|Production Code||Series 7, Christmas episode|
|Dates||December 25, 2012|
With Matt Smith,
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Saul Metzstein
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Caroline Skinner.
|Synopsis: The Doctor has retired in a cloud above Victorian London, but the snow is coming to life.|
Let It Snow by Matthew Kresal 14/4/14
The Christmas specials of the Moffat era have been mixed in terms of quality with the great success of A Christmas Carol and the mixed reception to The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe in 2011. So the two obvious questions overall then are: A) How does this Christmas special rank? And: B) How does this serve as the effective first story of Doctor Who's fiftieth anniversary year?
As a Christmas special, it is certainly one of the best. For the first time since The Christmas Invasion, we get a Christmas special tasked with effectively relaunching the show. There's the new credit sequence with a new theme arrangement, a brand new TARDIS interior and of course what was at least initially billed as the proper introduction to Jenna-Louise Coleman's character of Clara. The Snowmen becomes something more than just another Christmas special: it becomes the bridge between not only the two parts of Series Seven but also parts of the Matt Smith era.
Indeed, Matt Smith's performance and new costume effectively introduce a new version of the eleventh Doctor as well. The viewer, through Clara, is introduced to a Doctor apparently still recovering from what still seems to have been recent exit of the Ponds, which seems to have been the straw that broke the camel's back and caused him to effectively retire. The eleventh Doctor has often been said to be an old man in a young man's body and perhaps nowhere else to date does Smith's performance bear that out more. It's Smith's performance, as well as the writing of Moffat, that makes the Doctor's journey from a man sulking in a box on a cloud to a hero once more believable. Indeed, if Smith ever needed to prove his acting chops, then his scenes with Richard E Grant's villainous Dr Simeon makes the case brilliantly.
Speaking of Grant, the story features a strong supporting cast. Grant, and indeed the voice of Sir Ian McKellan, are effectively used with Grant oozing menace with every line. That said, the two of them are underused due to the focus on introducing Clara though perhaps they are so effective because of they appear so sparingly. The Paternoster Gang of Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax return and are put to good use with Dan Starky's comedy Sontaran (never thought I'd write those words) being the most effective scene-stealer Doctor Who has featured in some time. Even the supporting roles such as that of the family that Clara works for are well acted.
Which leads to the one person who hasn't been mentioned but whom the story centers around: Clara, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman. Throughout the new series, the companions have been the focus of the show and The Snowmen is no exception. Clara is the heart and soul of the story as it is her randomly striking up a conversation with the Doctor in a London street that sets events in motion. Without Clara, would the Doctor have quite literally come down off his cloud? I'm not so sure. What I am sure about is the strength of Jenna-Louise Coleman's performance as she holds her own not only as Clara the character but also as a performer alongside Smith. It is in their scenes together that the story really comes alive with the wonderful interplay and chemistry between them. Unfortunately, a last-second decision by Moffat undermines all this a bit but he instead offers something else: a mystery that reawakens the Doctor and takes him, and us, on a new journey.
The Snowmen also works as the launch into Doctor Who's fiftieth anniversary year. The Snowmen looks as much backwards as it does forwards. Who - or perhaps more accurately what - Grant and McKellan turn out to be is a case in point. The story drops all sorts of hints about it from the title itself onwards but it's only really made clear in the final couple of minutes. It's done in a way that hopefully pleases fans of what came before while thankfully not alienating to those who don't know the old series (indeed, given developments since this aired, one can't help but wonder what Moffat knew and when). The fact that the Doctor has effectively retired and takes convincing to return to what he's always done is an idea that Douglas Adams proposed before he got forced to do Shada instead (something that in turn might explain Adams' attitude towards that unfinished story). Given what would come in the episodes to follow a few months down the road, it's clear that The Snowmen was meant to set the tone for what was to follow and it does so effectively.
Yet The Snowmen has an interesting problem. It focuses heavily on characters, especially the journeys of the Doctor and Clara rather than on the threat posed by Simeon and his snowmen. The result is slightly lopsided as it were: the threat appears throughout the story and is certainly built up but that's not what were supposed to really focus on. For a story that makes rather a point of bringing back something from the show's past, it never really puts it to much use. That isn't to say that Doctor Who isn't or shouldn't be about character development, just that the balance here seems a bit off. How much that actually helps or hinders will certainly be a topic of debate I'm sure.
