Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Snow Must Go On

To omit a nod to one book about snow, Mr Moffat, may be regarded as a misfortune. To omit a nod to two looks like carelessness.

And to be fair, Mr Moffat probably doesn’t care – might not even have been aware that Kim Newman’s TimeAnd Relative featured sinister snowmen and my novel, Drift, featured sentient, psychically sensitive snow. But in a series that has casually dropped in past continuity references since its return, it seems remiss that someone on the production team didn’t apprise the man at the helm of two books that predate his 2012 Christmas special by 10 years.

Still, the grumbling you hear has more to do with one too many mince pies and clotted cream than with the engaging, charming and generally magical Doctor Who Christmas present that was The Snowmen.

Drift and The Snowmen are different beasts, written for different audiences, after all. The snow here is not the subtlest of enemies, depicted from the outset as crystalline flakes straight off your Christmas cards – but with literal teeth. Likewise, the titular Snowmen are fairly bluntly realised and given a rather obvious Jack Frost O’Lantern menace guaranteed to counter the densest of alcoholic hazes that viewers might find themselves in by tea-time on Christmas day. Although after their initial (implied) savaging of the workers at the beginning they don’t do much other than crop up out of the snow sporting a mean expression.

But despite whatever the title tells you, the episode isn’t really about them. This is a tale of new beginnings and, by way of driving that home (for Christmas), is a Doctor Who story about the creation of a monster rather than the defeat of one.

The way in which the Great Intelligence is born, neatly wrapped in a single - practically throwaway – line about a disembodied intelligence that uses snowmen with a focus on the London Underground is a deft spot of frosting on the cake. (Continuity clashes with The Abominable Snowmen dating notwithstanding.) Enlisting the vocal talents of Sir Ian MacKellan is nothing short of masterful, as any lesser voice might have rendered a large malign snowglobe a rather impotent centrepiece to several key scenes.

If that wasn’t enough, heading up the army of this disembodied Sauron The White, we are treated to Richard E Grant as the embodiment of evil. A sure way to win me over, as not only am I a fan of REG, but he was always my first choice to play my own meister-villain, Dexter Snide. He gets relatively few opportunities here to properly flourish his villainous credentials, but he oozes sinister whenever given the chance. His exchange with Lady Vastra and her missus is especially worth savouring and it’s only a shame that a bit more isn’t made of his scenes with the Doctor. When the Doctor comically waltzes in as Sherlock Holmes, for example, a villain with Grant’s screen presence shouldn’t spend so much time just trying to get the doors open to let in his minions.

Still, we have additional helpings of menace in the form of the Ice Governess and she works pretty well for the most part, again reinforced by some well-chosen and distinctive voice acting – albeit I’m not sure the Punch & Judy line she is given to repeating provided quite the chilling counterpoint the writer was aiming for. Silence is golden, they say, and she may have been more effective as an inexorable – and taciturn – advancing cold front. Indeed, it was probably a mistake to have her caged behind a force field at the top of the stairs for quite as long as she was, as something is inevitably lost when an unstoppable force is stopped. As with the underuse of Dr Simeon, it’s another pulled punch, if you’ll pardon the expression.

Even its proclaimed theme of the Doctor having retired is underplayed to some degree, as he is seen to be taking a fairly active interest in everything – despite his protestations to the contrary – from the outset. There’s never any persuasive conviction to it and it smacks of feeble (if understandable) denial at best. Given that this was the core (Douglas Adams) idea that so inspired Steven Moffat I might have liked to have seen a gloomier, more resistant Doctor than we were given.

The ending, with the enemy defeated by the tears of ‘an entire family crying on Christmas Eve’, was in some respects resonant of last year’s power of a mother’s love guiding the children home to a time before they lost their dear old dad. But on the whole this wasn’t nearly as saccharine and that’s a good thing, what with having overdone the sugar in general at this time of year. Clara’s death feels like a real price paid – even if she will be coming back in some form or other, the children have lost their beloved young governess – and that offers a dramatic counterweight to the relative ease with which the Enemy’s plans are scuppered.

Minor shortcomings aside, that might have played too far against the episode’s ultimately winning ingredients, which included an abundance of sparkly wit, strewn throughout like tinsel and oodles of charm piled as high as any Christmas dinner plate.

Smith himself is on excellent form, revelling in the ride on the emotional rollercoaster far too much (as though it was already Christmas during filming) and with that avuncular way of his that shouldn’t be so readily apparent in such a young Doctor. And his ‘league of extraordinary allies’ – Vastra and her girlfriend (no, wife) and Strax – provide a wonderfully colourful supporting cast. Moffat clearly delights in writing for them and the actors fully embrace their roles. Strax does appear to have reverted to more soldier than Sontaran nurse, with much of the comedy built on his blunt, militaristic approach to everything, rather than what made him different to others of his race. But at the end of the day it is comedy and it’s darned funny. The memory parasite skit might be basic, but it made me laugh. Repeatedly.

The real Christmas star though is Jenna Louise Coleman as Clara (Oswin Oswald). For the record we didn’t believe those denials for a second either – all that blarney about them being totally different unrelated characters. But heck, it must be close to impossible to preserve the element of surprise in today’s world. So, ultimately, no surprise at all – but hats off to Mr Moffat, he still managed to create a thoroughly intriguing character and Jenna gives us a thoroughly engaging performance. For me, she’s genuinely the heart of this episode and she seems to have completely overlooked the fact that Amy Pond was going to be a tough act to follow.

Of course, wherever Mr Moffat is headed with this ‘impossible companion’ thread, I hope she’s not going to be dying all the time – a retread of “They killed Rory!” Safe to say, we know to expect better than that and I’m optimistic that the revelation will be equal to the hook. It’s perhaps a shame we won’t be getting the Victorian version of Clara for the longer term – in terms of companion background, it would have been a welcome change, but it seems at this stage that she brings enough new to the mix to make up for that.

What’s not new is the Doctor-companion kiss. Taken individually, there is nothing wrong with any of these, but the fact is we’ve now seen enough of them that Channel 4 could do its own chart show for them. Doctor Who’s been back on our screens for seven years and as a trope it’s already old and tired. It’s as though with every new companion we have to have these emphatic declarations like a Doctor-companion relationship status update right away. But then, it may just be that subtlety is too time-consuming in the fast-food TV age.

At least here, it is a fresh twist on the formula and a beautiful, funny moment, born in part out of a clumsily offered cover story from the Doctor. Similarly, Clara’s first encounter with the TARDIS interior is a fresh spin on an old(er) favourite.

Obviously I can’t speak from the viewpoint of a novice, but I imagine if seen by anyone who’d never seen Doctor Who before this would make a good starting point. Touches like the spiral staircase to the clouds are an entirely frivolous and magical invitation for new audiences to climb on board – while also perhaps something of a promise to those of us who’ve been on the journey a while already that there will always be something new to see.

The TARDIS interior has had a fitting makeover to back that up and I have to say I rather like the new model. It’s very clean and less cluttered, but retains a certain eccentricity. The opening titles initially struck me as a tad too busy, in contrast, but may well grow on me.

All in all, my favourite of the Christmas specials to date. And that’s with all the flaws and the lack of even a passing nod to Drift.

Christmas is a time for forgiveness, after all. And the Coming Soon trailer makes 2013 look like a Happy New Who Year.


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