When Steven Moffat took over as head writer of Doctor Who in 2010, he said that he wanted to make the show a "dark fairy tale." Hence the Girl Who Waited, and the Last Centurion, and all that. But I have to say, I haven't ever felt the fairy-tale vibe from Moffat's Doctor Who quite as strongly as I did with last night's Christmas special, "The Snowmen." I finally get what Moffat was getting at when he talked about turning the most sciencey of shows into a kind of fable.
So "The Snowmen" is basically the story of a former heroic savior, who has now withdrawn from the world and lives on a cloud, high above the city. He doesn't care that evil forces are gathering, waiting to plunge the world into an endless winter and overrun it with ice people. So it's up to one plucky young governess/barmaid named Clara to reawaken his thirst for adventure and his desire to save the world one more time.
And it must be said, "The Snowmen" nails the fairytale mood. From the gnashing-tooth snowflakes in the opening shot to the business of Clara having to pull down an invisible ladder and climb a magic staircase to get to the Doctor's home in the clouds, it's all pure fantasy candy. The notion of a lonely boy who's become a bitter man, eager to fill the world with snow that reflects his emptiness, is sort of perfect for a fairy-tale baddie. The sad children, whose mean governess drowned in a frozen pond and is now coming back as an ice queen, are also note-perfect. They even got Gandalf to voice the snow-globe Intelligence. And at the end, Clara dies and the children's grief defeats the ice queen.
Of course, the whole thing depends on you believing that the Doctor was so broken up by his separation from the Ponds that he's retired from saving the world — even though, in this instance, the Doctor's inaction means the Ponds will never even be born. When the Doctor was separated from Rose, he sulked for a year and treated poor Martha like crap. But this time around, he's even more broken up — to the point where he can't even do his thing any more.
Of course, this is sort of how Moffat's always written the Eleventh Doctor — he doesn't just go on the run for a few weeks, he goes on the run for 200 years. He doesn't just send a message to the Ponds, he pops up in history books. And so on. And I guess the Doctor's realized that he can't be a hero without a companion, as River told him in "Angels Take Manhattan," but he's tired of putting people in danger and bonding with an endless series of fresh-faced young people — so if he can't have a new companion, he's just not going to save the day any more.
In any case, if you can accept the thing of the Doctor retiring from heroism, then the story of "The Snowmen" generally works pretty well. You know that the Doctor will be back on his game by around the 30-minute mark, so the fun is in watching him struggle with his impulses. And in the cat-and-mouse game between the Doctor and Clara, who's been drawn into the Doctor's orbit the way so many people have been before, and is trying to get to the bottom of his mystery. Clara follows the Doctor and leaps on his stagecoach, and doesn't run away when he threatens to use a mind-erasing worm thingy on her, and finally climbs his magic staircase.
And Jenna-Louise Coleman pretty much owns the episode as Clara. In the course of the story, Clara proves her worth as a companion over and over, using the power of her mind to melt some attacking snowmen and figuring out the Doctor's plan to lure the ice lady up into his cloud. She passes Madam Vastra's "one word" test, answering a series of questions with one carefully chosen word. But she's also charming as all get-out, embodying Moffat's "plucky dame" archetype with so much panache that she seems to be creating it from scratch.
Meanwhile, the three supporting characters who were among the 1000 ideas in "A Good Man Goes to War" are back — and this time, they have a bit of space to breathe. Madame Vastra is famous in Victorian London as the "Veiled Detective," and she and her sidekick Jenny are openly married — basically flouting all the Victorian taboos at once. They're now living with Strax, the good-natured Sontaran who is apparently no longer dead and also no longer a nurse. It's Strax who gets the bulk (so to speak) of the episode's most screamingly funny moments, including his mishaps with the brain worm and his constant talk about grenades and frontal assaults. And his snarling at "puny humans" immediately followed by words of kindness. (And Strax teasing the Doctor for being Sherlock Holmes, right after the Doctor has done a hilariously off-the-mark Sherlock Holmes impression in the bad guy's lair, is also priceless.)
Vastra, Jenny and Strax seem to be getting set up as a new supporting cast for the Doctor, and it's an interesting move. Two of them are monsters who've either gone good or at least become friendlier, and Vastra herself is mentioned as a possible influence for Sherlock Holmes. (Moffat works in a lot of Holmes humor here, along with some Game of Thrones references.) When the three of them are placed against the backdrop of Victorian London, as opposed to Demons Run, they suddenly become much more obviously oddballs and outcasts, whose monstrous appearance is just part of the reason they'll never fit in. It's interesting that the people who keep the Doctor grounded and connected to the world are now, themselves, at odds with the world they live in.
Returning to the fairytale thing, there's a lot of stuff that only works here when you see it as a fairytale — like, Richard E. Grant's Dr. Simeon is a fairly useless villain, who strides around telling everybody his plan and folds like origami when the Doctor goes up against him. The Snowmen of the episode's title are useless, just as the Doctor quickly points out. The ice governess is fairly weak as well — she only manages to kill Clara because of a fall from a great height, which is really the Doctor's fault since he lured her up there. If this were an RTD episode, we'd have gotten a proper villain rampage, like the "Cyber-King" trashing Victorian London at the end of "The Next Doctor." (But Moffat's never as invested in his villains as RTD was, and the resolution to his stories often doesn't even involve the villain directly.)
Also, the episode is overstuffed with ideas that don't quite get a chance to breathe — even as Vastra, Strax and Jenny are getting the breathing room they were denied the first time we met them. We hear about Dr. Simeon representing Victorian Values, but there's almost no clue what that means in the context of this story. Clara being both a barmaid and a governess is important to setting up her character — but we barely glimpse her barmaid life, and her double life feels like a throwaway idea. The father of the family Clara works for can't connect with his children, which is something we know because we're told it a couple times. Really, this isn't a story about Victorian England at all — and the episode mostly works best when it uses Victorian England as a colorful backdrop, rather than a real setting.
But those are mostly minor quibbles with an episode that shows Moffat returning to form with a lot of fun and zaniness bolted onto a pretty successful fairy-tale framework. The overall task of this episode is to relaunch Matt Smith's Doctor with a new(ish) companion and a new(ish) semi-regular supporting cast, and in those terms it works beautifully. The story takes the classic "companion becomes fascinated with the Doctor and learns about him/tracks him down" storyline and does something new and interesting with it. And it advances the Doctor's arc of trying and failing to go it alone, which Moffat has been building since "The God Complex."
Oh, and there's a bit of continuity porn — the Intelligence that controls the Snowmen in this episode is revealed at the end to be (probably) the origin of the Great Intelligence, the villain of "The Abominable Snowmen" and "The Web of Fear." It's one of those things that you either see coming from early on in the episode, or you don't care about one way or the other.
So at last, there's a final mystery — Clara is dead, but the Doctor realizes she's somehow the same person as Oswin, who died in "Asylum of the Daleks." And that means that she's recurring throughout time, and there's got to be another Clara out there somewhere. Cut to another Clara Oswin, living in what appears to be present-day London, with the Doctor on his way to find her. What's the deal with Clara? Has she gotten herself Scaroth-ed somehow? Knowing Moffat, the answer will be both clever and a bit frustrating.
And here's a trailer for the rest of the season, in case you doubted Clara would be back: