“The Snowmen” is a key Doctor Who episode for a number of reasons. Yes, it’s the Christmas special, and the Christmas special has come to be that one very appreciated bright spot in the long drought between fall and spring episodes of the show. But this is also Steven Moffat’s first Christmas special in which the entire paradigm of his incarnation of the Whoniverse shifts. The Ponds are gone. The new Companion is here at last. So, as we enter a new era of the series, does “The Snowmen” provide a welcome introduction?
It’s London, 1842, and The Doctor is doing what he does when he’s just lost friends: brooding. Amy and Rory are gone, and he’s spending his days wandering the streets, leaving the TARDIS parked on a cloud and doing his best to avoid interacting with everyone save for a few close friends who seem to be sticking around just to make sure he doesn’t go completely off the deep end. Things begin to change when he meets a plucky girl named Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) who absolutely refuses to ignore an impending adventure. It seems that snowflakes are coming alive and manifesting as sinister snowmen whenever people think of them. It seems that snow wants to take over the world, and it seems the only way to stop it is for The Doctor to return from his self-imposed exile and embrace new companionship.
Clara’s introduction into The Doctor’s recently fragmented world is a tricky one, because while Moffat is following a familiar formula, he’s also, in true Moffat fashion, twisting things into new shapes. Just like other Companions before her, Clara enters The Doctor’s life as someone hungry for adventure, but this time she’s the one who pulls The Doctor into a quest, not the other way around. She’s the confident one, the one who barrels headlong into trouble, and something about that proves seductive for our Time Lord hero. Against his better judgement, he’s wrapping himself up in an adventurous new friendship, and it’s because his Companion is the one who won’t let him leave. That’s a new condition for this particular Doctor, and we’ve yet to see how that will affect the new Doctor/Companion dynamic in episodes to come.
Then there’s the actress herself. Though she doesn’t have the kind of instant magnetism of Karen Gillan before her, Coleman (who also appeared in an episode earlier this season which may or may not be related to her presence here) is consistently and effortlessly charming. She draws us in scene by scene, and by the end she had me won over. Smith is his usual blend of wise and zany, and together they make a thoroughly entertaining team. There’s chemistry here, but whether it will be as good as what Smith and Gillan had remains to be seen.
But while Coleman is winning, I found the episode lacking in the wondrous storytelling I’m so used to when it comes to Moffat’s writing. Yes, the idea of living snow with a killer plan to take over the world is intriguing, particularly in a Christmasy light, but the episode seems filled with dead air, moments that are waiting for other, better moments to happen. The Victorian winter landscape seems like a recycled, tired setpiece, and the use of the phrase “Winter Is Coming” seems lazy coming from Moffat. By the end, he made me care enough to keep watching (he always does), but this concept could have been taken in so many more interesting directions.
That said, we come away from “The Snowmen” with plenty of new questions worth exploring further in new episodes. How will The Doctor handle a companion who’s willing to take the lead? Will Amy and Rory’s final fate still haunt him? Who is Clara, really? Will The Doctor ever be his old self again? The Christmas special is the perfect platform to raise these questions. Now the new episodes have to deliver.