[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]
The first of the new episodes of Doctor Who is on tomorrow night. (In some quarters, these eight episodes are being called Series 8, but the BBC seems to consider them to constitute the second half of Series 7.) In preparation for this, I re-watched the 2012 Christmas species, The Snowmen, with the family. How did it hold up?
It held up well. Part of what’s so good about Matt Smith’s portrayal is that he continues to surprise. You can’t always predict how he’s going to react to a given situation or person, but (with very few exceptions) whatever he does do proves completely consistent with his character. This time, post-Manhattan, he starts our misanthropic and self-absorbed, but is quickly drawn into Clara’s problem be a quintessentially Doctorish mixture of curiosity and compassion.
While I am not particularly interested in Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint, I was delighted to see the return of Strax, the Sontaran Nurse from A Good Man Goes To War, a character of rich comic potential. I’m reminded of Marvin the paranoid android from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He was originally intended to be a one-shot character because he is essentially built on a single joke; but Douglas Adams kept finding things for him to do, and because of his excellent writing the character became established as eventually one of the most loved in the series. In the same way, the single note of the Sontaran nurse joke seems to have legs. We laughed a lot at Strax.
But of course much more important is the new companion, Clara Oswin Oswald, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman. For the signs are good but the jury’s not yet in. At times her delivery way rather too mannered, in (I hate to say) a rather River Songish way. But then that might be because she was portraying a governess, which is intrinsically a rather mannered role. We’ll see how she gets on when she’s able to settle down and start being herself.
What I loved about her character was how fiercely but casually intelligent she is. The Doctor often works well when bouncing off a character who is his equal, but previous attempts to provide him with one have not always come out well. Back in the day, Romana was meant to be cleverer than Tom Baker’s Doctor, but we were told this rather than showed it, and never quite swallowed it. More recently, Martha was meant to be a counterbalance to Rose, someone capable of a more equal relationship with the Doctor, but in the end her character wasn’t interesting enough and Freema Agyeman wasn’t actor enough to pull it off. Then of course there is River Song, but in her case being a step ahead of the Doctor manifested in a collection of quirks, tics and catchphrases that reminded us of nothing more than a not-very-clever person trying to appear clever.
Against that backdrop, it was refreshing to see Clara’s intelligence actually in action rather than merely hearing it described. The whole sequence with the umbrella was a delight — quick, clever and believable. Better still was the Doctor’s palpable enjoyment, and satisfaction in having found someone who could keep up with him and maybe even get a step or two ahead.
And I just loved this image of Clara climbing the invisible spiral staircase up to the TARDIS above London.
Shame it was on screen for such a short time.
Finally on positives, fine performances from Richard E. Grant and Ian McKellan as the bad guys.
So, negatives? Just two, really.
First, the plot was close to making sense (on Doctor Who‘s own terms) but didn’t quite take the trouble to fill all the cracks. I don’t think it would have been much extra work to smooth over the rough patches, but it worries me that Moffat apparently didn’t care enough to do so.
Secondly, and this is not really a criticism of the episode per se but of the developing Series 8 as a whole, I don’t really have any sense of where it’s going. Series 6 had a very strong (if flawed) arc; Series 5 was more episodic, but still felt as though it was heading in a specific direction, with its developing Amy/Rory story and its hints of the Pandorica climax. Up till now, Series 7 has felt like a buffet on a pinball table. I hope that over the next eight weeks it settles into a more coherent through-line.
Anyway, I am really looking forward to The Bells of Saint John now!