For Doctor Who’s 10th consecutive Christmas special, showrunner Steven Moffat presents the intersection between Doctor Who and Christmas in the most direct possible way. Almost as if cheekily daring the audience to revolt and switch off, the five-minute pre-titles sequence plays with a straight face what seems like an utterly ludicrous situation. Clara (Jenna Coleman), who parted from the Doctor at the end of the previous episode, encounters none other than Santa Claus himself (Nick Frost), and a couple of snarky elves (one of whom is played by Dan Starkey, normally buried under heavy prosthetics as the Sontaran Strax), when he crashes on her roof—in a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer. But when the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) arrives and urges her to rejoin him aboard the TARDIS, things rapidly turn serious, leading to a constantly twisting story where the question of what is real and what is a dream becomes of crucial importance.
They find themselves in a scientific base at the North Pole that is apparently the subject of one of the show’s most typical plot tropes: the “base under siege,” wherein a small group of people are trapped in an isolated location and is subjected to a monstrous attack. But things are not what they seem, and a sense of uneasiness builds as gaps and inconsistencies mount up; in a particularly spooky touch, the crew slowly realizes they can only respond with “It’s a long story” when the Doctor presses them about what they’re doing there and what the base’s mission is. He grasps that they’re all lost in a labyrinth of dreams within dreams, the work of creatures that trap their victims in a fantasy world while killing them. Looking like overgrown face-huggers from Alien, the “dream crabs” are another ingenious monster concept from Moffat, though the fact that if their feeding is interrupted they die instantly and their victim suffers no ill effects is a little too convenient, meaning that no time needs to be spent on dealing with the traumatic after-effects that such an experience would logically produce.
Moffat also deserves praise for incorporating the “real” Santa Claus (i.e. not some robot or alien or some other science-fictional “explanation”) in a way that makes perfect sense. He’s a manifestation created by the subconscious of the dream crabs’ victims, trying to alert them to the unreality of what they’re experiencing. This allows Frost to both stay true to the stereotype of the character and also have fun subverting it with metatextual jokes about how ridiculous his presence is. The episode also provides some good material for Capaldi, as the Doctor employs some smart deduction involving the base’s manual to prove that they’re all lost in a dream. (The Doctor gets the funniest line of the episode: “There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.”) And the entire constructed dream world, including Santa Claus, is neatly explained when Shona (Faye Marsay), one of the human victims, finally awakens and we see her Christmas Day DVD-watching list, including the Ridley Scott film and The Thing from Another World (which contributes the idea of the North Pole scientific outpost), and Miracle on 34th Street.
“Last Christmas” strikes a better balance than some earlier Doctor Who Christmas specials have between telling a satisfying standalone story and simultaneously advancing the ongoing threads of the series. In the U.K., a significant percentage of the audience watches Doctor Who only at Christmas and not at other times, and continuity-heavy stories like last year’s “The Time of the Doctor” run the risk of being quite impenetrable. “Last Christmas” works as a funny, clever, and creepy story in itself, while also moving the Doctor and Clara on from the mutual lying which caused their separation at the end of “Death in Heaven.” Under attack from the dream crabs, Clara falls into a pleasant fantasy of her boyfriend, Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), who’s returned from the dead. The Doctor tries to snap her out of it by inserting mysterious chalked messages into her surroundings—a nice use of the motif of him scribbling on blackboards in the TARDIS that made recurrent appearances throughout the last season. But ultimately it’s the apparition of Danny (who is, of course, just another aspect of Clara’s subconscious) who pushes her to start moving on, with the admonition to treat every Christmas as though it’s the last.
One last fantasy sequence with the Doctor rescuing Clara, only to find that she’s now an old woman, cleverly mirrors the scene in “The Time of the Doctor” where Clara encounters an ancient 11th Doctor—right down to her lacking the strength to pull open a Christmas cracker. Coleman has been coy in interviews all year on the subject of whether or not she was staying on with the series, and this episode could easily have served as a farewell to Clara, having wrapped up the matters left unresolved at the end of the last season. But just as the Doctor regenerated and continued on even as his life seemed about to end, here he’s finally reunited with the youthful Clara and offers her the chance to continue traveling with him. Although the sense of completion is somewhat undermined by a rather unnecessary Twilight Zone-style twist at the end, when the Doctor muses that he doesn’t know who to thank for his second chance with Clara, “Last Christmas” ultimately frees both of them from the baggage accumulated over the last year, and looks forward to another season of new adventures.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: “The Web of Fear,” four of whose six episodes were returned to the BBC archives in October 2013 after being missing for decades, is a classic “base under siege” story starring Patrick Troughton (whose son, Michael, played Professor Albert in this episode), alongside Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling.
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