Aside from “The Christmas Invasion” Doctor Who Christmas specials are rarely classics. There have been a lot of enjoyable romps (“The Next Doctor”, “A Christmas Carol”, “The Snowmen”); a couple of “event” episodes that have slightly disappointed through weight of expectation (“The End Of Time, Part One”, “The Time Of The Doctor”) and the occasional whimsy overload (“The Runaway Bride”, “The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe” which still feels like a title in search of a plot). Then there was “Voyage Of The Damned” which… had Kylie Minogue in it.
But “Last Christmas” may well become regarded as a classic. Because it is, simply, a beautiful episode. It’s also the perfect Christmas special for both Moffat – because it’s based on a conceit which means that looking for plotholes or claiming plagiarism is pointless – and for the latest Doctor. Because if Doctors ten or eleven had been faced with Father Christmas they’d have been pirouetting across the screen, blurting out, “You are beautiful! Amazing! Let me hug you, you LEGEND!” Whereas with grumpy twelve his cynical expression is clearly mirroring that of half the audience.
Oh, and for any fans moaning that you’d never get anything as silly as Santa Claus in the classic series we just say: “The Mind Robber”.
Besides, “Last Christmas” is, at heart, a classic Doctor Who story, and not just because it’s (apparently) set in an isolated base with monsters attacking. Or because it’s wonderfully creepy and scary. Or because the Doctor is clever and shown to be working things out (something too often missing in the last series). But because it’s based on one, strong central idea – the dream crabs – and it plays with that idea.
Dreams within dreams may not be new to sci-fi (Philip K Dick was obsessed with this kind of thing back in the ’60s) but it’s the first time Doctor Who has had such fun with the concept, and, because it’s Moffat, he takes it to extremes. On the other hand, unlike some of his more complicated time travel episodes, the ruthless logic of the different layers of dreams is easy to follow here (just what you need after a big Christmas lunch). There are also some very effective “Ooh, that’s clever” moments that even your pissed uncle in the corner will appreciate, especially the “Long story” revelation, the “YOU. ARE. DYING” on the blackboard and the Doctor using the different text in the manuals to prove they’re all dreaming
Then Moffat grafts Christmas onto this conceit, and makes it work brilliantly. The tonal changes from festive schmaltz to scary to sci-fi and back again are brave but totally successful. It’s amazing that an episode that can riff off Alien so well also gives us a scene straight out of Peter Pan, with the Doctor piloting a sleigh over the roofs of London. And what a gorgeous image that is (we’ll refrain from making any comments on the standard of the FX because the BBC preview site we have to use is so low quality it’s impossible to judge for sure, but they seemed impressive).
The Return Of Slade
Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” has previously been heard in the first two Doctor Who Christmas specials, “The Christmas Invasion” (on a radio in the garage where Mickey is working) and “The Runaway Bride” (playing at the reception).
It’s not all plot, plot, plot and tinsel, though. The episode is possibly the most genuinely charming, sweet and heartwarming that Moffat has written yet for Doctor Who. There are some truly affecting, hanky-bothering moments from ghost-Danny’s “I didn’t die saving the world, Doctor, I died saving Clara. The rest of you got lucky,” to Shona pleading with Santa to let her stay a bit longer and, of course, the Doctor’s tender chat with aged Clara (and, blimey, wasn’t the old-age make-up good for a change?*). In fact, Danny and Clara were more convincing as a couple here than they ever have been previously (so maybe he was always better in her dreams than in real life? She even says in this episode that she often has to use her imagination when it comes to Danny).
(* Comment subject to qualification when we get to see the show in HD… but it seemed good.)
The new softer relationship between the Doctor and Clara also felt natural and was a pleasant change from the bickering of season eight. By the time Clara told grumpy face that he was her Santa, whose heart couldn’t melt?
It’s also very funny. There’s a 10-minute section after Santa arrives at the base when virtually every line is a zinger. This is helped mainly by Shona interrogating Santa (“I’ve got three little words, Shona, don’t make me use them.” “What three little words?” “My. Little. Pony.”) but you also have to love: “That’s a toy gun.” “Yeah, well, at least it’s unsuitable for children under four.”
Nick Frost is perfect as Santa, both when he’s channelling Richard Attenborough (as Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street – one of the films on Shona’s list) and when he’s more Nick Frost-y. He actually makes a great foil for grumpy twelve, and you’re completely happy to suspend your disbelief and believe in him.
The rest of the guest cast are all solid too, though the unexpected break-out star was Faye Marsay as Shona. Is she being lined up as the next companion? Even if not, she’s clearly coming back at some point. Moffat has to tell us what she needed to forgive Dave for. Plus, her dance routine (see below) was one of the best single scenes in new Who history.
So yeah, SFX has given the Doctor Who Christmas special five stars. Some people will raise their eyebrows, claim that Moffat bribes us and that we only do it to get exclusives. Well, walnuts to that. “Last Christmas” is funny, scary, clever, sweet, exciting, visually impressive and exquisitely directed (we don’t envy director Paul Wilmshurst the challenge of selling those tonal changes, and we loved the way he used different levels of exposure on background lights depending on how deeply we were into the dream landscape). The fact that it’s also shamelessly Christmassy will probably be the litmus test as to whether some will be able to digest it after a rich Christmas lunch. But we were more than willing to believe in Santa for an hour.
The Times They Are A-Changing
We may be reading a little bit too much into this, but the exchange where the Doctor goes to Clara, “Could you fetch me the dead one?” and Clara sarcastically replies, “Maybe I could fetch you a cup of tea while I’m at it?” could be a sly reference to a moment from the Patrick Troughton story “The Moonbase” infamous for showing the casual sexism of the time. In it, the Doctor seems to think the best use for his then-companion Polly in the middle of a Cyber-invasion was for her to make a cup of tea. Unlike Clara, she was happy to do so. Assistant vs companion?
The Doctor: “Beardy weirdy.” Santa: “Yeah?” The Doctor: “How’d you get all the presents in the sleigh?” Santa: “Bigger on the inside.”
Although Guardians Of The Galaxy isn’t on Shona’s list, someone in the group must have had it in mind. After all, Star Lord’s opening credits boogie must have been the inspiration for the “Merry Xmas Everybody” dance surely? Our money’s on Albert; after all, he made the Alien connection (also not on Shona’s list) so he’s probably a bit of a sci-fi buff. He was possibly thinking about Videodrome as well if his death was anything to judge by.
Just in case you didn’t realise, Professor Albert is played by the son of second Doctor Patrick Troughton, Michael Troughton, best known for playing Sir Piers Fletcher-Dervish in The New Statesman. And if the guy playing Wolf the Dwarf seemed familiar too, that’s because he’s Nathan McMullen, who played Finn in the last two series of Misfits. Natalie Gumede (Ashley) was Kirsty Soames in Coronation Street and a runner up in the 2013 Strictly Come Dancing final. Faye Marsay (Shona) was a regular in Channel 4’s Fresh Meat.
Clara should be familiar with the concept that time travel is always possible in dreams (as the Doctor says here) because Madame Vastra told her the same thing during “The Name Of The Doctor”.
So, is Shona being lined up as a future companion? If you’re looking for patterns that may not be there, it’s Clara who forced the Doctor to take Shona’s hand when they do their holding-hands routine to exit the dream. Maybe when Clara leaves, she’ll force the Doctor to take Shona on board?
Doctor Who: Last Christmas aired on BBC One on Christmas Day