...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Day 4377: DOCTOR WHO: The Snowmen

Christmas Day:

Hark the jolly Christmas Choir,
Jingle Bells roasting on an open fire,
Christmas comes but once ’tis true,
Along with Daddy’s Doctor Who review…


Steven Moffat’s “dark fairy tale” Doctor Who is best at Christmas, so it’s glad tidings that, after last year’s misstep, he’s back on sparkling Winterval form.

Call me a fanboy sucker if you will, but give me one juicy returning enemy and I’ll forgive you a “nobody dies (really)” and a “victory by the power of schmaltz” any day.

But let’s be honest, I was in love with this from the new and vastly improved opening title sequence.

For the fiftieth anniversary, they’ve created an homage to all the earlier titles, reminiscent of the McCoy flight through whirling CGI galaxies, but with exploding shapes that resemble the old howl-round patterns of the Hartnell and Troughton eras, finishing up in a whizzy time tunnel like the Tom Baker diamond-era one but done in Pertwee era colours. Even some hints of the pastel vortices of the Cushing movie titles. Toss in a nod to the DVD releases. And, of course, the Doctor’s face back in the titles at long last. Hooray, as Russell T Davies would put it, hooray.

(And as an added bonus… you would hope that they might have secured the sensational Mr Smith’s services for, say, another couple of years before forking out to fit his phizog to the starfield.)

Still not got the theme tune quite right, though.

The acting is pitch-perfect throughout and the look is beautiful too; steampunk era Victoriana can always be made to look good, but the Doctor’s magical cloud contrasting with his machine is very clever. The TARDIS hasn’t looked this mechanical since the return in 2005. Arguably since before McGann’s wood and brass affair, too. The new look, very reminiscent of the design that was being considered for Sylv’s fourth series (had it happened), is cold and steely to fit the Time Lord’s mood. I like the theory that I read that the TARDIS has been regenerating herself since the Time War – first we saw the bones, then the structure of the console room, and now the mechanism itself is growing back.

And on its own terms the story works.

To give Moffat his due, while he clearly has a fundamental failure to understand what Doctor Who is actually about – and we’ll come to that – he does appear willing to try and address his deficiencies as a writer.

Last year, I said he was on a mission to write drama without conflict. No danger of that here, with meaty confrontations to draw the Doctor back into defending the Universe.

The titular Snowmen themselves may have been more Muppet than menace, with a tendency to loom rather than threaten, and, perhaps wisely they opted not to show their instantaneous forming, perhaps lest it resemble something from the Chorlton and the Wheelies Christmas Special (on ice!). But an icy performance from Richard E Grant as baleful Dr Simeon, the child with the frozen heart, paired with the mellifluous tones of Sir Ian McKellen as the world’s most sinister snow globe meant there was no lack of threat.

And if “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe” was Moffat trying to respect his female characters “as a woman”, this year appears to be an exercise in proving he is willing to kill people.

Of course, I mean the yard-full of workers devoured by the Snowmen at the start, under the disdainful eye of Dr Simeon (when weall knew where the “I promised to feed them” line was going.)

Because if they’re “important” people, Moffat brings them back to life again, which may be sign of missing the point somewhat.

When even a Sontaran clone – surely the least irreplaceable lifeform in the galaxy – gets a touch of the resurrection, then you’re left with a distinct feeling of “what’s the point?”.

(Not that Dan Starkey’s Strax isn’t a terrific addition to the ensemble; at the very least he makes a terrific straight-man. Bit troubled by the Doctor repeatedly mocking his height, intelligence and body-shape, though, as I don’t think the Time Lord should be encouraging bullying.)

There’s something a bit, well, class-ist here, when the obvious workers are disposable drones while the Sontaran (and “Commander” Strax is officer class after all) gets resurrected. And there’s also the question of whether Clara is posh-Clara pretending to be working class or Cockney-Clara pretending to be gentlefolk class. In fact this is the same with Strax: mockable as a manservant, he’s actually a displaced Commander, so “important” and gets to live.

Is this going somewhere though? The Doctor says that Strax gave his life for a friend… and then another friend brought him back. Who? And why? Will we find out?

