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New Who 7.6 The Snowmen

I watched this on Christmas day, but amongst noisy family goings-on, so took the opportunity to rewatch it from the peace and quiet of my own sofa on New Year's day before trying to review it. I enjoyed it very much both times, though. It is certainly Matt Smith's best Christmas special to date, and quite possibly better than some of David Tennant's as well - though I'd have to rewatch those too to be sure.

The opening titles, including the theme music, are a huge improvement on what they have become over the last few seasons. I was particularly pleased to find that the bass-line (always my favourite bit) has reclaimed its melody from the electronic mixes of the late '70s / early '80s, and brought the matching visuals with it. I also very much liked the way that the TARDIS doors opened onto the post-credits part of the story. This seemed to me akin to the similar device of the opening cover of a book which has been used to introduce many a fantasy film / TV story, and thus to foreground the role of the TARDIS as our route (as viewers) into the Doctor's world. I like that idea. I must say I much prefer the new TARDIS interior, too. The last one looked like it was trying rather too hard to be zany! and wacky! - this one looks more like a functional Time Lord craft, and of course also returns to something much closer to the designs of the Classic era.

The story itself was fairly simple this time, revolving mainly around magnified human psychology rather than clever plots and plans, which meant fewer hostages to the plot-holes of fortune than we've seen in some recent stories. Instead, we could concentrate on enjoying things like the design, the symbolism and the intertextuality - the latter with Mary Poppins, Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, Charles Dickens, Sarah Waters, Sherlock Holmes and who knows what else. Sherlock Holmes, of course, is so big in itself that the allusion was multiple and complex, taking in Moffat's own Sherlock series via the incidental music, and perhaps also The Talons of Weng-Chiang via the spectacle of the Doctor dressed up in a cloak and deer-stalker.

On the design front, the spiral staircase into the clouds not only looked beautiful, but ticked all the right sort of magical-fantastical boxes as well, recalling things like Jack's magic beanstalk, and carefully using a type of staircase usually found in places of wonder and adventure like libraries and castle turrets. I liked the Doctor's Victorian costume, though doubt that he will maintain it beyond this episode - he had already regressed to his standard bowtie by the end, and I assume the rest of his normal '60s boffinesque garb will follow. I hope he will carry on occasionally using Amy's smart-specs from Angels in Manhattan, though. They have acquired almost as iconic a status within the Doctor's costume as scarves since the explicit references to Five's and Ten's in Time Crash.

There is also a symbolic structure to the relationship between Simeon, Clara and the Doctor. Simeon is ice (obviously), while the Doctor's home of choice on top of a cloud associates him with water vapour. Meanwhile, Clara melts the snowmen with her mind, and then her tears defeat the snow altogether. So she is water, and thus stands at the ordinary human mid-point between their two opposed extremes. The raised position of the cloud, not to mention Madame Vastra's comment that the Doctor 'stands above this world' places him in the traditional position of the heavenly (of course), while the association between the Great Intelligence and the London Underground puts it firmly in the realms of the diabolical. Indeed, the incorporation of Matt Smith's face into the opening sequences also reaffirms the Doctor's traditional role as a sort of space-god, just as I always understood the faces of his predecessors to mean when I was a child.

More central to the plot are the references to 'Victorian values', and for those of us who are interested in the programme's use of history, it's worth pondering what this episode seems to be suggesting these are. The most explicitly-addressed value seems to be the ruthless pursuit of profit, as represented by Simeon, the Dickensian task-master who feeds his workers to ravenous snowmen. This is planted early on, when the Doctor first encounters the strange new snow and tells Strax that the next thing he should look out for is "a profit - that's Victorian values for you!", and pays off at the end of the story when he describes the terrible power of the snow-globe as "carnivorous snow meets Victorian values", and Simeon responds by asking,"What’s wrong with Victorian values?" Since he is fully confirmed as a villain by this stage, of course, the question in his mouth implies that a great deal is wrong with them. But the implied wrongness isn't just restricted to his ruthless plans to take over the world.

The rest of the story also critiques the legendary inability of Victorian parents to connect with their children - both by showing us the loneliness of the young Walter Simeon, and Latimer's inability to relate to or interact with his own children. And there are of course many references to the position of women, often presented in such a way as to make gender-policing look like a Victorian obsession, rather than merely a value. This is what's at the heart of most of the treatment of Madame Vastra and Jenny. Other characters repeatedly look straight past Madame Vastra's lizardly scales, and often even their lesbianism, in favour of shocked comments about the very idea of women solving crimes or (in the case of Clara) having 'gentleman friends' - though the latter example arises from Latimer's personal crush on his governess, rather than simply an abstract general value.

