Along with bringing the world ghosts, time travel, suggestions of alternate universes, and classic lines, A Christmas Carol also permanently created another holiday tradition: the lone grumpy figure who refuses to be happy on Christmas. In 2010 Steven Moffat brazenly and successfully reinvented A Christmas Carol with that year’s Doctor Who Christmas special, titled “A Christmas Carol.” This year, instead of making a new character into the Scrooge of this story, the bah-humbugs are coming from the Doctor himself. But it’s not spirits from the past, present, or future that will save the soul of the character and the show. Instead, it’s Jenna-Louise Coleman!
Big spoilers for “The Snowmen”
Excluding perhaps “The End of Time,” this one is probably the darkest of the Doctor Who Christmas specials to date. And it’s not just the themes! The lighting is darker, the new TARDIS interior is in the shadows and Matt Smith’s Doctor is dressed in a dark Victorian suit complete with a dark bow tie. And yet, despite the superficial gloominess, this Who Christmas easily outshines last year’s quasi-Narnia pastiche. And it’s largely thanks to the great emotional introduction/reintroduction of Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara Oswin Oswald! Before I jump into the spoilery bits, the chemistry between Jenna-Louise Coleman and Matt Smith is —to borrow from the 9th Doctor—FANTASTIC!
The phenomenon of a new companion on Doctor Who sometimes feels like a sort of strange dance with the culture. On the one hand, we’ve known about Jenna-Louise Coleman for a good while now, and on the other hand, we know nothing about the character. And when you think about it, that’s never happened before: tons of awareness of a character without any real knowledge. Most companions, up until this point, have had a fairly understandable biography. Sure, it wasn’t totally clear why the Doctor met Donna Noble twice, and Amy Pond certainly had a few mysteries locked away in her past, but we could easily define them in the first couple episodes. But by the end of “The Snowmen” we know even less about Clara then we did at the beginning.
On paper, this kind of overly-complicated-maybe-time-loop (trademark Steven Moffat) might sound a little annoying but, luckily, this time it’s charming as hell. Even as Clara is introduced in this particular story, we’re already wondering about her role in the world. Is she a barmaid or a governess? Is there a connection between Oswin from “Asylum of the Daleks” or not? Does the Doctor recognize her voice? (Yes. Eventually.) Does she have a serious crush on him? (BIG YES. Not so eventually.)
In a particularly cool scene, the reptilian Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) tests Clara’s brilliance/loyalty by asking her a series of questions to which Clara can only respond with one-word answers. Of all the words that Clara utters, the only one I found missing was “love.” It seems like Moffat and the Doctor Who crew are definitely going for an honest-to-goodness romance with the Doctor again. But this time, the chemistry feels right, and the science fiction mystery at the core of Clara’s identity is exciting. I think on another day I might have written off the twist of Clara dying (again!) as a move that feels like a bit of a River Song re-hash, but I was so charmed by “The Snowmen” that I can’t wait to see what happens next.
So, what did happen this time around? The monsters in “The Snowmen” are, not surprisingly, a kind of sentient and evil snow, hell-bent on taking over the world. There’s not anything particularly new about these monsters, especially when you consider they’re described as being “mirrors” of people’s dark thoughts. These monsters are telepathically generated, meaning they don’t truly exist without us thinking they do. And in terms of meditating about the nature of Doctor Who’s sometimes interchangeable antagonists, there doesn’t really seem to be a much more honest Who villain ever conceived. These guys are like the opposite of fairies in Peter Pan; clap if you want the evil snowmen to eat you! The entire plot involving a Dr. Simeon (Richard E. Grant) scheming with a giant talking snow globe is not super interesting, but it works well enough to get the pouting and depressed Doctor back into the fray. (And as talking evil snow globes go, it’s always best to have them voiced by Ian McKellen.)
There are several moments throughout “The Snowmen” where Moffat wants us to understand the Doctor is really down-in-the-dumps from the “losses” he’s suffered. While this is an indirect reference to the departure of Amy and Rory in “The Angels Take Manhattan,” I also feels like it gestures at a greater world-weariness the Doctor feels. This works nicely because a new viewer wouldn’t have to really understand anything about the show to dig what was happening here.
And while I’d admit the episode had a bit of a slow start, things really started to feel giddy when Matt Smith showed up at Dr. Simeon’s lair as “Sherlock Holmes.” Without ruining the scene too much, the Doctor basically mocks the idea of Sherlock Holmes in a way that is deliciously full of faux-ironic disrespect for the great detective. (Now, maybe Moffat will give us a Doctor Who parody in season three of Sherlock?) It’s scenes like this that remind us that rooting Doctor Who in traditions from classic adventure fiction is part of what makes the character and the stories so great.
There are plenty of great goofy sci-fi moments in “The Snowmen,” but what I found so refreshing about this episode was that it didn’t try too hard. Instead, the story unfolded at its own pace, so when the Doctor defeated Dr. Simeon and the intelligent snow, plus got his mojo back, it felt earned. The inclusion of Madame Vastra, her wife Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and the Sontaran Strax (Dan Starkey) were, similarly, nice touches to remind you of what kind of universe you’re living in. But the best thing about the episode was Jenna-Louise Coleman’s Clara, the revelation that her middle name is Oswin, and that she is somehow going to keep dying and coming back to life!
When she plunged to her doom, and then died while crying, I found myself genuinely moved. I truly did not expect Steven Moffat to kill off the Doctor’s new companion in her first official outing, particularly since this is the second time we’ve seen her! Is Clara Oswin Oswald a ghost? An alien? I have no idea and am really excited to see what happens next.
(Also this new title sequence is wonderful! Yay for having the Doctor’s face at the begining again!)
This Christmas, Doctor Who took its time, made a few well-placed jokes, and let the Doctor fall in love with the idea of being in love again. Best of all, it wasn’t a totally self-contained throwaway story and felt like the start of something truly new. This Doctor Who Christmas special might not be what we expected or asked for, but it feels like a new and very thoughtful gift.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.