Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Snowmen

[2012 Christmas Special]

Two years ago, I began this blog with my review of the 2010 Christmas Special, which I found to be a brilliant story that lost much of its potential dramatic impact by rushing through its story too fast for the drama to really stick. Now, after five stories in a row this season and about half of last season drawing various degrees of the same reaction, it's feeling like every review of the Moffat era is becoming the same: it's too rushed to fit an emotional arc, a plot complex enough to be worth the Doctor's time and that builds to a satisfactory conclusion, strong material for the companions, and fully developed ideas. Great stories fall short their potential. Even the grand masterpiece of the era, The Doctor's Wife, would have benefited from double the length.

And here we are, two years later, at another Christmas special with the same report. For the first two-thirds, The Snowmen focuses on character and emotion, and it works beautifully. In particular, it introduces us to Clara Oswald. And she's awesome.

 Jenna-Louise Coleman is simply enchanting.. She plays the most ridiculously whimsical character ever without ever crossing over into too cute or obnoxious. Coleman doesn't just weave gold out of Moffat's clever dialogue; she makes even the not-so-clever and overboard lines shine. She even gets away with the really dumb parts like the whole "pond" bit. And she and Matt Smith have tremendous chemistry. It's a delight every moment those two are onscreen together. And their story builds to that magnificent scene where Clara climbs the Doctor's ladder into the clouds. As long as the story's about these two, it's lovely.

"What's wrong with silly?"
"Nothing.  I'm still talking to you, ain't I?"

Not that there isn't fun elsewhere. Madame Vastra returns, and while her role is primarily to get on the Doctor's case about not being Doctorish because he's too busy brooding, it's nice to see her back. There's also Strax, the good Sontaran. While I'm not overly fond of the way the Doctor talks down to him - though, again, he's supposed to be off his game here - but he's a hilarious addition to the story.

And the story, while relegated to the background, is fun, what with the villainous Richard E Grant, scowling like Judge Dredd, and his army of Deranged Mutant Killer Snow Goons.

It does feel like a bit of a waste to give Grant such a grim-faced villain. He's creepy and compelling, of course, but his best works leans toward the delightfully campy side of things rather than this dead serious, er, Snow Goon General. But there's nothing wrong with his acting.

Thus, for forty minutes, it's a wonderful yarn. And then there's the last twenty minutes, where it all falls to pieces. The third act is as poor as the first two are wonderful.

Moffat builds yet another of his original tragedies, but this time hinges it on a sequence of ridiculous contrivance. The Doctor completely forgets about the monster right outside his door, allowing Clara to be taken. Then, the monster takes Clara to the edge and they fall down to their doom. And the Doctor, despite standing inside the TARDIS, just stands and watches helplessly as it happens. Just a season ago, he caught River falling out of a skyscraper. Here, he fails to catch Clara falling from the clouds. He doesn't even try.

Look, I don't mind too much if the show doesn't remember some minor trick the Doctor pulled thirty years ago, but when Moffat can't remember that the Doctor had no problem solving this very problem in the very previous season, in an episode that he wrote, it's infuriating. Though, admittedly, less infuriating than the fact that the problem would never have arisen if they had simply closed the door behind them.

This level of contrivance and stupidity from the Doctor would be frustrating in any circumstance, but when the entire emotional and story impact hinges on it, it torpedoes the entire concept. There's nothing genuine or moving about Clara's death because there's nothing remotely credible about it in context. Moffat's tragedies are getting increasingly iffy. Angels In Manhattan had to spend half of its time explaining its tragic finale, and only ended up emphasizing how stupid the whole idea was. But at least in Angels, the story hinged not only the reasoning, but on that centerpiece scene where Amy and Rory decide to jump off the building, and that was a knockout - a moment of tremendous power and genuine feeling. There's none of that here - not only can you see the gears grinding, they're not even grinding correctly.

It might have just finessed it out of sheer shock, but the Doctor's negligence throughout the scene makes the monster's sudden reappearance and attack far too obvious. The entire death scene has no way to overcome its artificiality, and it falls as flat as she does.

It's getting to some great underlying ideas - the Doctor making a bargain with the universe is fantastic - but the wires are stripped and shorting each other out. It doesn't even care to try making sense. Just throws out a random tragedy and some neat concepts and hopes they stick regardless of the execution.

They don't.

The rest of the third act fails to redeem this. None of the supporting characters get any payoff. Madame Vastra, the awesome samurai sword-wielding lesbian Silurian from A Good Man Goes To War gets nothing to do the entire episode. No good lines, no cool moments. She doesn't even get to cut one of the evil snowmen in half with her katana. If ever there was a Doctor Who monster that could get slashed apart Kill Bill style without giving the kids nightmares, this is the one. I said above that it was nice to see her back, but what was the point if she has literally no significant impact on the story and no good character moments?

The same goes for Richard E. Grant. He never gets the opportunity to add more than a single boring dimension to his villain and does nothing except scowl before reaching his ugly finish. What's the point of hiring Richard E. Grant and giving him not only a quiet, one-dimensional villain, but not even giving him a good face-off with the Doctor?

Nice set, though.
Ian McKellen is just as wasted. I like the way Moffat brings back The Great Intelligence from the Toughton era as an Easter Egg - just enough continuity for Classic Who fans to catch on, but not enough to leave anyone else lost.  But it doesn't actually do anything - just stumbles into the closing moments of the story before stumbling back out. McKellen has so few lines, and such generic ones at that, it could have been anyone. How is it even possible to waste Sir Ian?

Even the Snowmen never actually do anything in the story - they're just a cool effect largely forgotten.

And, as long as we're talking about forgotten characters, there's Tom Ward's Captain Latimer, where barmaid Clara moonlights as a governess. There's a big deal made about Latimer's crush on Clara, but nothing ever comes of it, even in her death scene.

So, if the companion gets dropped off the story at the end of act 2 and the emotional arc goes with her, and the villains and supporting characters are useless, that really only leaves the plot and the Doctor. What little plot there is gets simmers in the distant background before tripping into an incoherent and completely unsatisfying climax.

And so we're left with the Doctor. But the entire point of the story is that he's brooding and off his game the until the finale. That would be totally fine if the finale delivered the goods, but it's such a lame climax that you never get the feeling that the Doctor got his mojo back. Smith is terrific when he gets to bounce off Coleman and tries valiantly throughout the slog of dull material around it, but this never approaches one of the Eleventh Doctor's finest moments.

If the first two-thirds are everything wonderful about Steven Moffat's Doctor Who, the last third is everything wrong with it - a rushed, incoherent mess throwing ideas and emotions onscreen haphazardly and hoping they stick.

Still, Jenna Louise-Coleman rocks.  Amy and Rory are a dazzling act to follow, but she just might pull it off.  Onward!


* * ½


  • There's a new title sequence and I like the concept; it certainly beats "clouds" from the last couple of years, but it's chaotic without being particularly weird, sort of cheesy in a 90s way. I guess I just prefer 80s cheese. Also, pepper jack. Still, it's great to see the Doctor's face in the opening again, and I'm sure I'll ending up liking this one once I get used to it. [UPDATE: I did.]

  • There's also a new TARDIS interior, and I don't care for it. It's too artificial, for one - I suspect parts of it are CGI, and if not, it's an impressive job making practical sets look CGI. Too Earth-techy. It's one thing to be step down from the awesome previous interior, but I never thought I'd miss the coral. [UPDATE: After a few more episodes, I ended up liking this one, though I still miss the previous one.]
  • Just exactly how many times is Moffat going to put "Doctor Who" into the dialogue? Once a season is kind of cute, but several times an episode just grates.

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