to do it!' Is it nearly Easter yet?