Gosh, it has been a while since I’ve posted an entry in the Revisiting Doctor Who series. My intention when I started it was to track my experience of watching all of the episodes of the revived series with my young son, “The Lad”, who was five years old at the time and is now seven. Having been a lifelong fan of the Classic series myself, I’d already watched Series 1-4 on the tellybox, but I downloaded it from iTunes to watch with the Lad. I also got him into the wonderful Sarah Jane Adventures, and he is now a total fan.
Most of the Matt Smith series I watched with the Lad for the first time, but we are coming up to two major milestones in the series – the 50th Anniversary Special in November, and the 2013 Christmas Special (and we all know what is going to happen then). The Lad and I are actually up to date with our Doctor Who as of a month or so ago, so the 50th Anniversary Special will be our very first shared experience of watching the show as it is broadcast! As I will hopefully post a review very promptly, it occurred to me that I should catch up with the Revisiting series, which we left having completed Series 7, Part 1. But first, some background…
It makes sense to recap what we know about a certain young lady before plunging into the next episode. When I reviewed The Asylum of the Daleks, I was deliberately vague about the revelations concerning a certain Oswin Oswald, who was a pivotal character. But for subsequent explorations to make sense, I need to spell it out a little more clearly. To be fair, my blog is scandalously littered with spoilers as I assume readers are familiar with the show, but just in case, in the words of River Song, “SPOILERS”!!!!
When the Doctor met Oswin on the Asylum planet, we the viewer saw her as she saw herself: the lone survivor of the crash of the Alaska, holed up in a capsule buried in the Asylum itself. She was nourished by the capsules systems and supplies, entertained herself by listening to opera and attempting to make soufflés. Being a computer genius she had patched into the Daleks’ IT network.
As the episode progresses however, the Doctor begins to collect disturbing clues as to the true state of affairs (though crucially he never sees Oswin’s face), and with the climax comes a horrifying revelation: Oswin is a Dalek. Having been captured by Daleks after reaching the Asylum, she was converted into a Dalek cyborg to preserve her genius-level intellect. Unable to cope with her conversion, her mind retreated into a fantasy of survival as a human. Oswin is nearly overcome by her Dalek personality as the truth becomes inescapable, but she still possesses human emotions and is unable to kill the Doctor. Her confrontation causes the Doctor to reflect that the Daleks’ many achievements—including their parliamentary discourse and newfound diversity—have been developed in fearful response to his threat to their existence. Oswin fulfils her promise of deactivating the force-field and erasing all recollection of the Doctor from the Daleks’ collective memory. Her final request before the planet is destroyed is that the Doctor remember her as the human she once was, whispering to herself the fateful words “Run, you clever boy, and remember”. The Doctor returns to Amy and Rory, and they teleport away in the nick of time.
So why am I telling you this?
Enter the 2012 Christmas Special. In London, 1842, a fall of strange alien snowflakes is accidentally incorporated into a snowman being built by a lonely young boy… and in the deep, sinister tones of Sir Ian McKellan, the snowman begins to speak to him, at first haltingly mimicking the boy’s own words, then, gaining confidence and fluency, speaking with its own voice. Fifty years later and the boy has grown into the malevolent Dr. Simeon (Richard E. Grant), Director of the Great intelligence Institute and breeder of carnivorous, animate snowmen.
Meanwhile, having tragically lost his companions, Amy and Rory, at the end of Season 7, Part 1, the Doctor has retreated into melancholy seclusion. He has parked the TARDIS in the clouds above Victorian London and refuses to engage with the world, despite the entreaties of his old friends the crime-fighting Paternoster Gang (Silurian Madame Vastra, her wife Jenny Flint and the Sontaran Strax – who, as we learned in a web prequel, didn’t die on Demon’s Run after all. It transpires that he is a bit of a drama queen). The TARDIS has also had a control room refit, its new, rather stark lines reflecting the Doctor’s mood.
Enter governess and part-time barmaid, Clara Oswald (Clara, not Oswin, but still an Oswald, and still played with the same sparky, challenging intelligence by Jenna-Louise Coleman). A mutual encounter with ferocious snowmen made of “memory snow” throws the two together as, along with the Paternoster Gang, they attempt to unravel the mystery of the snowmen and Simeon’s Great intelligence Institute.
This marvellous extended episode succeeds on so many levels. It closes the door on Amy and Rory with a suitable period of mourning on the Doctor’s part. It introduces the Paternoster Gang, formed from a trio of characters who were so enjoyable in A Good Man Goes To War (their Victorian period placement is both endearingly kooky and yet a strangely perfect fit). It manages to be exciting and scary without too much “Christmassy” stuff, though some explanation was required by the Lad at times (especially the instance of the much-feared death by sentimentality at the end…), and has been nominated for the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form), alongside “Asylum of the Daleks” and “The Angels Take Manhattan”.
A great Christmas gift for Who nerds, an old enemy of the Second Doctor is brilliantly revived (he has the honour of being played by both McKellan and Grant) and granted a haunting origin: the weird “memory snow” which falls from space may well be a bizarre but natural phenomenon, a freakish ice crystal with psychic properties. But in Simeon it finds the perfect trigger for an evolutionary leap; it reflects and absorbs the conscious and subconscious emotions and thoughts of its human symbiote over fifty years until it finally achieves independent existence as a powerful, incorporeal mind, the Great Intelligence itself.