In the final analysis then, The Snowmen succeeds. It does so firstly as an effective Christmas special though 2010's A Christmas Carol still ranks as the best of the Christmas specials; this one comes a close second minus a couple of faults that can be forgiven nevertheless. It also works to help launch Doctor Who into a major anniversary year with references to and use of, somewhat sparingly, the show's past without being either gratuitous or alienating to those not in the proverbial know. What more can we ask of it?
"We're gonna need another Timmy" by Thomas Cookson 26/7/15
Firstly, something's been nagging me about my harsher criticisms of The Big Bang. I felt maybe I'd been too mean-spirited. Whilst scorning a nasty piece of work like Warriors of the Deep is easy on my conscience, The Big Bang is comparatively innocent. I wanted to like it, and largely I did, and I know many fans took the story to their hearts. But I couldn't get past how deflated I was left by its ending.
Perhaps it's the Buffy effect. For me, Buffy peaked in Season Two and went downhill from there. Season Two was dark, dark stuff, and afterwards the show seemed forever drawn to misery like a moth to a flame. Heavy-handed angst became what Buffy just does. Resultant moments of comic relief felt like horrid forced chirpiness, somehow unpleasant and uninviting. The humor turned from sharp to blunt.
That's the feeling I got from The Big Bang's resolution. It was too jarring after the black pit of despair the Doctor nearly went out forever in. It didn't feel like survivor's elation, like Jaws' ending, but like mocking 'fooled you' laughter.
I got it again from Let's Kill Hitler.
I feel Moffat's becoming very disjointed in his scene assembly. Losing touch with the basic 'what happens next' appeal of visual storytelling. The progressive story motion that makes you stick with it to see how one event follows another and what the outcome will be. Loathe as I am to say it, RTD could largely get this right, even if you usually found yourself several pages ahead of him. Moffat's worst stories have felt almost lost in meaningless chaos without purpose or goal, and any satisfying conclusion often comes too late for our exhausted good will.
The Big Bang mostly got the 'what happens next' aspect right, but the ending seems to come after a big crack in the tracks. Let's Kill Hitler and The Wedding of River Song felt entirely dependent on interest in past shocking events to make you stick with them, but that ultimately leave you unrewarded and hollow. The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe doesn't even have that going for it. Its first half kind of works, but it doesn't last.
Asylum of the Daleks felt like a return to form, but The Angels Take Manhattan put the plot randomizer on again. It's not that there's no Moffat brilliance in this era but it barely pulls together in any satisfying direction.
Maybe on the score of the 'what happens next', The Snowmen is Moffat's return to form, and in regards to that aforementioned horrid forced chirpiness, maybe it's both a tragedy and a relief that Amy and Rory are gone. I'll miss them, but I won't miss their frequent emotional mishandlings.
But I'm tired of this 'Doctor Who?' meme barging its way into episodes. In this case literally barging into Matt Smith's carriage through the felt ceiling for no apparent rhyme or reason in Moffat's lamest, most inane teaser since Let's Kill Hitler. In fact, if anyone other than the lovely Jenna Louise Coleman had said it, I suspect I'd want to punch them.
Speaking of 'what happened next', I'm increasingly dismayed at this way of releasing separate preview clips that naturally should belong in the story itself but aren't to be found in it. The preview where Strax wanted to declare war on the moon, as awkwardly goofy as it was, felt integral to the character and emotional set-up of this story. What happened to the days when a Doctor Who episode was a complete work? Did that end with Ghost Light?
Anyhow, the Doctor's gang.
Now I have issue with Madam Vastra's backstory as the retroactive avenging angel who killed Jack the Ripper. Given what the real Jack the Ripper represents of the evils of Victorian sexual politics, I feel that erasing his escape of justice in this wish-fulfillment way diminishes that.
