[Review] - Doctor Who, 2014 Christmas Special, "Last Christmas"

Courtesy of the BBC.
When Steven Moffat is being clever, he's really clever. For instance, many science fiction shows feel quite free to rip off popular films or other pieces of cultural establishment with nary a hand wave in the obvious direction of influence. For instance, Alien is probably the most "homaged" scifi film ever. Dark corridors, predatory insect aliens and face hugging brain suckers are cliches of the genre thanks to that film. Even Doctor Who has not been immune in the past. So, when "inspiration" quite obviously abounded as Last Christmas got up and going, I assumed it was just more of the same. Then Moffat did something I wasn't expecting. He drew attention to it. A lot of attention. Then he spiraled the episode into a layer cake of emotional intrigue and unexpected plot turns (as opposed to twists, which make more of a thunking noise when they hit the ground).

And he managed to tell a very modern Santa Claus tale, in an incredibly realistic way. And that sentence really has no business being true, but it does. I'll admit I was nervous about Santa entering the Whoinverse, as there are somethings that stretch the suspension of disbelief beyond it's structural limits, and the existence of Santa is one of them. And yet, Moffat pulled it off in a way that I not only liked, but feel really very touched by.

Hit the jump for the review, which has trouble telling fantasy and spoilers apart: they're both ridiculous.

Doctor Who Christmas Specials have not been, historically, my favourite episodes ever. Despite the suggestion that they should be stand alone specials, meant to attract a broader audience fresh off a present induced adrenaline crash and tryptophan coma, more often than not, the opposite is true. The Christmas specials have been more bogged down in the inertia of the continuity of the series right from the get go. Of the ten episodes broadcast on 25th of December, three have featured regenerations, two have introduced new companions, and three have been focused on the Doctor overcoming some great emotional distress, usually the loss of a companion. And, in my opinion, they've largely been rubbish. Really, only A Christmas Carol passes my particular brand of muster (it also, entirely coincidentally, is the most stand alone of all the specials), and that is mostly because it is the only of them to 1) really use Christmas as a plot device, B) be as clever as it thought it was, and iii) found a way to make another Christmas Carol adaption fun. It was also Matt Smith having the most rollicking of times as the Doctor.

Maybe it's that Moffat is energized by having a new Doctor around. Series five was the best of the Smith years (and indeed, the only of Smith's years that is entirely watchable), and his first special was the only one to get things right. I've found the same true with Capaldi's first year as the Dozenth Doctor, and the pattern holds tight for his first Christmas Day spin. That doesn't set expectations too high for the next series, but hopefully whatever convoluted slump Moffat fell into during series' six and seven is a lesson learned in time and one not to be repeated. But that's months from now. And we've got Santa to attend to. Straight away, one assumes that something is hinky. As shorthand, any time in a science fiction setting that a story begins or prominently features a character waking up, assume that dream stacking will be involved. So, Clara is sprung awake by the distant sounds of Santa and two comedy elves crashing onto her roof, then quick as can be, the Doctor turns up and she's whisked away on another adventure, despite having forsworn that life twice in the last series.

The film that served as the greatest inspiration for this film was one that didn't get a shout out throughout the course of the episode, and that was Inception. The dream stack, the time dilation, the altered reality between what we want and what is real; these are certainly not new concepts, but Inception was the most recent and most broadly known participant in dream fiction, and it's hard not to see Nolan's film gnawing at the edges of Moffat's idea. The rest though, was the kind of crazy that we've come to expect from Moffat, and happily it was the good kind of crazy. The just-complicated-enough-that-it-never-gets-away-from-him kind of crazy. Dreams within dreams is a slippery slope, but Moffat kept his footing by utilizing a very straight talking Santa as the divining rod of reality. Which was a brilliant idea: take a concept that is both globally recognized, and globally recognized as being a fantasy, and use that as an escape hatch. The episode, structurally, works without Santa, as so many episodes of Who do. The Doctor is the one that traditionally draws people back to the reality of the situation. But that requires trust, and after her recent experiences, not even she can muster that for the Doctor. The addition of Santa gives it the Christmas coating that the episode needs for being a Christmas Special, and gives everyone (even and especially the audience) a common point. Who wouldn't want to be rescue by Reasonable Santa?