I'm sure daniel_saunders is right to say that none of this is really a fair reflection of the complexity of Victorian society. Rather, it seems to me an exaggerated reflection of contemporary literary tropes (especially Dickensian ones), with a particular emphasis on those which work well as inverted forms of the values at the heart of Doctor Who, and can then be personified, vilified and defeated. This is not the most sophisticated potential use of history, but I've noted before (e.g. for The Fires of Pompeii or The Unicorn and the Wasp) that Doctor Who a) often engages more directly with other fictional representations of the past than it does with the reality of the past and b) that it often uses stories set in the past to address its own past through metaphor. I think both of those traditions are strongly in evidence here.

Moving on to characters, some people have described the Doctor as 'sulking' in this story, but I see him more as having defaulted to normal Time Lord behaviour, as opposed to the abnormal Time Lord behaviour which he usually displays. Vastra tells Clara that "He stands above this world and doesn't interfere in the affairs of its inhabitants", which is exactly what the Time Lords always saw themselves as doing, and indeed what the First Doctor does for his first few stories until he is gradually changed by the influence of Ian and Barbara, as well. I'd rather have liked to have seen a little more of this, but I understand that that's a minority taste.

Vastra and Jenny continue to be completely awesome, and I very much hope that we see more of them in future episodes (and understand that we will). They just about pipped Strax to the funniest line of the episode ("Good evening. I'm a lizard woman from the dawn of time, and this is my wife"), but Strax himself is the golden secret ingredient which really sets them off to their very best effect. I loved his unswerving obsession with grenades and his cheerful semi-competence, although I felt that some of the Doctor's comments about him crossed the line from friendly ribbing to rather icky-sounding prejudice. I definitely want to know more about how he came back to life, too, and who the 'friend' of the Doctor's who resurrected him was. Moffat's habit of apparently killing off characters only to bring them back to life (Rory, Clara / Oswin and occasionally Amy) is increasingly changing the rules of the Whoniverse on this issue, but it seems to me that we still shouldn't just accept the reappearance of a character whom we have seen die on screen with that little explanation. There should be more to learn about Strax's resurrection, and the explanation may well be sinister.

Leaving aside for the moment the mystery of her multiple incarnations, I really like the basic personality that is Clara in this story. I provisionally liked her in Asylum of the Daleks, on the basis that her slightly annoying "I'm-so-awesome" personality was probably a front rather than a permanent characteristic, and so it has proven, as it has now dropped away. Instead, she is inquisitive, bright, adventurous, quick to figure out puzzles and spot implications, open to new and incredible ideas, and not to be put off the answers she is looking for by deflection and evasion.

Her two jobs in particular say a lot about the sort of character she is. We can tell that she isn't simply intent on social climbing, because if she were she would have left her job at the Rose and Crown completely when she secured the role as governess to Captain Latimer's children. Rather, she is clearly choosing to moonlight between the two, while maintaining an air of secrecy and mystery on either side to which only she knows the key - presumably mainly because a single straightforward role in life is not enough for her. It is a small-scale version of her wider network of different incarnations spread across space and time, of course, but it also shows that each one of those incarnations individually enjoys role-playing and slipping into different lives. Indeed, it is another attribute shown in Asylum of the Daleks. Though it wasn't voluntary in her case, the original Oswin also had a split personality, as both a Dalek and a soufflé-baking human - so it seems that this is a fundamental aspect of her personality.

Her kissing scene with the Doctor grated for me, though. I get that there is a tradition by this stage that every companion must kiss the Doctor, and it's probably better to get it over and done with early on. But it happened in the middle of danger and for no plot reason (unlike the Doctor's onscreen kisses with Rose, Martha and Donna), and felt like a massive blip in Clara's otherwise very likeable character. Yes, we are supposed to understand that she is an exceptional woman for her age, casting off those 'Victorian values' which the story is busy critiquing, but by modern standards this sailed straight past liberation and into sexual harassment of the same kind as Amy's crazed 'seduction' at the end of Flesh and Stone. I'm really unclear, and quite uncomfortable, about what Moffat thinks he is doing with these scenes.

