Written by Steven Moffat (Previous Episodes: “The Empty Child,” “The Doctor Dances,” “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink,” “Silence in the Library,” “Forest of the Dead,” “The Eleventh Hour,” “The Beast Below,” “The Time of Angels,” “Flesh and Stone,” “The Pandorica Opens,” “The Big Bang,” “A Christmas Carol,” “The Impossible Astronaut,” “Day of the Moon,” “A Good Man Goes to War,” “Let’s Kill Hitler,” “The Wedding of River Song,” “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe,” “Asylum of the Daleks,” and “The Angels Take Manhattan”)
Directed by Saul Metzstein (Previous Episodes: “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” and “A Town Called Mercy”)
First, a note: It’s incredibly annoying to use the Christmas not-so-specials as important parts of an overall story and then not include them in the season DVDs. Either treat them as completely separate or include them in the DVDs, but stop simultaneously doing both, BBC.
Doctor Who has usually been at its worst for the Christmas episodes, where all of its intelligence, atheist underpinnings, basic horror roots, and much of its fun are stripped away for the sake of being “family friendly.” Christmas episodes in the past have taught such groan-inducing lessons as the idea that a mother protecting her children is in fact the most powerful force in the universe and that Christmas ornaments are the ultimate weapon against giant spiders.
However, this time, we are treated to a more typical Doctor Who horror story and another “depressed Doctor returns to his old self” plot.
The Doctor appears to have become a recluse, hiding on a cloud above the earth, nearly as depressed about the Ponds’ departure as I am. He refuses to help anyone, considering the problems of humanity “not his problem,” and brooding over his own loss. Then, he runs into a girl he’s met but never seen before in “Asylum of the Daleks,” and she convinces him to help after she notices snow forming into snowmen on its own and he is able to recognize that the snow in fact has a built-in telepathic field, an idea that has become rather overused in the show’s universe as its version of “science-based magic. Rather against his own will but thanks to the efforts of the former Oswin (now named Clara) and some friends of his, he returns to action, even instinctively putting on his trademark bowtie as he heads to investigate.
The unfolding of the mystery of the “carnivorous snow” dovetails nicely with the Doctor’s return to his old self, as we are reintroduced to the new companion, Clara. It’s a fun story that includes the bit of emotional and character depth that is often missing from the Christmas episodes. Clara unfortunately comes across as a less sarcastic version of Amy Pond rather than her own character, but she definitely has time to grow into more than that. Jenna-Louise Coleman, though, proves capable of performance from day one, something that could not really be said for model-turned-actor Karen Gillan. Moffat’s decision to introduce her through this series of events suggests that he does have a larger arc for character, but last season makes it difficult to hold out too much hope that the larger arc will work out.
In perhaps the most pleasant development of this episode, Moffat’s capacity for humor seems to have returned, not repeating jokes the way he has been for the last year and producing some truly funny lines like the Doctor calling the Sontaran Strax a “psychotic potato dwarf” and Clara describing the TARDIS as “smaller on the outside” instead of “bigger on the inside.”
He also ends up bringing back an early Doctor Who villain from way back in 1968 in The Great Intelligence, a being of pure, as its name would suggest, intelligence that is currently inhabiting snow but is looking to evolve into something more complex and powerful in order to take over the earth. There are many similar Doctor Who villains, but it was good to see Moffat dip into the show’s oldest pages instead of coming up with something new that did not work.
There are still some groan-inducing moments of Christmas-themed family-oriented magic. “A whole family crying on Christmas Eve” saves the world by melting the snow that the Great Intelligence has embodied.
Saul Metzstein produces an episode that makes stronger use of a mixture of cool and warm colors than many of this show’s episodes and seems to be incorporating the love of presenting text information in establishing shots from Moffat’s series Sherlock but otherwise looks essentially par for the course.
All told, this was a pretty good episode and a vast improvement on the usual Christmas fare for this show. Clara is a promising, if none too original, new companion, and Moffat seems more engaged than he has seemed in some time, which provides hope for this half-season.