Friday, December 28, 2012

Doctor Who: The Snowmen

It's Christmas, and these days it means a special Christmas episode of Doctor Who ... something for the family to sit and watch on Christmas Day, and hopefully which entertains and thrills the audience.  This year's event was called 'The Snowmen', and I guess like others I inwardly groaned: why does every Christmas episode have to take place at Christmas ... and have snow ... and Victorians ... it's all so cliched and tired. But maybe this year a rabbit can be pulled from the hat ... maybe ...

Apart from needing to present a Christmas romp, Steven Moffat this year had the added problem of needing to introduce a new companion ... a young lady by the name of Clara. But things are never quite so simple in the world of current Doctor Who, and even having a companion who can travel with the Doctor and just have adventures is beyond them. The characters have to have backstories, and be insanely cute and quirky, and even, as seems to be the current theme, to be the whole focus and mainspring of the show ...

We kick off with some snowflakes with snarling mouths in them (quite what the point of this was is not explained ... what do individual snowflakes actually eat?) and a boy, Walter, in a garden with a Snowman who talks to him ... creepy and good to kick off. It's 1842 ... and 50 years later (1892) the boy - now a man - is collecting snow and adding it to a large ball-like globe in his living room. This is Dr Simeon (Richard E Grant) and he is still talking to the thing in the globe, who now has the voice of Sir Ian McKellen.

We now meet Clara, waitress at the Rose and Crown pub (with noted emphasis on 'Rose' in the opening shot of the pub sign). A Snowman appears from nowhere and she meets the Doctor who seems sullen and disinterested. But for a Victorian, Clara is a thoroughly modern miss, and very forward too ... she chats up the Doctor and follows him, jumping on his carriage and cheekily asking 'Doctor who?'

Crash to the titles, and these are a new set which I liked very much. I wish the music could have been more reflective of the past - it was a little simplistic for me - but the visuals were lovely, reflecting space and time and alien and human and all sorts ... a really good update.

But things are now starting to get somewhat confusing. As well as the Doctor, Clara and Dr Simeon, we have Latimer and his two children ... a governess drowned in a frozen pond and left there for weeks ... and now we have Madame Vastra and her wife Jenny, as well as Strax, a Sontaran ... it's all getting crowded, and to be honest I have no idea why Vastra, Jenny and Strax were there. Or why the Doctor was there in that time period. There's a nice comedy piece between the Doctor and Strax and a memory worm (a mcguffin if ever I saw one) which is all very twee and plot-convenient for later, but why is the worm hidden under the carriage?

Clara continues her cute stalking of the Doctor and we find that the TARDIS is hidden on top a cloud up a vast spiral staircase. This is all very 'Narnia' and magical, but again, I ask why? Why not just make the TARDIS invisible? And having followed him all the way up, and knocking on the door, she runs away! This didn't ring true - she has been shown as a forward and direct lady, and this was out of character.

Clara now decides to stop being a barmaid and instead to return to Latimer as a Governess - Miss Montague ... the poor kids have been having nightmares and only she can help as Latimer is too distant. Oh, and it's Christmas eve (sigh).

Having found out about the bad dreams, Clara goes to try and find the Doctor again, only to bump into Jenny and end up playing a stupid word game with Vastra ... as infuriating as it is pointless. One word responses ... do me a favour. And of course Clara passes with flying colours with the word 'Pond'. Oh dear. It really is Rose all over again isn't it. The Doctor all moody and sulking ... *backstory* and angst. Oh for simple adventures.

But with this one word, the Doctor decides to start investigating by visiting Dr Simeon and pretending to be Sherlock Holmes (a fictional character). The thing in the ball says 'We are the Intelligence', and we have already seen flashes of the business card with 'Great Intelligence' on (and GI on the cab door and gates of Simeon's manor house) so there's no real surprise to learn that what is unfolding is the backstory for the Great Intelligence, a malignant entity which the Doctor encountered twice in his second incarnation - 'The Abominable Snowmen' and 'The Web of Fear' (and which some fans theorise might also be the Animus from the first Doctor story 'The Web Planet'). The Doctor surmises that this thing is a mimic which mirrors what it finds. That it needs to become more human and so needs a duplicate of human DNA in ice form ... and then the Doctor vanishes in a puff of exposition.

He returns to the house where Clara asks him to come up while she comforts the kids ... but instead the ice-governess attacks, having emerged from the frozen pond. Not sure what was 'powering' the ice-governess. It seemed to be the same thing as the Snowmen, which Simeon could control ... so why couldn't he control the governess? Why didn't she simply go with him rather than attacking the kids? Or was it the girl who was controlling it ... not sure.

The Doctor destroys the ice-Governess with his handy sonic screwdriver, but Simeon blows snow into the grounds and she reforms. Vastra, Jenny and Strax arrive and Jenny throws up a convenient force field to stop the icy lady while they all chat. The Doctor and Clara head for the roof to lure the CGI ice-person away from Simeon, and once there, the TARDIS is conveniently located, again up the spiral staircase ...

And then there is the only true 'wow' moment of the episode. Where Clara sees inside the TARDIS, and realises that it's 'smaller on the outside'. The redesign is awesome. Much, much better than the organic look, the blue and white, clean lines, alien stylings are brilliant and really hark back to what the TARDIS actually is. I loved it. And Clara's reactions were also perfect. Spoiled only by the ice-Governess grabbing her and the two of them falling back to Earth. Clara is dead!

