Contains spoilers. Seriously, don’t read until you’ve seen the episode.
I’ve talked before here on Taking The Short View about how difficult the Doctor Who Christmas Day special balancing act is. It has to deliver an hour’s worth of television that will entertain millions of casual viewers slumped in front of the telly still recovering from their annual turkey blow-out, as well as satisfying the astronomically high expectations of the die hard fans of the show who know every twist and turn of the series inside and out and expect the same high standard from the special if not more. Its the impossible show to write, and more often than not in the past the end result has been at best mixed and at worst quite poor indeed.
It’s not as if you can solve the Christmas Special problem by simply having Santa Claus show up and be the Doctor’s companion for the occasion, now is it? Or maybe you can… After all, season eight saw the legendary Robin Hood asserted as being a real figure, so why not Santa? That’s what the light-hearted cliffhanger at the end of “Death in Heaven” seemed to suggest might be happening and I admit that I was deeply concerned that this was indeed where Moffat was headed. Robin Hood was bad enough, but while the consensus is that he never actually existed Robin was at least based on the tales of a couple of local figures around Nottinghamshire who likely did which makes it just about tolerable. But Santa? How do you have a figure of his, uh, stature appear in the show and not end up with some risible “Oh he was just as robot/alien/impostor” explanation – the likes of which could easily ruin Christmas for children who as a result suddenly start to wonder if maybe Santa isn’t real after all. Christmas Day really isn’t the time or place for that sort of trauma, so best leave Santa well and truly out of it surely? But oh no, not if you’re Steven Moffat: he’s the kind of writer that as soon as the control console lights up with warning lights telling him to alter course, he just locks on and goes straight for it. Rather like the Doctor himself would, in fact.
What ensues in “Last Christmas” is a text book case in a writer finding a way to have his cake and eat it at the same time. Santa makes his appearance and is the real thing: c’mon, surely it’s obvious that there can’t genuinely be an movie actor called Nick Frost so perfect to play the role? That level of coincidence is so palpably absurd that even the smallest child will be able see through it if they’re reading the credits at the end, and satisfy themselves that it really is just Santa signed up to play himself! There’s nothing in the hour that follows that will shake a child’s certainty that this is the real Santa, but Moffat’s elegant and clever script means that for the grumpy grown ups there are sufficient grounds for alternate readings of the episode as well, so that we all get to stick to our own known truths at the same time.
With Santa on board, Moffat’s free to present what’s really a fairly ‘normal’ Doctor Who offering for the rest of the hour, with thrills and chills, a little high concept science fiction, and of course the emotional/relationship drama we’ve come to expect and indeed need from the show since its 2005 reboot. At the heart of it – as ever – is the companion, Miss Clara Oswald, and without her need to come to terms with the devastating loss of Danny Pink (and to a slightly lesser extent, the loss in her life of the Doctor and her place in the Tardis) this would be a rather hollow routine tale of a low-key alien invasion. Instead, it turns out that her scenes with Danny enjoying the perfect dream Christmas are the heart of the thing, the small speck in the centre of the oyster around which the rest of the pearl can grow to brilliance.
Much of the interest in “Last Christmas” ahead of December 25 was about whether or not actress Jenna Coleman would be staying or going. I was firmly in the camp of those hoping she would stay – I’m frankly baffled by that segment of the audience that doesn’t like Clara and who want her out, since I think both the character and Coleman simply get ever better week-on-week. The tittle-tattle I picked up from the newspapers before Christmas (and bear in mind this is the tabloids, and therefore not only unconfirmed but likely wholly inaccurate) is that Coleman did indeed hand in her notice earlier in the year shortly after Matt Smith left, having had such a strong rapport with him and been shaken and saddened by his departure. Clearly it wouldn’t be the same working with the new guy, especially as he was so much older. And yet (so the gossip goes) something funny happened while shooting season eight: not only was her part now so much stronger than it had been when she laboured with the ‘impossible girl’ mantel, but she also really took to the new guy and he to her. Suddenly she was staring down the barrel of her last episodes, and with David Tennant-esque pathos she turned to Moffat and said “I don’t want to go.” Hopefully if that’s what did happen behind the scenes (and I wonder if we’ll ever know?) then Moffat’s immediate reaction was to punch the air with delight – and his second to hide himself in the broom closet and weep at the prospect of all the rewrites this would now require.