Clara returned, after much misdirection from the Beeb, Moffat and Ms. Coleman herself. And like the rest of the series, the episode was Clara focused and Clara heavy. Moffat's long ago (and frankly, wrong) assertion that Doctor Who is really the story of the companions has never been more realized than how they've treated Clara these last thirteen episodes. Such as success that she moved in my estimation from being one of the absolute worst companions to being one of the best. Not the best mind, but so few can manage a Sarah Jane or Brigadier-level role. My sole complaint has been the endless fretting that plagues all modern companions. The hims and haws of life in the TARDIS. I was particularly off-put by her leaving and coming back, and leaving and coming back (this is known, by me, as Rose Tyler Disorder). I'm much more straight forward in my characterizations; sleep in the bed you've made, stop slipping off onto the floor. So, after having left, now she's back, inexplicably. But Santa's there, so maybe it's a touch more explicable than usual.

Now, I've been given to understand that the actress herself had some role it play in the way things turned out here. And if you are given to thinking that those closing minutes seemed both rushed and a tiny bit incongruous to the rest of the episode, than you'd be right. Despite leaving her behind in a perfectly acceptable, if a tiny bit depressing way, she was brought back for a final and prolonged goodbye, which would have seen her die of old age in the Doctor's arms (Moffat has no compunction about killing companions, he just enjoys living them to death). And at the eleventh hour, Jenna Coleman decided that she'd really like to stay with the programme a while longer, so the final minutes of the episode had to be rewritten (and a they were a bit hasty), and the credits were changed to assure us that both the Doctor and Clara would be returning, for-reals-no-take-backs. And I'm fine with that. In fat, I think I would have thought less of the episode if they had went ahead with the Old Dead Clara ending. As it stands, she and the Doctor have worked through their trust issues, and she even got to spend one last Christmas with Danny Pink, who her memory is so perfect of, he was self sacrificing even in her dreams, if a bit taller. Now, rather than leave her off, or kill her, they can move on and build something new from this point. That is dramatically exciting. It's not abandonment, it's evolution.

Also, like the rest of the preceding series, this episode introduced a reasonable new companion in the form of Faye Marsay's Shona. She fits the bill of a modern companion: disenchanted with her own, meager existence, has a propensity towards curiosity and exploration, and is whip smart in a humany kind of way. She had me as soon as she said she had to use the loo, but if anyone didn't love her after she broke out those sick dance moves, then I expect you've got no heart. Besides, as Teagan and Donna have proven in the past, the TARDIS needs a gobby voice of reason to point out the ridiculous from time to time. Everyone expects that the forthcoming Magician's Assistant refers to Clara, considering that she spent so much of this past year becoming more like the Doctor, even briefly taking his name. But it's just as possible it might refer to a new companion, and they could do worse than someone we already like (though, if they do add Shona on, minus points for yet another young 21st Century female. Though she'd be the first companion from Yorkshire).

And I have gotten all that down without mentioning Nick Frost as Santa. Or Dan Starkey as Ian. Or Nathan McMullen as Wolf. A webisode featuring those three might have been in order, Mr. Moffat. They didn't go big with their performances, because the characters were meant to be small. They were meant to comforting, and trustworthy. Frost was magnetic as Santa, maybe not as good as Bruce Campbell, but certainly one of the kinder versions of the character. It wasn't that he was a kindly old elf, it was that he was like every soft-spoken grandfather or school teacher we've ever had. He landed right on top of the universality that the episode banked on, with that sharp edge of wit and straight talk that Moffat seems to write so effortlessly. And, I assume it fulfills more than a few children's dreams to see Santa and the Doctor, two equally impossible figures, having a shouting match while trying to save Christmas. The Doctor-Santa comparison has far more teeth to it than any of the more forced Doctor-Jesus allusions that Russell T. Davies seemed fond of. It's an argument that, like Santa's sleigh, is bigger on the inside.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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