Do you ever remember the Christmas jumper that you got from your maiden aunt on Christmas Day? The one that you can’t fail to show disappointment on when you first receive it. And then time goes on and, actually, it’s not too bad and it eventually becomes something that’s nice and comfy to wear.
“Why am I waffling about jumpers?” you may be asking. Well, I have to admit that these are my feelings on the latest Christmas offering from Steven Moffat. In fact, on the evening itself, I was left slack jawed in disappointment with the episode. However, time has a way of putting things into perspective and I’m glad that my busy schedule over the Festive period prevented me from putting my immediate thoughts on the internet as after a second viewing, I found that it actually wasn’t as bad as originally thought.
As with the previous specials, certainly the ones written by Steven Moffat, the story is firmly couched in the trappings of the Christmas celebration – this time with a visit from good old Santa Claus himself, although he isn’t quite as jolly as the ones you see in the department store. But as we know from previous specials, it wouldn’t be “Doctor Who” if there wasn’t some form of peril involved and Moffat brings this in with that classic staple, the “Base Under Siege” type story, something that’s rather appropriate given one of the guest stars for this particular special.
Unlike previous specials (apart from “The End Of Time”), this story had a firm continuity thread running through it as, beyond the Christmas aspects, the main theme of this particular special was the part that lies play in the Doctor’s adventures. It’s been a rule since Matt Smith had the key to the TARDIS was that the Doctor lies and this comes to bite him on the bum in this special as both he and Clara have to resolve the lies that they told each other at the end of “Death In Heaven”.
The lies told by the Doctor and Clara aren’t the only ones involved in this episode as the viewer is conducted into a story where the core theme is lies, in so much as the way that we lie to ourselves when we dream – both when we believe that we’re awake and lying to ourselves when we’re dreaming and the way we try to control our dreams. In fact, it’s reminiscent of the plot of the 2010 Christopher Nolan film, “Inception”.
Speaking of films, one of the issues that I originally had with the episode was that the premise was basically built on a viewing list. Now I understand, though, that I was wrong to dismiss it as not only does this mean that I missed the central joke of the episode, but takes away that extra layer of Christmas – that point in the holiday when we’re sick of what’s on the telly and being filled with food and drink that we decide to retreat into what makes us comfortable, a comfy couch and our favourite films.
The Christmas overload in this episode hides one of the most scary creations in Steven Moffat’s tenure, both as a writer and as showrunner, the Dream Crabs. Where on earth have you been keeping these creations been in your arsenal, Steven? Not only do they look scary, but the whole idea of a creature that keeps you de-sensitised and dreaming whilst it has lunch on your brain is genuinely frightening. Yes, the on-screen representation of the crabs screamed “Alien rip off” and their M.O. was reminiscent of the Dream Lord from “Amy’s Choice” – especially when Clara is trapped into her fantasy Christmas with Danny returned to life following his sacrifice at the end of “Death In Heaven”, but I’d love to see a rematch between the Doctor and the Dream Crabs at some point in the future.
The guest casting of this episode was note perfect. The crew of the base was reminiscent of a story from the Second Doctor’s era. You had the hard-nosed and in charge base leader in Ashley Carter, portrayed by Natalie Gumede (soon to be joining the regulars in offbeat BBC crime series “Death In Paradise”), the sceptical scientists, Fiona Bellows (Maureen Beattie) and the turkey leg munching Professor Albert Smithe (portrayed by the real-life son of the Second Doctor, Michael Troughton) and Slade dancing junior staff member Shona McCullough (Faye Marsay). Their roles in the base not only provides a dynamic which enables the team to band together from the off, but you also get the additional terror that, in the dream world, it is they themselves who they are observing in the medical bay, plus you get the poignant ending where upon being returned into the real world, you get a far too brief snapshot of the real lives for Ashley, Fiona and, most significantly, Shona, who provided the main focus for the dream construct.
