Doctor Who: The Snowmen - Review Sherlockabilia Shop Now Open

Doctor Who: The Snowmen - Review * 26 December 2012

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Now we've digested our turkey, it's time to take stock of the annual Doctor Who Christmas Special, once again written by Steven Moffat - and this year featuring a glut of knowing references to the World's Greatest Detective…

Please note that while this review contains no explicit plot spoilers, there is discussion of characterisation and thematic material.  

Following the pattern of the eleventh Doctor's previous Christmas specials, this year's entry once again draws inspiration from a festively tinged tale from another author. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol provided the basis for the special of the same name, while C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was reconfigured as The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. This year, Steven Moffat takes a perennial British animated favourite and lends it a malevolent science fiction twist. Raymond Briggs' The Snowman was published as a book in 1978, and screened its animated form for the first time in 1982 - with the sequel airing in the UK on December 24 2012, the day before this Doctor Who special. However, The Snowmen takes the initial conceit of a lonely boy building a snowman that comes to magical life and spins it to far darker ends…

Graced with a new and pleasingly retro main title but intentionally slow to start, the episode finds The Doctor (Matt Smith) segregated in self-imposed exile after the loss of Amy and Rory, Scrooge like in his manner, and in quite notable contrast to the special of two years ago. Perhaps more whimsical than we've ever seen him, the TARDIS - complete with a newly redesigned interior - is parked on top of an artificial cloud above Victorian London, accessible only by a winding metal spiral staircase. The Doctor has retreated to be near the only friends he has left - the Silurian detective Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her human companion Jenny (Catrin Stuart), and the Sontaran medic Strax (Dan Starkey); all veterans of the Battle of Demon's Run in Series Six's A Good Man Goes to War - but the Time Lord has little interest in engaging with them. It's only the appearance of Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) that brings him fully out of his shell again to face the growing number of mysterious living snowmen that are appearing in the British capital.

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The period setting is suitably and classically Christmas, and has already seen several of the previous Doctor Who specials take place in it. But this one in particular, set in 1892, allows the huge Sherlock Holmes fan within Steven Moffat to plant his tongue very firmly in his cheek, and drop in a bounty of Holmes references. Almost from the off, it's noted that Holmes is fictional, but in the reality of Doctor Who Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has based both him and Doctor John Watson off a real life pair of detectives - it's just that they're actually a lizard lady from the dawn of time and her wife! Later on The Doctor pays a visit to the home of the antagonist Dr Simeon (Richard E. Grant), gaining entry to the premises under the identity of Sherlock Holmes and decked out in full Basil Rathbone regalia, dropping references in the dialogue all while Murray Gold's score pays explicit homage to David Arnold and Michael Price's work on our beloved modern day incarnation of the detective. As an aside, Raymond Briggs and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle aren't the only authors to take a nod in the script, with a repeated reference to the Stark family mantra "Winter is Coming" from George R.R. Martin's fantasy series Game of Thrones being made in Dr Simeon's dialogue.  

Steven Moffat gives us a twisting narrative that is oddly light on actual plot, instead placing his focus on the aftermath of previous events from the main series while also - just about - allowing the hour to stand alone as a Christmas special. It's suitably festive but also slightly complex, with an unexpected plunge at the mid-point picking up the thread left at the beginning of Series seven with Oswin's appearance in Asylum of the Daleks, and then deepening it come the close. As is often the case with stories that feature The Doctor alone, it is also a story about rumination and focusing on things and people you have lost, something that often happens amongst the merriment of Christmas Day - and aptly it is always a community or family that can shake you out of such a mind-set, especially if you unexpectedly find yourself with a new addition to the crowd. While Doctor Who is never a series that could ever stagnate, the arrival of Jenna-Louise Coleman gives the hour a different kind of spark than previous companions, and we're definitely looking forward to seeing Steven Moffat explain her existence going forward. The exact nature of Clara Oswin Oswald remains as mysterious as ever, and will clearly form the backbone of the remainder of series seven, airing in spring 2013.

Read our Sherlock related review of Doctor Who Series 7.0.

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