Doctor Who's head writer, Steven Moffat, has sometimes been accused of having a few main story ideas that he trots out again and again. Today's Doctor Who Christmas special, "Last Christmas," feels like a hilarious, spirited defense: A story made entirely out of old stories, which just has fun with it. Spoilers ahead...
The moment I decided I was on board with "Last Christmas" came pretty early on, when Moffat pulled out his most favorite device of all — the "don't look at the monster/you must keep looking at the monster" trick. And then he turned it into a sweet dance sequence!
At that point, the message became clear: We're either poking fun at ourselves for reusing the same ideas, or we're poking fun at the people who complain about it. One or the other.
As the story basically admits towards the end, "Last Christmas" is Alien meets The Thing meets Miracle on 34th Street and a few other things, all wrapped up in a big bundle of Inception. Plus the Superman tale "For The Man Who Has Everything." Plus bits of "Amy's Choice" and "Journey to the Center of the TARDIS." As an homage to classic science fiction and fantasy stories, it's a blast, even if the twists don't entirely make sense. (Dream logic, but also Who logic.)
In "Last Christmas," the Doctor gets himself attacked by a dream crab on some alien planet — and because the dream crabs are telepathic, they track down his companion Clara through his memories and attacked her on Earth. Then a few other people who happen to be nearby also get attacked as "collateral damage," and of them actually dies in the end. (Making his death purely the Doctor's fault, incidentally.) The Doctor, Clara, and the other four people get sucked into a dream where they're in an Arctic base fighting the dream crabs, and Santa Claus is randomly there. They "escape" the dream crabs — although they don't, it's actually another dream inside the dream — and then Clara gets attacked and gets sucked into a third dream, where the Doctor has to pull her out, leading to lots of creepy imagery:
And in the end, everybody is saved because their imaginations make the dream version of Santa Claus real enough to rescue them from the Arctic base, and thus from the horrible dream they're locked inside. Along the way, we learn that stories can save us even if they're not true, and that in fact the most overused stories are often the ones with the most power to rescue us.
Which is fair enough — and this story succeeds marvelously in one area: making the mash-up of old stories plus Santa Claus hilariously entertaining.
The greatest team-up ever
It's a tribute to Nick Frost, as Santa, that this episode is such a blast. His somewhat self-aware version of Santa, with genuine warmth that's edged with a bit of menace, is the perfect complement to Peter Capaldi's thorny Doctor, and the interplay between the two of them is great.
This episode misses no chance to make a fun Santa joke, or get lots of mileage out of the Santa-Doctor repartee. From the elves debating anti-elf "racism" to Santa constantly explaining how he can visit millions of children in one night, to one-liners like "follow the Northern Lights. Yes, I remembered to turn them on," this episode is full of comedy gold.
The two comedy elves are especially great, like the scene where one of them threatens people with a balloon animal and the other one aims a scary toy gun that has "parts unsuitable for people under four." Meanwhile, Santa has a lot of fun with the notion that he knows all about people's childhoods thanks to his naughty/nice list, and he can whip out embarrassing secrets like Shoana's past love of My Little Pony.
And Santa and the Doctor teaming up is also bally fantastic. They have the usual sort of rivalry that the Doctor always has with other heroic figures, but also the Doctor seems a bit embarrassed and a bit excited to be working with Father Christmas. The best bit is probably when Santa comes out with a fancy spiel about shared mental states and gestalt power, and the Doctor barks, "Line in the sand: Santa Claus does not do the scientific explanations."
The inevitable comparison between Santa and the Doctor
We already got the Doctor being compared to the mythic Robin Hood earlier this year, and now he's stacked up against Santa Claus, another "fairytale" character. They're both somewhat absurd — delivering presents in a sleigh, versus traveling the universe in a phone booth — and they're both cheerfully oblivious.
As the Doctor observes at one point, "That's the trouble telling fantasy and reality apart: They're both ridiculous." The episode lays it on pretty thick about how the Doctor is just as silly as Santa Claus, but also manages to make some pretty interesting points about our need for imaginary heroes.
At the start of the story, Clara's faith in the Doctor is held up as proof that she never really stopped believing in fairytales, and at the end she says to the Doctor that she never really stopped believing in Santa Claus — he just looks a bit different to her. A little more Time Lord-y. Plus Santa's sleigh is apparently bigger on the inside as well.
As Santa says, "a dream that's trying to save you" is the best summation of him ever. And the fact that he's not real has never stopped him from being there for people. So it sort of comes back to Matt Smith's dictum that "we're all stories in the end," and Santa's power comes from being a particularly good story.
The big problem with this episode, incidentally, is: Why do the dream crabs generate a shared dream in which all of the people in the dream are fighting dream crabs? Why wouldn't they just trap all of the people inside separate happy dreams, the way Clara gets a life with Danny in her dream-inside-a-dream-inside-a-dream? Is it because the Doctor knows he's been attacked by a dream crab and is shaping the dream into one where he can fight them? (If so, that still wouldn't answer why the others are sharing the Doctor's dream.)
What if this had been Clara's ending?
There were a lot of rumors/reports going around that this was going to be Clara's final episode, and that it was going to end with Clara being "aged to death" with the Doctor unable to save the elderly Clara. But then (rumor had it) Jenna Coleman decided she'd had too much fun playing Clara opposite Peter Capaldi to quit just yet, and so the ending was changed at the last minute.
Was there any truth to those stories? We may never know — but the final ending to this episode certainly looked a bit tacked-on to me. It seemed as though the original ending was the Doctor escaping his dream crab, then rushing to Clara, who is in no hurry to wake up from her own dream — and then when she does, it turns out to be decades later. The dream version of Clara was seeing herself as a young woman again — or maybe the Doctor was seeing her that way — but really, she was an old woman all along.
But then, in the aired version, the Doctor gets a "second chance," and he gets to wake up from his dream a second time (because the "elderly Clara" thing was one last extra dreamsicle) and rush to Clara — who this time is young and peppy again.
So if this had been Clara's final episode, and she had been elderly and at death's door, what would the meaning of this ending have been?
I guess it's sort of a sad story of missed opportunities — the Doctor lied to Clara and said he found Gallifrey, and she in turn lied to him and said that Danny had come back from the dead. They O. Henry-ed their way out of getting to be together. And then decades passed, and Clara never got over Danny — and she also never got over the Doctor, who never came back for her.
In Clara's deepest dream, the one where she's happy with Danny, she has another chance to say goodbye to him — and the dream Danny urges her to "get on with" her life, and just seriously miss him for five minutes per day. That scene plays very differently if Clara is an old woman, who is still pining for Danny after all this time, than if his loss is still fresh to her. Clara has such a hard time escaping from her dream because she wants to be with Danny, even if it's not real — and in the "real" world, she has nothing to live for.
Would this have been a satisfying ending for Clara? It would have been awfully close to Amy Pond's exit — growing old in a normal way, and being beyond the Doctor's reach. (Because, I guess, having had this much interaction with the older version of her, he couldn't go back for the younger version. Unless he could.) And it would have been kind of a downer.
To be honest, whether this was ever planned to be Clara's swansong or not, I hope she gets a better ending when the time comes. After all the growth she's had this past year, she really deserves better.