“Over a thousand years saving the universe, I have learned one thing… the universe doesn’t care.”
This blog review is a little later than usual, and there are several reasons for that. I’ve had a terrible cold, I overdid the Christmas festivities, yada, yada, yada. But the main reason is that, contrary to my usual practice of recording my first impressions of a show as soon as I’ve seen it, I wanted to watch this one again. Because the first time I watched it, I found it overcomplex, convoluted and lacking in internal logic, despite its many charms. I came out of it with a lot of questions, but found that my friends on the internet (well, most of them) had a far better impression of it than I did. So I resolved to watch it again, to see if there was something I’d missed.
And do you know what? There was. Most of what I’d seen as plot holes are actually covered in Steven Moffat’s cleverly constructed but busy script; the problem (well, mine anyway) was that the breakneck speed with which they had to be addressed meant I missed more than a few in my post-Christmas dinner torpor. That, of course, is my own fault – but I can hardly have been the only one watching in such a frame of mind, given the time slot. For a Christmas romp, this had a surprisingly complex, layered plot, requiring real attention to be paid. In that, it felt remarkably similar to the also-crowded A Good Man Goes to War – but this at least was somewhat more coherent for all its complexity.
So, it was another trip to Victorian England for this year’s Doctor Who Christmas episode – yes, I know A Christmas Carol was really set on a futuristic planet, but it was a futuristic planet that had for some reason modelled itself on Victorian England. This seems to be a preoccupation for Steven Moffat, that Christmas stories are best set in the past. It’s a preconception we can probably blame on Charles Dickens, and there’d be a good essay to be written on the comprehensive domination of Christmas his classic tale has come to exert – well, if Mark Gatiss hadn’t already written it with The Unquiet Dead.
In keeping with most Christmas TV visualisations of Dickens, this was a somewhat sanitised version of the late Victorian period; nary a workhouse, an opium den or a murdered prostitute to be seen. No, this was the Victorian era of classic children’s fantasy, and it was from this that Moffat had clearly drawn most inspiration. The Doctor’s hermitage, his TARDIS parked atop a cloud reached via a magical invisible staircase from a London park, was very much the stuff of John Masefield, E Nesbit or JM Barrie (though the scene of Clara shouting his name at thin air may well have owed a debt to Star Trek IV).
Clara’s position as kindly, wisdom-dispensing governess to an emotionally dysfunctional motherless family meant she might as well have been called Mary Poppins, and the clever inversion of cosy Christmas favourite The Snowman into an army of growling, fanged monsters nonetheless keeps us squarely in the realm of fairytale. Doctor Who has never been exactly what you’d call scientifically accurate, but even under Russell T Davies reign of deus ex machina, it at least tried to maintain that impression; with this more than ever, it’s clear that Moffat thinks of it as fantasy, perhaps even classic myth.
Personally, I don’t have too much of a problem with that (though judging from the internet, there’s plenty that do). But this story had a hell of a lot to pack in while still serving as a jolly Christmas romp. For the first time, it comes in the middle of a series run; and not only does it have to bridge that gap, it also has to introduce a new companion – well, sort of – and set up a new ongoing mystery while dropping hints about the ones already ongoing.
To do all that, while packing in returns from fan favourite characters, setting up an origin story for a classic villain, dealing with the grief-stricken Doctor’s apparent retirement and telling an exciting tale all within the space of an hour was a pretty tall order. No wonder some explanations went by so closely I needed a second viewing to catch them.
It did have all the hallmark Moffat strengths along with the weaknesses – primarily that gift for great characters, witty dialogue and imaginative concepts. Silurian detective Madame Vastra and her human wife Jenny were great creations in their first appearance and their return was most welcome. The obvious inversion to Moffat’s beloved Sherlock Holmes was cleverly lampshaded by villain Dr Simeon sneering that “Dr Doyle” had obviously based his creations on them (far from the only Holmes reference in a script written by the showrunner of Sherlock).
It was good to see comedy Sontaran Strax back for another go too. Played for even broader laughs here than before, Dan Starkey milked every one with perfect comic timing in the surreal juxtaposition of a militaristic clone race playing courteous Victorian manservant, albeit one with an unhealthy obsession for grenades. “Do not try to escape or you will be obliterated! May I take your coat?” It felt like another nod to a classic Who juxtaposition – neanderthal butler Nimrod from Victoriana-obsessed Ghost Light, a show whose themes were also echoed here more than once.
