BBC One HD
25th December 2012, 5.15pm
The review contains plot spoilers.
Victoriana. From the alchemical time-travel of The Evil of the Daleks to Weng-Chiang's pastiche of Sax Rohmer and Conan Doyle, Doctor Who has often plundered these and its Wellsian roots.
Of late, it has been with increasing regularity and has taken in that quintessential Christmas narrator, Charles Dickens. Television's current obsession with nostalgia tends to acquaint 'ye olde Christmas' with stove pipe hats, the Industrial Revolution, cheeky Cockney flower girls, snow or fog enshrouded streets, orphans and urchins, moral strictures and sexual repression. The Snowmen finds Steven Moffat retracing his steps down those familiar streets. Where before we saw him raid Dickens for A Christmas Carol, in this year's Christmas special we're also plunged into Henry James and Conan Doyle territory.
The story opens in 1842, where a snow bound walled garden and pond is filled with the laughter of children and we find the lone figure of Walter Simeon building a snowman. He's the typical lonely child in Moffat's oft-used signature and one of the symbolic figures that occupy several representations of the family or its absence in The Snowmen.
Moffat's Christmas offerings always seem to highlight the dysfunctional or transnormative family, with the wounded and repressed father or mother figures of Kazran Sardick and Madge Arwell the focus of attention in previous editions, and the rejected and emotionally crippled Simeon the lynchpin of the story here. As his parents look on and bemoan their child's introverted life ('he's so alone. It's not right, it's not healthy'), Simeon converts this canker at the heart of the Victorian ideal into a full blown steampunk powered attempt to conquer the world.
'profit'Naturally, Moffat has to find the horror in the ordinary, particularly the innocent activity of building a snowman, and as Simeon constructs his frozen hearted simulacrum, the snowman gains a voice and agrees with him that the hand-wringing adults are 'silly'. Once again, the uncanny lies in how the inanimate is made animate through voice, just as many of the children in Moffat's narratives project themselves into objects to articulate their crises. To this end, Ian McKellen is a superb choice to portray the Great Intelligence and his mellifluous tones are, forgive the pun, the icing on the cake.
It is through the snowman's offer of help that the story leaps 50 years, a wonderful dissolve between the boy Simeon and his sour faced adult counterpart symbolising the poor lad's possession, the hardening of his heart traced in Simeon's ascendancy to the role of institute executive. The capitalist running his satanic mill, Dr. Simeon (the completely hiss-able pantomime villainy of Richard E. Grant) now collects the snow from newly generated snowmen and feeds his workers to them. His promise to feed them is not quite in the spirit of the charitable giving of the numerous food banks we've seen springing up of late in Cameron's neo-Victorian era.
The 'GI' insignia of Simeon's operation, one of Moffat's clues in plain sight, is overlaid on collecting jars, carriage doors, business cards and iron gates throughout the episode, a corporate branding of industrial power, crushing opposition and driving forward the planned invasion. The Doctor, examining the 'new' snow concurs that the first thing you look for in 'something you've never seen before' is 'profit'. It is a profit that he also sees within an uncaring universe which he is no longer willing to care about.
We're back with Dickens again, where the rejection of 'family' is transformed into a ruthless business for Simeon. 'Dickens's novels are situated at a point in British history when family capitalism was in the process of transitioning into corporate capitalism,' notes Christopher Parkes and certainly the notion of how Victorian values destabilise and disconnect families runs through The Snowmen. (1)
Simeon pursues self-interest under the influence of the Great Intelligence, an amorphous mass seeking physical existence through the DNA of a drowned former governess to Captain Latimer's children. Latimer (Tom Ward), presumably widowed, is also a father who is unable to connect emotionally with his children. Again, we have a disconnection from the middle-class Victorian ideal and a damaged relationship between a dead governess, two children and a father that echoes the Jamesian horror of The Turn of the Screw.
The governess is another singular figure in the story. Notionally the Jamesian repository for hysteria and repression, the drowned governess is described as a cruel, punishing ghostly figure and yet she is also, through Clara, transformed into a magical Mary Poppins figure. When we first meet Clara, she's a barmaid at the Rose and Crown, but with little explanation she becomes the governess Miss Montague. She oscillates between a variation of Dickens' working class Nancy from Oliver Twist and the middle class governess as provocateur with ease and the mystery of her disguise remains.
There is more than a suggestion that Clara is a supernatural figure (referred to in the series' trailer as 'the woman twice dead'), psychically powerful enough to influence the manifestation of the Great Intelligence and destroy it. In her first encounter with the Doctor, she even echoes Simeon's childhood view of 'snow that can remember' as 'silly' only to be told by him, 'what's wrong with silly?' Despite the Doctor's retreat into the shadows, there is still an indication here that his childlike view of the universe is alive and well and she is attracted to that as much as she cares for Latimer's children Digby and Francesca.
