Watching the yearly Doctor Who Christmas special is fast becoming one of my personal Christmas traditions that I most look forward to. I’ll admit that I wasn’t entirely thrilled by last year’s iteration; it was saccharine sweet and lacked any real drama compared to most episodes of the show. I remarked in my review that “I think they should be less “Christmasy” for the most part from now on. The Christmas gimmicks worked very well at first, but seem too forced now.” Gladly, aside from a snow theme, this episode lacks any sort of “hitting you over the head” Christmas treatment that we’ve had in the past. As the episode opens with a group of people being massacred by an army of sentient snowmen, filled with what appeared to be evil snowflakes, I knew I was in for a real treat.
Right from the moment the opening theme starts, this second half of season 7 is really starting to show that this year is a special anniversary year. Some fans have complained that Steven Moffat didn’t follow through with making this new show (2005-current) like the old one, a claim he made years ago as he was just getting handed the reigns to the Doctor Who show-runner title from Russell T. Davies. Right away we have a new opening sequence with graphics that include swirly space debris and a picture of Matt Smith’s face in stars, a small detail that looks back at the show’s past. I’m not going to lie, my wife and I “Marked out” (to use a pro wrestling term) when we saw this new intro. It wasn’t even an earth shattering change or anything, but it really shows that small things like that can make or break it for some people. New fans won’t even notice the charge, bus us older fans have another little touch there to make us happy.
The new titles sequence isn’t the only change we had in this episode. We were also graced with a new Tardis interior that was obviously somewhat based on the original one using the basic structure of the one from the last few seasons. Now it’s just far more spacious, has lighting, and gives an entirely new (and yet old) sci-fi feel rather than the played out “organic spaceship” theme that was sort of refreshing in 2005, then used by every other sci-fi show. The Doctor is also sporting a new outfit that somewhat carries over to the next episodes based on the “coming soon” trailer.
The actual plot of this episode involves evil snowmen controlled by an old villain that we haven’t really seen since the Patrick Troughton era. “The Great Intelligence” that we see here, played by the voice of Ian McKellen, is sort of a reimagining of the creature of the same name we saw in The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear. In fact, this episode is directly tied to those older episodes with little bits of dialog tossed in as a nod to fans. Ian McKellen does a great job providing a booming evil voice that we would expect from something called “The Great Intelligence”. Richard E. Grant, who played the Doctor in Scream of the Shalka, returns to Doctor Who playing a character named Walter Simeon. Simeon met “The Great Intelligence” as a young boy, and used its power to get back at those that hurt him, and gained power for himself. Little did he know that he was merely a pawn in the grand scheme of things.
The Doctor has been “laying low” and attempting to place himself into the same sort of self-imposed retirement we saw him in way back when we first met the character with William Hartnell in the role. Luckily he isn’t in total hermit-mode and has been hanging around the “Paternoster Gang” including the sword toting Silurian warrior Lady Vastra, her human wife Jenny, and their butler Strax, a reluctant Sontaran servant. I really love these guys, and am glad that they will be somewhat taking the place of River Song now that the Pond saga has ended. I was really hoping for a non-human companion this year, and although these three aren’t the main ones, I can handle them being there a few times this season. Most of the fun comes from the same sort of humor that used to pop up in Star Trek: the Next Generation with Worf. The fun lies in taking Strax, from the warrior Sontaran race, and placing him in mundane situations that he hates, can’t relate to, or simply doesn’t understand. I love Strax because he does things like suggest maximum force in every situation, like throwing grenades at something or blowing up the moon, when said action is grossly inappropriate.
Also returning are the very same dark fantasy elements that have been popping up in the entirety of Moffat’s tenure as show-runner. I really liked an instance where Clara found the entrance to the Tardis in a cloud only reachable with an invisible “Stairway to heaven”. Rather than just having the Tardis sitting next to a building or something, the production team went the extra mile to make Clara discovering the Tardis that much more special. This of course reminds me of stuff from Neil Gaiman, fitting that he wrote a script last season, and has one this season as well.
Jenna Louise Coleman returns for a follow up to her previous encounter with the Doctor, this time playing a “new” character named Clara. Once again we can see that Clara is far more intelligent than some previous companions and takes charge in a similar way to Ace way back in the late 1980’s. She gives me hope that the Doctor has met his match in a companion that won’t take guff from him. I like Amy Pond quite a bit, but felt that she sometimes fell in line with the old “companion always getting in trouble” mold, here’s hoping Clara stays strong.
There were a few quibbles to be had with the episode, like the scheme of the Great Intelligence never really being fleshed out fully, and some wonky computer generated effects with the “old Governess” but for the most part I feel that this was a very strong Christmas special, far better than last year’s. I can’t wait for this upcoming season, a new companion, and the return of the Cybermen as written by Neil Gaiman!