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I finally had an opportunity to watch the new Doctor Who Christmas special, “Last Christmas” written by Steven Moffat and starring Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald, and Nick Frost as Santa Claus. Yes, “Last Christmas” actually features Santa Claus… well, kind of sort of. As a number of the characters in this episode comment, “It’s a long story.”
The tone of “Last Christmas” is interesting. It seems to draw influence from several different eras of Doctor Who: the “base under siege” serials of the late 1960s, the Gothic horror of the mid-1970s, the surreal, philosophical quality of the early 1980s, and the seasonal, celebratory quality of Moffat’s own past Christmas specials. Moffat’s writing on “Last Christmas” very effectively entwines these disparate elements, creating a strong, cohesive episode.
So, to try to make that “long story” short: Clara, now back on Earth in 2014, is awakened in the middle of the night on December 24th to discover that Santa Claus, his sleigh, reindeer, and two elves named Wolf and Ian have all crashed onto the roof of her building. Then the TARDIS reappears, and the Doctor urges her to ask no questions, and to get into his ship ASAP.
The two of them re-materialize at the North Pole, where a scientific expedition is under attack from alien life forms. Four of the eight members of the team have been infected by creatures that have latched onto their faces. It seems that the Doctor, Clara, and the other half of the team are going to meet with the same fate when Santa Claus, the elves, and an army of wind-up toys burst into the room, giving them all a chance to escape to another part of the base.
The Doctor identifies the creatures as Dream Crabs. They are telepathic parasites that latch onto a host and literally eat their victim’s brain. In order to render their victims compliant, the Dream Crabs “anesthetize” their hosts with incredibly realistic dreams.
The Dream Crabs bear a more than passing resemblance to a certain iconic sci-fi / horror creature designed by H.R. Giger. Moffat lampshades this with some very humorous dialogue…
Albert: They’re a bit like facehuggers aren’t they?
The Doctor: Facehuggers?
Albert: You know, Alien. The horror movie, Alien.
The Doctor: There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.
Clara is attacked by one of the Crabs, which creates a dream world where she is back at home, it is Christmas Morning, and her boyfriend Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) is still alive. It is exactly the sort of perfect, idyllic fantasy that she would never want to leave. The Doctor is unable to reach Clara with his telepathy; she keeps ignoring the messages he sends her brain, so caught up is she in the construct. The Doctor realizes his only hope is a desperate one: he allows himself to be infected by another one of the Crabs, which enables him to bring himself directly into Clara’s dream.
At first Clara refuses to listen to the Doctor. She will not accept that Danny is dead, even though the Doctor insists that her boyfriend sacrificed himself to save the Earth. And then, surprisingly, Dream Danny announces “I didn’t die saving the world, Doctor, I died saving Clara. The rest of you just got lucky.”
Obviously we all know that this isn’t the real Danny, that it is a fantasy. If Danny is agreeing with the Doctor that he really is dead, it is actually that part of Clara’s psyche which recognizes that this is all a fantasy and that is attempting to make her realize that she must reject it and wake up. But the dialogue between Clara and Dream Danny is so well written, and is played so well by Coleman and Anderson that it actually feels like Clara is having one final opportunity to see Danny, to find some closure. It’s a moving scene.
(And I’m relieved that we were not treated to some sort of deus ex machina where Danny was brought back to life. His death was tragic, but very dramatic. Returning him to life to give Clara a happy ending would have been a real cheat.)
This also reveals just how much the Doctor, beneath his cynical façade, really does care about Clara. He is willing to allow one of the Dream Crabs to infest his mind, risking his own death, in order to try to save Clara’s life.
Clara and the Doctor are able to escape from the dreamscape, and the Crabs fall off their faces, crumbling to dust. But then the Doctor begins to wonder if any of that was real. After all, everyone in the polar base should have been incapacitated by the Crabs when they attacked earlier; it was only Santa’s arrival that saved them. And where did Santa, a fantasy figure, come from? The Doctor guesses that they are all, in fact, trapped in a fantasy. “Dreams within dreams – dream states nested inside each other. All perfectly possible, especially when we are dealing with creatures who have weaponized our dreams against us.”
