It’s really hard to fairly review Doctor Who – The Snowmen without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. The good bits tend to hinge on the plot, which can’t really be revealed because part of the joy is the way it unfolds. It’s the annual Christmas special episode of Doctor Who, and it feels a lot more substantial than any I can remember.
Usually Christmas specials sit in their own little pockets of continuity. They’re not part of larger story arcs, neither ending nor starting them and very rarely even referencing them. They take place on Earth or an Earth analogue, have characters and plots that are of no import to the series as a whole and tend to being overly sentimental.
This is probably not the case in Snowmen. Here we see a Doctor badly hurt (arguably too affected) by the preceding series and surrounded by characters we have seen before. Moreover, the characters are fleshed out to the extent where we can hazard a guess that we will very likely see them again.
The characters are the episode’s greatest strengths: the dialogue crackles, the Silurian and her wife are made 3 dimensional and interesting, the Sontaran even manages to rise above the level of comedy relief and gets some great lines. And then there’s Clara.
If you haven’t seen the previous series you won’t know why Clara is important (although I am in the minority in thinking the ending of that particular episode telegraphed its ending). If you don’t watch this episode then you won’t know how she is important and how much the following series is going to hinge on her. Moffat pulls out all the stops to make her likeable, and it is his fine character work throughout the episode that is perhaps to the detriment of the overall story.
That’s not to say the story is wholly bad: even viewed in isolation it is above most of the Christmas specials. But it’s relatively straightforward and glosses over a rather large plot hole for the sake of convenience. There are ideas that recur from previous episodes (but they’re good ones) and the villains never come across as quite as threatening or scary as perhaps they could. It isn’t that the story isn’t dark, but not in the way you may entirely expect.
There are great moments of humour too. And, for once, not limited to the Doctor and his dialogue. For once he is the straight man to the great character work being done around him. He’s too human, but also too distant. He’s hurting and his feelings are actually responsible for the plot unfolding as it does.
And the new Tardis debuts. It looks brilliant. The only real reservation I have had about the past few series done away in a single shot. Unfortunately the new reworking of the theme is trying too hard.