Meanwhile, the wider issue of Clara / Oswin's existence across several (who knows how many?) different incarnations scattered across space and time and yet sharing the same thoughts, interests and appearance of course recalls the fate of Scaroth, the last of the Jagaroth, in City of Death. That happened to him because of an exploding space-ship - so are we to find out that Clara's mystery is connected with the as-yet-not-fully-explained explosion of the TARDIS from season 5? Certainly, we've been given a very heavy hint that she is inherently connected with the central elements of the Whoniverse through her birth-date of 23rd November and age at death of 26. (Though I'm very puzzled by the use of the year 1866, rather than 1863 - unless the deliberate decision to miss the obvious reference to the programme's original start-date by three years is a reference to the fact that we are into the third year of Moffat's tenancy or something???)

I've also been tracking flickering light-bulbs and meta-narratives throughout season 7 so far, and I've a feeling that those two themes have now converged into Clara herself. There were a lot of flickering lights in the room where Simeon kept his snow-globe, but I think those were just standard Frankensteinian-style effects designed to evoke the horrific nature of Simeon's endeavours. They don't seem to stand up alongside the very explicit references to bulbs being on the fritz which all the others have been. Meanwhile, one of the meanings of the name 'Clara' is 'bright', so maybe the flickering lights were precursors of her arrival all along? Now that we have her in person flickering in and out of existence, maybe we don't need the lightbulbs to do so any more? Likewise, we didn't have an explicit opening narrative voice-over this time, but Clara is a story-teller, and the story of the Doctor is one of many which she spins to the children in her care. All of this strengthens the idea of Clara as a sort of incarnation of either the TARDIS or the programme itself, which has thus been predicting her arrival through these themes.

That said, another theme which I'd almost forgotten about is that of parasites and (perhaps connectedly) eggs. That continued into The Power of Three (as I noted at the time), and The Angels Take Manhattan (which I didn't note, but where the Angels are very obviously parasites and explicitly described as running a battery farm). Here, although the eggs might also have coalesced into Clara-the-soufflé-girl, they may also have been represented by the giant snow-globe (an appropriately-shaped structure in which the snow is slowly growing), and the snow itself is definitely parasitic - this time on human thought. These themes look more likely to be ongoing, heralding something else other than Clara - unless, of course, Clara herself will prove to be a parasite?

As for the immediate future, we've already seen that our next Clara is to be a 21st-century Earth girl, but my hope is that she won't be the last of them - that instead, we will now get a different Clara in each episode, and her death at the end of each, until the Doctor solves the mystery of how they are all connected. This would certainly allow for some great character development. For a start, it means a companion who is fully informed about and confident in every context and situation where the Doctor encounters her, which would create a quite different dynamic to the usual role of a fish out of water who needs to be clued-up by the Doctor, and could mean a much more empowered role for her. It would mean that the Doctor was the one being guided for once, and also that he would have to take on the role which many of his companions have managed (above all Sarah Jane Smith) of continually adjusting to slightly different versions of the same person. How would he cope with all that? And if each new Clara / Oswin kept dying at the end of every one of their stories together, would he stop trying to prevent her death, or even worrying very much about it? What would that mean for his self-perception as the good guy? I suspect I am well into 'writing my own fantasy script' territory here, but the possibilities are exciting.

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Comments

( 28 comments — Leave a comment )
p_dan_tic
Jan. 3rd, 2013 10:51 pm (UTC)
My personal thoughts:
biggest like - the return of the doctor's face to the opening credits

biggest dislike - the doctor kissing someone else - he's married....

I had the same thought about new clara dying each episode (or if not *each* episode, then repeatedly), but the endless introductions could get annoying after a bit....

by the by, I don't get the 1866 reference, am I missing out on something

(also, I preferred the micheal gambon christmas special, that one made me sob more than any other doctor who ever)
strange_complex
Jan. 3rd, 2013 10:57 pm (UTC)
I don't get the 1866 reference

My point is that it doesn't really make sense. Doctor Who was first broadcast on 23rd November 1963, so if Clara had been born on 23rd November 1863 that would clearly be Deeply Significant. Instead, though, she was born on 23rd November 1866, which doesn't really point to anything very obvious. I'm puzzled as to why they didn't simply use 1863 instead.
p_dan_tic
Jan. 3rd, 2013 11:07 pm (UTC)
ahhhhhhhh
parrot_knight
Jan. 3rd, 2013 11:13 pm (UTC)
It's misdirection so the allusion isn't blatant, I assume; Clara lives twenty-six years, just like the original series, and has died in front of us twice, as did classic Doctor Who.

