Written by Stephen Moffat
Directed by Paul Wilmshurst
Starring: Peter Capaldi (The Doctor); Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald); Nick Frost (Santa Claus); Samuel Anderson (Danny Pink); Michael Troughton (Prof. Albert Smithe); Faye Marsay (Shona McCullough); Natalie Gumede (Ashley Carter); Maureen Beattie (Fiona Bellows); Dan Starkey (Ian) & Nathan McMullen (Wolf)
Here there be SPOILERS
There’s a few things we need to get straight before we tuck into the latest Christmas episode of Doctor Who. First of all, in my review of the last episode of the show, Death In Heaven, I referred to it as the series finale, and a flawed one at that, one that left an uncertain taste in my mouth. Now that wasn’t really my fault since the thirteenth episode of any series of Doctor Who is always considered the series finale (and it is the final episode on the series 8 boxset). Make no mistake, it is Last Christmas that is the actual finale to series 8 as it brings the audience to the place where they wanted to be but found themselves far from at the conclusion of Death In Heaven. There’s one other thing you need to know about your reviewer: he thinks, with all his heart, that Inception (2010) is the most pretentious piece of crap that has ever graced the silver screen. What does that have to do with Last Christmas? Well… read on and let’s see.
Last Christmas throws us into the silly end of the pool immediately (but since it is a holiday special, we certainly can’t complain); when up from the roof arises such a clatter, Clara springs from her bed to see what’s the matter. The next few lines of that famous poem hold true throughout the pre-credit sequence; up on the rooftop (click, click, click) are elves, flying reindeer and good St. Nick (Nick Frost, the name of a man who was born to play this part). He hems and haws about being a figment of her imagination, but he finally has to come clean: he’s Santa. As someone who’s met Robin Hood, Clara takes it all in stride until a familiar sound turns her head. The TARDIS appears, the Doctor emerges, he tells the speechless girl to get into the TARDIS, and she obeys. So begins the episode on a jolly and festive note, but I’d been hearing reports that this holiday episode was reportedly too scary for some children. How are we ever going to get to the action when we’re left with Santa holding his trusty nectarine?
The action cuts to an expedition base at the North Pole where three scientists are trying to guide their fourth colleague Shona (Faye Marsay) into the infirmary where four more of their colleagues are laying on beds with horrific-looking creatures on their faces. From what we can glean from the scientists, the only way to keep the creatures at bay is to not think about them. To that goal, Shona dances goofily past them to a Christmas Carol, but when the Doctor and Clara blunder in, they break her concentration and that’s when more creatures descend from the ceiling to get them all! Just when it looks bad, Santa comes riding in on Rudolph to save the day. It all happens so fast and with so much good old fashioned Christmas whimsy (Santa’s arrival is preceded by an army of slinkies and toy robots) that we never get around to questioning it, which was exactly what mean ol’ Mr. Moffat is counting on. And now here comes the Doctor to identify the creatures: Dream Crabs. Once attaching themselves to your face like the face-hugger from Alien (which is noted by Prof. Smithe, prompting the Doctor to say “You got a horror movie called Alien? That’s so offensive! No wonder you’re always getting invaded!”) it puts it’s victim in a dream state, keeping him or her distracted while they slowly eat their victim’s brain. The only thing that can defeat the crabs is for their victim to wake up, which is unlikely considering the authenticity of the dream. And that’s when the Doctor evokes the episode’s other influence, Christopher Nolan’s Inception; he warns everyone not to trust anything they see… it just might be a dream.
Now, the thing you have to remember about Inception is that it is a highly imaginative film, a film with a sound and creative concept that is awash in impossible and memorable images. It is also a film looking for a story interesting enough to sustain its concept. It is a film so ridiculously complex that it needs pages upon pages of dialog to set it up (and doesn’t quite succeed) and, despite all the dream-layers and CGI action sequences at each one, it is ultimately about nothing more important than a corporate takeover (and the film even puts us in the position of cheering for the bad guys). The film is so proud of its own concepts that it hasn’t given us a single character to invest in and ultimately falls flat in its own puddle of pretention. And Last Christmas is using this film as its jumping-off point. So what does Mr. Moffat do? He does exactly what Mr. Nolan should have done with his film; he’s streamlined the entire concept and populated it with people worth caring about and given us an easy-to-follow plotline to challenge them… and with a wise-cracking Santa thrown into the mix. Not all of the expedition are fully drawn characters, there simply isn’t enough time, but we do have Shona, whose dance endears her to the viewer and who seems to be more interested in talking to Santa than working out how to save herself and who, when it looks as if the team will finally wake up from their nightmare and go back home, desperately tries to collect everyone’s phone numbers so that they can stay in touch. Upon waking, we find that Shona is an apparently lonely young woman, on the outs with boyfriend and planning to spend her Christmas immersed in a Game Of Thrones marathon. Not everyone is as endearing as her (Ashley is the no-nonsense, quick-thinking one while other two scientists don’t have much, even though the Doctor refers to grandmother Fiona as “the sexy one”), but sometimes all it takes is one special character to hook your audience. And although the episode, like Inception, gives us multiple levels of dream scenarios, it never gets too complex or confusing to follow. Upon reflection, we probably should’ve realized that any sequence involving Santa was a dream, but Moffat wisely doesn’t introduce the Dream Crabs’ secret power until long after we’ve accepted Santa as an actual presence. Then we’re given Clara’s dream sequence, her Christmas morning with Danny, that we can easily see through. We feel confident that we’ll be able to tell dream from reality, but as the episode continues, dream after dream peels away like the layers of an onion.
