Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Late Lamented Great Intelligence

I thought last night I might give another chance to one of the Doctor Who Christmas specials I didn't like so much the first time I watched it but I just couldn't help myself. I had to watch 2012's "The Snowmen" again. I love this one more every time I watch it. The only real flaws I see in it are that it has too many good things, making it feel a bit cluttered; it's too short; and it has modern Who's chronic problem with dopey looped dialogue--the worst offender in this case being an awkwardly inserted line about a whole family crying on Christmas Eve, though a close runner up is a needlessly expository line from Vastra to establish that the Doctor is bringing Clara into the house with the TARDIS. But otherwise I just marvel that an episode with so many independently good elements works together so well in a single unified atmosphere. There are so many, I thought I'd rank the top ten.

10. Strax

My general feeling about Strax (Dan Starkey) is that his broad comedy takes too much away from Jenny and Vastra, not giving them time to develop their chemistry, but that doesn't stop his broad comedy from making me laugh from time to time, nowhere more so than in "The Snowmen". His double act routine with the Doctor over the Memory Worm while the bemused Clara looks on is great, especially layered with his typical alien warrior misinterpretations.

9. The Evil Ice Governess

What a perfect nightmare for a couple Victorian children, and a bit of a mischievous Mary Poppins subversion as the brilliant, comforting new governess, trying to pluck up the kids' spirits with her storytelling, is unsettled by the sudden appearance of the ice demon in place of the Doctor. Her eerie parroting of the Doctor's Punch impression, "That's the way to do it!" is a nice creepy cherry on top of the nightmare sundae.

8. The Great Intelligence

A menace from the Second Doctor era returns, now played (most of the time) by Ian McKellen. Even knowing he's the Great Intelligence doesn't detract from the unsettling moment when the Doctor realises the entity isn't simply a reflection of Simeon's psyche.

7. The Memory Worm

A delightful bit of comedy with Strax earlier serves both as introduction for and misdirection from the device the Doctor ultimately uses to foil Simeon. That's one of the advantages of having so many things in one episode; it's easier for the audience to forget about wondering what's up the Doctor's sleeve.

6. Dr. Simeon

Richard E. Grant plays the twisted scientist who was seduced as a child by a weird, flattering, reflecting phantasm, and he's clearly remained psychologically a child. In his later appearances, when he's simply the Great Intelligence inhabiting the body, it's a different performance. Grant creates a Dr. Simeon who's always speaking through clenched teeth, barely restraining a constant hatred for humanity, his isolation a dark reflection of the Doctor's withdrawn state at the beginning of the episode.

5. Jenny Flint and Madame Vastra

The spin-off everyone wanted but the BBC didn't consider proper (so we got the boring Class instead), the somehow both anachronistic and pitch-perfectly Victorian detective duo of the human Jenny (Catrin Stewart) and the Silurian Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) were finally introduced in their element with this special after their promising appearance in the previous season. Now they have a whole setting and profession to go along with their glamour. It's a shame they were never given the chance to really breathe on their own but we can take some consolation in the fact that they will be appearing, along with Strax, in a series of their own audio plays starting next year.

4. Clara, the Class Deviant

After the brief, tragic appearance of another of her incarnations at the beginning of the season, we're finally introduced to the Doctor's new companion, Clara (Jenna Louis Coleman), properly. Or are we? Clara's story is bound up with the Doctor's long life, a bit like River Song, but the concept is appropriate since this whole 2012/2013 season is a prelude to the 50th anniversary special. It makes sense that the Doctor's new companion would in some way be involved with his whole history. Still, it's less satisfying when we finally learn the truth than it is when it's still a mystery. She's more intriguing and complex than River because at first she seems only to be aware of her strange nature on a subconscious level and yet it manifests in her life. This Victorian Clara leads a double life as a barmaid and a governess, switching attire and accent when she goes from one life to another, like a microcosm of this character who somehow exists on multiple points in the timeline. Jenna Coleman, one of the most intensely pretty of the Doctor's companions, also establishes herself as a sharp performer, conveying the intelligence that makes her eager pursuit of weirdness and challenge so believable.

3. The Sullen Doctor

It's a joy watching Matt Smith bring his Eleventh Doctor slowly out of his funk he's been in since the loss of his previous companions. We first see him grumpily walking right past Clara and the sinister snowman but one question after another slowly pulls him along until the delightful moment when he realises he'd put on a bowtie without even thinking about it. His emotional state is wonderfully reflected in the TARDIS being kept up in a cloud where he goes to be alone and brood all the time; it provides a great "in" for Clara too as she discovers these elements and gets her first impression of the Doctor through them. This episode works as a nice introduction for people who've never seen the show.

2. The Vertigo Romance Stuff

I don't know if Steven Moffat was consciously influenced by Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo--it was voted the best movie of all time the same year "The Snowmen" came out--but a lot of the elements are there; the male protagonist, suffering from a loss of self-esteem following his failure to save someone else, falls in love with a woman at the centre of a sinister mystery only to watch as she falls to her death--but then there's more to it than meets the eye. The Doctor is never subject to the same level of deception and manipulation as James Stewart's character in Vertigo, but there is something of the same dynamic at play, particularly with the emphasis on Clara's shifting identity and how her identity relates to the Doctor. Considering this, her ultimate fate in the Twelfth Doctor era takes on a new resonance. But aside from all that, it's refreshing to see a companion just through caution to the wind and kiss the Doctor as Clara does in "The Snowmen".

1. Everyone can Act

This is a bit of a retroactive virtue. At the time, we had no reason to expect the Bradley Walshes and the Mandip Gills who populate the show now. But even if not everyone's Laurence Olivier, there's at least a basic level of competence in every member of the cast. It may be this more than everything that makes all the many elements of "The Snowmen" work in concert so well.

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