But I like this gang. I found their abounding comic relief hilarious. Matt Smith plays off Strax incredibly well and infectiously, so his barbs at 'Mr Potato' never come off as mean. The memory worm routine was funny for longer than it realistically should've been. Madam Vastra's introducing herself "I'm a lizard woman from the dawn of time, and this is my wife" is fast becoming a favourite line.
Unfortunately, it's somewhat all for naught. They're there for Matt Smith to bounce off of and for comic relief, but they don't get to do anything crucial to the plot. Vastra even suffers the Tennant syndrome with her only attribute being the bearer of all-purpose gadgetry.
The main reason for their presence seems to be to establish an impenetrable clique for Clara to infiltrate in order to reach the Doctor who's refusing to get involved anymore after losing the Ponds. This leads to several issues I have.
This isn't like Tennant's Series 3 slump where he became unbearably morose and self-indulgent in his grief over losing Rose. The reason is because the Doctor's heartache here feels real. When Tennant was being mopey over Rose, it felt like RTD was desperately trying to make out Rose to be the Doctor's one true love to the teen girl demographic, and it felt so insincere. It almost felt like RTD's ego was compelling him to have the Doctor by proxy bragging about what a moving goodbye scene he'd written in Doomsday.
Here, however, I feel Amy and Rory had come to mean a lot to the Doctor, because of all they'd been through, and the cruel way that they were ripped away from him. And the emotion wasn't forced. It had fermented over three seasons. And Matt Smith plays it very palpably. His mood and the brooding look on his face makes a big lasting impression.
However, I still think the Doctor's being a prick here.
Moffat's a Davison fan, and like most Davison fans he's clearly interested in our hero's fallibilities and in what makes the Doctor tick (an inevitable fan response to an era where the writers didn't have the remotest clue). Here is a slice of the later years of the Doctor where he's become tired and wonders what's the point in what he does anymore. It does make the character more believable and interesting. But the process is stubbornly drawn out. It feels like the plot's using this character inertia to dig its heels in and refuse to move forward. Something feels wrong about how long it takes the Doctor to spring into action. Far longer than it naturally should.
As MrTardisReviews said, there's a problem with the Doctor refusing to care about a world-threatening crisis for so long, because then the question becomes why should we care? How can we take the threat seriously if our hero doesn't? And it crosses a line by making the Doctor so proactive about coldly shutting Clara out that it becomes unbelievable in its extremes, whilst making his inevitable change of heart seem equally impossibly unlikely.
The one-word test is particularly infuriating. Sure it brings about the Doctor's change of heart, but it's also the final straw. It's frustrating that the Doctor does such a thing, and it's frustratingly improbable how Clara managed to pass the test.
In my view, Clara shouldn't have passed the test. She had no way to explain it but to give the whole story. You could have Vastra take pity on her, hinting that Vastra took a fancy to Clara to partway explain this. With Vastra feeling the Doctor isn't giving her a chance, have Vastra lie on Clara's behalf (thus disproving the point of the test) by choosing the word 'pond' from Clara's whole story, and telling the Doctor that was her answer, since Vastra understands the word's significance.
I don't know why this didn't occur to Moffat. It's the most logical path from scene to outcome. Perhaps he was obsessed with making Clara as ridiculously infallible and omniscient as River. Otherwise, it makes no sense how Clara ever thought the Doctor is meant to get the urgency of the situation from just the word 'pond'. Now fans have suggested maybe Clara was channelling memories of her future existence as Oswin the Dalek. But if Moffat was going for that, surely he'd make that more lucid by having the Doctor question her over her choice of word, and her responding that she didn't know herself why she gave that answer.
I like Clara. She's possibly the first companion since Romana to bring out my inner shipper. Sure she's a manic pixie dream girl, but I think that's where Moffat's most comfortable, and hopefully he'll keep unmanageable character damage away from her. In fact, Clara largely carries the story, and does so superbly with her curiosity and resourcefulness, in a way that Amy didn't quite get to do in her debut, and River got to do far too often. Perhaps Moffat is giving his new companion his fullest investment this time.
The scene where she follows the Doctor to his Tardis and up the spiral staircase to the clouds is a magical, beautiful scene where the viewer is with Clara every curious step of the way. This in itself is a nice return to 'what happens next' visual storytelling.
