THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THIS YEAR’S DOCTOR WHO CHRISTMAS SPECIAL. DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU’VE WATCHED OR YOU DON’T MIND BEING SPOILED. GOOD DAY.
As I said in my recent rundown of the previous Doctor Who Christmas specials, some of them are more Christmassy than others, and some are good and others are not so good. Very few of them, though, have been legitimately scary and exciting on top of being incredibly festive and full of holiday cheer. This year’s Doctor Who special, “Last Christmas,” perhaps in keeping with new Doctor Peter Capaldi’s overall tone, was all about perception and thinking and horrible death and dealing with loss and making amends. Quite a lot to accomplish on a day when most people in the UK are pissed on mulled wine and up to their gizzards in turkey and dressing. And I still super don’t get the tangerine thing.
In ten years of Christmas specials, the series has never actually tackled Santa Claus himself, but it was entirely worth the wait, especially played by the brilliant Nick Frost. His presence is important and Moffat, for all his faults, does a really smart thing with the character of Santa, making us at once believe in him and tell us that he’s a dream. At one point, the character of Shona (Faye Marsay) says he’s a dream who protects them. Yep. Santa Claus is the sum total of everything that made us feel safe (most of us) when we were kids. Naturally he’d be a badass and a weirdo, and explain how everything Santa-related works in a funny but completely logical way. His elves, Ian and Wolf (played by Dan Starkey and Nathan McMullen, respectively), are also a lot of fun and compliment the silliness of the whole shebang quite well. Oh, and I guess people getting tangerines is a British thing. Completely lost on me.
Anyway, to the story itself. It’s essentially Inception meets Alien, but instead of pretending that these comparisons aren’t there, Moffat steers into them by having Professor Albert (Michael Troughton…yes, Patrick’s son) call out the dream crabs for looking like the xenomorph facehuggers, which allows for the Doctor to say “There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive; no wonder you get invaded all the time,” which may well be my new favorite line. HA! Instead of laying eggs in people’s chests, these dream crabs slowly feed on the liquefied brains of their victims while lulling them into a pleasant and happy dreamscape. But, we soon learn, the dreams are many, many layers deep and the only thing that can help them get out of it is the image of Old Saint Nick.
This episode doesn’t shy away from dealing with the mutual lie told by Clara and the Doctor in the belief that it would make the other happy. (In my recent interview with Moffat, he said it was just because they both think they know best.) Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) makes a return in Clara’s initial (or we think initial) dream after being attacked by the crab and it’s seemingly perfect. He gives Clara everything she always wanted and it’s idyllic. But, when the Doctor arrives to pull her out of this dream, we find that Danny in her subconscious is still as noble and heroic as he was when he was a dead Cyberman, and even before. This was a good moment for me because it never made Danny a villain, or the personification of the crabs or anything like that. It kept him the way he was, even if that wasn’t always the best part of Series 8. It also gave a bit of closure for Clara and her grieving, with him telling her she only gets 5 minutes a day to be sad. Even if this ultimately was just a mental projection, it thematically worked.
One of the many problems with having dreams in television is, and the Doctor quite rightly says this, that we never actually know whether we’re still dreaming or if we’re awake. We can’t know that because dreams seem so real at the time. Although, much like the fear/dream of someone grabbing their feet under the bed that he talks about in “Listen,” I’m usually pretty good at knowing when something’s a dream. Or am I? Is this a dream? Am I asleep? Is this just a really boring and mundane dream where I’m sitting at my mom’s house writing a review of a TV show I just watched, that might also have been a dream…? Have I never actually seen Doctor Who? AM I A HOTEL?!?!?!? ….
Nah, probably not. At any rate, the problem with having your narrative revolve around dreams is that the logic kind of doesn’t need to stay consistent. At the beginning of the episode, for instance, it’s established that the dream crabs only become active if you’re looking at or thinking about them, but why would a species that feeds on people and relies on them being in blissful ignorance make people think they’re in a base at the North Pole with horrible scary creatures? Likewise, once we get the idea that if you wake up from the dream and the crabs turn into vampire dust, how would they know that that actually happens in real life? Unless it’s just because the Doctor’s there and he knows all sorts of things and they’re in a dream gestalt so it’s fine. The rules of the dream change throughout, and generally I call that lazy writing or plot conveniences, it’s actually completely fine within the tenets of it being dream logic. It’s the get-out-of-jail-free card of storytelling.
And because of this, Moffat gives us a double ending, to trick us. The Doctor (who was apparently on some volcanic planet when he wakes up) thinks he’s waking Clara up and he’s missed 62 years of her life and she’s an old woman now. If Jenna Coleman were leaving the show, this would be a very convenient/narratively sound way to do it. BUT, this is Doctor Who at Christmas about dreams, so it turns out all of that was also a dream and she’s actually still her same age. It’s a second chance that the Doctor doesn’t normally get (thanks Santa) and he and Clara run off in the TARDIS, and to drive the point home further, the final chyron says “The Doctor and Clara Will Return Next Year in ‘The Magician’s Apprentice'” so, at least for one more episode, Coleman’s not going anywhere. BUT, the speculation was rampant, wasn’t it? She might still leave, but it isn’t right now.
Oh, and as for “The Magician’s Apprentice”: through the whole episode, the Doctor is referred to as a magician, or wearing magician’s clothes, so is the title about him and his apprentice, Clara? Or is it about his new apprentice, whomever that might be, and Clara will in fact be gone at the beginning of next year? Oh, dammit, Moff! Why can’t you just tell us things?!?
All in all, I quite enjoyed “Last Christmas.” It was meatier than your average holiday special and wasn’t as schmaltzy as some, although it still had its fair share of schmaltz. Frost was fantastic and it makes me want him to come back again next Christmas. Every Christmas is the last one, so there’s no saying he can’t come back. After last year’s “The Time of the Doctor,” which had to wrap up Matt Smith’s whole tenure, it was nice to have a proper Doctor Who episode that just happens to take place at Christmas. Despite its plot wiggliness it was a damn fine way to spend an hour on the 25th of December.