Doctor Who Goes Meta: Last Christmas Review

With Doctor Who Series 9 just right the corner and shaping up to be quite a whooper judging by latest epic trailer, in which the Doctor proudly pronounces that we’re back to the “same old, same old, just the Doctor and Clara Oswald in the TARDIS”. Going back to my last Doctor Who review having left the two going their separate ways, I realised I never tackled the rather important Christmas special that followed the series finale. So, just in time to get ready for the new series, here’s my review of what the Doctor and Clara did last Christmas. (Spoilers ahoy!)

(Copyright BBC)

(Copyright BBC)

Synopsis

Clara (Jenna Coleman), still reeling from the events of the last episode, is woken up on Christmas Eve by the arrival of Santa Claus (Nick Frost) and his two elves Ian (Dan Starkey) and Wolf (Nathan McMullen). The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) isn’t far behind, whisking Clara off to the North Pole, where they find four scientists – Shona (Faye Marsay), Ashley (Natalie Gumede), Bellows (Maureen Beattie) and Professor Albert (Michael Troughton, son of Second Doctor actor Patrick Troughton) – at an Artctic base under attack from the Kantrofarri, or dream crabs. They are soon saved by Santa, and in the ensuing deliberation the Doctor and Clara reveal their lies to each other at the end of Death in Heaven, soon before the latter is successfully attacked by a crab.

In the dream world, Clara is reunited with an old friend, but is soon saved by the Doctor. Back at the base, the Doctor deduces that they are still in another layer of the dream world, and that Santa Claus is only a manifestation of their subconscious fighting back against the crabs. Despite Santa helping them escape the dream crabs, it’s revealed that the scenario is still a dream once Clara realises that they met Santa Claus before arriving at the base. Surrounded by manifestations of the parts of their minds already lost to the crabs, the Doctor reminds them that Santa helped them once before, and he soon comes in to save them with his sleigh. As they wake up, the Doctor returns to Clara, only to find her an elderly woman. Santa reappears and urges the Doctor to save her, and he manages to do so, finding her to still be a young woman and both in the real world at last. The Doctor gets an unexpected second chance and he and Clara leave in the TARDIS.

(Copyright BBC)

(Copyright BBC)

Doctor Who Meets Alien

Last Christmas is simply a great (sleigh) ride from start to finish. The episode is well-paced, well-written, and with the right balance of darkness, humour and character development you could wish for. The new characters introduced here are all likable and competent enough, having viewers spend enough time getting to know them to care about their fates and empathise, without ever distracting from the Doctor and Clara’s own compelling struggles.

The episode also manages pull off combining Alien with The Thing, Inception and The Miracle on 34th Street, with a bit of The Matrix thrown in for good measure. As barmy as such a strange mix sounds, the episode’s structure and plot allows this to happen organically and the characters actually have a reason to acknowledge the similarities (more on that below). The Dream Crabs are a magnificent one-off creation, brought to life with some great practical effects and some excellent camera work. Not only are they effectively made menacing on their own, but are also used intelligently by the episode’s writer to  delve into deeper emotional beats.

As the episode delves into the subconscious and all the potential emotional scars associated with loss and the Christmas season, the episode’s title takes on a deeper and welcome meaning. The idea of a last Christmas, that one should enjoy each Christmas with family and friends, for whom it could be the last, is pretty much what the thematic undertone of Series 8 has been: both sombre and yet, strangely enough, ultimately uplifting. Life is indeed finite, but that’s why one should cherish the good in the present which is never returned once lost. As English teacher John Keating – played by the late and great Robin Williams – famously says in Dead Poets Society, “Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” Clara’s recent loss  and mourning can thus practically let the episode write itself, so I appreciate the fact that the idea also ties in with Shona’s end point and reconsidering forgiveness. Considering the more bittersweet ending reserved for Bellows – once again a subtle but great use of contrasting dreams and reality – it’s good to see a happier ending for supporting characters (the surviving ones, at least).

The only real gripe I have with the episode is that they didn’t use Wham!’s Last Christmas when Shona went into the base’s infirmary. I can understand that licensing can be a headache, but the episode’s title brings hangs it right there for the picking. It’s still only a minor missed opportunity more than anything else, so I can begrudgingly relent.

(Copyright BBC)

(Copyright BBC)

The Team-Up

A big pulling point for the episode is, of course, the team-up of the Doctor and Santa Claus, which works out just as well as you could imagine. Nick Frost plays Santa Claus perfectly, and it’s not just because of the actor’s name (a piece of serendipity noted by the producers as well). He plays Santa with a bit of a gangster-like edge to him, which makes him able to sharpen his wit against Capaldi’s Doctor and be his perfect counterpoint.

Continuity buffs may understandably try to wrap their head around the fact that the Doctor has already acknowledged having known the real Santa (“Or, as I’ve always known him, Jeff.”) or why he seems to stereotypical here. Thankfully, there is clever an explanation of in-universe, as this Santa Claus is revealed to be a product of the characters’ consciousness fighting back against the Dream Crabs. The revelation is a great surprise, but makes so much sense in hindsight both for the plot and the Doctor’s ever-cynical reactions to his presence.

