|Abominable special effects.|
It’s December 25th, 2012. Justice Collective are at number one with “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” blocking the X-Factor winner from its traditional Christmas coronation by being a supergroup charity recording for Hillsborough charities, which is basically the sort of thing it’s impossible not to have go to number one. Rihanna, Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, and Psy also chart.
In the three months since the Angels took Manhattan, Barack Obama took a second term, Hurricane Sandy took out a large swath of the New York/New Jersey coast, and Disney took over the rights to Star Wars. Much more bleakly, the fact that Jimmy Saville was a horrific and serial pedophile who sexually abused hundreds of people came out. Also, Nadine Dorries is suspended from the Conservative Party because she decides to appear on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! She was beaten by, among others, Colin Baker.
While on television, after our five-week dalliance with the Ponds, the future promised back in Asylum of the Daleks finally fails to arrive again. We’ll tackle the problems and brilliances of the Impossible Girl story over the next season, so there’s not really a rush, but it is worth noting that some of its weaknesses start to appear here. This is by design a false start – the new companion is seemingly introduced and then killed. Unlike in Asylum of the Daleks, this one was billed as the debut of Jenna Coleman. If you paid a lot of attention you could tell there was a ruse, but for the most part, it was a solid bait and switch. Certainly this was necessary for the Impossible Girl arc, not least because without it the headline was “the new companion is a Dalek” and not “the new companion keeps dying.”
The trouble is, the moment when Clara gets killed is the moment when a tremendously promising and interesting episode goes off the rails. Part of this is unrelated to the plot twist as such – the fact that “a family crying on Christmas Eve” as the only thing powerful enough to stop the snow is grotesquely unearned, for instance, has little to do with killing Clara as such. The real problem is simply that Clara’s death transforms The Snowmen from a relatively self-contained bit of Christmas fairy tale into a teaser for the next season. Which is, of course, always the problem (and brilliance) of the Impossible Girl arc – it constantly erases what’s actually there, replacing it with a mystery about what isn’t.
So let’s, in effect, simply clip off more or less everything between Clara’s fatal fall and the cemetery scene, allowing this episode to be a tremendously charming Christmas fairy tale with one of the best images in the history of the series in the form of that impossibly tall staircase ascending to the TARDIS on a cloud that closes with a quick teaser to get everyone back in March. The future will come along eventually anyway, so no need to talk about it now.
If we do this, the first thing that jumps out is the fact that it looks for all the world like we’re actually going to get a companion who’s not from contemporary Earth. And more to the point, it looks like it would work. (Thich also raises the notable point that Clara is developed enough here that it’s possible to believe her as the companion – there’s enough work put into fleshing out her world. My trait of choice is probably that she has a “secret voice” for the kids, which I think is brilliant.) This is not exactly a surprise to anyone who remembers the myriad of times it did work in the classic series, but it’s nevertheless worth pointing out. There are essentially two supposed problems to solve with non-contemporary companions, and Clara here seems to knock both off nicely.
The first is the way in which the contemporary show relies on the companion having a notion of home that they return to. You certainly could break this and start having companions with no lives outside the TARDIS again, but the fact of the matter is that it’s improved the show tremendously. A moderate recurring cast and a familiar location to return to are both effective tricks, and the presence of a larger life for companions makes them richer characters. But equally, you need a home that can be quickly sketched – the great trick of EastPowellStreet was that it painted a picture of a soap opera with only a few lines of dialogue. But the Victorian era is readily and instinctively familiar, or, at least, the television Victorian era is. Clara’s status as a barmaid/governess is lovely, but more importantly, makes swift, intuitive sense. The Paternoster Gang provides a sort of Victorian UNIT. You can sketch a Victorian world easily, and indeed, despite Moffat abandoning the idea of having the new companion actually be a Victorian governess, three of the next eleven episodes return to this setting. Indeed, between this and Into the Dalek, we actually see more of the Victorian era than we do Clara’s actual contemporary home.
The second is ostensibly trickier, namely the idea that the companion’s job is to serve as an audience identification figure. This is, as anyone who’s familiar with my views on narratology will already know, a tricky phrase at best. With the exception of, really, Season One and Season One, the audience doesn’t need much of an identification figure. At any point in its history where Doctor Who is a major cultural phenomenon, it doesn’t need someone to mediate it for the audience. Doctor Who is an identifiable format. Identifying with the Doctor is easy enough. Nor is the other usual meaning of “audience identification figure,” where the companion’s job is to ask the questions the viewer would ask altogether straightforward. For one thing, the supporting cast can do that just as well, and indeed, once the companion’s onto their third or fourth story, it makes more sense for the supporting cast to do the “ask the obvious questions” work, as the companion isn’t a newbie anymore.
