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Doctor Who: Last Christmas (Review)

There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.

Last Christmas is perhaps the most Moffat-esque Christmas Special of the Moffat era.

As such, it is an episode that will inevitably provoke a strong reaction, playing as it does to the writer’s strengths and interests in Doctor Who. As a show, Doctor Who has a long history of crashing genres into one another. One of the most endearing aspects of the show is the way that it can be a completely different show from week to week. One week, it is a western; the next, it is a horror film. One episode is a period adventure; another is a science-fiction comedy. Doctor Who is a show about a mad man in a box who crashes into random stories.

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Last Christmas is quite overt about this. When Shona wakes up towards the end of the episode, we are treated to a glimpse of her “to do” list for Christmas Day, which happens to feature a variety of clear influences on the episode. Strangely, she plans to open her Christmas Day binge with a double-bill of Alien and The Thing From Another World, before taking a breather and returning for Miracle on 34th Street – you really do need a bit of space before properly digesting the truly heavy stuff. (She’s also marathoning the Hugo-winning Game of Thrones.)

Last Christmas is a story that is incredibly (and almost cheekily) aware of its own fictionality. As with so much of Moffat’s Doctor Who, it is a story about stories. And dreams, which are really the same thing. “Time travel is always possible in dreams,” the Doctor observes, to borrow a quote from The Name of the Doctor. Dreams and stories.

doctorwho-lastchristmasTo be fair, Last Christmas is very clear on this point. When the Doctor tries to assure the four dreamers that they are still in a dream, he points to the strange logical gaps in their perceptions – reflecting how it was “disjointed.” He seems to be referencing the editing and writing of the episode – the quick cuts and logical plot holes. Surrounded by an army of advancing dream crabs, one member of the team asks, “How can there be so many?” The Doctor replies, “The logic of a nightmare.” A nightmare, or a nice visual.

After all, Last Christmas is very much a treatise about Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who. The Doctor seems to acknowledge a lot of the stock criticisms of Moffat’s storytelling – the fact that the plot moves incredibly quickly, that the logic is frequently disjointed, that the characters are not necessarily fully-formed. These are familiar arguments for those dissatisfied with how Moffat approaches the series. Moffat even throws in a few jabs at knee-jerk political correctness critiques of his work, with jokes about “racism” towards elves or the unfortunate naming of Alien.

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However, as much as Last Christmas acknowledges these facets of Moffat’s storytelling, it never apologises for them. Instead, it argues that this is meant to be the point. Doctor Who has always engaged with different modes and styles of storytelling. The Holmes and Hinchcliffe era was largely fashioned in the mode of horror cinema. The Nathan-Turner and Saward period was steeped in militaristic science-fiction. The Russell T. Davies years were grounded in soap opera and verisimilitude. These are all different flavours of the same show, with their own characteristics.

Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who has always been grounded in fantasy and fairytale, from the day that the Eleventh Doctor first encountered the mysterious Amelia Pond in the house with no parents and the crack that ate her life back in The Eleventh Hour. Moffat’s Christmas specials tend to riff on that – A Christmas Carol has a rather obvious inspiration, as does The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. So Last Christmas engages with this mode of storytelling, explicitly comparing the Doctor to Santa Claus – a fantasy figure who is no less real for being imaginary.

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After the half-way point, Santa Claus vows to help save the team stranded at the research base. “But you’re not real,” one member of the group protests. Santa replies, matter-of-factly, “And yet that never stopped me.” Building off a clever throwaway joke from all the way back in Father’s Day, Clara even reflects that the Doctor is quite similar to Santa Claus. He is a character we imagine as the embodiment of an ideal. Santa is described as “a dream that is trying to save us.” This would seem to reflect Moffat’s attitude towards the Doctor.

“Heroes are important,” Moffat has argued. “Heroes tell us who we want to be but when they made this particular hero they didn’t give him a gun, they gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an X-Wing, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help and they didn’t give him a superpower or a heat-ray, they gave him an extra heart. And that’s extraordinary. There will never come a time when we don’t need a hero like The Doctor.”