The Twelfth Doctor is, of course, defined by his cynicism throughout Series 8. He questions his goodness and clearly doesn’t believe in miracles until, perhaps, just at the end of his journey. After having gone through that journey with him, seeing the Doctor move past his cynicism and just go with the inherent wonder and silliness of the situation is simply a marvellous development. Seeing the same Doctor who has not exactly been shy about his own darkness break out into a wide smile and enjoying a sleigh ride with such glee is such a joyful reward, thanks in no small part to Murray Gold’s triumphant score.

In the end, even if it is all a dream, it’s actually fine to see the Doctor lose a battle of wits for once. That last shot of a tangerine clearly gives Santa Claus all the credit for the Doctor’s final miracle, and perhaps hinting that could be back.

Copyright BBC

(Copyright BBC)

A Story About Stories

While the Doctor and Santa Claus are opposites standing for belief and cynicism for most of the episode, they have a lot more in commin than they would care to admit. There is, of course, the apparent hardheadedness of they both share, but the deeper connection becomes more apparent when the episode reaches its twists. The revelation that this Father Christmas is a dream fuelled by our collective tales represents a wonderful case of stories literally saving us and giving us heroes to aspire to emulate.

The Doctor definitely fall under that category of popular hero, Doctor Who being his tales for us all to take to heart, consciously or otherwise. Incidentally, the issue of legends outliving the historical figure and taking on new meaning is discussed in Robot of Sherwood, while the Eleventh Doctor admits that, “We’re all stories, in the end”, back in the Series 5 finale The Big Bang.

I cannot but commend the episode’s writers for subtly bringing up this issue the moment the Doctor’s TARDIS materialises on Clara’s rooftop. The truly well-timed moment Santa asks a Clara claiming she grew out of fairy tales, “Did you, Clara? Did you really?”, and the TARDIS’s wheezing comes in is truly golden. It immediately recalls Clara’s fairy tale-like relationship with the Doctor and foreshadows the fictional reality they are in, as well as the Doctor’s eventual turn when he learns to accept the inherent joy to be had in his eventful life. It also helps that the moment is a bit of a wink at the audience by acknowledging it’s setting up a clash of two fictional but inspirational icons.

The episode is also quite adamant about its influences. While the ‘base under siege’ is not a new scenario for Doctor Who, the setting and the monster’s affinity to mimic those of famous films lead to one of the Doctor’s best lines of the episode: “There’s a horror movie named Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everybody keeps invading you.” In another definite bit of fourth-wall breaking, Shona’s list practically lists the main inspirations for the episode as a whole. Not only does it explain the Arctic base setting as being based on Shona’s consciousnesses, but here I also feel the producers are playfully telling the audience to look beyond their use of old story ideas and appreciate what they do right – quite a lot – which I have no problem with.

(Copyright BBC)

The Pink Elephant in the Room

Coming right at the heels of Death in Heaven, this episode can’t but deal with the fallout. Making full use of what the Dream Crabs could bring to life, the episode gives viewers its first great surprise by bringing back Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) in Clara’s dream world. While this may have gone wrong in many ways, Danny’s reappearance here is handled masterfully. Upon initial viewing, I expected the episode to go through the motions, having Danny be the Dream Crabs’ bait the Doctor must save Clara from, much like the Doctor himself assumes is the case. Here the episode reserves its greatest twist, as the figment of Danny takes charge and saves Clara himself. The moment Danny clarifies he didn’t die saving the world because he died saving Clara with everyone else getting lucky, my reaction matches the Doctor’s perfectly.

In a gratifying turn of events, Danny – this real part of Danny – helps Clara overcome her loss and giving her a way forward: mourning him for five minutes a day and moving on forwards with her life the rest of the time. The scene not only gives much-needed closure to Danny and Clara’s relationship, but gives Last Christmas the true meaning of its title by showing us their last Christmas. It’s a much more meaningful understanding than the speculation most fans entertained that this episode would simply mark Clara’s end.

Having the Doctor and Clara admit the lies they told each other to protect one another and overcoming the loss of Danny also sets up the two moving forward with their lives together again. Having seemingly defeated the Dream Crabs, the Doctor finally has his fun and Clara decides to stay behind a bit longer and enjoy the moment. When the Doctor finds her as an old woman, it’s an interesting inversion of roles in their reunion in The Time of the Doctor and an re-assertion of the love they share, as the Doctor sees Clara forever as he remembers her. Then, just as the audience is ready to go through a bittersweet goodbye again, we get a final twist as the final layer of dreams is revealed at last. With their differences finally resolved and with a new appreciation of life, the two decide to go and enjoy all time and space while they still can.

I have to admit I was not entirely on board with Clara returning to the TARDIS upon initial viewing, if only because her exit in Death in Heaven is so powerful. The intended joy of their reunion by the power of Christmas, however, seems to have seeped through upon a second viewing, and I’m glad we’re getting another go with Clara and the Doctor together.

Copyright BBC

(Copyright BBC)

Conclusion

Watching and pondering this episode again out of season is just what the Doctor ordered. Last Christmas manages to balance being an extension of the preceding series, a Christmas story, and a good story in its own right in equal measure (unlike, admittedly, the previous special). The emotional beats are great and well-executed, leading to one of the most satisfying viewing experiences in a while and a good bit of Christmas and Doctor Who viewing alike. Last Christmas quickly moves up the ranks of its kindred specials to become my second favourite, just after A Christmas Carol.

With last Christmas being such a dream, Clara and the Doctor’s further adventures couldn’t come soon enough.

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One response to “Doctor Who Goes Meta: Last Christmas Review

  1. Pingback: Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar | The Maltese Geek·

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