But if those supporting characters were richly drawn, you couldn’t really say the same for the villainous Dr Simeon. Richard E Grant looked marvellously cadaverous in the role, and gave an appropriately cold performance. But there was no real sense of depth or history to Simeon; it was as if he’d grown from a child to an adult without his personality ever changing, which seemed unlikely. Of course that could be down to Dickens again, that same odd lack of development being what blights the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. But Scrooge at least has the possibility of redemption when shown the error of his ways. Simeon, whose fault everything turns out to be, learns no such lesson – a surprisingly cynical outlook for a Christmas story.
In fact, given that his inadvertent mental creation the Great Intelligence outlives him, and continues to mirror his misanthropy for decades, Simeon must have no redeeming features at all. Working in an origin story for a classic series villain from the 60s, though, that was audacious – particularly given the need to make the story accessible to the great majority of viewers whose knowledge of 1967 Doctor Who is rather less than the average fanboy’s.
The script just about pulled it off. Ian McKellen’s brilliantly mellifluous tones lent the Intelligence a suitable air of menace, and the references to the events of The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear, while fairly glaring to the fan, were unlikely to alienate the casual viewer. By the end, though, it did feel a bit like it was being hammered home somewhat with that graveside exchange: “It’s hard to see much danger from a disembodies Intelligence who wants to invade the world with snowmen.” “Or who thinks the London Underground is a strategic weakness.” Yes, thank you Mr Moffat, the fans have picked up on it now – though they may be less merciful about the implication that The Web of Fear was set in the year it was broadcast, or that the Intelligence has only existed since 1892 when Padhmasambhva claims to have been possessed for centuries in The Abominable Snowmen.
Still, while there’s no pleasing some fans, hopefully plenty more will have been delighted that Moffat resurrected one of Douglas Adams’ ideas from his tenure as script editor in the 70s – the idea that the Doctor, finally having had enough of the whole universe-saving business, has packed it all in in a fit of pique. There was no better place to fit that than here, after the trauma of just losing the show’s longest-running companions since it returned; the Doctor usually seems to get over such shocks fairly quickly, and it felt right that this time he should properly get a chance to mope.
And mope he did, with Matt Smith giving another sensational performance as a closed-off Time Lord gradually being drawn back into the world. The implication was that he might have been sulking on top of his cloud for quite some time, certainly since just after the events of The Angels Take Manhattan.
Again as with A Good Man Goes to War, it took his friends to make him come to his senses; to make him realise that he can’t repress his basic nature of curiosity, fairness, and kindness. The thing he most has in common with Sherlock Holmes is that neither can abide an unsolved mystery, but the Doctor also has a more obviously caring side. Smith’s performance, as he gradually came out of his shell with the realisation that those things are an innate part of him, was excellent – particularly the realisation that he’d unconsciously gone back to wearing his bow tie. It was a complex, affecting performance that still kept hold of the character’s sense of fun.
And there was still plenty of fun – this was a Christmas episode after all. The most obvious laughs came from Strax, though the Doctor’s inept version of Sherlock Holmes was both funny and clever – pretending to be stupid while actually being the cleverest person in the room is very Doctor-ish. The dialogue too was typically Moffat-witty; which is to say, wittier than anyone could ever be in real life, but as witty as we wish we all were. And even the broad comedy sketch involving Strax and the ‘memory worm’ (which had me laughing out loud) served a proper dramatic purpose in setting up the resolution of the plot. This wasn’t gratuitous laughs, but humour that arose from, and served, a cleverly constructed story.
But the most important thing for this story – and a burden a Christmas episode has never previously had to shoulder – was to set up numerous things for the future. Happily, for me anyway, all of them worked rather well. There’s a new title sequence, which looks for all the world like a computer generated version of the chemical splodges that formed the openings of the 60s Dalek films, and best of all it (finally!) has the Doctor’s face in it. Not sure about zooming in to the TARDIS doors opening onto the action, but generally, thumbs up from me.
It’s accompanied by Murray Gold’s umpteenth rearrangement of the theme tune, which I have to say I like better than the last one; though I thought he got it pretty much right back in 2005, and find it annoying that he feels the need to change the arrangement every two years or so. After all, the classic version (from which Gold used to draw a lot the elements) lasted for 17 years with very minimal changes. Still, as I say, I think this is an improvement.
