Doctor Who – The Snowmen review

The dazzling new Tardis, an old foe from the 60s and Clara's skyfall... beware *spoilers* if you haven't seen this Christmas special yet!

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Doctor Who – The Snowmen review
Written By
Patrick Mulkern

The Snowmen? Baubles to that! Or at least that’s what I thought when I first heard that title. “Why can’t we have Abominable Snowmen?” I moaned. You know, the Yeti, those cuddly but ferocious beasties from 1960s Doctor Who – or, as Patrick Troughton’s Doctor once described them: “Robot killers, instruments of an alien intelligence trying to take over the planet Earth.”

Well, hats off to Steven Moffat. He’s just presented us with alternative abominable snowmen, and not only reintroduced the Great Intelligence but also established how this malignant, disembodied force came into being.

Most viewers won’t grasp the significance of the Great Intelligence. Even for the Doctor the name only “rings a bell” as, perhaps oddly, he fails to recall his second incarnation’s encounters with it. But Moffat has not forgotten. Now that he’s brought the Intelligence back – surely for a greater purpose – who knows where it might lead…

I will be doing a little snow dance if the Yeti themselves make a long overdue return some time soon. As followers of RadioTimes.com’s Doctor Who Story Guide may recall, The Web of Fear (1968) is my all-time favourite serial. Back then, rather than snow and ice, the Intelligence used toxic mist to bring London to a standstill and (as alluded to in The Snowmen) pumped lethal fungus into the Underground, while its robot Yeti roamed the tunnels armed with web-guns. And you thought 21st-century Who had a monopoly on the bizarre! 

Fans who weren’t spoilered via Twitter or internet forums will no doubt be whooping at this foe from the 60s. Sadly, I was spoilered back in November as soon as I sat down in BBC TV Centre’s preview theatre. Point two on a list of embargoes we signed before the screening began was to avoid “any reference to the Great Intelligence”.

To have its wizardly voice provided by Gandalf himself – Ian McKellen – is a coup, and Richard E Grant is splendidly chilly as its human minion, Dr Simeon. I bet we haven’t seen or heard the last of these two. 

But, fan that I am, I did spot one continuity glitch. The Intelligence comes fully into being in The Snowmen: “Something terrible is born”; “Now the dream outlives the dreamer and can never die.” The year is 1892. However, when Troughton’s Doctor first thwarted the Intelligence in The Abominable Snowmen, a serial set in a Tibetan monastery, it had been controlling the high lama Padmasambhava for “nearly 200 years”. The date was 1935. Mmmm...

Anyway, enough already with Great blooming Intelligence, I hear you cry. What about all the sexy new stuff – like the title sequence, the new Tardis and, vitally, the new companion?

In Asylum of the Daleks, I found Oswin’s perkiness a tad wearing – but then she was a woman in denial that she was actually the maddest Dalek in the asylum. However, I was completely won over by Jenna-Louise Coleman in The Snowmen as she switches with apparent ease between Clara, the perky Nancy-like barmaid, and Miss Montague, the hoity governess with her secret, common voice. Importantly, she has an instant rapport with Matt Smith’s Doctor.

If I was unmoved by her death (another top secret of course), it’s because Clara still looks so decorous after falling hundreds of feet through the sky. I know this is family viewing, but it’s plainly silly that she isn’t the slightest bit crumpled. 

More effective are Clara’s final words – “Run, you clever boy. And remember” – exactly the same as Oswin’s in Asylum. Didn’t you just know they’d come back to bite the Doctor? Moffat is a master of these clever touches.

There are lots of lovely images (the Jack and the Beanstalk-like spiral staircase leading to the clouds), and my favourite moment being the truly wonderful effect of the camera (and hence the viewer) following the Doctor and Clara directly through the police box doors into the huge Tardis interior. Has this effect ever been achieved before..? I may have forgotten. And how was it done? Where’s BBC3’s Doctor Who Confidential when you need it! 

The new control room, designed by Michael Pickwoad, is a thing of beauty – superior to the domed Eccleston/Tennant Tardis with coral columns and clattering floor; less fussy and ornate than the interior that debuted with Matt Smith. At first the control room looks like a mausoleum, reflecting the Doctor’s grief. It’s solemn but conveys latent energy, has subtle detail, a carousel ceiling and a hexagonal central console that looks like it might actually control something. 

The new title sequence is… well… busy. An amalgam of earlier versions (Sylvester McCoy’s space debris, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s time tunnels etc), it has quickly grown on me. It probably looks spectacular on a large HD screen. The tweaked theme music has urgency and pizzazz, but still lacks the menace of the Radiophonic Workshop versions.

The Doctor’s three chums lend good value: “psychotic potato dwarf” Strax fumbling with his Memory Worm, and “green lady” Vastra now married to sidekick Jenny. That’s all deliciously Sarah Waters. In another neat touch, it’s implied their investigations are inspiring “Dr Doyle”. Moffat, also behind BBC1’s Sherlock, is clued up and – unlike so many others – knows that “Conan” is a middle name, not part of the surname of Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

I love Matt Smith’s comedy turn as Doyle’s detective, launching himself into the villain’s HQ with jokey élan, just as Troughton and Tom Baker’s Doctors would have done. Smith is such a terrific Time Lord – I want him in the role for many years, steadily maturing (although this seems unlikely).

Here he convincingly puts the Pond into despondency, still mourning the loss of Amy and Rory. We buy his gradual thaw thanks to Clara (“I never know why – I only know who,” he says) and his delight when he spots in a mirror that he’s inadvertently donned his bowtie again. He gives the most endearing delivery yet of his catchphrase “Bowties are cool”. We’re fully engaged with him in the final moments as his spirit of adventure flushes back and he eagerly activates the Tardis for a new mission  – “to find her, to find Clara... Watch me run!”

So, with the bewildering Coming Soon trailer (lots of new monsters) and the enigma of Clara, we’re primed for 2013. What is Clara’s secret? Will she keep on dying..? Perhaps she’s an Unearthly Child for the 50th anniversary…

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