“Last Christmas” is the tenth Doctor Who Christmas special in as many Christmases — a decade of Russell T. Davies’s and Steven Moffat’s annual systematic warping of holiday traditions and iconography. The ongoing Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” aside, holiday TV has surely never seen anything quite like it. A single Who holiday outing might be something for a fan to pull out and view every year, but ten of them!? To the newbie binge-watching the entire run in the middle of the summer, the fixation must seem absurd (for instance, there are only five regular episodes between 2011’s “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” and 2012’s “The Snowmen”).
But for the diehards, they’ve become more and more a big part of our yearly celebrations, and under Steven Moffat’s guidance, the Christmas specials are increasingly integral to the continuing story line. This latest outing is a proper dramatic coda to season eight, which back in November left us emotionally hanging (not to mention drained) as to the fate of the intense, complex friendship between the Doctor and Clara — a pairing that seemed in jeopardy of dissolving due to rumors that Jenna Coleman was leaving the show. Well, now we know the score: Not only is Clara sticking around, but she’ll be traveling alongside the Time Lord for the duration of season nine. Anyone who read my recaps for season eight undoubtedly knows that I am giddily delirious at the prospect of another full season of Clara Oswald, which itself is a pretty special Christmas present … but boy, did Moffat make me work for it.
The Doctor: “Do you know what I hate about the obvious? Missing it.”
As you are surely aware, aside from just a couple of short scenes, the bulk of “Last Christmas” is a dream … within a dream within a dream within a dream. It’s easy to lose count of how many times characters wake up from dreams brought on by the alien Dream Crabs, which, as the script rightly points out, are visual riffs on the Alien facehuggers (though at times they also resembled Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors). Indeed, it seems the point of the exercise is to disorient the viewer so that they never quite know what’s real and what isn’t. Such a gimmick could easily be death to a piece of drama, yet Moffat makes it work by constructing the script around the fears and desires of its cast, particularly the Doctor and Clara, whose dreams indicate that all they really want is to return to adventuring with one another.
The Doctor: “There’s a horror movie called Alien?! That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.”
Much of the story’s movement hinges on the presence of Santa Claus (ultimately, perhaps all of it does), here played by Nick Frost with a gangster-ish relish that might give Tony Soprano the warm fuzzies. As Moffat points out in the latest “Doctor Who Extra,” you almost can’t find a more appropriate person to play the holiday’s central figure than a guy with the birth name Nicholas Frost. That, coupled with his body type, makes for Christmas gold, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone doing any better with this particular spin on St. Nick than Nick. From the first dazzling moments when his sleigh crash-lands onto Clara’s rooftop (with loose reindeer frolicking in the night sky) to muscling into the polar base like some sort of galactic guardian to taking the cast on a sleigh ride through the Christmas night, the episode dishes just enough Claus to leave us wanting more.
After seemingly asserting that this Santa is indeed some sort of shared fever dream, the final shot of the episode — of a tangerine on Clara’s windowsill — indicates that Santa is not only real, but quite possibly responsible for the events of the episode. Based on what’s presented onsceen, the only logical answer is that Claus set these events in motion to get the Doctor and Clara back together, perhaps even with the sole intention of ridding the world of the Cantrifari menace, something he’d have been unable to handle on his own what with having to deliver presents to millions of children and all.
Danny Pink: “Do you know why people get together at Christmas? Because every time they do it, it might be the last time. Every Christmas is last Christmas, and this is ours. This was a bonus. This is extra. Now it’s time to wake up.”
The manner in which we parted ways with Danny Pink in “Death in Heaven” was brutal. Has the new series ever showcased a regular character done so horribly wrong by fate? Samuel Anderson is the stealth weapon of “Last Christmas.” You don’t expect him, you don’t see him coming, and when he does show up, he only sort of feels like he’s there (since it’s clear it’s all a dream), yet his phantom presence justifies the construct of the entire episode. This presumably final encounter with Danny helps Clara to move forward by paradoxically going back to her old life with the Doctor. On a slightly different note, the blackboard was a highly effective way of attempting to pull Clara out of her dream state.
Clara: I’ve always believed in Santa Claus. But he looks a little different to me.”
The star sequence of “Last Christmas” is that final, magical sleigh ride over the Christmas London night. The sheer joy the Doctor feels at being able to guide the sleigh is a revealing Capaldi moment, and a glimpse of this Doctor we’ve not yet quite seen. After everything he’s seen in more than a thousand years of time and space travel, it’s refreshing to know that there are still some things that can reduce the Doctor to a boy filled with the wonder of the Christmas spirit. The Doctor will believe in the power of the hug yet. But the scene also shows the guest cast returning to their normal, regular lives, tingeing the proceedings with an appropriate amount of melancholy. It’s the sort of emotional concoction that Doctor Who pulls off better than just about any other TV series. “Last Christmas” ends wanting us to believe good times are ahead for the Doctor and Clara, and though there will surely be some of those, it’s just as probable that what we saw from Missy in season eight was merely the warm-up act.
Odds and ends
- The more I pulled this episode apart, the more respect I had for it. It’d be easy to write it off since it’s all a dream, yet that would remove a pretty powerful and important segment from the ongoing story line. But ultimately it remains a Who Christmas special, and therefore it’ll end up mostly compared to the show’s other holiday offerings. For me, the gold standard is still “A Christmas Carol,” and this doesn’t quite best that, hence the four stars. Still, this was likely the best such outing since the Dickens riff (though the aforementioned “Widow” has aged pretty nicely over the years). What’s your favorite Christmas special?
- The one moment where Moffat genuinely got me was the first ending, with Clara, 62 years later. Hand on heart, I thought that was the end for the Doctor and Clara, and I seethed while watching that scene, pissed off at Moffat and cursing his name. Stunning that after nearly an hour of people waking up from dreams I fell for it.
- Professor Albert was played by Michael Troughton, son of Second Doctor Patrick.
- The title of the first episode of season nine, “The Magician’s Apprentice,” sounds like a hybrid of the Fantasia segment “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis.
- Will anyone other than the current showrunner ever write a Who Christmas special? Just curious.
- Dan Starkey and Nathan McMullen as the elves were a hoot. Their continual cries of racism were hysterical. “Of course it’s not racist. You are an elf!”
- One of the most thoroughly foreign flourishes of the Who Christmas specials — to pretty much everyone living outside the U.K. — is the repeated use of Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody,” first heard in “The Christmas Invasion,” and used in numerous episodes since. This song is huge in the U.K. It was massive upon its release in 1973 and remains nearly as big today. Yet the tune’s pretty exclusively a U.K. phenomenon, practically unknown to the rest of the world. Having said all of that, Shona’s (Faye Marsay) dance to “Merry Xmas Everybody” is one of the most charming bits of the episode and instantly made the character endearing in a way that carried through the rest of the episode, all the way down to her Christmas itinerary, which also appeared to influence the “events” of the episode. And apparently Santa does indeed “ride a red-nosed reindeer.”