Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Doctor Who: “The Snowmen”

Illustration for article titled Doctor Who: “The Snowmen”

At the end of “The Angels Take Manhattan,” a time-displaced Amy Pond wrote a final warning to the Doctor, in which she advised him to not travel alone again. In “The Snowmen,” the Doctor has heeded her words, but the loss of Amy and Rory has left him too heart(s)broken to risk bringing a new companion into his life, so he doesn’t travel at all. Instead, he wiles away his days in late Victorian London, relying on his friends from “A Good Man Goes To War”—the Silurian detective Madame Vastra, her wife Jenny, and their wonderfully violent butler Strax the Sontaran—to help keep the curious away. Any would-be companions are given an intentionally impossible test in which they are only allowed a single word to get the Doctor’s attention, which means it’s going to take someone very special to snap the Doctor out of his grief and bring him back into the world. And that’s where Jenna-Louise Coleman’s Clara enters, taking center stage in an entertaining Christmas special that worries first about rebuilding the Doctor’s shattered psyche, then fits in an Ian McKellen-voiced menace to all humanity in around the edges.

“The Snowmen” deemphasizes Christmas relative to Steven Moffat’s past two year-end specials, instead crafting a story primarily driven by the coldness and loneliness of winter. The story presents a pair of doctors who have shut themselves off from other people, but while the Doctor is content to spend his days moping and hiding above the clouds, Dr. Simeon wants to wipe out all humanity and replace them with icemen. To do that, he and the disembodied intelligence that controls the snowmen need a model of the human form, which they find in a governess who drowned last Christmas Eve and whose body spent days trapped under the ice. Clara, who already encountered the Doctor and the Snowmen while working as a barmaid at the Rose & Crown Pub, is leading a double life as the new governess for Captain Latimer and his two children. Realizing the imminent danger posed by whatever is lurking in the frozen pond, Clara goes back in search of the Doctor. Her accidental invocation of Amy’s surname during the one-word test arouses the Doctor’s curiosity, and she soon realizes that the Doctor isn’t just there to begrudgingly save the day: He also is testing her suitability as a companion, even if he won’t quite admit it.

This is very much the Doctor and Clara’s story, with the entire Snowmen menace and all the other characters only really there to serve the story of their burgeoning friendship. Guest stars Richard E. Grant and Tom Ward both give nice performances, but they don’t get much to do as Dr. Simeon and Captain Latimer—Simeon is there to glower menacingly and put his insane plan into action, while Latimer is there to be distant from his children and be the embodiment of Victorian repression. Neve McIntosh, Catrin Stewart, and Dan Starkey all have a lot of fun reprising their roles as the Doctor’s most trusted allies, with Starkey stealing scenes as Strax freely mixes Sontaran bellicosity with Victorian propriety. If I ever get a butler, he’s definitely greeting people with, “Do not attempt to escape or you will be obliterated! May I take your coat?”

Steven Moffat’s script hints at potentially interesting parallels between the Doctor, Dr. Simeon, and Captain Latimer in their shared refusal to deal with those around them, particularly when that isolation is entirely of their own making. The reveal of the intelligence’s true identity as a mirror image of all Dr. Simeon’s twisted hopes and fears underscores that point, but “The Snowmen” doesn’t quite manage to connect Dr. Simeon’s mistakes with those of the Doctor—Dr. Simeon’s plight is fascinating on his own terms, but the script could have gone deeper in exploring why people need each other and what happens when they cut themselves off from everything, particularly when that’s such a perfectly Christmas sort of theme. The episode also explicitly argues a world of icemen is simply one that takes Victorian values to their furthest extreme, which is a big allegorical idea that could easily drive an entire episode. Again, this might have been better integrated into the story of the Doctor’s own isolation, but it’s distinctly less interesting when relegated to a handful of throwaway lines.

The success of “The Snowmen” hinges on Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman’s performances, and both are in fine form. Smith conveys the notion that the Doctor isn’t simply sad or grief-stricken: He is utterly, completely defeated by everything he has lost, and he only bothers to keep on existing because he can’t figure out anything else to do. The Doctor has rediscovered the irascibility that defined some of his earlier incarnations, and his constant abuse of Strax would be shockingly unpleasant if it weren’t so amusing. It’s a gradual transformation from this broken Doctor to the one we know and love, and Smith nails the scene where he realizes he unwittingly put his trusty bowtie on once again, then gets so transfixed by the bowtie’s obvious coolness that he doesn’t notice everyone is once again in mortal danger.

