On the D/L – Doctor Who
2014 Christmas Special – “Last Christmas”
Merry Christmas to all you readers. Since it’s Christmas that can only mean one thing; it’s time for another Doctor Who Christmas Special. The Doctor teams up with Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in “Last Christmas” to prevent Clara and some unsuspecting bystanders from being devoured by an alien mess.
The Doctor Who Christmas Special is always a strange animal. It doesn’t count as part of the main season run but still fits into the overall continuity so it becomes a battle over how disposable it should really be. I’m of the opinion that the Christmas Special should be a “take it or leave it” sort of episode that doesn’t feed directly into any kind of overarching plot and stands alone as a singular adventure.
Up until this point it hasn’t always worked out that way. To date we’ve had a Christmas Special giving the viewer an introduction to a new Doctor, 2 regeneration episodes -though one was technically at New Year- and an episode that continued the overarching plot as well as giving the viewer an introduction to the “Impossible Girl” concept. All episodes that shouldn’t really be put on at Christmas time as they are significant series development episodes that probably have to be seen to understand what’s going on later.
Disposable Christmas episodes have happened too. “Voyage of the Damned” and “A Christmas Carol” being notable personal highlights for me. They were fun adventures that didn’t feed heavily into the series in a significant way so to my mind they were the perfect example of what a Doctor Who Christmas Special should be. Episodes like “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe” and “The Next Doctor” also managed to be nonessential viewing but still came across as pretty weak.
Thankfully “Last Christmas” fits the mold of nonessential viewing which provides a welcome contrast to “Time of the Doctor” last year. It’s good to go back to having a standalone adventure that isn’t concentrating on being deeply significant.
At first glance the premise seemed to flit somewhere between being uninteresting and ridiculous. I had been somewhat dreading this ever since I saw Nick Frost turning up as Santa Claus back in “Death in Heaven” as I wasn’t prepared to accept that there was a real Santa Claus in the Doctor Who universe. It would pretty much ruin any chance I had of ever taking the show seriously again. The fact that the story seemed to be another base under siege plot also didn’t thrill me.
In reality the episode came off a lot better than I was expecting. I actually quite liked the idea that there were creatures inducing a dream state to lessen the resistance as they consumed their victims. The dream concept meant that Santa Claus could be present in the story without having him actually exist. It was a good opportunity to play up the ridiculous elements and have them work in the context of the narrative.
Nick Frost did a great job as Santa. He was warm and cheerful while actually being pretty badass. I like that he was sometimes portrayed as being a bit of a yuletide Rambo figure. He’s not quite as violent but there’s definitely a one man army vibe about him. Nick Frost has always had great comic timing and it works to the benefit of the story.
By trying to make the story unpredictable it basically made the opposite happen. There are lots of “dream within a dream” fake outs throughout the story and none of them came as any surprise. It would appear that Steven Moffat has been watching The Thing, Inception and Alien and was heavily inspired by all of them when constructing this episode. To his credit the episode does directly reference the Alien connection -as well as indirectly referencing the connection to The Thing– which only makes the similarities more overt.
I can’t say I blame him as there are few better inspirations to be drawn from when handling a horror story than Alien and The Thing. Some aspects of the horror worked quite well. The slow and lumbering foes giving chase gave the episode an effective sense of tension and the Dream Crabs looked gruesome enough to be unsettling.
The attempted claustrophobia of the dark base didn’t land quite so well. I never really felt like the environment was hostile to them. It was clear that there was an attempt to build a claustrophobic atmosphere but the episode never quite manages to get there.
As always this comes down to personal bias but there was a greater level of silly banter than I’m really comfortable with. This is one aspect of Doctor Who that really irritates me as defusing emotionally tense moments with silly jokes or casual insults really lessens their impact. I did find some of those emotional moments quite interesting such as the revelation that The Doctor and Clara had both lied to one another based on false assumptions. Ultimately not enough is made of it but it is good to see it addressed so soon.
Having dreams as a plot device allows for greater freedom in storytelling which of course translates to the return of Danny Pink in Clara’s dream. This didn’t really work for me as it seemed like an attempt to give him another emotional farewell scene when it wasn’t necessary. As much as I disliked “Death in Heaven” I thought Danny’s final sacrifice was a really powerful moment that has now been slightly tainted. I understand that this dream would represent Clara’s grief over losing him but the focus should have been on her for this part. I think it’d be interesting if the show runs with Clara having survivors guilt and have that inform her character for a while.
I was also really impressed by the glimpses into the lives of the other companions as they woke up from the shared dream. These moments were brief and subtle which worked perfectly in showing how different these people were in the waking world. More sequences like that would have really enhanced this episode.
Conceptually the reversal of the scene where Clara sees The Doctor at an advanced physical age shortly before his regeneration was an interesting idea but the execution left a lot to be desired. I did like that The Doctor has no idea whether Clara is young or old because he’s unable to see her any differently to his preferred image but it was very superficially handled. This scene accomplishes nothing more than a reminder of the scene in “Time of The Doctor” and even uses the Christmas cracker to symbolise teamwork and companionship. It was also fairly obvious to me that it would also turn out to be a dream as I never believed that Moffat would have that be an end point for their relationship.
Tonally the episode was all over the place. It jumps awkwardly from horror to silly humour to emotional drama and never really manages to find a focus. It’s unclear whether it was meant to be taken seriously or not given the inconsistency in the tone. I think more of an emphasis on making it a silly Christmas romp would have been better for the overall quality of the episode.
A nicely disposable Christmas Special that never quite manages to go far enough with any of the interesting story elements.
The dream premise works well for the most part and allows a fictional figure like Santa Claus to become a vital part of the narrative without committing to the fact that he might be a real person. Nick Frost plays this character expertly with the right amount of comic timing as well as making him kind of a badass.
Elements of the horror were handled well like the slow lumbering threat of the aliens closing in on the characters. The claustrophobic atmosphere never quite works and too much of the dialogue was bogged down by silliness to keep up the necessary intensity.
In general it was a really fun Christmas episode with some strong emotional moments that prove to be memorable.