“Do you know why people get together at Christmas? Because every time it might be the last time.”
Do you know what, for me, is the biggest disappointment when I’m reading or watching a story? When it ends with some variant of “he woke up and it was all a dream”. For me it cheapens and discredits everything that went before, however good it might have been. It also provides licence for some very dodgy writing, with the inevitable defence that, if it’s a dream, it doesn’t have to make sense.
Conversely, I do have to admit that if the premise is properly exploited, it can make for some very interesting storytelling. Take Amy’s Choice, a couple of years ago; or more relevantly to this story, Christopher Nolan’s movie Inception. In Amy’s Choice, the big reveal was that there were multiple levels of dream involved; in Inception, that much was made clear very near the start.
Inception was clearly Steven Moffat’s main ‘inspiration’ in writing Last Christmas, along with the other obvious sources Alien and The Thing (and Doctor Who’s previous take on the latter movie, The Seeds of Doom). Which is all very well, the show has produced some absolute classics that were, in essence, ripped off from other stories. They’re rarely so blatant though, and having the dialogue actually lampshade the very obvious with lines like, “they’re like facehuggers, aren’t they?” did seem like having your cake and eating it. After all, The Brain of Morbius never featured Sarah Jane Smith saying, “it’s just like Frankenstein, isn’t it?” Still, at least it gave the Doctor the hilarious line, “there’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s offensive, no wonder people keep invading you.”
You might think from reading the above that I really didn’t much care for this story, and the four day delay in writing about it is another clue there. And you’d be right – at first viewing (when I was more than a little drunk and not paying attention), it didn’t make much of an impact on me. But like Inception, Last Christmas is a story that demands you give it your full attention (possibly a misstep for something broadcast when its main audience are likely to be stuffed with food, dozy and/or half-pissed). A second viewing found me liking it a bit more. But unlike many of my friends, I still don’t think it’s classic material, even though there’s a lot to like in it.
Part of the reason is that tricksy, multiple dream level premise, which seemed to me to echo the earlier “look how clever I am” plot puzzles that characterise Moffat’s writing – and as on previous instances, the cleverness overrode much emotional involvement with the (admittedly well-drawn) characters. And part of it is that slightly smug lampshade hanging present throughout. When the Doctor comments that, “dreams are funny, they’re disjointed, they’re illogical, they’re full of gaps”, it felt like the writer giving himself a licence for the story not to make sense. I’m sure the real Moffat-haters will say that characterises all he’s done so far, but that might be a bit over-critical…
So what did I like in it? Well, the main strength, as with the whole of the last season, was the character depth, and the exploration of the main characters’ relationship with each other. That’s actually quite heavy stuff for a throwaway Christmas special, which are usually quite inconsequential. The Doctor’s relationship with Clara continues to be developed, to a level that never seemed possible when she was the “Impossible Girl” arc mystery; their revelation to each other that they had both lied to keep the other happy was a great scene.
And it was nice to see this most crabby of Doctors gradually thaw throughout the story. Given his characterisation, he seemed fittingly Scrooge-like in this Christmas story; and like Scrooge, he ended the story having learned (at least sometimes) to enjoy life’s little pleasures and treasure his friends. The scene of his childlike, giddy joy at driving Santa’s sleigh was wonderful – more than anything else, it cemented how such an abrasive version of the Time Lord can still fit into a feelgood Christmas story.
Still, his earlier crabbiness gave us some wonderfully barbed dialogue, particularly with Santa. As my friend Ash pointed out, it’s notable that he always seems to be at his most acerbic when dealing with characters he doesn’t believe in – see also Robin Hood. And like that instance, he ended up grudgingly coming to like a character who, to all intents and purposes, can’t exist.
Or can he? Obviously the inclusion of your actual Santa Claus in a Doctor Who story was always going to be divisive. Nick Frost was actually perfect in the part, and it was well written, with his attendant elves providing the comic relief. Nice to see Dan Starkey out of his usual Sontaran makeup as Ian, and proving he doesn’t have to be Strax to be funny; and Misfits’ cute Nathan McMullen was my eye candy for the ep as surprisingly Scouse elf Wolf.
