DOCTOR WHO: “Last Christmas”

It’s a surprisingly successful mashup of various sci-fi and Moffat-y tropes, resulting in one of Doctor Who‘s better Christmas specials — and certainly its most complex.

There’s a horror movie called ‘Alien?’ Ooh, that’s really offensive–no wonder they keep invading you!

–The Doctor

Clara wakes up in the middle of the night; judging by the Christmas tree in the window, it must be Christmas Eve. (It always is, when there’s a Christmas tree in the window.) In her nightie and slippers, she pads to the roof of her flat, where she sees none other than Santa Claus, arguing with a couple of snarky elves, as reindeer fly around untethered. Even given all that Clara has experienced in her TARDIS adventures, this is a little bit much. Santa can’t be real…can he? “I grew out of fairy tales,” she tells St. Nick, remembering how she left things with the Doctor an undetermined amount of time ago. “Did you, Clara? Did you really?”

Wisely, the central question of “Last Christmas” is not of whether or not Santa Claus is real. Unlike “Robot of Sherwood,” the Doctor’s encounter with a fictional character does not leave any ambiguity or debate. Where that earlier episode (one of this season’s few duds) found the Doctor struggling to accept the existence of a real Robin Hood, this time the Doctor already knows the truth — this Santa is a construct of our subconscious, here to help Clara and the polar scientists navigate the dream world they are unknowingly in — and he’s waiting for everyone else to catch up.

That doesn’t stop Moffat from having a ton of fun with the idea, however — and hiring one of my favorite actors, Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) to play Father Christmas goes beyond simple stunt-casting. Frost really earns that third billing; he’s affable and quick-witted, flipping between avuncular warmth and wise-ass snark from moment to moment. (And maybe it’s the beard, but Frost reminded me a lot of Mark Addy, too.) Before we learn the truth, we almost wonder if the talk of magic carrots and literal North Poles isn’t Moffat jumping the shark (again?) before our eyes. “How do you fit all those presents on the sleigh?” the Doctor asks. “Bigger on the inside,” Santa answers with a wink.

What’s real, and what isn’t? Shortly after plucking Clara off her rooftop and bringing her to the research base deep in the Arctic where (what else) the fate of humanity is at stake, the Doctor warns her not to trust anything she sees. The pair find a quartet of scientists, one of whom (Shona, played with carefree Northern spunk by Faye Marsay) not seeming to belong there at all. When asked what the team’s mission is, they all give the same response: “It’s a long story,” which first seems like a bit of throwaway quirk until we learn the purpose behind it. But they have a very real problem in the Monsters of the Week: “Dream Crabs,” who latch on to an unsuspecting human’s face and put you to sleep in an elaborate dream world, pacifying and distracting you while it slowly drinks your brain like a milkshake. Nasty pieces of work.

(But for what it’s worth, Moffat, having a character call the crabs out for their resemblance to the “face huggers” of Alien doesn’t mean you’ve actually gotten away with the resemblance. They are almost exactly the same.)

Anyway, it’s also here that Moffat re-uses one of his favorite concepts, reducing the threat to a simple command: this time, it’s “Don’t Think.” Once the dream crabs know you’re thinking about them, they come in for the attack, “hacking” into your brain. Which is exactly what happens to Clara, where she suddenly wakes up in bed on Christmas Day, only Danny is there, and it’s all a little too perfect (except for the Doctor’s chalkboard shouting at her “YOU ARE DYING,” a cleverly creepy touch). The Doctor’s appearance at her front door — the real Doctor, sharing her dream — is the impetus Clara needs to pull herself out, once she is finally able to give Danny the goodbye he deserves. Sure, Danny’s not real, but the sentiment is, and you didn’t really think Moffat would have left things as downbeat as they were in “Death in Heaven,” did you? (Don’t answer that.)

I don’t want to give this moment short shrift here, because it’s actually quite effective, and well-seeded by Clara and the Doctor’s earlier confrontation when they each tell the other they were lying in that cafe. There’s nothing about Dream Danny that rings false, so we buy it when he tells the Doctor that he didn’t die saving the world, but just saving Clara: “the rest of you just got lucky.” And when he tells Clara that when this is over she’s still allowed to miss him, but only “for five minutes a day” — well, that’s exactly what she needs to hear, even if it’s coming from herself. Then Clara wakes herself up, and the crab dissolves in a puff of ash.