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Here, Santa Claus is presented as an imaginary creation who exists to help out those who might need support – a clever little twist that allows Moffat to sidestep the potentially problematic issue of the BBC’s flagship family show from declaring that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Much like the Eleventh Doctor crashed back into Amelia Pond’s life when he needed her most, Santa Claus is able to help these adults get out of their collective ruts. Sometimes childish things are just what we need at the important moments in our adult lives. Santa Claus can be real, even if he’s not.

One of the better gags comes from the teaser, as Clara confronts Santa and his elves on the roof. Even as she rejects the reality of the situation, Santa dares her to come up with a more plausible explanation for Christmas. All the parents in the world spontaneously decided to buy their children presents on one day for no reason? “It’s a lovely story, dear,” one of the elves suggests. As the Doctor observes, sometimes it is so difficult to distinguish reality from fantasy because both are so absurd.

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After all, the dream crabs are a fantastical creation. They are a quintessentially Moffat monster, in the same way as the Silence or the Weeping Angels or the conceptual “monster” from Listen. They are beings that feed on the thought of them. If an image of an angel becomes an angel, the thought of a dream crab can summon a dream crab. in the opening scene, we are warned, “Don’t think about them. Don’t look at them.” It recalls the introduction to Blink. “You think about a dream crab,” the Doctor explains, “and a dream crab is coming to get you.”

However, the dream crabs are more than just the stuff of a thousand sleepless Christmas nights across the world. The dream crabs are a conceptual opposite to Santa Claus and to the Doctor. They are, as the episode sums up, “creatures who have weaponised our dreams against us.” As much as they are science-fiction creatures that seem to draw quite heavily from Alien or For the Man Who Has Everything, they are also ideologically opposed to Santa Claus and the Doctor. Empty husks of creatures feeding off imagination and dreams.

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(If one were being particularly bitter, one could argue that the dream crabs represent a bleak alternative to the vibrant and unique voice of Doctor Who. After all, Doctor Who is a vital and evolving franchise that thrives upon imagination – even if you don’t much care for this version of the show, there will be another along in another couple of years from another writer with another unique take. Compare that to shuffling “franchise zombies”, empty husks trading on nostalgia and half-remembered imagination in order to make a quick buck.)

Last Christmas might have all the science-fiction trappings that one expects from a story playfully (and admittedly) modelled on Alien, but it is essentially a story about the Doctor and Clara. It is a tale about two people trying to make things right with one another – particularly two people who have never been entirely honest with one another in the past. How does one tell reality from fantasy in that more prosaic context? Last Christmas is more interested in bringing Clara and the Doctor back together than it is in telling a scary alien invasion story.

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After all, the alien invasion story is so familiar that everybody knows the beats. Last Christmas doesn’t have to invest too much energy in its setting, because the audience already understands how a story like this works. The script acknowledges the influence of Alien, while Moffat himself cheekily tied Alien back to Doctor Who. Asked if he sought permission to reference the classic, he quipped, “They never asked Doctor Who to borrow the plot of the Ark in Space.”

However, the core ingredients of Last Christmas are even more fundamental than that. The classic Arctic “base under siege” story dates back to At the Mountains of Madness at the latest. It has become a genre staple, with films like The Thing and The Thing From Another World playing upon the basic idea. Even Doctor Who has gotten in on the idea a number of times with stories like The Ice Warriors or Seeds of Doom focusing on an isolated base in a frozen tundra under threat from an alien horror.

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Even outside of that, the bulk of the plot of Last Christmas writes itself. The core gag at the heart of Last Christmas is essentially “Bad Ass Santa”, with Nick Frost playing a no-nonsense version of Santa. This is a version of Santa who declares his arrival at the base by blowing open the wall and riding Rudolph like a wild stallion. Rudolph, of course, handily comes with central locking. Santa provides a delightful vehicle for playing with the show itself, as the Doctor’s very serious and very dark exposition is juxtaposed quite cleverly against St. Nick’s whimsical nonsense.