There’s a sense that this is a point that ought to be followed up, but Moffat’s got form on this sort of dangling thread. Does anyone really understand why or how the Silence – and we must assume it was they – blew up the TARDIS in “The Pandorica Opens” or what made them feel that blowing up the Universe would further their alleged aim of, er, saving the universe? One suspects that this unsatisfying plot got lost with the Ponds’ leaving (it would be a little odd to refer back to it for an explanation now); on the other hand, the plot was unsatisfying precisely because it kept deferring its explanations. But then – to drag this back to relevance – here we see Moffat providing an “explanation” forty-five years after the original story. We can but hope he’s not leaving the “Silence arc” to be explained in the hundredth anniversary series.

But instead he’s found a shiny new plot arc to go chasing after, the mystery of new companion – or potential companion – Clara, who has already died twice. Appearing in multiple time zones, yet able to quote the words of her other selves… clearly she’s part- Jagaroth on her mother’s side.

More seriously, Alex was immediately struck by the patterns of speech and behaviour shared by Clara and the Doctor. It might just be Moffat’s inability to write in more than one “voice” (note: all other Moffat women are basically Sue Virtue with escalating levels of weaponry) but the ingenious theory is that these “Clara”s are constructs made out of the Doctor. Running with this idea, I suggest that all the ladies around the Doctor – Madam Vastra and Jennie Flint… and the TARDIS – all disapprove of his self-imposed hermitage, and want to encourage him back into the world. And the TARDIS is the one able to make a “perfect companion” out of his memories and his (tawdry) quirks. The Doctor himself says he doesn’t know why but he knows who.

The opening scene could in fact be very clever. It features a snowman, naturally, that appears out of nowhere. Just at the right moment, the Doctor happens to be walking past – as though he is the one who has appeared from nowhere. But there’s a third person in the scene, Clara, who’s just emerged from the Rose and Crown (the “Rose and Pond” would have been more on the money). Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that she’s there at just the perfect moment to bump into the lonely Doctor. And perhaps she’s the one to have appeared from nowhere.

“Oswin” means “god’s friend” and “Osgood” means “god’s gift” which are clearly pointing in the right direction (although “Clara” means “clear”, “bright” or “famous” or possibly “I can’t go having the Doctor shout “come on Oswin”). If you want more evidence, then a look at her gravestone tells us she was born on 23rd November and died aged 26. And is still alive. A metatextual in-joke, or a heavy hint that she’s made of the story of Doctor Who? Even her introduction “Clara Who? Doctor Who?” points this way.

The notion of a “perfect companion” made from the Doctor’s own biodata (“time DNA”) was first seen in the Faction Paradox stories of the early Eighth Doctor Adventures (notably “Alien Bodies” and “Unnatural Selection”). But who said Moffat had to be original? And why change the habit of a lifetime? Fortunately Jenna-Louise Coleman has more personality in one cheeky grin than Sam ever had in her entire time in the novels.

Moffat has – flattering himself – suggested that the Doctor “in retirement” is a plot that has been waiting to be done since Douglas Adams was told to write “Shada” instead. But Moffat’s self-absorbed, sulking Doctor – “the Universe doesn’t care” – couldn’t be further away from Adams’ conception of a Time Lord that the Universe just won’t let go. (Which is even more odd when remembering that Moffat himself was so much more on the money in his spoof Doctor Who “Curse of the Fatal Death”.)

The Doctor has suffered losses before. He lost his entire species. He lost his love when Rose fell into a parallel world. He lost his faith in himself when he destroyed Martha’s life. He lost his best friend when he wiped Donna’s memories. He lost his entire species again. But it’s the loss of his mother-in-law that drives him into seclusion?

Partly, this is Moffat flattering himself again – it’s his companions who are the “most important evah” ones. But partly it’s another example of the way that for all his cleverness in story and story arc writing, Moffat is very short-termist in his thinking, grasping an idea and using it as soon as he has it, rather than moulding the series to prepare for it. Recall the way that the Ponds were suddenly getting divorced and then it was totally forgotten all within one episode. Of course you remember that episode; it’s the one he kept asking you to remember during this one.

The least we needed was a scene – perhaps one with Madam Vastra – to say, “You’ve suffered losses before.” For him to reply: “Yes, and this is one too many. This camel’s back is broken”. What we really wanted was a crisis that was bigger, where victory cost him more than “The End of Time”. But Moffat’s not good at that, as “A Good Man Goes to War” showed. “You have never risen higher.” Er, he has, you know.

(Ironically, losing River would be crisis enough to justify this fugue, which from his point of view would have meant arriving at the start of her story… which happened in “A Good Man Goes to War”; had that and “The Wedding of River Song” been swapped round, and then followed by this, it might have worked. But to do that you’d need to be following the emotional logic of the tragedy, not trying to pull off flashy card tricks with the plot.)

