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Doctor Who: “The Snowmen”

Another Christmas means another Doctor Who Christmas special, and I think this year’s, “The Snowmen,” may be the best one yet. Matt Smith is more confident in the role than I’ve seen him, and though there’s still plenty of humor in the episode, he’s less awkwardly clownish, which makes him a lot easier to root for. There’s a new TARDIS interior design that I like a whole lot more than the last one, which I found too steampunky. There’s a new opening title sequence that’s fun and much better than the lightning one, but which is also overly busy and could stand to be taken down a notch. There’s the always welcome Richard E. Grant as the villainous Dr. Simeon. But most of all, there’s the supporting cast, and this year they are the ones who make the episode shine.

The Doctor is hanging out in Victorian England, sulking over losing Amy and Rory and vowing not to get involved in anything again. Acting as his guardians, as well as an independent detective team that may have inspired Holmes and Watson, are the Silurian lady Vastra, her sidekick/wife Jenny, and the Sontaran warrior turned nurse Strax, all of whom were last seen in season six’s “A Good Man Goes to War.” Unlike in that overstuffed episode, here they are given a chance to breathe, which in turn lets their characters come through in greater detail. They make for an excellent team, and a fun addition to the roster of recurring Who characters. Especially Strax, whose inappropriately violent brand of comic relief makes him one of my new favorites. I hope we see more of him. (It occurs to me we never learned how Vastra, Jenny, and Strax first met the Doctor. Mostly, I’m okay with that, since we saw in season six just how maddeningly overboard Steven Moffat goes with origin stories, but I wouldn’t mind if one of the characters were to mention it sometime. Also, I’m eager to know who exactly brought Strax back to life after he died in “A Good Man Goes to War”!)

Anyway, there’s something about telepathic alien snow and Dr. Simeon trying to help it create a legion of ice people based on a little girl’s nightmares about a drowned governess…basically, the plot is nonsense, and hardly the point of the episode, despite Richard E. Grant doing his very best Angus Scrimm. No, this episode belongs to Clara, the new companion who in this one episode shows herself to be a thousand times more interesting, more fun, and more compelling than Amy Pond. But then, I was never that fond of Amy. (On the other hand, I loved Rory, but I found myself not missing him at all, thanks chiefly to Clara’s rather big personality.)

So, despite its silly, paper-thin plot, I liked “The Snowmen” very much. On the other side of the coin, though, I can already see two problems with Clara. First, they have got to lose the flirtation between her and the Doctor. Seriously, it’s become rote that each new companion kisses the Doctor. I think we need to move on from that. Used sparingly, it can be special and take on emotional depth. (Imagine if Sarah Jane Smith had kissed the Doctor when she left the TARDIS for good in 1976’s “The Hand of Fear.”) Used every single time, though, and it becomes something the audience rolls its eyes at and groans over. Second, there’s a mystery about who (or what) Clara is that the Doctor is determined to solve. As interesting as this may turn out to be, I’m of the opinion that companions shouldn’t be the focus. The show isn’t about them. We learned that lesson already from the interminable River Song origin story. Companions are our windows into the Doctor’s world. They can have interesting backstories like Turlough, or simple human ones like Rose, but to make the show too much about the companion risks having us burn out on them quickly. (Case in point: those Amy-voiced episode intros last season.) This, I think, is especially true if you make the companion a big mystery that needs to be solved. But we’ll see what happens. For now, I like Clara a lot and am interested to see where things go — a first for me during these Matt Smith years, which I have generally not enjoyed. My hope was the Clara would give the show the shot in the arm it so desperately needs, and from this episode I can already tell she might do just that.

And now for some fun Doctor Who neepery! You may have noticed a jokey mention at the end of the episode about the Great Intelligence, an invasion of snowmen, and the London Underground of 1967, and you may have wondered what the heck that was all about. Well, as fans of classic Who could tell you, the Great Intelligence has appeared in the show before. In the Second Doctor serial “The Abominable Snowmen,” a disembodied cosmic entity known as the Great Intelligence uses robotic Yetis to attack a Himalayan expedition in the 1930s, and goes on to possess the High Lama. Though it was defeated, the Great Intelligence returned in “The Web of Fear,” in which it sends its robotic Yetis into the London Underground in 1967 to try to take over England. And here’s a fun bit of extra trivia: “The Web of Fear” also introduces Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart as the head of the Army response. At the end of the serial, Lethbridge-Stewart decides an international task force is necessary to fight future alien invasions, leading directly to the creation of U.N.I.T. Colonel Lethdridge-Stewart, of course, would go on to be promoted to Brigadier, and would continue to appear in Doctor Who throughout the rest of the classic series. He was mentioned a few times in the new Who, and even appeared once in The Sarah Jane Adventures. We also met his daughter, Kate Stewart, now a part of U.N.I.T. as well, in the otherwise unwatchable episode “The Power of Three.”

Now, whether this is truly the same Great Intelligence as in the previous serials is up for debate. In the earlier stories, the Great Intelligence was presented as an entity from another dimension who was exiled to ours and condemned to hover between the stars without physical substance. Both its invasion attempts revolved around it trying to reincorporate itself. It even appeared briefly as a gelatinous substance. However, despite their origins being different, I’d like to think it’s the same Great Intelligence, because that makes the Christmas special even more fun as the origin story for a classic monster.

Amazingly, for the first time since Matt Smith took over as the Doctor and Steven Moffat took over as show runner, I’m eager for the series to start up again. Bring on the rest of season seven!

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