But the Doctor won't let her go, and he uses something uncertain to bring her back to life for a time - the purpose of this I'm not sure on though. In Doctor Who, dead usually means dead, and this is the case for Daleks and Zygons as well as Katarina and Adric ... so this is something of a departure for the show.

The Doctor fetches a tin box from the TARDIS and heads off to Simeon's manse to confront him again. The box has a London Underground map on it, circa 1967 - quite why is something of a mystery (except that this is when 'The Web of Fear' was transmitted). It's like Moffat is using something of a sledgehammer approach to point something out about the enemy.

The box, purported to contain pieces of the icy Governess, actually has the memory worm in it (remember that mcguffin?) and it bites Simeon, erasing all his memory. But the Intelligence then takes over Simeon's body - it didn't need the icy DNA at all!

And now comes the worst part of all ... the dying Clara tells Latimer to hug his children and they all cry ... which causes the snow to turn into salt water, and for it to rain salt water all over London ... erm ... okay. And urgh. Sappish and stupid I'm afraid.

Having defeated the Intelligence by it turning to rain, the Doctor races back to Clara's side before she dies, and she echoes words which Oswin (played by the same actress) uttered in the 'Asylum of the Daleks' story ... and then she dies.

Later, at her graveside, the Doctor claims not to remember the Great Intelligence ... but he sees Clara's name on her gravestone 'Clara Oswin Oswold' - she is the same girl ... and he has to find out what is going on. He has to find Clara again ... And as we flash forward, the same girl is in the same graveyard at some point in the future ...

And thus, I expect, the scene is set for the next few episodes. Maybe Clara dies in every one - like Kenny in South Park - which would be a shame as we'd lose any character development. But frankly, after the whole 'Who is River Song' arc which turned out to be a damp squib, I'm bored already with 'Who is Clara'. I actually don't care. I just want adventures in time and space ... and all this arc stuff gets on my wick somewhat. It overcomplicates the stories - which are too short anyway to present anything of any worth - and makes for a headache-inducing watch.

But moreover, what Steven Moffat seems to be doing is cherry picking his continuity. Which is fine ... but don't set something up to be a prequel to other - much better - stories, and then ignore all the continuity points along the way. 'The Abominable Snowmen' adventure was set in 1935 in Tibet, and the Intelligence had control of Padmasambhava and was using him to create robot Yeti to terrorise the populace and drive them away so that a bridgehead could be opened to allow the Intelligence full access to the Earth. But Padmasambhava had been controlled for 200 years - so since around 1735! It's as though Moffat was unaware of this story at all. Then 'Web of Fear' was a lovely sequel, said to be set around 40 years after 'The Abominable Snowmen' - so 1975 - but which other available evidence places in 1967 (see the Telos published book: 'Timelink' for details of dating) - in which the Intelligence was again trying to gain control of the Earth, via the London Underground system. All this seems to sit nicely with this tale, but there's so much that could have been done here. It would have been lovely to have brought back Jamie McCrimmon rather than Vastra, Jenny and Strax (who in our house at least were all unknown and unremembered and left us confused), as a nod to the past - a grown-up Jamie, at odds with his own past, who needs redemption from the Doctor, while remembering the battles with the Intelligence (which the Doctor has forgotten) and thus being able to assist. Why weren't the Snowmen more like the Yeti - with silver control spheres? So many possibilities, and yet what we got seemed to be the poorest option of them all. Maybe it's to do with the time available, that it's just not long enough to tell a proper story.

Overall I liked the adventure. 'The Snowmen' had much to commend it. But it was also lacking in so many ways. Overcomplicated in some areas, and painfully simplistic and 'mcguffin' driven in others. The cast were excellent, and I really like Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara - she is very easy on the eye and has a nice sparky approach to the character. Though I wish they'd dropped the kissing scene. Richard E Grant didn't do much more than glower, and having Sir Ian McKellen as the voice of the Intelligence was a nice touch. The interplay between the Doctor and Strax was amusing, but I found Vastra and Jenny just tiresome.

Let's hope that the forthcoming episodes present more adventures in time and space and less angst.

1 comment:

M said...

I'm inclined to agree- the series as a whole seems to have moved away from the classic format of showing the Doctor as an adventurer and detective using his intellect to using a series of metaphysical deus ex machinas to resolve the situation. I'd rather watch the Doctor unravel a scheme on an alien world than watch "the power of love" on Earth although I suppose I'm probably a bit dyed-in-the-wool as a fan of the classic series!

Also, the more the companions become the focus and have destinies crucial to the series arc the less identifiable-with they become. In the classic series (I'm going on about that again it seems) they tended to be previously ordinary and awestruck by the Doctor and their travels. Now, however, they seem to be the focal point of the series, with the Doctor sometimes almost relegated to second fiddle.

However, overall I've really enjoyed post-revival Doctor Who and I think it's had some brilliant storylines- I just wish they'd stick to a more straightforward adventure story sometimes. I'm also glad I found this blog- not wishing to sound sycophantic I thought the "Book of Monsters" published a few years ago was very interesting especially.