This same sense that Moffat doesn’t understand the importance of scale, or emotional weight, if I can use such a term, shows itself in his treatment of the Great Intelligence.

The whole premise of this story is – spoilers – as a prequel to two classics of the Troughton era: “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web of Fear” where the second Doctor encounters a disembodied power that calls itself “the Great Intelligence”, a force from the astral plane that seeks physical domination of the Earth, the plots of which Moffat refers to disparagingly at the end (okay, it is using robot Yeti, but it was a less complicated age).

What those stories have, which means they do not deserve the Mister Moffster’s mockery, is heart. “The Abominable Snowmen” is one of several Buddhist parables in Doctor Who, where the Intelligence represents everything that Buddhism is about getting rid of: it is the ultimate sense of self, all ego and ambition. The “Web” in “The Web of Fear” is as much the tangle of greed, hubris, jealousy and paranoia that keep us bound to the wheel of life (or the Circle Line of destiny) as it is the sticky mess on the Underground.

On the one hand, Moffat has the Intelligence as an idea that – like the Angels – has escaped from the person that is thinking it, which is great. A child’s imaginary friend that has made itself real… no wait that was the Doctor. (Nice moment when the Doctor modulates the Intelligence’s voice back to child Walter’s – borrowed from “The Face of Evil” of course, but nice nonetheless.) But on the other hand, he expresses this as basically, a computer virus (operating on an operating system of programmable snow) with ideas above its station. As an idea it is expressly described as “a child’s fear crossed with Victorian Values”, something essentially “Earthly” in origin.

The Great Intelligence of Season Five is “Lovecraftian” not in the mundane sense that it is literally Yog-Sothoth trading under a pseudonym, as the New Adventures (specifically “The Adventure of the All-Consuming Fire”) might have it, but because it is something totally alien even to our sense of reality, an intrusion into our existence that causes the Universe to fray at the edges (or bubble up with the BBC foam machine, subject to budget).

And, because he thinks he’s so clever, Moffat never checks his facts. Although “The Abominable Snowmen” takes place in 1935, Padmasambhava has been kept live by the Intelligence for hundreds of years before hand (so not just since 1892). And “The Web of Fear” was broadcast in 1968, not ’67, and is set in the future. (Probably at least 1975, given a line of dialogue that says it is more than 40 years after the events of “The Abominable Snowmen”. Only Larry and Tat date “Web” to before it was broadcast, so good luck with that date.) In fairness, the date of a tube map is not what determines when the Intelligence chooses to attack London via the Tube (it takes its chance as soon as Professor Travers reactivates one of the Yeti control spheres – though there’s the possibility he’s acting under astral influence, who knows).

Moffat’s undeniable cleverness with plot – compared with the feel of the series under Terrance Dicks or Robert Holmes or Andrew Cartmel – reminds me of the difference between Classical and Romantic music. For all the genius shown in the twiddles of a Back or Mozart, it doesn’t move you in the way Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or even (heaven – Valhalla? – help us) Wagner can.

So this is all constructed with utter ingenuity. The Doctor is living on a cloud – water vapour – while the Intelligence is inhabiting snow – water solid, establishing them as elemental opposites. Clara’s tears are, of course, water. The sit-com business with Strax, and the memory worm, while hilariously establishing that the Doctor is really bad at the Torchwood sort of stuff is, obviously, a Chekov’s gun for the Doctor’s ultimate attack on Dr Simeon. A lot of the dialogue is enormously clever wordplay (“The snow will fall and so will mankind”), particularly the “single word responses” to Madam Vastra’s questioning (“Do you understand what I am saying to you?” “Words.”) although perhaps too much use of “Pond” as the magic word.

(And, incidentally, it is not “a first” when Clara describes the TARDIS as “smaller on the outside” as Donna did so in “The Runaway Bride” having, uniquely, seen the interior first.)

All of which makes it more ironic that "emotion" is increasingly used as the universal plot device. Yes, you can look at the conclusion as an Avengers-esque "killed by his own weapon" as the Intelligence's attack on Darkover House is what leads directly to all the mirroring snow being there and nowhere else, and hence getting reprogrammed by grief, as though only one family could be grieving on Christmas Eve. Heavens, to really give the Snowmen what for he should have had them hang around another hour for EastEnders.

