Previously on Doctor Who: The Angels Take Manhattan.
Vastra: “He suffered losses which hurt him. Now, he prefers isolation to the possibility of pain’s return.”
It always starts with children crying.
When we meet the Doctor at the beginning of this snowy tale, he isn’t just alone. He’s lonely. It’s not that he’s travelling alone, like Ten did before going properly bonkers and self-destructing, that’s not the full story of how bad he’s off. He travelled alone before he lost the Ponds. Now, stricken with grief and self-loathing, he’s just hiding himself away, sitting on a cloud, not engaging with anything or anyone, just Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. He’s isolated himself and he’s not moving. The eternal traveller has stopped. He’s prepared to stand by and watch as children cry. That’s how bad this is.
He’s so afraid of losing anyone again—and of anyone making sacrifices for him—that he doesn’t want any more to do with humans and the rest of the universe. He crawled into the shadows with Vastra and Jenny, who took in Strax after Demon’s Run, and he never helps anymore. The Doctor has stopped helping, has stopped being kind, has stopped caring; because he cannot bear the loss. The man who never stops can’t go on.
It takes someone extraordinary to snap him out of that. And he’s found her.
Clara Oswin Oswald, also universally known as Soufflé Girl, born November 23, 1866. Yes, you read that right. She shares her birthday with the show itself—and since we’re all just waiting for the 50th anniversary next year, for which Moffat has already promised to bloody well “take over television”… Moffat, what have you done?
Out of all the words that Clara could have used to convince the Doctor to help her, out of all the words in the English dictionary that she could have tried—and that might have worked—she chose ‘pond.’ Of course she did. Then again, it might well have been the only word that could have possibly brought the Doctor out of his misery.
This Christmas, he’s Scrooge McDoctor, and Clara is his Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, neatly bundled into one excitable, resourceful, brave, witty woman. Who dies. Again.
Clara: “It’s smaller on the outside.”
Doctor: “OK. That is a first.”
When Clara doesn’t make it, the Doctor’s nearly ready to crawl back into his hole again, even though something is niggling at him. But then, he sees her headstone, and her full name, and he finally makes the connection: it’s her voice. Soufflé Girl. If he found her once, he can find her again, and he is determined to. He made a bargain: I’ll save this planet, if you promise to come away with me. Vastra realised what he was doing: he made a bargain with the universe itself. Remember when, at the beginning of the episode, he said that the universe doesn’t care? Well, perhaps it does. And even if it didn’t, the point, the one thing that matters is that he rediscovered his belief in it, in a caring universe, in his own ability to care.
Strax: “Sir, permission to express my opposition to your current apathy.”
Doctor: “Permission granted.”
Strax: “I am opposed to your current apathy.”
Oh, Strax, I’ve missed you.
The Doctor shutting himself away is a horrible mixture of being unable to cope with the loss and the refusal to ever feel something like that again, and the firm belief that whenever he tries to help, he only makes it worse. Several times the Doctor has tried to get the humans he meets to forget about him—Eleven is back where Nine once was. Completely broken after the Time War, in the darkest place imaginable, psychologically—at least he kept on travelling. I have pointed out similarities between 9 and 11 numerous times, but this is where 11 takes the despair one step further: he stops running. Stays still.
Clara couldn’t possibly have known what impact the word ‘pond’ would have on the Doctor, but it’s one of those things where the magic just happens. It reminds the Doctor of what he’s lost—and of what would have happened if he’d never met them in the first place. The things he wouldn’t have seen, the wonders he wouldn’t have known, the friends he wouldn’t have had. He’s reminded that the loss, the pain, they’re real, and that he probably needed some time away from everything—but the pile of bad things will always be smaller than the pile of good things. There is, surprisingly, always hope. That’s what he said to Vincent Van Gogh so many moons ago, and it’s still true. River once said that the skies will go dark if the Doctor accepts that everybody dies, just for one moment. And the sky does go dark. With snow, which threatens to take over and eviscerate humanity.
One may argue that the combined powers of Richard E. Grant and Ian McKellen as the identity and the voice of the Snowmen were somewhat… on the sidelines here, and I as a viewer certainly engaged less with the sense of danger and urgency than with the character development and the (re-)introduction of Soufflé Girl, but that’s just me and my excitement. I’ve only watched it once, and were I to watch it again, I’m sure I’d care more about the actual threat. Although the resolution was sort of… quick, it was plausible within the logical confines of the novum (Clara being tuned into the telepathic web), and, blimey, the thing with the Memory Worm was too simple, but I really wasn’t ready for Simeon turning into a Frost Giant.
