It's rather impressive how Doctor Who has wriggled its way into the festive schedule in recent years. British Christmas viewing now seems unthinkable without a seasonal adventure with the Doctor, yet this is a tradition of recent invention. In the show's previous incarnation, stories sprawled across four or six half-hour episodes, and hopped around the schedules, leaving no room for one-off specials.
In its new guise, the show has found a groove where Christmas episodes are concerned. The setting is often Victorian or Edwardian, riffing heavily on such classic snowbound tales as A Christmas Carol and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. They've also been used to punctuate the show's evolution, with the break between a normal run of episodes and the Christmas special proving a handy place to reboot, restart and reintroduce the constantly changing elements of the show. David Tennant made his debut as The Doctor in the first Christmas special in 2005 and now the seasonal gear shift is being used to slip new companion Clara into the TARDIS. Or is it?
That's a question that only gets posed in the final moments. Before that we have a fun but slight adventure, with an emphasis on comedy and monster-of-the-week plotting, all the better to get the show back up to speed after the melancholy departure of Amy and Rory back in September.
Since losing his friends, the Doctor has been hiding out in Victorian London, keeping humanity at arms length and refusing to engage in the sort of curiosity and heroics that have caused him so much pain over the years. Wisely, the story doesn't wallow in his reluctance to take up his calling. This isn't the brooding “my gift, my curse” angst of the modern superhero movie, and it doesn't take much coaxing to lure the Doctor down from his TARDIS – now floating unseen above London atop a giant staircase.
Snow is what triggers his change of heart, and also drives the plot. Psychic snow, no less, a roving crystalline life form that mimics what it picks up from those around it and strives to recreate itself into a form that can dominate whatever world it finds itself on. In this case, it draws from the mind of a young lonely boy who builds a snowman and is surprised when it speaks to him. It's especially surprising since it speaks with the voice of Ian McKellen, the first of the heavyweight guest stars for this episode. The second is Richard E. Grant, playing the same boy fifty years later, now grown into an appropriately cold-hearted Victorian entrepreneur, helping The Intelligence, as the crystal being is apparently known, to achieve its aims.
It's a plan that involves the death of a governess at the nearby home of one Captain Latimer and his two children. Their governess drowned and froze in an ornamental pond, and her icy DNA – and the fearful dreams of her traumatised young charges - is exactly what The Intelligence needs to form more complete and deadly frozen creatures than the crude fanged snowmen it currently uses.
It's a classic bit of Doctor Who technobabble, hurriedly dispensed over the course of the episode as a way to move the plot along and to justify the memorable – if cheesy – image of carnivorous snowmen. It's never entirely clear how the pieces fit together. The Snowmen need the frozen governess, but she comes back to life as a living statue of ice, apparently made from the same crystals yet not part of The Intelligence. If there's an explanation for this, it's lost in the headlong rush of gags, twists and jolts that writer Steven Moffat so loves.
It's the sort of plot that makes sense while you're watching, running alongside the Doctor as he breathlessly offers up the required exposition, but it doesn't stand up to much scrutiny afterwards. This has never been a show to get hung up on specifics, but there's a vague hand-waving element to the nature of the Intelligence that makes its threat melt faster than its frosty army when subjected to anything more than cursory consideration. There's just nothing about a shapeless invisible psychic foe – either physically or intellectually – for the story to cluster around. It also makes for a deus ex machina ending in which the day is saved by a handy contrivance rather than any ingenuity or bravery from our heroes, the Doctor rather clumsily explaining the details for the viewer literally as it happens.
Such convenience is a weakness that the modern incarnation of the show has often suffered from, but it's excusable here as the monster is typically little more than a way to give the characters something to react to as they travel along their own personal journeys. The Doctor himself is on fine form, apparently filling his half-hearted exile by poking at mysteries with the help of Strax, a dim-witted Sontaran sidekick, before abandoning his curiosities before they lure him back into being “the saver of worlds”. That's the name given to him by Madame Vastra, the reptilian Silurian who, along with her wife, Jenny Flint, has set up a detective sideline of her own, inspiring Arthur Conan Doyle along the way, even if he opted not to make his literary hero a stoic man rather than an alien lesbian.
These characters were last seen in the season six cliffhanger, "A Good Man Goes To War," and it's a real pleasure to see them return. They form the Doctor's support group, trying to tempt him back into action while helping to keep the universe from pestering him. In the end, it's Clara Oswin Oswald who earns her way past their defenses, a cockney barmaid leading a double life as the new governess for the troubled Latimer children. After a chance encounter with the Doctor and one of the Snowmen, she actively pursues him, her curiosity and thirst for adventure a perfect match for the passion for discovery The Doctor is trying so hard to suppress.
Of course, Clara has crossed The Doctor's path before, on an alien world, in the distant future, in the season seven opener "Asylum of the Daleks." She apparently died in that story, and doesn't fare much better this time around, but it's only in the final moments of this episode that the Doctor realizes that there's something unusual about this girl who keeps cropping up in different times and places.
That's the impetus needed to launch the show into the second half of this fragmented season, and as the credits role the story has done an effective job of acknowledging the loss of Amy and Rory while ramping things up for more adventures in a fun way. As Clara, Jenna Louise-Coleman once again impresses. She may yet prove to be a little too perky and precocious, but her banter with the Doctor has the rapid fire screwball comedy timing that has proven successful in the past and she's shown that she's more than capable of keeping up with his mental flourishes and mind games along the way.
Having said that, I suspect I'm not the only viewer who would have preferred to see the Doctor sticking with Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and dopey old Strax. They're all wonderful characters, more than deserving of their own adventures, and it's a shame to see the show sticking so doggedly and unapologetically to the idea of the Doctor ditching the fascinating weirdos and picking up yet another pretty Earth girl as his companion, no matter how feisty she is. Indeed, the speed with which the Doctor hands her a key to the TARDIS comes across as rather desperate and creepy. That may be intentional, but the breakneck pace of the tale means that any emotional nuance is trampled in the rush to the next scene.
This also leaves poor Richard E. Grant with not much more to do than glower and sneer, the potentially rich backstory of his character virtually untouched. Also given short shrift are Captain Latimer and his children, who get the broadest sketches of a character arc as Clara prompts him to be a true father to them rather than an awkward standoffish Victorian cliché, but – again – it comes to nothing. It's nice that such character flourishes are even there at all, but the best episodes of Doctor Who draw such moments together with the main plot, rather than letting them sputter out along the way.
So a fun episode then, but one that is more nimble at resetting the tone of the show for future adventures than in actually spinning a particularly coherent yarn. There are plenty of smaller pleasures along the way, not least the return of a more classically styled TARDIS control room and opening credits that also hark back to the 1970s, and it's undeniably invigorating to see Matt Smith back to his gallumphing, beaming manic best rather than mooning and moping over the past. Leave that to Tennant's weepy emo take on the Timelord. For all its clumsier elements, The Snowmen reminds us that Christmas is a time for excitement and wonder. That's why the Doctor has so easily become a festive fixture.