But then using emotion as a plot device is still a device, another shiny cog in Moffat's machine. Instead of people reacting to events, it's just another of the events.

In many ways, the right time emotionally for this story was straight after “The End of Time”, but instead we had “The Eleventh Hour”, where the Doctor essentially forgot all the trauma and went back to saving the world as normal.

People have suggested that this has the feel of a “mini reboot” to it. In a way that may be true: a reboot not of the series, but of the Moffat era.

It’s possible that his first series, the “carry on as normal” series, came about through a lack of courage on the new team’s part, falling back into following the RTD model that worked but was… safe. Moffat’s second series struck out in much more… bold directions. But the story arc spiralled out of control and betrayed the characters along the way. What was most noticeable about the five stories we had in September was their disconnectedness from anything Silence-related. Even River Song, when she appeared, was treated as a recurring character, not part of a developing story. Like the television adaptation of John Christopher’s “The Tripods” this feels very much like a trilogy without its closing chapter.

So instead we’re trying again.

Matt is a great Doctor, and has sparkling chemistry with Jenna-Louise. They deserve to have a really good series written for them, something with joy, humour, drama and a touch of fatal death. Well, three out of four ain’t bad. A decent (re) start.

Next Time… You’re once, twice, three times exactly the same lady, apparently. Where will the Doctor find Clara next? Where will he run? And what will he remember? Fifty years on and Doctor Who returns once more in April with “The Bells of St John”. Now is that St John as in "Ambulance" (like the badge on his TARDIS) or as in "the Beheaded" (like the Library in "All-Consuming Fire")?
As we were writing this, we heard the sad news that Gerry Anderson, creator of almost all Britain’s not-Who television sci-fi, has died. Always a generous rival, he can be seen speaking about Doctor Who on the “More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS” documentary released next month as part of the “Legacy” collection.

Responsible for such classic series as “Captain Scarlet”, “Stingray”, the highly underrated “UFO” (not least for Wanda “now remembered as mum of Sherlock/Smaug” Ventham), ill-omened but fondly-remembered “Space 1999” and of course “Thunderbirds”, he also created the CGI return of Captain Scarlet that gave us Phil Ford, who has gone on to be a stalwart of “Sarah-Jane” and now “Wizards v Aliens”.

More recently and bravely Gerry was an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s society, speaking about his condition as recently as June this year. Arguably a mercy if the disease was starting to bite, nevertheless his passing is a tragic loss.


lizw said...

And, incidentally, it is not “a first” when Clara describes the TARDIS as “smaller on the outside” as Donna did so in “The Runaway Bride”

That might be deliberate, though. "Remembering" is clearly an important theme in this story arc, and there are other hints that there's something up with the Doctor's memory - note that the Great Intelligence only "rings a bell" (although one of the people I pointed this out to last night suggested it could be a deliberate reference to the missing episodes).

Alex Wilcock said...

For me, too, it was much more entertaining than the last two Christmas specials (though I’m lonely in much preferring last year’s silliness to the woman in the fridge). And great observations about the different states of water and wordplay – as well as, less positively, the ‘my trauma is the worst’ attempt on the Doctor. It made Matt rather less enjoyable than usual, though at least gave him something different to do. I wonder if he had any input on the ideas? For all that it’s spun as Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen or whatever other attempt at sprinkling Douglas Adams dust, it’s much more influenced by Troughton, as you imply. As he’s Matt’s favourite, perhaps he said ‘Could I have something a bit Mighty Trout…?’ Even if the end result was that, rather than Matt bringing to mind Pat or Sylv of all his predecessors, he became the ‘moody git after loss’ of Eccleston or, er, Richard E Grant.

Though when you add burly oddjob with a past Strax as a dead ringer for Brian Glover’s Magersfontein Lugg to old Doctor in young body as old-fashioned detective, maybe they were trying to do Campion?

Alex Wilcock said...

Ooh, forgot!

Was the Punch and Judy Doctor a reference to Troughton in The Box of Delights, if they were going all-out for Trout?

Millennium Dome said...

Oh, clever point about "remembering"!

Makes me wonder about the Doctor's lapse of memory regarding the Great Intelligence too. In fairness it's been at least 600 years, but... he's erased all memory of himself from every database in the Universe... does that include his own?

Millennium Dome said...

Thank you Daddy A,

Love the idea that the travelling Punch and Judy man was reference to Mr Dr Pat and the glorious Box of Delights!