Doctor Who #960: Last Christmas

"You know what the big problem is in telling fantasy and reality apart? They’re both ridiculous."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Dec.25 2014.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor and Clara fight dream crabs with Santa Claus' help.

REVIEW: Steven Moffat has often hinted that the Doctor was Santa Claus somehow. He's finally gotten Santa into a story, but thankfully, he's no Time Lord. It's a lot more clever than that, and a major case of having your Christmas log and eating it too. Santa is either a figment of humanity's shared imagination, appearing only in dream sequences, or he's somehow "real" and can enter our dreams as easily as he does our chimneys. He admits he's a dream, but an active one who is there to literally protect the other characters' psyche. The hint that he also exists in the real world - the shot of a tangerine at the very end - is a classic Christmas trope, but it's probably the real piece of fruit that filtered into the dream, just as Shona's Christmas viewing list (Alien, The Thing, Miracle on 34th Street, what, no Inception? And imagine if the dream had taken Game of Thrones as a template instead) became the background for the story. So then are the dream crabs real? Because they're heavily inspired by the Ridley Scott classic Shona was about to watch! Were the crabs drawn to her because of this? In a story where the clearly fictional Santa calls the Doctor out for his own absurd fictionality, there's really no figuring out who's real and who isn't, because - surprise! - none of it is real. Just sit back and enjoy the show, kids. And that's not a bad theme for a Christmas special.

I, for one, enjoyed it tremendously, and laughed more than I have at any Doctor Who episode since I don't know when. Perhaps ever. Nick Frost (yet another Spaced alumni, collect the whole set!) is a fun Father Christmas, tapping into his talent for portraying heartwarming comic caricatures. He's an absurd action hero, riding a red-nosed reindeer and commanding an army of toys. He has an answer for everything, usually delivered in the tone one would use to debunk his existence. "So one day your parents just decided to give you toys?! Ridiculous!" The comedy elves - one of them played by Dan "Strax" Starkey in far less make-up, fun! - aren't bad either. Favorite jokes include the elves calling Clara out on her height (who's she calling an elf?), dream Danny remembered an inch taller, and - oh my yes - Santa giving his impression of the Doctor's technobabble (it's all dreamy-weamy). Those jokes worked the second time around, no problem. Too many Easter jokes though, they were repetitive. But generally, there's a real sense of fun, from the snowy take on the opening credits to the release of tension when the Doctor gets to drive Santa's sleigh, laughing like a little kid.

The comedy wouldn't work quite as well without a fair bit of fear and tragedy. The former is supplied by the setting and the monsters - nice atmosphere, creepy monster effects, Moffat's patented "don't think about the monster because that's what makes it come for you" (don't think, don't even think), the cool blackboard bit, the existential horror of waking up inside another dream, lines with double meanings (don't protect your ego), and so on. The latter is all about providing a coda to the Danny Pink story arc, and giving Clara and Danny a proper goodbye, unhindered by Cyberman make-up and lack of emotion. This isn't the real Danny (although you could say it is because he's still trapped in the Master's Matrix, which could well filter through the TARDIS' telepathic circuit to someone who's interfaced so directly with it...), he's an idealized version of him. We like him better. He's wiser, he's more touching, he's... uhm, taller. We see what domestic bliss might have meant for these two, but of course, it's just a dream. Perhaps "just" isn't doing it justice. The Danny in Clara's mind will eventually need to sacrifice himself for her, and willingly puts an end to that layer of the dream, to save her. This is the Danny Pink I want to remember. And of course, Jenna Coleman really brings it, here and in the earlier scene where she finally tells the Doctor Danny wasn't resurrected as she'd claimed.

There are a lot of red herrings in Last Christmas, obviously. Dreams within dreams within dreams, and I've read some complaints (it's not Doctor Who fandom if it doesn't complain) that it makes the episode pointless and tedious. I don't agree. It's not a Superman Silver Age story where "it was all a dream" is the solution to an unresolvable story. Rather, the dream state is the problem and a very real threat. Watching it a second time, you'll notice the Doctor starts talking about this danger and the fact that they're all dying very early in the story. Then seems to ignore it before figuring it out again. Other characters mention dreaming and dying as well. The plot holes, so to speak, are all part of the game, of the dream logic. You're distracted by spectacle - a sudden attack, Santa comedy, etc. - and forget the ominous bits. That rather defines modern Doctor Who, doesn't it? One particular fake-out concerns Clara's continued presence on the show. With a title like that, and rumors of Jenna Coleman's possible departure flying in the tabloids, many expected this to be Clara's last story. While I realize now that Shona was meant to be dangled as a possible replacement, à la Lynda with a Y, that didn't come across on first viewing. Part of it is that I had been inconveniently spoiled on this point, but though Shona was a fun character, she was as much comic relief as the elves. But there's no question the scene where Clara wakes up from her dream 62 years after the events of Death in Heaven was meant to be a possible ending for the character. Midway between Sarah Jane Smith and Jo Grant, Clara would have lived a long and interesting life. But they hit the reset button and Clara will stay on as companion. I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, I love Clara and especially love her dynamic with the 12th Doctor. Her return isn't unjustified, it comes through catharsis (and it's nice to see Shona also had a bit of that in her storyline, as faux-companion) and learning to accept her reality, which is true to the theme of Last Christmas. On the other, it's a bit of a cop-out that diminishes what power Death in Heaven had (and I wasn't its greatest fan to begin with), and seems to kill off the notion that Clara might be pregnant with Danny's baby.