The analogy to Mary Poppins, as a figure challenging the status quo of Victorian child-rearing, is made clear throughout the story in broad visual terms. Her initial pursuit of the Doctor where she ends upside down in a carriage turns our view of her metaphorically upside down and the umbrella and ladder ascent into the clouds to escape the icy clutches of the previous governess and the counsel for Francesca's nightmares all capture the essence of Pamela Travers creation or at least its 1964 onscreen incarnation. Moffat returns to fairy tale and the golden age of children's literature to influence The Snowmen as much as he taps into childhood fears and the more adult repressions and hysteria of James' The Turn of the Screw.
The Poppins and Clara analogy deepens when you turn to Travers original text and find that Poppins is called the Great Exception, a person who 'has managed to transcend the limited nature of humans... progressing from lower states of being to higher ones'. (2) Clara's ascending and descending the spiral staircase into the clouds to visit the TARDIS is a perfect visual expression of this. The impossible spiral staircase and the TARDIS parked on a cloud amid the starlight have a fairy tale charm and surrealism and there's a hint of Cinderella too in the way that Clara runs away from her first encounter on the cloud and drops her scarf. 'She is impossible' declares the Doctor in the series' trailer and she seems to exist between worlds as we see in the later shot transition from her 19th century gravestone to her resurrection in what looks like the present day.
The memories of a cruel governess become realised in ice because 'ice remembers' as Simeon informs Captain Latimer, and snow functions as 'memory snow' that feeds on the thoughts and memories of those it comes into contact with. Vastra warns 'I hope it's listening to the right people' when she challenges Simeon about his fascination for the material. Remembering and forgetting are crucial elements in many Moffat scripts and The Snowmen is no different and it remains a key component in the development of Clara's mystery. The Doctor's advice to her about psychically melting the snowmen is remembered later as she dies and even though he insists she forget about him, she seeks him out and causes him to remember her previous death in Asylum of the Daleks.
'children are not really my area of expertise'(3) The Sontaran Strax is an interesting counterpoint to Clara and is another living/dead figure in the story. He died during the events at Demon's Run but according to the Doctor has been resurrected by a friend.
Clara's declaration of 'Doctor? Doctor Who?' ushers in a new title sequence and underlines the sense of tradition inherent in the programme, despite that joke's dwindling effectiveness. As Vastra indicates to the reclusive Doctor: 'It's the same story every time and it always begins with the same two words.' The new titles are a return to the time tunnels of previous eras, to the use of the Doctor's face as a constant motif and the re-arranged theme is a slightly stripped back affair, demanding more of the ethereal, disconcerting ululations of the Delia Derbyshire original. Quite appropriate for the 50th Anniversary year that we're about to enter.
And, metatextually, we have the influence of Conan Doyle too. As hinted at in A Good Man Goes to War, Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint occupy this corner of Victorian London and are now joined by Strax, the former Sontaran nurse, after the Doctor decides to retire (an idea previously proposed but then rejected for Shada) and give up saving the universe. In the prequels, 'The Great Detective' and 'Vastra Investigates' and in the e-book The Devil in the Smoke Vastra, Jenny and Strax more or less become the Holmes, Watson and Mrs. Hudson inspiration for Doyle's stories, a matter that Simeon indicates in his encounter with them here.
The encounter with Simeon is one of many that positions Vastra and Jenny, now married, as the antithesis of the Victorian values that Simeon epitomises. As Jenny points out, he remains a bachelor, the lonely patriarch looking after Victorian ideological dogma, the institutionalising of 'a selfish and materialistic creed' where 'wage-labour is not distinguished from slavery, investment from speculation, and entrepreneurial acumen from dishonesty and fraud'. (4)
However, even though Simeon reminds him that Holmes is nothing but a fictional character, the Doctor effectively deducts the nature of this 'talking snow'. Later, the allegation from Strax that he is Holmes simply serves to emphasise the fact that the Doctor has become interested in the world again and, like Holmes, enjoys it when a problem needs to be solved.
Much of Vastra and Jenny's 'taboo busting' approach to the lives of Victorian gentlewomen in the prequels is also matched in their introduction to Captain Latimer and his family, with his depiction ('children are not really my area of expertise') shifting into the emotional inarticulacy of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music and mirroring much of the male detachment of the Doctor and Simeon.
