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Doctor Who: The Snowmen

(BBC America; US DVD: 28 May 2013)

The Doctor Who 2012 Christmas special, “The Snowmen”, is one of the best of recent annuals, at first despite, rather than because of, the Doctor (Matt Smith). In his post-Ponds grief, the Doctor has become Scrooge-like, secreting the TARDIS on a cloud and refusing to interact with humanity. As Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) explains to Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), “He stands above the world and doesn’t interfere in the affairs of its inhabitants. He is not your salvation, nor your protector.”


This is not the Doctor fans know and love. His life among the clouds illustrates his self-exile from humanity, even though he remains tethered to London. Not even a run-in with Dr. Simeon’s (Richard E. Grant) snowmen, who prey upon human memories and eventually will gain the strength to overpower the world, seems to be enough to drag the Doctor back to a semblance of his former self. Only barmaid, later governess Clara is persistent and clever enough to pique the Doctor’s interest and embroil him once again in a monstrous mystery.


When Clara follows the Doctor home, climbing a winding staircase to the clouds amid a star-filled sky, this shot is far more than part of a beautifully filmed scene. She is also ascending to a crucial role in the Doctor’s life, although neither Clara nor the audience initially understands her significance to the ongoing story, which begins in this special and continues throughout the remainder of season seven.


While the churlish Doctor sulks in the TARDIS, other characters more than make up for his lack of Christmas spirit. The return of the Paternoster Gang is most welcome. At times the Doctor becomes their fourth member, but Sontaran Strax (Dan Starkey), Silurian Madame Vastra, and human Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart) can effectively investigate crimes on their own. Frequently veiled “great detective” Vastra and Ninja-like Jenny are posited as the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Assisted by Strax, they solve puzzles the police cannot. The Scotland Yard inspector in charge of a murder scene hardly knows what to make of a green-skinned alien who smartly deduces what happened, much less her claim of marriage to Jenny.


Perhaps because showrunner/writer Steven Moffat also helms Sherlock and is an avid Sherlock Holmes fan, he could not resist inserting several Holmes references into this Victorian setting. At one point, the Doctor dons a deerstalker and identifies himself as Holmes while he investigates the snowmen’s origins. The Blu-ray bonus features “Vastra Investigates” and “The Great Detective” reinforce the link to Holmes. More important, even these short (roughly three-minute) extras indicate that Vastra, Jenny, and Strax can successfully star in their own mini-episodes as well as be an entertaining trio supporting the Doctor.


They also interject some much-needed humor into yet another monster-of-the-season premise. Strax may be a loyal and, when necessary, deadly ally, but he is not the smartest of Who characters. While serving as the Doctor’s coachman, Strax is requested to bring the Doctor a memory worm, a parasite that, when touched, steals an hour’s memories. (The Doctor wants to erase Clara’s latest memories so that she will forget him.)


Starkey plays the scene just right when Strax – of course – forgets to wear gloves while fetching the worm and then fails to recall what the Doctor asked him to do. This is Strax’s best scene, but Madame Vastra is given one of the special’s best lines. She introduces herself and Jenny as “the lizard woman from the dawn of time and her wife,” achieving the appropriate horrified reaction from the Victorian maid who answers the door. In response to the trio’s chemistry and humor, Doctor Who forums have begun suggesting that Vastra, Jenny, and Strax should be given a spinoff, which seems a reasonable request, considering that their frequent recent appearances in Who episodes have gained them a growing fan base.


Fans also seem smitten with Clara, who, in “The Snowmen”, is referenced as “soufflé girl” as well as “the impossible girl”, names that link her current character with that of another “Clara” in a previous episode (“Asylum of the Daleks”). Repeated names and dialogue also foreshadow the mystery surrounding her throughout the episodes following “The Snowmen”. In this special, Clara proves that her story is worth following. She is clever and resourceful; her bantering with the Doctor shows she is just as quick-thinking as he is. When she pro-actively seeks the Doctor’s help to uncover the threat posed by the snowmen, she astutely passes Madame Vastra’s one-word test, which lures the Doctor from his isolation. 


The multiple instances of mirrors or mirrored images throughout the Christmas special also portend Clara’s importance to the Doctor. Clara seems to have lived in more than one place and time, and even in this episode she plays two roles: barmaid and governess. Viewers might rightly ask if Clara is real or merely a reflection of something or someone in the Doctor’s timeline.


“Run, you clever boy, and remember,” a line spoken in this story as well as in “Asylum of the Daleks”, becomes Clara’s catchphrase and, in later episodes, pops up repeatedly, sometimes in unexpected places. Although “The Snowmen” is an entertaining standalone special, it takes on greater importance in light of Clara’s story arc across the seventh season. Even viewers who have seen “The Snowmen” might want to watch it carefully again on Blu-ray before tackling the seventh season’s finalé, “The Name of the Doctor”. Several characters from “The Snowmen”, including Dr. Simeon and Vastra and company, return, and questions about Clara’s “impossible” presence in the Doctor’s life are answered.


Of course, no Doctor Who review is complete without mentioning the episode’s monster, and throughout the series’ nearly 50 years of storytelling, the Whoniverse has been threatened by some of the scariest. Among the plethora of monsters, the snowmen are intriguing but not as terrifying as others even in season seven. As a Christmas-time menace, they are seasonally appropriate to the London setting. Moffat has twisted aspects of a holiday staple, Raymond Briggs’ charming “The Snowman”, into a nightmare. Instead of a boy’s friendly snowman come to life, Moffat’s demonic snowman begins talking to a lonely boy who helps the “memory snow” find a way to multiply and destroy the world. The snowmen’s sharp teeth and grinning glee as they approach victims do their job in creating the requisite monster but, despite being quiet as snowfall, the snowmen are not nearly as frightening as, for example, the Silence or the Whisper Men.


The most important element of “The Snowmen”, however, is Clara. Her ability to thaw a cold-hearted Doctor is a highlight of this Christmas special.


The bonus features assist with character development. In addition to the minisodes featuring Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, Jenna-Louise Coleman – sometimes in her role as Clara – is the focus of “Clara’s White Christmas.” This short segment provides a behind-the-scenes view of the set-up and filming of “The Snowmen” and introduces newcomer Coleman. The mini-documentary includes footage of enthusiastic crowds awaiting Smith’s and Coleman’s arrival on location, the creation of snowy Victorian London, and the recording of a brief scene.


The final Blu-ray extra is the “Children in Need Special” starring Smith and Coleman, who introduce “The Snowmen” trailer shown during the UK telethon. Although this segment was newsworthy in November 2012 when it debuted, it now has only “historic” significance as one of the ways producers teased fans who had to wait another month to see the Christmas special. The Blu-ray collection of bonus features nonetheless offers an interesting assortment of entertaining shorts preceding “The Snowmen”’s original broadcast.


As the Doctor exclaims to Clara when he first gives her a TARDIS key, “Remember this. Remember all of it… because this is the day everything begins!” In the following scene, the Doctor’s exultant words seem ironic, and the special’s conclusion bittersweet. However, given the season seven finalé that provides the culmination to what he began with “The Snowmen”, Moffat has had the last laugh, and the Doctor’s words are prophetic. Clever boy, indeed.

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Lynnette Porter is the author of performance biography Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition (MX Publishing, 2013) and The Doctor Who Franchise (McFarland, 2013), and the author/editor of Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century (McFarland, 2012), among many other books and chapters about television or film. Dr. Porter is a professor in the Humanities and Communication Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.


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