Edited at 2013-01-03 11:14 pm (UTC)
strange_complex
Jan. 3rd, 2013 11:46 pm (UTC)
I suspect you're right that that's what Moffat was trying to do, but it does seem weirdly cack-handed. As though the thought process was "And now, I will put in An Allusion! Oh, but better not make it too obvious in case people work out what it means. Better just scramble it up a bit... There we go!" Certainly, the result feels both unsubtle and untidy, and I can't help but think that it would be better either to just do it properly or not do it at all.
parrot_knight
Jan. 4th, 2013 12:29 am (UTC)
Given the other examples of patchy coherence evident in Moffat's thinking, I fear you might be right.
daniel_saunders
Jan. 4th, 2013 12:42 am (UTC)
Ah, but old Doctor Who only died once; it just went on a eighteen month break the other time. Maybe Dalek-Oswin will come back later in the year more likeable, but also more childish and incoherent? (Sorry, am in the middle of re-watching Trial for some reason even I don't understand.)
surliminal
Jan. 4th, 2013 12:48 am (UTC)
Ahhhhh. Like that. So hopefully won't die any more time - think that could get a bit old, plus makes the Dr look a bit hopeless..
Surprised no one hasn't yet suggested that she's somhow connected to Jenny the Drs daughter..
parrot_knight
Jan. 4th, 2013 01:12 am (UTC)
I'm sure I've seen people thinking that Clara is Jenny over at the maelstrom of frenzied speculation and optimistic self-projection that is GallifreyBase...
daniel_saunders
Jan. 4th, 2013 01:15 am (UTC)
Wot, no Rani?
parrot_knight
Jan. 4th, 2013 01:15 am (UTC)
Don't go in there...
surliminal
Jan. 4th, 2013 12:44 am (UTC)
I wondered too what had happened to River. It's all rather unsatisfactory - if he was that cut up about losing Amy and Rory surely the last thing he'd have done is turned his back on River? Or do we - and this would be interesting - suspect that in the time that has passed he had his final date with River before she leaves for the Library? That certainly might explain his bad mood.. And how long has it been anyway - Lord knows how Vastra ages but Jenny is human isn't she? So it can't reall have been very many years?
parrot_knight
Jan. 4th, 2013 01:27 am (UTC)
I think that the final date with River was covered on an extra in the series six DVD box set, but might be wrong. River and the Doctor travel together for a short while after The Angels Take Manhattan, though, so perhaps she is party to his isolation.
surliminal
Jan. 4th, 2013 11:43 pm (UTC)
If it was, I'd be really annoyed. I doubt it.. I hope.
maviscruet
Jan. 3rd, 2013 11:02 pm (UTC)
Harumble!

Yes Strax was excellent and made the show.....

I'd missed him coming back to life and assumed he was an earlier version of the strax we see die later on....

The clara thing is interesting - it's certainly a case of "now mister moffet - do you have a good answer to this....."
pmcray
Jan. 4th, 2013 12:00 am (UTC)
"The Evil of the Daleks" is set in 1866. May or, more likely, may not be significant.
strange_complex
Jan. 4th, 2013 12:11 pm (UTC)
Ah! Nice point, actually. It was the series' first proper visit to the Victorian era, and one which introduced a new companion, so it does have a kind of neatness. I'm happier thinking of that as a deliberate allusion, anyway.
pmcray
Jan. 4th, 2013 02:28 pm (UTC)
With the reintroduction of the Great Intelligence, which plays such a large part in two of Victoria's stories, I wonder whether we might, as we did in 1983, be treated to cameos or at least references to many/all of the Doctor's companion over the next few months. And surely
we will get the return of the yeti themselves.

It's a real pity that all but one episode of "The Evil of the Daleks" is lost as it often claimed to be a classic (Philip Sandifer, for instance, is very keen). I wonder if there is any way that Clara could be connected to Victoria or her family. And TEofD is certainly a story with lots of timey-wimey.
strange_complex
Jan. 4th, 2013 02:37 pm (UTC)
I've yet to see The Evil of the Daleks (or listen to the audio while looking at stills), sadly, but I intend to get back into more regular Who watching and reviewing in this anniversary year. I actually got 'stuck' only a few stories before Evil, so hopefully it shouldn't take me too long to get to it once I get started again. It certainly seems wise to bone up on some Troughton stories to help me get the most out of the current season, anyway.