Unfortunately, it also quite literally sets Clara up for a fall, and what I find almost unforgivable is that what happens to her is the Doctor's fault, by his own deliberate negligence and waiting so long to act on Clara's request, and repeatedly brushing her off. On the one hand, this could lead to Mindwarp done right. Yet it feels like a defunct version of A Christmas Carol where Tiny Tim died regardless.
The antagonists are pretty much half-baked and neglected. They don't really do anything beyond getting fed by paupers. And like The Angels Take Manhattan, Moffat seems to forget his old art of subtle creeping menace. The frozen nursemaid is just a loud, shrill cartoon shrieking stock phrases like a broken record. Not scary, just annoying.
Yet all the nuts and bolts are here. The design aesthetic of the lair is stolid. Richard E. Grant can make any two-dimensional megalomaniac feel piercingly real and iconic. As such, the electric confrontations between Matt Smith and him are vividly memorable and refreshingly old school. Conveying rising tension, and, instead of clashing with the Doctor's earlier apathy, it affirms the rightness of his comeback.
The resolution approaches Last of the Time Lords territory, but somehow it's on the right side of wishful thinking whimsy. Hopeful thoughts translating into rejuvenating energy and superpowers is a moronic, cartoonish leap. But tears leading to a critical mass of saltwater is far more tangible. The scale is kept simple and never gets carried away, so it works. And because it's based on tangible thoughts brought about by collective tragedy, it works on an emotional level, giving a sense of personal price to the victory. And unlike in The Big Bang, that mood carries through rather than being dismissed in seconds.
Whereas RTD implemented humour bullishly and intrusively in dramatic scenes, Moffat's era has the seemingly reverse problem. As though Moffat's emotional dramatic moments are short-lived and gone in a flash, like they're an intrusion on the joivalness to be swiftly booted. I sometimes feel I've been actively seeking and chasing the era's elusive heart, until Let's Kill Hitler left me in the dust.
Here things actually feel done the right way round. The emotion lasts.
Whilst the story's half-baked and made up of disparate elements and its plot never quite gets started before it's suddenly over, there's a compelling clarity and magic to it that Moffat's been lacking of late. Maybe, like Asylum of the Daleks, it's down to the director pulling everything together and giving it focus, pace and satisfying viscera.
However by Clara's presence being the set-up of the next half-season, this Christmas special arguably stands alone the least of them all, and so I feel like I'm still waiting for the rest of the story.
A New Kind of Christmas? by Mike Morris 19/1/16
Cast your mind back way back to 2005 and the announcement that there was going to be a Doctor Who Christmas Special. Now I'm speaking purely for myself here but, at the time, this seemed like an obviously terrible idea. Doctor Who isn't really a Christmas Special sort of programme, right? A show about nasty ugwats and zagwits menacing our heroes just doesn't work with presents and bows and carols, right? Right?
As it turns out, Doctor Who is pretty comfortable with its annual Christmasnessness. At first it used gimmicks but all the Killer Santas and Lethal Christmas Trees were quickly phased out; Tennant's farewell barely mentions the time of year, even. Steven Moffat's approach of reworking classic Christmas stories was always a bit sickly-sweet, but you'd still have to say - on balance - that the idea "Doctor Who can't do Christmas" is well and truly off the mark. And yet...
Most of the Christmas Specials don't feel the full experience, somehow. It's not just a question of the odd dud, it's that there's a fundamental design flaw with Christmas Who. Putting it simply, their role in the ongoing narrative of the series is usually at odds with their function as a piece of television. They're about big moments - like the debut of David Tennant, portrayals of the Doctor coming to terms with the loss of Rose and Donna (or trying and failing to get by without Amy and Rory), regeneration, the re-emergence of psychotic Time Lords - but the stories themselves have to cater for a mass audience slightly pissed on brandy and liqueur chocolates. The result is some really important transitions, awkwardly stuck in Doctor Who at its most crowd-pleasing and undemanding.