The word test sequence is also vital to understanding the notions of truth and honesty that Vastra and Jenny represent in the Victorian milieu. 'Lies are words, words, words' suggests Vastra during the interrogation with Clara but when Vastra claims that the Doctor will not protect her and does not interfere in the affairs of others, Clara simply replies: 'words'. This lying, Vastra's self-transparent subterfuge, draws out the truth that Clara suspects about the Doctor. And of course the trigger word here is 'pond' - the one 'impossible' word that would stir the Doctor into activity. This is underlined by the Doctor removing and staring at his glasses as he hears the word, the same glasses that Amy once wore.
'I never know why. I only know who.'Clara's slippery association with telling the truth and lying are also a very Poppins-like defying of logic when she encourages the Latimer children to accept her stories of 'inventing fish' and 'being born behind the clock face of Big Ben'. This not only deepens the intrigue about her and her origins but it acts as an effective way to frame the story of 'the Doctor' who 'lives on a cloud in the sky' as the one dominant narrative for the children to believe in and that reinstates the Time Lord as the one man who can stop them having bad dreams. The reinstatement, of course, is symbolised by the bow tie which he doesn't even realise he's put on until he sees himself in a mirror.
Director Saul Metzstein captures much of the story in visually expressive terms. Clara's journey up the staircase has a magical quality to it and then our first glimpse of the new TARDIS interior is accomplished beautifully in one tracking shot following her through the TARDIS doors. The new interior of the TARDIS is an expression of the Doctor's retreat and another marker of certain traditions that The Snowmen is harkening back to, still expressing a Verne-like quality in the design while appreciating the simplicity of Brachacki's original TARDIS of 1963.
Cleverly, Clara's search around the outside of the TARDIS both replicates Rose's first encounter with the time machine and subverts it when Clara confirms, 'it's smaller on the outside'. The overlapping of the Doctor with Holmes, the Artful Dodger and Mr. Punch offers a delicious summary of the Matt Smith portrayal and the interplay between him and Jenna-Louise Coleman is sparky and agreeable. 'That's no more a box than you are a governess,' he retorts to her when she first describes the TARDIS. The deceptive appearance of the TARDIS is another appropriate expression of the mystery that surrounds Clara, the nature of things not being what they are a common trope in Moffat's narratives.
A layer of the mystery is briefly exposed when she sees the interior of the ship and asks if there is a kitchen, mentioning offhandedly, 'I like making soufflés'. Not only does this scene confirm that Oswin Oswald and Clara are connected but the importance of the umbrella to the escape from Latimer's house illuminates the subtle nature of the Doctor's choice to bring her with him. As he hands her the TARDIS key, he declares his recognition of her as companion material: 'I never know why. I only know who.' He has surrendered to the idea of travelling with a companion again and begs her to remember it.
However, Moffat subverts this scenario and, before Clara can officially take up her status as the new companion, he has her carried off by the frozen old governess and we see her plunge to her death. Not the usual scheme of things and a habit that Clara/Oswin can't seem to shake. We're reminded of this as she dies, when her and the Latimer family's tears psychically turn into rain and melt the snowmen, with a repeat of her last lines in Asylum of the Daleks: 'run, run you clever boy. And remember.' It's clearly an invitation for the Doctor to investigate this 'impossible' person.
For long term fans, these acknowledgements to the past offer the delicious possibility that the Great Intelligence which the Doctor defeats here, with the memory worm hidden in a tin decorated with a 1967 Tube map, is the origin of the force which will animate Yeti robots in Tibet and cover London in a web of fear. 'The dream outlives the dreamer,' gloats the Intelligence as it possesses the memory drained body of Simeon in an attempt to murder the Doctor. Those future encounters are proof that the nightmare of the Great Intelligence will live on even if the continuity might need to stretch a bit.
The Snowmen is definitely the best of Moffat's Christmas specials to date. The previous festive instalments lacked a certain scope, focusing as they did on specific characters who needed to repair their own human deficiencies, and it has been rectified by making the story a twofold narrative about an invasion and the ongoing mystery of a new companion. The period setting is beautifully created by production designer Michael Pickwoad and his team and Saul Metzstein turns it all into a visual feast. Vastra, Jenny and Strax are welcome participants too and there is a spin-off series clearly begging to be made. The story still reflects the Moffat signature - lonely children, dysfunctional families, childhood fears and a critique of conservative values - but tempers this with splendid performances from Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman who turn the reinstatement of the Doctor through his meeting with Clara into a fully rounded and emotional story. 'Watch me run' indeed.
(1) Christopher Parkes, Children's Literature and Capitalism: Fictions of Social Mobility in Britain, 1850-1914
(2) Cristina Pérez Valverde, Dreams and Liminality in the Mary Poppins Books
(4) G.R Searle, Market and Morality in Victorian Britain.