Meanwhile, I'm now starting to wonder whether the explanation for Clara is that she pops into existence every time the Doctor takes a companion away from their normal circumstances. So he picks up Victoria in 1866, and *pop!* Clara is born - and the same thing has kept on happening with all of them, all this time, without him ever realising before. That would be very cool!
parrot_knight
Jan. 4th, 2013 12:37 am (UTC)
I don't think we are going to get a different Clara every episode, but think it's possible that we will lose at least one more before the mystery is solved. I'd be resistant to Clara dying every week; I feel this would reduce the tension arising from the possibility that she might!
daniel_saunders
Jan. 4th, 2013 12:39 am (UTC)
I assumed that River Song brought Strax back to life, although I'm not sure if that would contradict Let's Kill Hitler. I think you're right that Vastra and Jenny wouldn't quite work without Strax - I think he stops them being obvious fan Mary Sues, although I'm not quite sure how. There was some suggestion in Doctor Who Magazine that an extra scene was shot purely for the DVD release explaining about Strax (not sure how I feel about shooting things for DVD only - I've a vague feeling that sort of thing is against the BBC Charter).

I agree about the sexual harrassment thing. I have felt that before with new Who; flirting is one thing, but I feel that sometimes the characters go beyond that into something that would be inappropriate in real life. That said, I don't have that problem with Amy in Flesh and Stone, because from her point of view, I can see how she would think that the Doctor fancies her, given how he has been treating her.

My only explanation for Clara being born in 1866 is that they didn't want to make the reference too obvious! I think Clara dying at the end of each story would lead to diminishing returns very rapidly, unless it all became about the Doctor's emotional response to seeing his companion die every week. That could be interesting (in a morbid Groundhog Day sort of way), but I think would be too bleak for a family show. It would be too bleak for me, anyway!
strange_complex
Jan. 4th, 2013 12:17 pm (UTC)
Yes, you might be right about River. She seems the only person we currently know about who might be capable of doing that. Her and maybe the TARDIS itself, whom the Doctor might well also describe as a 'friend'? The other possibility is that it's a cryptic pointer towards someone we don't know about yet, but whom the Doctor has already met.

pmcray makes a good point above about 1866 being chosen because it is the dramatic data of The Evil of the Daleks, which I rather like.

And maybe Clara won't actually die at the end of each story, but will choose to stay where she is and wave the Doctor off happily as he goes to find her next incarnation? That would allow for the same empowerment of her character, but without the bleakness (which I think you're right would be a bit non-ideal).
major_clanger
Jan. 4th, 2013 09:13 am (UTC)
flickering light-bulbs

Having just (very belatedly!) watched Jekyll, this seems to be a trope that Steven Moffat is particularly fond of.
strange_complex
Jan. 4th, 2013 12:12 pm (UTC)
He's quite the avid recycler, isn't he? :-)
major_clanger
Jan. 4th, 2013 12:15 pm (UTC)
Note also Hyde's first, child-like, question to Jekyll via the video recording, once he realises what has happened and who has confined him: "Are you my daddy?"

(And indeed the whole idea of a conversation between one person and a video of another is rather reminiscent of 'Blink'.)

Edited at 2013-01-04 12:19 pm (UTC)
parrot_knight
Jan. 4th, 2013 02:51 pm (UTC)
It's called "having a body of work" to repeat all these themes. ;)
steer
Jan. 4th, 2013 06:19 pm (UTC)
They have acquired almost as iconic a status within the Doctor's costume as scarves since the explicit references to Five's and Ten's in Time Crash.

I couldn't remember the fifth doctor ever wearing glasses but you're (as usual) correct. The first doctor sometimes wore them as did the seventh (in Silver Nemesis I think -- weirdly my mental image of him has glasses even though he apparently wore them only once on screen, not counting an accidental appearance in a motorcycle riding scene since Sylvester McCoy needed to wear them so as not to drive into them).
strange_complex
Jan. 4th, 2013 07:24 pm (UTC)
Indeed yes about the First Doctor, who quite often wore very cute little half-moon specs! I don't have any strong visual memory of the Seventh in them, but you're probably right.
( 28 comments — Leave a comment )

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