So the big question is, when does the shared dream begin? If anything with Santa is a dream, then it began during Death in Heaven's final credits when he showed up to tell the Doctor it "couldn't end this way". So was there a dream crab aboard the TARDIS and it jumped the Doctor just after the café scene? Well, not exactly, because when we see the Doctor wake up, he's on the volcano set from Dark Water. Sure, this could be another planet that looks just like it, no doubt filmed at that time to save money, but same lighting and everything? The dialog tells us (very quickly, easy to miss) that the Doctor was the first infected and that his dreams led them to Clara, the others merely collateral damage along the way. We don't know anything about these creatures, they may well be able to manifest - be born or transported - through dreams, gaining solidity and reality as the dreamer thinks about them. You start out dreaming of them and wake up (or actually, never wake up if they have their way) with a crab on your face. They don't so much die and turn to dust as return to the dreaming, some "potential" existence. Now back to Dark Water and the volcano scene, which itself is just a dream created by the Doctor's hypnotic sleep-patches. Are we now to understand the Doctor and Clara never came out of the volcano dream, and that's happened from then on is a dream? It can't be, because the two dreamers weren't in every scene, and it really would't do suddenly reveal, say at the end of Season 9, that vast parcels of the show never happened. This is a thematic conceit: Moffat is playing with the concept of suspension of disbelief and the idea that fiction is ALL a dream, planting these ideas in our heads through ambiguities. But by all means, if you didn't like something that's happened since "volcano day", chalk it up to "it was all a dream". ;-)

- Hugely entertaining, Last Christmas nevertheless seems to chicken out on Clara's proper ending.


Anonymous said...

I was genuinely scared that this was going to be Clara's end when she was old, so Santa's arrival was quite possibly the most emotionally uplifting thing I've seen Moffat do. He's done things that have made me very happy (the saving of Galifrey, Madge's husband following her home in his shot-up bomber), but never before has it been compressed so tightly as to be figuratively explosive.

Sadly, someone did die this episode -- this wasn't an "everybody lives" scenario -- and the person who died was Patrick Troughton's son. I have to believe he specifically asked to be the victim of the week, otherwise I can't imagine them treating a former doctor's child so cavalierly. Peter Davison's daughter got treated a whole lot better, you may recall.

I'm still hoping that Danny Pink will return somehow, because there's the small matter of our having seen his descendant, and I don't much like the idea of Clara currently carrying his child. I'd be very pleased to see, a year from now, that they manage to pop Danny out of the matrix, and the Doctor actively encourages Clara to stay with him because they're meant to be. Not a bittersweet parting but a joyful, enthusiastic one.

Would not mind seeing Shona again. Madge Arwell too, though apparently I'm the only person anywhere who loved that episode.

"rkuythy rvlnchn" -- not particularly Welsh sounding this time, needs a few more L's, M's, and Y's.

Ryan Lohner said...

This is absolutely Moffat playing to his strengths as a writer, like I noted in Listen. A one-off hour long story where he just has to fill the time being creepy and witty, and it works beautifully.

Word is (as far as I can tell it's only appeared in British tabloids, but they've been right about this kind of thing before) this really was going to be Clara's exit as she died from old age, but then Jenna decided late in the production that she'd like to stay a bit longer (Search for Spock Syndrome, as it were). Whatever the reason, the character improved by leaps and bounds this last season and I'm thrilled we get more of her.

Anonymous said...

"Whatever the reason, the character improved by leaps and bounds this last season and I'm thrilled we get more of her."

Holy hell yes, the chemistry between Coleman and Capaldi is not the sort of thing you get every day, it would be a real shame to lose it. There may be a day when Clara is played out, but that day is not yet upon us.

"lntryyt ccurtwr" - the quarry where 75% of "Doctor Who" episodes are filmed

Siskoid said...

My feeling exactly. THIS Clara has only been around one season. Matt Smith's Clara was some generic other character.

LiamKav said...

Clare is definitely winning the award for "most improved companion". Who'd have thought giving her a personality would be better than having her be "impossible" and "magical" and "oh so amazing". (Although to be fair, there were hints, such as her bitchy reaction to the Tardis producing an image of herself during "Hide").

One thing I only realised with hindsight... when the Doctor asks Clara to pick a number for a final time, and to "make it a good one", I said "twelve" out loud just before she did, and I have no idea why. I've only just twigged that she was responding to the Twelth Doctor (and he's a "good one". Aww.)

Siskoid said...

That is an amazing moment! I hadn't noticed it before!

Unknown said...

In regards to your theory about when the dream began I believe that this is just a plot hole, again :) I think the events of the final two episodes still stand proved by Danny still being dead. I really do hope that Orson Pink's line is explained, whether that be by Clara's pregnancy or by that timeline being verbally discounted somehow. Great review btw :)


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