For her part, Jenna-Louise Coleman keeps up the fun, flirtatious energy she brought to “Asylum Of The Daleks”, crafting a character who feels instantly equal to but different from Amy Pond. It certainly helps that, outside Clara’s significant answer to the one-word test, Amy isn’t referenced in the special, which gives Clara room to establish herself as a promising companion in her own right, sidestepping one of the show’s previous big mistakes when it transitioned from Rose to Martha. More than any other new series companion, Clara doesn’t need the Doctor to rush headlong toward adventure and mystery, as evidenced by her dual life as prim governess and working-class barmaid. If the present-day version of Clara Oswin Oswald matches her past and future counterparts, there should be a lot to look forward to from this new pairing of Doctor and companion.


Starting with “The Wedding Of River Song,” Doctor Who has been meditating on what exactly its title actually means. While “The Wedding Of River Song” and “Asylum Of The Daleks” posited “Doctor who?” as the all-important question surrounding the Doctor’s identity, “The Snowmen” takes some time to ponder the oft-neglected half of the words Doctor Who. When Clara asks why the Doctor decided to take her into his world, he gives her a TARDIS key and replies, “I never know why—I only know who.” That moment of joy is cut cruelly short, as the ice governess breaks through the clouds and sends Clara plummeting to her eventual death, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Doctor wouldn’t have overlooked the monster’s continuing threat if he weren’t so out of practice and weren’t so overcome with glee at finding someone new.

But Clara has already had her effect on the Doctor, as he has found someone again for whom it’s worth fighting, for whom it’s worth striking bargains with the universe. And that line is an apt encapsulation of what really motivates the Doctor; while it might sometimes seem he is driven to right wrongs and solve mysteries on a cosmic scale, what the Doctor truly cares about are the people with whom he shares his journeys. It’s Clara, not the Snowmen, who intrigues the Doctor enough to bring him out of his self-imposed exile, as her answers in the one-word test demonstrate she’s the sort of person the Doctor considers worth knowing. Similarly, it’s more the prospect of seeing her again than the intrigue of a seemingly impossible conundrum that sends the Doctor running off to find Clara, wherever—and more to the point, whoever—she might be.


Finally, on an infinitely more nerdy note, “The Snowmen” also features what has to be the show’s most loving tribute to classic Doctor Who with the revelation that the intelligence controlling the snowmen might actually be the Great Intelligence, a malevolent entity that menaced Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor in a pair of tense, well-regarded stories in the show’s fifth season, “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web Of Fear.” The connection between Ian McKellen’s walking snowmen and the Great Intelligence’s robotic yeti seems tenuous at first, but then unexpectedly picks up steam when the Doctor offhandedly shows it a 1967 map of the London Underground, linking directly to “The Web Of Fear,” with the connection being made explicit in the graveyard scene at episode’s end. While I haven’t seen either of these ‘60s stories—indeed, nobody has in decades, since all but two of the stories’ 12 episodes have been lost—some quick research suggests the link between this entity and the one seen in the Troughton stories is workable if not quite seamless. Either way, if you want to know what kind of Doctor Who fan I am, just know that this reveal is the best Christmas present the show could ever give me. That the rest of “The Snowmen” is so good and so much fun is just a very welcome bonus.

Stray observations:

  • Speaking of Christmas presents for the diehard, old school fans, I’m not even going to attempt to explain why the insertion of Matt Smith’s face into the opening credits makes me as happy as it does. As we head into the 50th anniversary year, I’m guessing these little nostalgic touches will be popping up here and there, and as long as they don’t get in the way of the storytelling, I’m all for it.
  • Clara’s tombstone reveals she was born on November 23, 1866. I rather wish they had moved that back three years so that she born exactly a hundred years before the show’s premiere on November 23, 1963, but either way, it’s another nice tip of the hat to the show’s past.
  • Insane, Obviously Wrong Theory Corner: Since I’ve already made one “City Of Death” reference, let me start the bidding on just what is up with Clara Oswin Oswald by suggesting she’s another time-splintered Jagaroth. It just makes so much little sense!
  • The Doctor and Strax’s complete bungling of Clara’s memory wipe is worth the price of admission alone. The scene also confirms that Strax was resurrected by one of the Doctor’s friends, although I’m guessing we’ve still got more to discover on that score.
  • “It’s smaller on the outside!” “OK… that is a first.”