Then there’s that much-publicised revamp of the console room. As with the arrangement of the theme tune, it feels like it’s getting revamped more frequently than is necessary, with the Eccleston/Tennant one having lasted four or five years, and the last one only managing two. But, if it had to be revamped, I do like the design. It feels more reminiscent of the classic 80s one (if it had been more subtly lit), all muted cream colours for the console with pseudo-roundels on the wall. In keeping with the Doctor’s sombre mood, it’s quite darkly lit, though that may change I suppose. And that doobry in the roof that rotates in multiple directions is pretty cool.
The Doctor has a new costume too, which I have less of a problem with; it wasn’t till John Nathan-Turner’s reign in the 80s that the costume became such a uniform, and before that, Pertwee and Tom Baker wore many variations on their basic looks. Matt Smith’s Victorian look here seems to be just for this one story; I’m not sure he could permanently pull off that battered topper. But from the ‘Coming Soon’ trailer, it looks like he’s acquired a waistcoat as part of his ensemble, and to the dismay of cosplayers who thought they’d got the costume finalised, he’s changed his jacket for something darker.
The last new item is the most important – and almost certainly the one that’s going to provoke the most debate. We get to meet the companion – and so does the Doctor. Sort of. Just like Amy, Clara (or Oswin) is plainly more than just an ordinary young lady. Both are impossibly glamorous, witty, and resourceful, things which appeal to this Doctor (and obviously Steven Moffat) a great deal. Clara leads a double life as occasional Cockney barmaid and prim (but kindly) governess, for which little explanation is given (yet), and spends a great deal of the episode being subjected to intelligence tests.
The ‘one word answer’ interrogation by Vastra is cleverly scripted, and reveals more Moffat preoccupations (when asked to give one word to explain the Doctor’s epic sulk, Clara simply replies, “man”). The Doctor’s setup with the umbrella, leading Clara on to his plan to deal with the ice creature, was less subtle; but we’d already seen just how smart Clara was when she figured out immediately how the telepathic snow might link with a child’s dreams of a cruel woman frozen to death in a pond.
But how coincidental was her use of the word ‘pond’ to lure the Doctor into action? Because. quite contrary to set up expectations thorughout, Clara/Oswin died. Again. No wonder the Doctor’s so keen on her, she must remind him of Rory. But he belatedly realised, as she repeated her last words from Asylum of the Daleks, that this was the ‘souffle girl’ he’d already met once, centuries in the future (at least by voice, anyway). As he realises he’s already met two versions of the same girl, he’s straight off to find the next one – “perhaps the universe makes bargains after all.” Though I was a bit disappointed that the next version is another 21st century contemporary girl – I liked the idea of a woman from the past as a companion. Unless we’re going to be meeting a new Clara every week?
So what’s the explanation for Clara/Oswin (and which name will we eventually know her by)? Clearly this is going to be a major plot point for the rest of this series, which will come as something of a relief from various people portentously intoning “Doctor who?” at us. The internet’s already abuzz (as internets are wont to be) with speculation. Is she a Jagaroth, splintered through time like in City of Death (unlikely, as that was caused by a particular event and not a characteristic innate to the species)? Is she a descendant of her own previous/later character, like Gwen out of Torchwood?
For my money, knowing Mr Moffat, the answer to her mystery will be inextricably linked with the one he’s set up for the Doctor – perhaps she’s been fractured through time by something the Doctor’s will do in the future. Or is that too timey-wimey? Whichever, Jenna-Louise Coleman was again winning in the role, even if I’m less susceptible to her glamour than other, more heterosexual men.
On a second viewing then, this was less disappointing than I initially thought. But I stick to my contention that it tried to bite off more than it could chew in cramming in so many disparate complex elements into one hour long fluffy Christmas special. Yes, it was enjoyable; it had great characters, witty dialogue, imaginative concepts, and such quickfire direction that it was difficult to spot the leaps in logic. But it also had the terrifically corny and sentimental line that the only thing that could stop the telepathic snow was “a whole family crying together on Christmas Eve. It was fun but complicated, childish yet sophisticated, tricksy yet somewhat less than the sum of its parts. A Steven Moffat story, in other words…