And then, Clara saves him. Also again. She’s the one who grabs his hand and runs—and the Doctor realises that the pain will never go away, but his life is a better one for having known (and lost) the Ponds, and all the others, and that it would be his own death sentence if he didn’t let Clara in, if he stopped caring. Plus, he can’t resist a life that doesn’t make any sense. And, perhaps, this one, he can save.
Speaking of Frost Giants, there are several references smacking us in the face with a dead fish:
- “Winter is coming.” Hello, Game of Thrones!
- The Doctor dressing up as Sherlock Holmes and deducing away, and then “Dr Doyle” certainly basing his stories on Madame Vastra and Jenny: married lesbian lizard and human investigators of crime in Victorian England. Not only has Moffat given the collective WhoLock fandom a lovely Christmas gift, the shippers are freaking out, too, with good reason. As meta as this is, it’s still a statement, and a good one.
Last, but definitely not least, are the new title sequence and the new TARDIS interior. I like it!
The new credits are amazing, back to the more univers-y style of Classic Who, including the face, which is brilliantly done. It still includes the Vortex, but I am very much in favour of the credits reflecting the old-style visuals of starry skies, etc, as well as the 2005 revival credits. All in all, the colour scheme has changed, there’s a lot of red now, after all the blue, and the TARDIS interior now pulses between a dark, silvery green and red; which makes it overall darker and more threatening, which I like as well. It’s more minimalistic and less steampunk, and although I will miss the vibrant orange, I love that the new console is reminiscent of the early console rooms, and that there is an additional control panel to the left. More stuff to play with, more buttons to hit, more things to go horribly wrong!
Next: The Bells of Saint John.
Many references to Mary Poppins too: the governess, the staircase in the sky (smoke in the case of Poppins) and, of course, an umbrella.
Nearly a week later, I’m still in two minds about this special. There were so many good ideas, in-jokes (the Great Intelligence and the 1967 London Underground biscuit tin, for instance) and bits of snappy dialogue – “it’s smaller on the outside” was so Morrat-esque and just so right – that it overwhelmed a story which, for me, lacked a coherent plot with sufficient impetus and threat. Having said that, it was a Christmas episode so we should set our expectations accordingly, and it terms of (re)setting the dynamic between Clara and the Doctor and giving us a mystery to solve during the rest of the season, this served its purpose well. Better than last year, but not as good as A Christmas Carol in terms of Matt Smith Christmas specials. No complaints (well, not many, anyway.)
And, Strax. What’s not to love? 🙂
Yes, Mary Poppins, of course! Pity she couldn’t use the umbrella during her descent from the cloud…
I know how you feel about the plot, though. I like Christmas Specials because the characters can take a bit of a breather and they stand apart from the series arc and things, so I don’t really mind; and as you say, the resetting of the relationship between Clara and the Doctor was more important — and would have been impossible to squeeze into the opener of Series 7.2. But, yeah, it felt as though it didn’t quite use its potential. To have it feel less tucked into the corners around the characters, the episode probably would have needed to be 20 minutes longer. But I was to focused on Clara to mind, really 😀
Strax is a gift to mankind, he honestly is!
I ended up watching this three times in a row (I found a site that had it on re-run). Clara Oswin Oswald has got to be the biggest mystery only second to The Doctor himself. The “It’s smaller on the outside” comment, I think, was just one of the big hints that she will not be any ordinary companion. But then again, are any of them normal? She reminds me the most of River. Unpredictable, unwavering confidence, and that smile…not that I’m saying she’s going to replace River, I just think they’d get along well. But I’ve been thinking. They said that “Silence will fall when the question is asked” at a place where “no creature can stay silent or answer falsely.” We all know the question is “Doctor Who?” but what if in addition to that question, Clara gets asked one, too? I think that’s when we’ll find out who she really is. This strange woman who keeps popping up in time, twice dead. Soufflé girl was brilliant in this episode, and I can’t wait for the second half of series seven to commence! Nice snow, by the way. And an excellent review!