Clara. Oswin. Oswald!
The setup for the new “Doctor Who” companion began earlier this year in “Asylum of the Daleks” when Jenna-Louise Coleman played the doomed Oswin Oswald without actually coming face-to-face with the Doctor (Matt Smith).
Because we’ve seen malevolent powers use the Doctor’s companions against him the past, it was easy to be suspicious of Clara when we first met her second incarnation in this episode. Clara is so hell bent on pursuing the Doctor and learning more about him that she’s a bit over-the-top. There’s almost a bit of madness in Clara’s desire, but there’s a certain charm to that as well.
The initial visual of an upside down Clara peering into the Doctor’s carriage was very amusing and Clara’s sense of humor was also engaging. Smith and Coleman seemed to have a good chemistry together right from the start, even if the Doctor would have preferred erasing himself from Clara’s memory rather than take on another companion.
We don’t often see the Doctor in such a broken state. The loss of Amy and Rory in “The Angels Take Manhattan” has led the Doctor to emotionally protect himself by withdrawing from the universe and retiring to Victorian London. The Doctor is barely even interested in his friends already living in that time period, including Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her human wife, Jenny (Catrin Stewart) and even Mr. Strax (Dan Starkey); whose death in “A Good Man Goes To War” is acknowledged before his resurrection is glossed over.
Strax turned out to be a good comic foil for the Doctor and Clara. He was incompetent enough to fumble around with a memory erasing worm multiple times (much to Clara’s amusement), but Strax’s military assessment of the Snowmen’s assault was accurate and actually helpful. Plus, Strax’s put downs on humanity seemed a lot funnier in this episode than in his last appearance.
Vastra and Jenny got a lot of play in this episode. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume that there was a spinoff waiting in the wings for these two. “The Snowmen” also did a more effective job of portraying Jenny as Vastra’s equal rather than her lackey. With the Doctor temporarily out of the world saving business, it fell to Vastra and Jenny to recognize the threat of Doctor Simeon (Richard E Grant) and initiate Clara into the Doctor’s world of mad Timey Wimey.
The one word test used by Vastra on Clara was more interesting than expected and well played by both actresses. There’s no way that Clara could have known what significance the word “Pond” had for the Doctor. But if there is some force driving her closer to the Doctor, than that was a shrewd way of closing the gap between them.
In many ways, the introduction of a new companion for the Doctor is very much like a courtship. Usually it’s the Doctor attempting to seduce his would-be companions with the promise of adventures in time and space. This time around, Clara had to do the wooing... so to speak. But when the Doctor falls for her, he falls hard. How often does the Doctor give a TARDIS key to his new companions so quickly? It was also very telling that the Doctor said that he never knows why he gets his companions. He only knows “who.”
When we first meet Clara, she’s apparently a bar maid. But later, Clara is revealed to be moonlighting as the Governess for the two children of Captain Latimer (Tom Ward). While Coleman played off the children well, the entire Latimer family felt pretty flat and they never seemed all that important to the story. Unlike previous Christmas specials, the Latimer family were simply incidental characters without a real role in the story beyond potential victims or mourners.
Matt Smith was terrific as always, particularly during the inspired bit when the Doctor briefly impersonates Sherlock Holmes. But as the Doctor is won over by Clara, the audience is as well. And when Clara is lost, the Doctor makes the viewers feel that loss as well. There’s a moment early in the episode when Clara mentions her love of souffles that clearly registers as a half-remembered memory on Smith’s face. And the Doctor seems to enjoy the way that Clara’s reaction to the TARDIS is more unique than what he normally hears.
But just as the Doctor finally finds the right travel partner, she is cruelly taken from him and basically murdered. Writer and showrunner Steven Moffat found a way to surprise us again by using the same trick twice. We all know that Coleman is on “Doctor Who” for at least the rest of the seventh season. So each time, I kept expecting a miraculous save before Clara/Oswin actually died.
As the Doctor realizes the connection between Clara and Oswin, the impossibility of it is enough to awaken his adventurous spirit and find her again somewhere in time. Moffat and company pulled a fast one on us. The Doctor’s next companion is only briefly glimpsed at the end when a modern day version of Clara walks past the tombstone that bears her name. Although, I do have to say that Rory would have noticed a grave with his own name on it. Why didn’t Clara?
Unfortunately, the Snowmen themselves weren’t nearly as interesting as the Doctor or Clara. Not even Sir Ian McKellen's voice as the Great Intelligence was enough to make the Snowmen compelling or threatening. Simeon and the Snowmen were simply passable villains and nothing special at that.
Regardless, “The Snowmen” was a rousing “Doctor Who” story that feels like it matters in the long term of the series. A new TARDIS, a new opening sequence and a new companion? That’s the start of a new era for sure. And the prospects for it look good for now.