The Snowmen isn't free of that problem, and some of the early scenes with the brooding Doctor are especially jarring. However, it balances its twin aims with more style than we've seen for some considerable time, which is one of many things that make it the best Christmas Special since... well possibly since Doctor Who began, and certainly since The Christmas Invasion. It feels energetic and renascent. Even the title sequence sings with a giddying new style, giving the sense of shaking off the past. It introduces a new companion (sort of) with energy and gives us the genuinely funny byplay of Vastra, Jenny and Strax. It's got Richard E. Grant on top form. It sets up an intriguing premise for Series 7B. And it never stops being exciting.
So it's not perfect, because very little is. However, let's dwell on the positives first. It's hard to talk about Jenna-Louise Coleman's performance here without being sidetracked by what's happened since. But taking her turn here on its own merits... well, she's simply fantastic. It's not hard to imagine Clara driving this story even if the Doctor weren't in it and, among the other new series companions, that's really only ever true of Donna. Early on, it's Clara who forms the centre of the narrative with her own - intriguing - double life. She's fun, too, and her lack of respect for the Doctor's angst is refreshing. Put it this way: I think the idea behind the season arc would have been improved by having different actresses playing Oswin and Clara II: This Time She's Contemporary - but if that had happened, I think I'd be saying what a shame it was that Jenna Louise Coleman hadn't been kept on and that she could have played all three parts.
As for that angsty Doctor... hmm, again I find myself doing the previously-unthinkable-for-me and questioning Matt Smith. Sorry, but his misery seems like a self-indulgent sulk. This is partly a scripting problem, because there's really no reason for him to be so miffed that two of his friends are living out a happy life in New York. However, the early performance is misjudged, recalling the petulance of The Angels Take Manhattan, and it drags on the episode (particularly since Coleman is so energetic that you just want him to get over it and join in). That said, his interaction with Strax is great: it's laugh-out-loud funny, and Smith's constant exasperation never quite spills over into nastiness.
The Snowmen themselves are a brilliant idea. Moffat's made a key discovery this time out: the stories don't have to be sentimental tearjerkers, they can also be fun! The Snowmen are an inventive source of jump-scares for the kids, just threatening enough to keep the narrative skipping along; they're a source of easy excitement, while Richard E. Grant provides the weight by glowering and threatening. That's the sort of role he can do falling off a log, and he does it exquisitely.
The plot does have issues, though. Most noticeably, it hinges on coincidence at key moments. Clara will later be called The Impossible Girl, but Convenient Girl is nearer the mark. It's never really established why Clara feels the need to lead a double life, or how she landed her governess job - and then in each guise she encounters separate strands of the story, completely by chance. When she finally manages to enlist the Doctor's help, it's a cracking scene, and the single word answers idea is beautifully enigmatic... but ultimately, her finding the right word - a crucial turning point in the story - is pure luck. Her last words are key, but they simply don't make any sense in context. There's also the issue that the conclusion (and therefore the whole subsequent mini-season) relies on the Doctor finally recognising her voice, but the clear implication of the end of Asylum of the Daleks is that he's never actually heard it.
Look at it another way, though, and you can argue that Moffat's refined what he was doing in Asylum of the Daleks: focusing on giving us a rollicking story, and not worrying that it might collapse if you look too closely. This is the first New Who story that really feels like a romp. The whirl of settings help - we've got the evil orphanage, the TARDIS-in-the-clouds, the old country house, the backstreets of Victorian London, the villain's lair and Vastra's pad. They all look great, and they all look different; there's a sense of movement to this piece of television.
It's a bonus, then, that the returning elements are also improved. Vastra, Jenny and Strax always felt like one-story characters, and not particularly good ones at that. However the Strax-as-a-butler idea is inspired, and Vastra and Jenny's sparring feels less "look how outre I am" (as it did in A Good Man Goes To War) and more like proper, funny, odd-couple comedy.
If there is a criticism, it's that the story itself is rather slight, and as a result the set-pieces are overextended. The menaced family come complete with lonely father and suitably-aged kids-to-menace - I'm finding the latter a really tiresome trope in Doctor Who these days - but they're devoid of any real character. There's a lot of emphasis given to the question of what's-in-the-pond, but it turns out to be a slightly gimmicky monster that's only good enough for one set-piece - it's heavily flagged as being crucial to the villain's plot, but it's actually pretty irrelevant. The ending also goes on a few minutes more than it needs to.