So “Last Christmas” a little bit Alien, a little bit The Thing, and a LOT Inception. Not only does Moffat utilize the dreams-within-dreams conceit (again, don’t trust anything, including the arctic base), but how our minds work when we’re dreaming, making mere minutes seem like hours (or years, as we see later.) Even with all the fake-outs and switchbacks Moffat throws at us in the final 15 minutes, it’s hard to shake how familiar it all feels. But it’s still a fun story to bring into Doctor Who, and mixed in with all of those other elements — especially Santa Claus — it works well enough in spite of that familiarity. In Inception, Limbo was a crumbling seaside metropolis. Here, it’s flying through the air in Santa’s sleigh, which is something even the grumpy Twelfth Doctor can get behind. (I’m also glad they didn’t even feint towards everything being his dream. That would have been annoying.) 

When Clara finally asks the question we’ve all been asking — “If Santa was only in the dream, why was he on my roof?” — things kick into high gear, with a furious chase and escape, and dream logic once again bringing St. Nick to rescue them. Now that they all know everything is a dream, one by one the remaining side characters slip away to whatever place and time they came from — even Shona, one of the more memorable one-off characters in recent Who, who wakes up on her couch, poignantly alone on Christmas Eve. (It seems she bears some responsibility for events, as she got dream-crabbed after watching Alien and Miracle on 34th Street, but before her Game of Thrones marathon. A pity we didn’t get to see that.)

But it’s Clara, who doesn’t want to wake up — “Every Christmas is last Christmas,” she tells herself — that provides the episode’s hardest punch, even if it’s pulled back at the last instant. When the Doctor barges into her bedroom and pulls her dream crab off himself, we learn that Clara has aged 62 years since he last saw her — the whole time, the Doctor only saw Clara how he remembered her, so that’s how we saw her too. But once I got over the initial shock, I warmed to this melancholy conclusion to Clara’s story. Much like Amy Pond, she had lived a life…but unlike Amy, she never had another man in it; no one ever replaced Danny, nor the “impossible” one in the blue box. It’s a sad grace note, but a sweet one, and it really felt like the right way to send out Jenna Coleman. (That, and that hug she gives him on the sleigh, coaxing what looked like a genuine smile out of this Doctor for the first time.)

Until, of course, Moffat walks that back, too. This world isn’t real, either; the young Clara we all know is still there, still dreaming — her subconscious has aged 62 years, not her body. So the Doctor rescues her again, and a deliriously happy Clara, who feels like she hasn’t seen him for a lifetime, is eager to run back to the TARDIS with him for more adventures. “The Doctor and Clara will return,” the final card says.

Look, I enjoyed this episode. It was funny and creepy, and seasonal without being ham-fisted. (And it’s certainly galaxies better than last year’s special. I’d probably rank it second overall, behind Season 6’s splendid “A Christmas Carol.”) But it falls just short of an A-grade because of what I can only assume is behind-the-scenes indecision. If the rumors are true — if the “old Clara” ending was the real ending until Jenna Coleman changed her mind at the last moment, forcing the final twist — I’m happy for her, but frustrated from a storytelling standpoint. What will Moffat have to cook up for her next season (which will be her last, she says), that will be more satisfying? And hey, now that we’ve got the time, isn’t she supposed to be pregnant?

Grade: B+

Timey-Wimey Bits:

  • I wonder if they weren’t setting Shona up as a possible future companion. She made a strong first impression dancing through the infirmary, bounced well off of everyone in the cast, and I think she and Capaldi would be a fun pair. (My lips to Moffat’s ears, I know.)
  • “It’s a skeleton man and a girl in a nightie!”
  • I loved what Murray Gold did with the music in Clara’s “Danny Dream.” Unsettlingly weird, and very cool. Season 8 as a whole has excelled in the smaller, creepier moments.
  • Territorial Doctor: “No, Santa Claus does NOT do the scientific explanation!” “Oh,” Santa fires back, “The Doctor would just say ‘it’s all a bit dreamy-weamy!'”
  • Which is harder to believe: that the tangerine in the final shot really was left by Santa, or that the fruit really is a popular Christmas gift in Britain?
  • “Hey! That’s elf-ist!”

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