It’s entirely possible (probable, even) that this is all total tabloid nonsense and Coleman’s decision to stay was always cast in stone – in which case, kudos to the BBC for finally managing to keep a Doctor Who secret all the way down to the wire. That’s been a painfully rare occurrence of late. I suspect that what happened is that the papers got hold of the shooting of the scene in which the Doctor mournfully holds an aged Clara’s hand as she died of old age and figured this had been the original ending Moffat intended for the character – and indeed when the episode came down to that moment I was rather horror struck, thinking “Oh no, they really are going to write her out!” That it proved to be a fake-out undone by one last Christmas wish (made by the Doctor, by me, and by I hope and suspect a large number of fans all over the UK) was just a wonderful way to finish the festive special. Milking the moment a beat longer, the end credits promised – James Bond-style – that the Doctor and Clara will indeed return in 2015. (And contrary to some early reports, it’s also been confirmed that Coleman’s not just doing a half-season extension but is on board for a full 12 episodes, to which my only response is a cry of delight.)
Around this emotional core together with the Yuletide trappings offered by Santa’s presence and his elves the Wolf and Ian (Nathan McMullen and Dan Starkey respectively – a special treat to see the latter out of his usual Strax Sontaran prosthetics for once!) we have the story itself, which is a cosy return to a base-under-siege classic – this time at the North Pole of course, and in the company of four scientists played by Michael Troughton (son of Patrick), Natalie Gumede, Maureen Beattie and Faye Marsay. To be honest the first three don’t really get anything like the character definition they need to stand out – although Troughton stuffing himself with a turkey leg is a nice touch. However Marsay fares much better, pulling off a remarkably entertaining solo dance to Slade’s classic hit “Merry Xmas Everybody” without looking remotely silly and indeed totally selling the underlying tension and dread of the moment. Her character Shona is also the real heart of the later part of the story when she comes to realise that she’s no scientist and by rights has no place being at the North Pole in the first place. Her realisation of this, her attempts to stay in touch with the others, and her post-adventure scenes back at home as she wakes up on the couch are true moments of rather moving pathos.
And as she wakes up, she looks at a to-do list of Christmas presents which consists of DVDs of Alien, The Thing from Another World and Miracle on 34th Street. Has any TV show in history ever so audaciously summarised its own key influences on screen before? Alien had already been name checked earlier in the episode as even the characters commented on the similarity between the Dream Crabs and the facehuggers and xenomorphs from Ridley Scott’s horror film, leading to one of the best post-modern gags in the show’s history as the Doctor declares: “There’s a horror movie named Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everybody keeps invading you.”
In fact, the listed sources are more influences on the visual production design than the story itself. It would have been entirely possible to create totally different creature effects that weren’t so clearly modelled on those of the Alien franchise and still tell exactly the same story. But at some point Moffat and the production team clearly made a decision to just go for it and have some fun with the obvious Alien look and feel, with the added benefit that those of us old enough to have watched the movies will then come into “Last Christmas” already genetically programmed by Ridley Scott to go straight into outright terror/panic mode, while the actual kids who were also watching probably just thought it all looked really cool. Wait till they’re old enough to see Alien itself in a few years – that’ll learn ’em.
Interestingly, the one influence not explicitly cited in the episode is the one that the script so clearly parallels – Inception, with its dreams within dreams structure and the inability to tell whether you’re awake or just in another layer of dream at any given time. Some critical fans might also accuse Moffat of merely reprising his 2010 episode “Amy’s Choice” although there are such obvious differences in the shape and structure of all these narratives that to conflate the three stories would be akin to dismissing 51 years of Doctor Who as just the same tale of a man in a blue box week after week. On a high level that’s entirely true, but it so powerfully misses the point that it signals an outright lack of a working imagination and critical appreciation in the commenter. Personally I thought the episode worked tremendously: yes, it might have left some of its workings-out in the margin for everyone to see, but in an episode about dreams it wasn’t at all out of place that there should be echoes of things from elsewhere mixed in. In fact, the dream structure makes the episode critic proof in virtually every respect, since only the last two minutes occur outside the dream and therefore anything else that happens can bend or warp series continuity with impunity.
Everyone seemed at the top of their game this week: Coleman of course was flawless, but Capaldi also started to explore new aspects to his Doctor to prepare us for what’s to come in season nine. His delight at being able to take the reigns of Santa’s sleigh was rapturously childlike, while his joy at reconciling with Clara was so warm and heartfelt that a corner in their relationship has most definitely been turned. Nick Frost was great as a ruthlessly efficient business Santa (but then, he was only required to play himself after all…) and Murray Gold’s music was a perfect match to the stylish direction provided by Paul Wilmshurst who had previously been at the helm for the similarly scary “Kill the Moon” and “Mummy on the Orient Express” episodes of season eight. For my money, Wilmshurst’s best moment came during Clara’s Christmas dream as she kept encountering the chalkboard messages around the house, the quick and effective cutting making the quiet and simple moment utterly gripping nonetheless.