A more serious deficiency is that Clara's fate is a jolt, but not in a good way. It happens because the Doctor's showing off while being unbelievably careless and, worse, he never really acknowledges this. There's also a really unpleasant implication at the end that, because there's another Clara, this one doesn't really count. Not only is that fairly tasteless in its own right, it also kicks off the recurring problem of Clara being a plot tangle rather than a real person.
All that said, look at what this story achieves. It takes a Doctor who's effectively in mourning, unconcerned with the world, and by the end turns him into an excited kid off to find a new adventure. That's a pretty full-on character transition, and the story pulls it off without struggling to meet its crowd-pleasing "It's Christmas!" job. It also turns three one-off characters into a recurring fixture, launches both the main villain and the main mystery of the forthcoming season and gives a real sense of the new beginning even through its aesthetic touches (the Doctor in a new costume with a redesigned TARDIS). Impressive.
However, that diagnosis views the story as a device for progressing the season's arc-plot, and I think that does it a disservice. I've already invoked an Asylum of the Daleks comparison, and you can view that story, The Snowmen and The Bells of Saint John as a loose "Introducing Clara" trilogy. All those stories have a similar feel - rapidly changing settings, relentless pace, vivid adversaries and that dark-haired girl with the pretty face popping up in each one. And yet - although it's hard to say exactly why - The Snowmen is so much more involving than Asylum of the Daleks. It feels pacy where Asylum felt well-assembled, exciting where Asylum felt slickly-engineered, and it has an ending that makes you go "wheee, great!" instead of "yes, they put that together very well."
Executive summary? Mr Moffat, this is your mojo; mojo, this is Mr Moffat. Oh, you two know each other? Well, nice to see you together again. You seem so well suited.
I'm the clever one, you're the potato one! by Evan Weston 12/1/20
The Snowmen, despite being a Christmas special, also serves as a major milestone in the history of Doctor Who, for more than one reason. It's the first episode of the Steven Moffat era not to include Amy Pond in any way, marking a new stage for the show. It's also the first episode in the buildup towards the show's 50th Anniversary in November 2013, perhaps the most important event in new series history. Not since The Eleventh Hour has an episode carried this much weight, and, while it's not close to perfect, The Snowmen is a beautiful-looking and engaging story that sits high in the Doctor Who Christmas special rankings.
The big draw of this one from a viewership standpoint was the official introduction of Jenna Coleman as new companion Clara, the first companion in new Who not to come from the 21st Century. Wait, they lied about that? Oof. The prospect of this Victorian Clara becoming the new companion is extremely intriguing, and the bait and switch Moffat pulls at the end of the story feels a bit cheap and safe. In the end, Coleman serves a similar role to the one she took on in Asylum of the Daleks, and if Oswin Oswald is a bit hard to top, Victorian Clara is a well-rounded and enjoyable character. Coleman gets to switch between two accents, and her cockney in particular is good fun. She also makes you understand the depth of the character, something that she has trouble with once 2013 Clara is introduced in The Bells of Saint John. She's also even better looking than Karen Gillan, if that's possible, and that doesn't hurt her charm. Saul Metzstein brings out the best in her from behind the camera, even if there's a gratuitous breast shot at one point.
We also have the return of the Paternoster Gang, last seen in the dreadful Series 6 story A Good Man Goes to War. While there they were merely interesting plot devices, Moffat decides to flesh them out in The Snowmen. Vastra and Jenny are fine, but the real highlight is Dan Starkey's Strax, who was funny in A Good Man Goes to War but is utterly hilarious in The Snowmen. This is a dark story, and we'll talk about that in a moment, but Strax is the most important element in keeping The Snowmen light enough to digest after Christmas dinner. His interplay with the Doctor and the human characters is hysterical, and I could probably stand to watch a half-hour sitcom of just him and the Doctor verbally sparring.