This is all confirmed by Santa and his two elves. “Oh, for Easter’s sake! Of course you’ve been dreaming! Haven’t you been paying attention? …How much more obvious do you want me to make it? Because I can text the Easter Bunny, you know.”
Santa is actually a dream construct that they have all created in order to protect them, to point out the unreality of what is taking place. Finally having convinced the others of what is going on, the Doctor, Clara and the four expedition members all wake up to find they are still being attacked by the Crabs. Once again they flee to safety, locking the Crabs in another part of the base.
The Doctor, ever impatient, is ready to leave the North Pole, convinced that the other four members of the expedition who are still infected by the Crabs are beyond help. But then Clara asks him, if Santa was nothing but a dream, then how was it possible for him to have been on her roof earlier. And it suddenly hits the Doctor: everything that has happened since he was first reunited with Clara has been a dream. It’s all been a fake.
Yeah, that never gets old!
The expedition to the North Pole never took place. The infected team members are actually the four people the Doctor and Clara met, all of them caught up in a shared fantasy created by the Crabs. None of them are scientists, but total strangers who have been separately attacked by the Crabs, drawn into this false reality. And the Doctor and Clara are themselves, respectively, back at the TARDIS and at home, each with a Crab latched to their faces.
Wow. To quote a line from Family Guy, “This whole place is a giant mind fuck!”
One of the Crab’s victims, Albert, is killed. The Doctor realized that if they do not all wake up immediately they are also doomed. Surrounded by zombie doppelgangers of themselves, the Doctor announces “Come on, it’s Christmas, the North Pole, who you gonna call?” Their combined willpower conjures up Santa Claus, who whisks them all away in his sleigh. And, one by one, each of them finally awakens back in their own separate, real lives.
It was revealing to see the reserved, solemn Doctor having a chance to take the reins of Santa’s sleigh and fly it through the skies above London. Capaldi acts very much like a giddy child. It’s one of those rare moments when we see the Doctor let down his guard, allow the weight of the world to slip off his shoulders, and genuinely have fun.
For a character that is (probably) not real, Santa Claus is a real joy. Nick Frost of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame is wonderful, having fun with the role. It was definitely perfect casting. Watching “Last Christmas,” I pondered how Frost’s frequent collaborator Simon Pegg sort of drew the short end up the stick when he appeared on Doctor Who a decade back in the underwhelming “The Long Game.” I hope one of these days Pegg has an opportunity to return to the show in a better episode.
The ending of “Last Christmas” has a bit more misdirection. At first it appears that it has actually been decades since the Doctor has last seen Clara, and that in the real world, awakened from the Dream Crabs’ fantasy, she is now an elderly woman. But this turns out to be one more dream-within-a-dream, and in fact it has only been a few weeks since the Doctor and Clara parted ways at the end of “Death in Heaven.”
From everything I’ve heard, the original ending of “Last Christmas” was going to have the Doctor saying goodbye to the now-old Clara. Jenna Coleman had tentative plans to leave the series with this episode, but then she changed her mind, necessitating a rewrite from Moffat that reunited the Doctor with a still-young Clara, who once again joins him on his travels in the TARDIS.
While the character of Clara was uneven over Series Eight, that was really down to inconsistent writing, one of the few weak points in an otherwise strong year. Coleman seemed to do the best with the material she was given. On the better-written episodes she definitely was great. So I do not mind seeing her stay on for another season, just so long as the quality of the writing is more consistent going forward. When they’ve been given really well-written scripts, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman have made a superb team.
“Last Christmas” was definitely one of the better Doctor Who Christmas specials. It was exciting and suspenseful and had a number of great twists. It was sentimental and festive without being overly saccharine. Moffat’s script was very strong, and the actors all gave great performances.
So that’s the wrap-up of Doctor Who in 2014. However, we are left with a few lingering questions… Was the Promised Land that both the clockwork creatures from “Deep Breath” and the robots from “Robot of Sherwood” were seeking an actual place? Since Danny is dead, does that mean his descendent Orson Pink who we met in “Listen” is now no longer going to exist? In “Mummy on the Orient Express” who was the mysterious mastermind controlling the computer Gus and manipulating events from behind the scenes? Let me know if I’ve forgotten any other subplots.