But the trouble with featuring Santa in a show that always seeks the rational and debunks legends with a lack of proof is that, either it has to come down on the side of logic and prove Santa isn’t real, or it has to try and have its cake and eat it by saying he might be. Given that he’s eventually rationalised as a dream construct of the characters’ defensive psyches, it certainly looks like it’s saying he’s not real; and more than a few of my friends with young children had a bit of a problem with that. Still, his earlier dialogue about the lack of logic in assuming your parents would do all that for no reason was amusing.
However, the running deal about Clara’s belief in Santa (or lack thereof) and that final shot of a tangerine on the windowsill did seem that the script was trying not to entirely shatter the dreams of impressionable little children. Though (again like the end of Inception) that shot is actually quite ambiguous. If you’re feeling good about the story, you could say it leaves the question of Santa’s existence open-ended; if you’re not, the logical corollary of his still being there is that Clara and the Doctor are still having their brains sucked out by dream crabs.
Still, one of the central tenets of Moffat’s style as showrunner has been to shift the tone of the show very much towards fairytale. And Clara’s gradual shift from not believing in Santa to not only believing in him but equating him with the Doctor was central to the ep’s underlying theme of her redemption after the death of Danny Pink.
The scene between her and Danny was obviously the heart of the episode (and fittingly enough, the deepest ‘dream level’ we saw). And it was genuinely poignant, especially given that, as the Doctor notes, this ‘Danny’ is actually Clara’s mental construct and memory of him. The line everyone noticed – “Do you know why people get together at Christmas? Because every time it might be the last time. This is our last Christmas.” – was genuinely tearjerking, and very bittersweet for a fluffy Christmas episode. But it showed that Clara was beginning to move on, and forgive herself. It also gave the ep its title, which wasn’t (as I’d previously thought) a reference to the song by Wham of the same title.
So, Danny’s gone, and the final bittersweet twist seemed to be that reveal that Clara was actually 62 years older than we’d last seen her. Presumably that was why the question of Jenna Coleman’s departure was left deliberately mysterious, so we’d think that might be the end; and I actually would have found that quite satisfying. But no, it was a red herring; and however glad I am that we’ll still have her around next year, it felt like a red herring too far for me. I can see why Moffat wouldn’t want to end the Christmas ep on such a downer; and it was undoubtedly a well-written scene. But I don’t think it needed to be there.
Since the ep centred so much in the regular characters and a guest appearance by Santa, the other characters were somewhat less well-drawn, neatly summed up by the Doctor as “the gobby one”, “the uptight boss” and “the sexy one” (nice that he thought that about the oldest woman there). But the guest cast did well with what they had, and it was nice to finally see Patrick Troughton’s son Michael in the show, after his brother David has been in it three times now!
The dream crabs were a suitably gruesome touch of body horror (albeit rather too reminiscent of their Alien inspirations), and the apparent main setting of the story was a clever subversion of all those “base under siege” Who stories we all love. In this case, the reveal that the base is an illogical dream construct was amusing and a little postmodern – but again, maybe just a little too clever?
I know I have a tendency to be over analytical of a show which is, at its most basic, a family adventure story. But when the writer tries for the depth and complexity we saw here, I think that kind of analysis is justified. In a way, this ep was like ‘distilled Moffat’ – insightful characterisation hung on a rather contrived, illogical plot, justified by that clever-clever conceit that dreams allow anything to happen. The second time at least, I did enjoy it. But I also felt that the tone was wildly all over the place, and that it perhaps tried to do too much that was bittersweet for a feelgood Christmas special. I give it top marks for ambition, but I think its reach exceeded its grasp. And if you think I’m a Christmas hating curmudgeon for thinking that – well, bah humbug