Speaking of the titular Time Lord, Matt Smith does his fair share of moping and sulking in The Snowmen, which seems logical following the events of The Angels Take Manhattan. Often the Doctor gets over his lost companions a bit too quickly (see The Next Doctor), but here he's absolutely distraught, and Smith sells it perfectly. I'm not sure I believe the Doctor would go totally in the dark and stop travelling, but the choice works out. His slow return to action is perfectly chronicled by Moffat, and it's lovely to see Clara bring out the best in him. "I never know what, I only know who," he says to her, and it's the best part of the whole thing.
Less memorable but still solid are the villains, which are many in number and all lovingly produced. The head honcho, and perhaps Doctor Who's greatest casting coup of all time, is none other than Sir Ian McKellen himself voicing The Great Intelligence, the old Second Doctor villain who gets an origin story here. It's maybe an element too much in a story filled with important things, but McKellen's deep, steely voice is perfect for the part, and it certainly convinces as a heavy that will play the Big Bad for the rest of the series. The references to the London Underground are a nice callback to the classics, as well. Richard E. Grant gets a bit less to do than you'd think as the GI's henchman, Dr. Simeon, but he's nasty enough, I suppose. The CGI Ice Governess is creepy as hell, and she's a particularly impressive creation from The Mill. They also do nice work with the Snowmen, which maybe don't earn their place in the title but still do nicely as monsters.
The real victory in The Snowmen, beyond the individual elements, is the production, which manages to top even The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe for sheer beauty. Moffat and the producers have nailed the dark Christmas special aesthetic, and the third time is the best of all. Victorian London looks absolutely enchanting, the costumes are ornate and gorgeous, the special effects are divine (the TARDIS floating on a cloud in the sky is incredible), and the editing from William Oswald is crisp and energized, slowing down the pace from the early part of the series while also keeping things moving along. Doctor Who on a big budget can be something truly spectacular, and Series 7 exemplifies this throughout, but none do it better than The Snowmen.
Where we run into problems, and they are numerous, is with the plot, which admittedly is the hardest thing to get right. Still, the story in The Snowmen is way too thin to hold up for an hour, and the last act is very messy. The Great Intelligence's plan revolves almost entirely around the Ice Governess in the pond, a plot development which we figure out five minutes into the story. While the character work is strong, there just isn't enough happening to hold on through the running time. The Latimer family is never even vaguely interesting, and there isn't any twist in the plot that keeps you focused on the narrative. The best event episodes of Doctor Who have plots good enough to carry the character lifting, and The Snowmen is not one of them.
This makes the ending quite sloppy indeed. The Great Intelligence's final stand is a bit inelegant, but it works, especially with frozen-over Richard E. Grant going berserk on the Doctor. What doesn't work, though, is Clara's death, which is a sad moment but one milked for way too much pathos and done explicitly to set up the season-long mystery. It's transparent plotting, and it leaves a dry taste in your mouth. This doesn't quite have the effect of upstaging what The Snowmen does right, and Smith and Coleman (along with a wonderfully subdued Starkey) do their best to fight through it, but it's just a bit overboard with the timey-wimey.
The ending also helps force down the dark tone, which for the second straight Christmas dominates the story. Strax, as I said before, goes a long way into keeping things lighter, as does Coleman's bouncy performance, but the base ingredients here are childhood playthings turned into hungry nightmares and a Doctor who doesn't give a damn about humanity. Just when things are looking up, Clara's death throws things back into despair, and while the ending tries to get you pumped for the remainder of the series, it's a little too much "all the feels" and not quite enough Christmas joy. A Christmas Carol struck the right balance in this regard, and Moffat has been hunting for it ever since.
The Snowmen holds up as the second-best Doctor Who Christmas special to date (not counting The End of Time), thanks to its extremely strong individual elements and gorgeous production. And really, the plot isn't any worse than in something like Voyage of the Damned, and the tone works in its favor just as often as it works against it. The Snowmen is still a successful story that checks the boxes it needs to, even if it does so a bit clumsily. Heavy-lifting episodes of Doctor Who are not easy to pull off, and the show is getting better and better at not blowing them.