A more accurate way to phrase it is that the companion’s job is to try the things that might occur to the audience. In the default setup of a Doctor Who story, the Doctor is the one who is likely to behave unpredictably and try something that doesn’t immediately make sense to the audience, while the companion is the one who does the things the audience might think to try. But what that really means is that the companion’s job isn’t to be an audience identification figure, but rather to be a fairly straightforward enactment of the tropes of adventure fiction. The companion isn’t there to do what the audience would do, but rather to do what the audience would expect based on the genre tropes. And since Victorian Clara is actually closer to the original source of those tropes than a contemporary Earth companion, that’s not particularly hard either. She behaves exactly like an adventure heroine does, and is portrayed as someone with an instinctive understanding of those tropes.
This is central to how the Impossible Girl arc works. The first thing we learn about Clara is that she’s very good at being a Doctor Who companion. Then we gradually learn what sort of person would be good at that. But since we’ve already seen Jenna Coleman play two other Doctor Who companions, we start unusually familiar with the ways in which she does companion stuff. This also being the stuff instinctively familiar with any companion, it plays its needed role of being much more obvious than anything else about her character, thus allowing the non-mystery to function. (Similarly essential is the fact that Clara is ultimately much more ordinary than her two exotic predecessors, which further serves to make her look smaller than she actually is.)
But we’re drifting off into the future again. Although that’s perhaps worthwhile for looking at the Paternoster Gang, who make their proper debut here. From the start, they are on one level a series of recurring gags. Especially when the “Madame Vastra Investigates” prequel is taken into account, Vastra and Jenny quickly become a running joke about shocking Victorians with lesbian marriage. (There’s a line of critique that views this as exploitative and as being about shock value, to which I’d point out that it’s never the fact of their relationship that’s used to shock, but the existence of same-sex marriage.) Strax debuts with the basic two jokes he’s always going to get, and there’s a strong case to be made that he actually never gets a scene as funny as the memory worm stuff again.
While this observation is true, the idea that it’s a critique does not inherently follow. The joke that Strax’s reaction to everything is to try to wage war on it is one-note, but this just sets it up to be one of those sketch comedy bits where you take the same basic joke and then get new material out of it by varying the circumstances in which it comes up. Yes, Strax misunderstands everything by assuming it’s a military engagement, but all this requires is giving him a decent variety of things to misunderstand. (In this regard the highlights of Strax are probably the two intros recorded for Day of the Doctor and Deep Breath’s cinematic screenings.) What’s more interesting is the joke that largely drops out of the Doctor being, frankly, kind of a complete jerk to Strax.
But perhaps the more important observation is that Madame Vastra is that she’s an enormously useful character. There are a handful of characters in the history of the show who have been successfully used to provide a maternal figure for the Doctor, and pretty much all of them have been brilliant. Of them, however, Vastra stands out due to the fact that she has a worldview that is alien both to the Doctor’s and to the audience’s makes her a particularly compelling one. The one word game (and especially Clara’s response of “words”) is absolutely brilliant, and the complexity involved in her comment that she helps the Doctor’s isolation but doesn’t approve of it is similarly wonderful. With Strax to provide a contrast and Jenny to serve a role not unlike that of the companion, the Paternoster Gang is an effective supporting cast, even if Strax’s role as comic relief is at times limiting.
And then of course there’s the Great Intelligence, used here more or less as a straight-up joke for the handful of people who will get it. (Which at the time would have been pretty small, given that both of his Troughton stories consisted of a single episode.) In some ways it weakens the episode, in that it follows the problems with killing Clara up with a sense that the episode was just a shaggy dog story. And it’s not entirely unfair to ask “why,” especially given that more or less everything distinctive is taken away from the Great Intelligence and he becomes just another kind of generic villain – a sort of ersatz Master played with delightful lack of irony by Richard E Grant. Of course I punched the air at the time, but it was very much a gag that worked best on broadcast. (Although the knowledge that Web of Fear had been found does make it a bit more sensible.)
In some ways the more interesting thing about the Great Intelligence is that the Doctor doesn’t immediately place him. It’s not that it’s particularly odd that someone wouldn’t remember something that was centuries ago for them. But given that The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear are both iconic classics, the fact that the Doctor doesn’t remember them is striking, in that it firmly establishes that his own sense of his history isn’t equivalent to his history as a television character. One wonders what other classics the Doctor’s lost track of.
But for all of this, I think the most interesting moment of the episode is one that’s both rarely commented on and future-looking, which is Clara’s snapping at the Doctor, “Oh, spoken like a man. You know, you’re the same as all the rest. Sweet little Clara, works at the Rose And Crown, ideas above her station. Well, for your information, I’m not sweet on the inside, and I’m certainly not little.” What’s interesting here is, of course, that it is in many ways the key to the entire Impossible Girl arc. Clara tells the Doctor and us, point blank, that looking at appearances and going with initial assumptions about her is the wrong approach. For all that the arc ultimately hinges on a twist that isn’t guessable until it happens, the arc plays scrupulously fair. We’re told up front everything we need to know. And we faithfully miss it, just like we’re supposed to.