But that’s not what Last Christmas is really about. Instead, the episode rests on the Doctor and Clara reconciling, on allowing them to confront each other and giving Clara some peace after the loss of Danny Pink. The most substance in the story is found in Clara’s fantasy of life with Danny – a vibrant world sketched elegantly and romantically – and in the last visit between the Doctor and Clara in her old age – with Moffat drawing on one of the sweetest images from Time of the Doctor as the Doctor helps an elderly Clara pull her cracker when she can’t find the strength.

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Last Christmas feels like something of a victory lap after the eighth season. It is unapologetically indulgent in Moffat’s quirks and tics, but in a way that demonstrates the appeal and the strength of such an approach. Merry Christmas, indeed.

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10 Responses

  1. Excellent recap. I was pleasantly surprised by this episode. Like an idiot, I jumped onto Twitter when it ended, and encountered the whinging which is sadly par for the course. You can’t please everyone, and those that are least pleased tend to be the loudest. Personally, this is my favourite Christmas special since A Christmas Carol.

    And I’m glad Jenna Coleman decided to stay. I can understand the criticism that’s been levelled at her storyline, that it overshadowed the new Doctor. But the show’s been centred around the companions more than the Doctor since it came back. My only problem with Clara’s arc was the faint, and occasionally overt, air of hostility between her and the Doctor. I’m hopeful that as series 9 picks up, they’ll actually enjoy each other’s company again.

    Apologies once again for not keeping up with the X-Files reviews, I aim to rectify that soon. And Merry Christmas to you and yours!

    • I think Social Media has become worse and worse over recent years, for many it’s a good thing but for the majority it’s just a chance to moan and try to be noticed/to cause trouble. It’s eating itself to death.

      I also enjoyed the episode, and also think it’s the best since A Christmas Carol. Much stronger, interesting – even if it goes all Inception, which I also love!

      • That was the other criticism I saw, that Moffat was ripping off Inception (which presumably ripped off the X-Files episode Field Trip, among many others). Gave me a bit of a chuckle, since two of my birthday presents were the Tom Baker serials Planet of Evil and The Brain of Morbius, inspired by Forbidden Planet and Frankenstein respectively. They admit as much on the DVD booklets!

      • The idea of infiltrating a dream within a dream is an oldie. Sure, I remember complaints that Christopher Nolan ripped off a classic Uncle Scrooge comic! What’s the old quip about there being no new ideas? (Even “the moon is an egg” was been used once or twice!)

        And those are two great serials from a terrific season. One of the best two or three seasons of the classic series, along with Pertwee’s first or McCoy’s last.

      • It’s weird. Social media can just be a big echo chamber. I’m surprised how much energy and anger people can focus into hating something like a film or a television show. It just seems strange to me. Counter-productive. Invest the energy in something you like!

    • Thanks Jake! Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

      I’d probably agree with that assessment, although The Time of the Doctor has risen in my estimation with each rewatch.

      I actually think Clara and Twelve worked better than Clara and Eleven, like Rose worked better with Nine than Ten. Glad she’s staying, but intrigued with rumours that Shona might be joying the crew.

      And no worries re: X-Files! They’ll always be there!

  2. Good review and happy Christmas. 🙂

    Aside from the usual weird gender politics Moffat has going on (again after ‘Kill the Moon’ the male civilians are killed off without a second thought while the female guest stars get ostentatiously happy endings) this was a fun episode.

    • I’m thinking it may be my second or third favourite Christmas Special, after re-watching Time of the Doctor saw it climb in my estimation.

  3. Its indeed a genre fluctuating series of all the time. The thing that makes this series as a recital to mark the heights for the best TV series is that it has TARDIS that allow doctors to go into one another realms. Other thing is the costume design, I like Eleventh Doctor jacket and found it on Celebsclothing store.

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