DOCTOR WHO 'Last Christmas'

PrintE-mail Written by J. R. Southall

Should Santa Claus exist within the Doctor Who universe? If Eternals and Reality Bombs and Omega can, then there’s no logical reason why not. But should he? Does the idea of Father Christmas strike perhaps just a little too close to home for comfort? Yet in a world where Clara can send herself back to the Doctor’s every past, where the Moon can be an egg, and where the legend of Robin Hood can be inspired by the exploits of a real person, there’s no Earthly reason he shouldn’t turn up in Doctor Who. Moreover, if the Doctor himself is in possession of a machine small enough to travel discreetly and yet big enough to carry presents sufficient for every child on the planet, and that could if required time-travel its way to every home on Earth in a single night, there’s no ‘scientific’ reason for Saint Nick not to turn up in Doctor Who either; in fact, in the Christmas special that follows Series 8 it might’ve felt odder had he not. Indeed, who’s to say he’s not actually the Meddling Monk repentant for past sins and making up for them once a year on Christmas night? It’s not impossible...

Or maybe it was just a tangerine on a window sill after all.

In the middle of the 1980s, Doctor Who rather ran itself into trouble when it began to revel in its past just a little too much for contemporary audiences (or contemporary television executives, at any rate) to follow. There are two ways in which a series can become overtly self-referential and there are two distinct consequences that will result. The Doctor Who of 1985 and 1986 told stories which required viewers of the time to care about what had happened in the series twenty years previously; that way disaster lies. The Doctor Who of the 2010s, on the other hand, tells stories which examine how the series itself functions, and requires modern viewers to care only about the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. Last Christmas is Steven Moffat’s latest instalment in an irregular string of episodes – which includes Listen and The Day of the Doctor – that are very much Doctor Who stories that are about being Doctor Who stories. Where Moffat succeeds is by layering his episodes so carefully and so thoroughly that the text can be read on one of any number of levels, allowing less focussed viewers to enjoy the spectacle just as much as more attentive viewers can enjoy the meaning. And Last Christmas, like those other two aforementioned stories, is so very, very layered.

In the middle of the 1970s, Doctor Who enjoyed a period of almost unprecedented popularity when it cut loose from all of its 1960s pseudo-educational and early 1970s proto-analogous roots, and started telling stories just for fun. Other people’s stories, chiefly. A tone meeting that in any other period of the series’ history might have included a reference to “X meets Y by way of Z” would, between 1975 and 1977 or beyond, have involved the writer then going home and ostentatiously replicating those stories in his own script. The allusion was obvious for the parents watching serials like The Brain of Morbius and The Seeds of Doom; not so much for the children, who simply lapped up the imagery and the ideas. Last Christmas uses several familiar stories as a stage upon which to tell its own story, and makes no qualms about where it ostensibly came from. “No wonder you’re always being invaded,” was probably the best line of the night. It’s not like it didn’t have some proper competition either.

In the middle of the 1960s, Doctor Who survived a potentially life-threatening turn of events by – presumably quite accidentally – reinventing itself almost entirely; when William Hartnell left and Patrick Troughton took over, the days of aimlessly fetching up anywhere in the universe pretty much came to an end. Jon Pertwee might have been the first Doctor ‘officially’ exiled to Earth, but his predecessor landed there almost every week, generally at an isolated installation that had just made its first contact with a hostile alien life form. The randomness and estrangement that had informed the first Doctor’s travelling was gone, and the second Doctor became synonymous with cosier yet scarier storytelling. Peter Capaldi is the reverse Patrick Troughton of the modern era. The “cosy” Doctors have gone, and now we are back to randomness and estrangement. Yet Peter Capaldi manages to make that seem by far the more attractive option, and Last Christmas is an evocation of everything he achieved in his first series. It’s as much a part of Series 8 – more so, perhaps – as Deep Breath was. It’s a distillation of, expansion upon and resolution to the themes of the Clara/Danny/Doctor dynamic that informed 2014 Doctor Who.

And what of Last Christmas itself? In an episode in which a modest shop girl can end up among the stars fighting aliens just by dreaming of it, Last Christmas is a story which deals on almost every level with what happens when the lying comes to an end and the truth is faced, when the dreaming ends and the reality is all that’s left. It’s the episode in which the new Doctor’s realisation that he’s still the same man as he was before – the idiot with the box – can lead to him literally and metaphorically putting the pieces back together in order to go out and just be himself. It’s the hinterland between a run of stories in which the series stopped and asked itself “Is this what I do?” and the run of stories coming next year, presumably, in which the series goes out and does it. Nine years into the modern show and 51 years into Doctor Who, it’s okay for the series to ask itself this question – as long as the answer is “Yes”, of course. And as long as it does indeed know where it’s going. Last Christmas wraps up the questions and then unwraps the series’ future, in much the same way as The Day of the Doctor did. It’s a full stop on a moment of circumspection, and – even more so than that speech at the end of Death in Heaven – a statement of intent.