Also impressive are the methods by which the Doctor is able to discern dream from reality. What a great idea for all four crew members to read the first word on the same page of four identical manuals, only to find they come up with four different words (Shona’s, tellingly, is “chocolate”), thereby exposing the dream state. Clara’s Christmas with Danny is full of good ideas, from blackboards that spell out the Doctor’s warnings to the Doctor allowing himself to become a victim of the Dream Crab in order to enter Clara’s dream, thereby introducing the concept of group dreaming (which, let’s face it, 90% of this episode is). Also enjoyable is Samuel Anderson’s brief turn (probably his last) as Danny, who seems less inhibited in Clara’s dream until, when he realizes that staying in the dream will kill her, he reverts to his brave and caring demeanor. And then there’s Santa Claus, played to the hilt by the aptly-named Nick Frost, who steals every scene he enters and provides the episode with the “Christmassy” feeling that it needs in order to be broadcast on December 25th. He’s full of jokes and trade secrets (when the Doctor asks him how he can get all those presents in the sleigh, he cheekily responds “It’s bigger on the inside.”) although I must say I’m completely done with the joke where something unlikely is locked with an electric keychain (the Doctor locked the TARDIS with one in The End Of Time and Madame Vastra locked her carriage in Deep Breath identically… enough already!).
Time to talk about the creatures themselves. As already mentioned, they are a knock-off from other well-known films, but their design is just the sort of thing that prompted rumors that the episode was too scary for children. Whether they are too scary for children is not a question I can answer, but I was perfectly fine with those lumpy dark mounds of alien flesh sitting contentedly on the characters’ faces, tunneling away (apparently) into their brains (I did feel a bit cheated to discover that there was no visible wound on their victims’ temples when they freed themselves but, hey, this is a children’s show after all). I noticed that Mr. Moffat even stole of bit from himself in regards to the Dream Crabs coming to life only when you start thinking about them. Remember that scene near the beginning when the Doctor is trying to force Clara to think of something else? Remind you of anything? Yep, Moffat wrote nearly the same exact situation into The Snowmen when the Doctor (then played by Matt Smith) tried to force Clara to defeat the living snow creatures by imagining them melting (our heroes got splashed by a torrent of water as a result). So while the Dream Crabs cannot be described as the most original creatures in the Doctor Who canon, they are marvelous in their execution.
But even in a Christmas episode as scary as this, it is a Christmas episode and we need to have some Yuletide joy. So, while it may be incredible silly to have the Doctor, Clara and the remaining scientists pile into Santa’s sleigh and take off into the wild blue yonder, it is a joyous few minutes of television. Santa hands the reigns to the Doctor and the usually stoic Time Lord has the time of his life piloting it around the skies of London (he drives it about as well as he drives the TARDIS, but no one seems to mind), he even accepts a hug from Clara! Then one by one, the passengers disappear, waking up in their home with the Dream Cabs turning to dust next to them. But the dream is so sweet that Clara resists waking from it. When the Doctor races to her bedside to relieve her of the creature, we find out why: Clara Oswald is eighty-nine years old, her adventurous days long-since past her. Although refreshingly free from regret or bitterness, we feel the sadness from the Doctor (helping her, like she did for him in The Time Of The Doctor, pull a Christmas cracker) who regrets all the times he could’ve spent with her having adventures. It is a bittersweet way to close a Christmas special. Or at least… it would be… if we didn’t discover that the Doctor and Clara are still dreaming! They awake again one last time and Clara is relieved to discover that she is 27 again. The Doctor is relieved too, so relieved that he’s going to open the doors of the TARDIS to her for another thirteen episodes. Clara, who is no fool, readily accepts and the two of them are off for another year of adventures.
In you haven’t gleaned it already from my tone, Last Christmas is a good, fun and scary episode, everything that we tune into Doctor Who for but have only been getting part of the time in the past year. It’s a relief to know that Clara will be returning for another series (her departure has been teased in the press for half a year now) because, as I noted in my review for Death In Heaven, Clara’s story didn’t seem finished yet. There is more for this young lady to achieve and, unlike Amy and Rory, it doesn’t feel like she has overstayed her welcome. Even better is that the Doctor seems to have turned a corner; his turn at the helm of Santa’s sleigh and his shock at discovering an elderly Clara who can no longer travel with him (apparently, the press were given preview copies that had Clara dying in the Doctor’s arms to fool them) has made him more appreciative of him diminutive friend and, dare I say, maybe a little bit more cheerful. There are many more things that need to be explored: is Missy gone for good (I think not) and what about the future existence of Orson Pink now that Danny is dead? There’s a lot more (at least thirteen more episodes) that these two need to experience. I can only hope that series nine will learn from the mistakes of series eight and give us a grand series of scares, fun, laughter and adventure from start to finish. If Last Christmas is any indication, we just might be in for one Hell of a ride.