For Santa’s entourage of elves, you get the cool Wolf (Nathan McMullen), the one who’s allowed to use child’s rifle but also the one who’s in awe of his boss, and for a third successive Christmas special Dan Starkey who is out of the Sontaran make up to portray Ian who shares some traits with Strax (which I can only attribute to the fact that the Doctor contributes some of his persona into the dream) with his mannerisms (such as greeting Clara with a “Hello Human” and referring to the fact that she’s of elf height, which must also be a joke based on the Doctor confusing Clara and Strax at the start of the Season Eight opener “Deep Breath”).
Nick Frost is the main guest star for this episode in the role of Santa and provides a clever counterpoint to the Doctor himself in that he mirrors him. Whilst he’s the creation of the gestalt subconscious of the other “real life” characters, it’s the Doctor who provides Santa’s character – grumpy, trying to be cool and using references like “Beardy Wierdy”and stealing the Doctor’s limelight and knowledge to make himself look clever. Frost manages to give us the reassuring face of Santa, by virtue of having a good slice of the Doctor within him, but he also manages to lock horns with the Doctor himself by mirroring him.
The three regulars manage to balance the need to progress the plot of the immediate story whilst building on their respective story arcs.
Samuel Anderson makes a poignant return in the role of Danny Pink. In his early scenes, he’s the goofy romantic from earlier in Season Eight, the one before he meets the Doctor. Once the Doctor arrives in Clara’s dream, he becomes the stronger, brave Danny – the one who, albeit in dream form, manages to stand up to the Doctor by calling him “Sir” and stating that the Earth was only saved as a by-product of his love for Clara. And then he finally makes the ultimate sacrifice, again, whilst reminding her that she needs to move on with her life.
Peter Capaldi gets to add further layers to his interpretation of the Doctor in this special. Yes, you still get the darkness and the “gallows humour” that has become the hallmark of his Doctor, but he manages to infuse lighter comedy (such as the scene where he is insulted about the Professor’s reference to “Alien”) and a childlike sense of wonder in the scene where he gets the opportunity to pilot Santa’s sleigh. The Doctor is also starting to open up on a human level to Clara and there is a sense that the two characters are developing a deep bond with each other.
“Last Christmas” is very much Jenna Coleman’s episode and, for me, would have been an episode to end her run on the show. Jenna manages to portray the addiction that Clara has for travelling with the Doctor with a wide eyed wonder that has been missing for some of Season 8 whilst demonstrating that the Doctor has an increasing influence upon her that has been threatening since “Flatline” (for example the character’s vocal mannerisms at the start of the story when she tells Santa to shut up). Whilst I like Jenna as an actress, I really felt that the ending was a bit of a wasted opportunity for her as I believe that the Old Clara ending would have been the perfect departure point for her – not only because the Christmas Cracker motif echoes the conclusion from “The Time Of The Doctor”, but it was also reminiscent of the scene in “Hook” where the young Peter meets the older Wendy.
At the risk of a backlash, I have to admit that Jenna’s return for Season 9 is a double-edged sword. Yes, you get an increasingly comfortable partnership both between Peter and Jenna and The Doctor and Clara, but I have to wonder if there’s anywhere else for the character of Clara to develop beyond being the enigma of “The Impossible Girl” and the part-time time traveller plus we have now been robbed of a fantastic conclusion of her time on the TARDIS.
Given this bone of contention, “Last Christmas” ticks the box of being a festive warmer, despite being all glitzy and overly filling on the first viewing.
And now, we have nine months to wait for Season 9 and I hope that some changes are made in the structure to the programme for the forthcoming year including a change to the Team TARDIS dynamic with an additional person, more of a focus pm stand-alone stories rather than an overall arc (possibly going back to the RTD seasons where the arc bubbles away in the background) and, despite my hope that the programme goes back to being one for the family rather than being too sophisticated, a really scary episode for Hallowe’en (given that it’s on a Saturday for 2015).