And it did it brilliantly.

Mostly brilliantly. The only thing I could have done without was the gloopy moment during the sleigh ride when the quoting of Christmases past arrived at Die Hard. Other than that, everybody and every thing was judged beautifully.

Steven Moffat did what he does best; he took some of his already familiar ingredients (the “saving” of Donna in Forest of the Dead, the conference call from The Name of the Doctor, and the memory patch in Dark Water in particular) and concocted a meal with a flavour all of its own. The Dream Crabs are another disconcerting creation along similarly lateral lines to Moffat’s best previous adversaries, although these are probably the darkest yet; certainly they’re one of if not the most disturbing thing that’s ever been in Doctor Who. Even after Dark Water, Moffat wasn’t afraid to go further.

And it is hugely pleasing to be wrong about Clara. Jenna Coleman will, after Series 9, be a serious contender for longest-lasting regular companion ever, and that feels totally justified. Clara is the twelfth Doctor’s companion every bit as much as Tegan was the fifth Doctor’s and Peri the sixth’s, and Coleman continues to be utterly beguiling and believable in the part. There will be some who will complain that once again she was too much the focus of Last Christmas, upstaging the Doctor in his own show, but it is by having a companion who is rendered well enough to warrant such attention that you can truly get under the skin of the Doctor. This year we have seen her take him on quite a journey, and if it was his self-discovery (or self-reassurance) that marked the end of Series 8, this is the hinge that allows that journey to strike out in a new direction.

In the middle of the 2000s, Doctor Who returned to our screens with a guarded Doctor who wasn’t certain of who he was, and who needed a shop girl with dreams to join him among the stars fighting aliens and allow him to embrace being Doctor Who once again. Steven Moffat has told that story once over, coming at it from a new angle that amply demonstrates how a 51-year-old series that shouldn’t have new stories to tell can keep finding them. Last Christmas felt like no Doctor Who we’ve ever seen before, and yet it consolidated everything that’s been good about the show while at the same time just being a version of Doctor Who that all kinds of audiences can thoroughly enjoy. If for once Steven Moffat has made the clues just that little bit easier to follow, then that’s more than appropriate for an episode that has gone out on Christmas Day evening. It’s essentially Moffat’s first and hitherto best Christmas special, A Christmas Carol, revisited, with a mythical presence arriving to take care of not just the peril but the main characters’ emotional well-being in the wake of a death. We see the past, present and future wrapped up in something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue, and it’s a glorious celebration of both the series itself and the festive season the episode is scheduled to reflect. If Christmas stories are stories of characters embarking upon emotional journeys into self-fulfilment, then Moffat’s Christmas specials are his most fulfilling episodes of all.

And when Shona enters the infirmary, who didn’t expect the music they play in to be Wham!’s Last Christmas rather than Merry Christmas Everybody by Slade? Mind you, Faye Marsay’s dance moves wouldn’t have looked out of place elsewhere in the evening’s entertainment.

So, Santa Claus then. Nick Frost was wonderful as Father Christmas, and I for one am happy to believe in him.


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0 #3 David Geldard 2014-12-26 20:51
Superb review. I was expecting a typical Disney-fied Christmas episode and instead we got a slightly darker one which wore it's influences on it's sleeve.
0 #2 Iain Robertson 2014-12-26 16:37
I was pleasantly surprised after what has,in my opinion, been a horribly self indulgent series. I'd been dreading the Santa episode as a touch of whimsy too far, but the episode just about pulled it off. Has anyone noticed Moffat's Christmas specials are alternately good and borderline unwatchable? We're due a clunker next year
+1 #1 Paul Mount 2014-12-26 12:16
Part of the fun of the episode - and, indeed, of any Moffat episode -is in ticking off his own regurgitated (two or three) ideas and variations on themes. So it was here. Aliens which only exist when you think about them. Check. Story playing about with time and multiple realities. Check. People saying 'shut up' and banging on about 'things' all the time. Check . Fun for Moffat fans but frustrating for those of us who see the show sinking deeper into a creative rut. But it was an enjoyable, if wordy, hour which needed a bit of action and spectacle to jolly it up (neither of which are Moffat's specialities...why write an action scene when you can have five minutes of people quipping and yakking?). But purely in the sense that it was so much better than 'Time of the Doctor' (shudder) it's worth a good 6 or 7 of anybody's ten-point allowance.

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