Weaknesses? Well, you can argue that it was tonally all over the place thanks to the nature of the different dream natures (is that even actually a weakness or a strength?) and there were a couple of moments where things just seemed to slightly flag as through the episode was trying to remember what it was going to do next. But it quickly bounced back and got going again, and while the Doctor’s sleigh ride toward the end might have been a touch saccharine for many I’m afraid I was totally sold on it by that stage and viewed it with a child’s eyes.
In fact as far as I’m concerned, “Last Christmas” was the icing on the cake of a wonderful year of Doctor Who. And knowing that Clara is back with the Doctor again for season nine, I fully expect an even happier new year ahead when it comes to travelling in time and space in 2015.
The previous Doctor Who Christmas specials
To recap the point that I made at the top of the review about Doctor Who festive specials being a tricky act, here’s a quick look back at the previous nine official Christmas Day instalments:
“The Christmas Invasion”
Russell T Davies got very lucky first time out of the box. He already had an important script ready to go (David Tennant’s introduction in the part) and simply bolted on a few robot Santas to achieve what at the time felt like the perfect Christmas Day offering.
“The Runaway Bride”
Second time around and the Christmas trimmings were thin on the ground, with the emphasis firmly on the comedy thanks to guest star Catherine Tate. At the time this felt worryingly close to the stunt casting of the classic series’ late 1980s period, but we weren’t to know (a) that Donna Noble would become much, much more important in a little over a year’s time, and (b) that Tate herself would prove to be so very, very good.
“Voyage of the Damned”
Another story that’s light on the festivities, unless like Davies you’re one of those people who associates Christmas with big disaster films on the telly such as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. More stunt casting this time in the form of Kylie Minogue, and with the emphasis more on action and adventure, it certainly delivers on the family fun aspect at least.
“The Next Doctor”
The first half is actually rather delightful – playing off the real life prospect of Tennant’s forthcoming departure and setting up David Morrissey as a possible replacement, the pair work as delightfully together here as they did in Blackpool. Dervla Kirwan is also quite delightful and the scene in the graveyard a visual standout of the year, but the second half is a big, sticky, CGI cybermess.
“The End of Time Part 1”
No Christmas feel to it at all, this was all about Tennant’s epic exit – and part 1 is all set-up for the New Year’s Day second episode and as such has little substance of its own unless you happen to like John Simm in full-on pantomime villain mode. Which, I have to confess, I rather do. But as a Christmas special this was a complete bust.
“A Christmas Carol”
But if it’s Christmas you want, then Steven Moffat’s first festive outing as showrunner pulled out all the stops with a Doctor Who take on the Charles Dickens classic. It definitely has a certain magic, but it took me a while and a couple of repeated viewings to fully appreciate it as anything more than a rather obvious and overly sentimental Yuletide cover song. Talking of which, Katherine Jenkins is most definitely stunt casting and they even get her to sing for her supper. Unfortunately, that song was … Rather lovely, actually. Well done, Murray.
“The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe”
After Dickens, Moffatt turned to CS Lewis for inspiration. I confess, I hated this at the time – the lack of a story and the Doctor himself pretty much relegated to the role of narrator and expert pundit made me label it as ‘lumpen’. It’s also very obvious, and surely everyone can see the ‘not a dry eye in the house’ happy ending coming a mile off. With a little time (i.e. a few years) I admit that I have found myself softening to its good points somewhat, but my views on its faults remain as hard and fast as ever.
For my money, possibly the best of the Doctor Who Christmas specials. Setting it in a snowy Victorian setting with the Paternoster gang and giving us our first real view of the new companion Clara, this was also infused with the sort of genuine magic of the season with everything from menacing snowmen and icy governesses to the sublime vision of the Tardis floating on a cloud accessed via an impossible spiral staircase. A delight.
“The Time of the Doctor”
This was required to pull off too many impossible things before bedtime: overloaded with the need to ‘do Christmas’, a regeneration, and take care of dozens of loose ends from Matt Smith’s time in the Tardis before he handed over the keys to Peter Capaldi, it’s rather amazing that the whole endeavour doesn’t collapse under its own weight long before the end of the hour. As it is, its problems are legion but a more sympathetic closer look reveals that its successes are also impressive. However to a casual viewer, this will probably be Doctor Who at its most off-puttingly impenetrable.
Doctor Who returns in the autumn of 2015. Last Christmas is released on DVD and Blu-ray on January 26 2015.