Much like ourselves, Doctor Who is expected to overindulge and go a bit crazy on December 25th.
Time Lord and Christmas time match perfectly. They’re both mad events which people love and which many take seriously, no matter how absurd they get. So our TVs are decorated with flying sharks dragging sleighs, presents containing portals to winter wonderlands, and snowmen defeated by crying, and while it may be a bit flabby, it just about works because, as St. Noddy yells us, it’s Christmaaaaas! It’s a crazy/camp time of year, why shouldn’t our favourite sci-fi show be the same?
Before the snowy titles roll, ‘Last Christmas’ seems to be taking that idea to a ludicrous degree. There’s Santa (or Jeff, as Eleven knew him), elves, reindeer, and a nagging worry that this is a Christmas Special which has jumped the flying shark. But before your cynicism is unwrapped we’re suddenly in an un-festive Polar Base that’s infested with crustacean catcher’s mitts called Dream Crabs, and watching the brilliant Faye Marsay dance to Slade (what, no Wham!?), and it’s all gone very The Thing.
That’s dreams for you, isn’t it? Mad, colourful, dark, disconnected, vaguely confusing. ‘Last Christmas’ is one big sherry trifle of a dream: an Inception on 34th Street. Like a dream it’s hard to pin down, and like a nightmare it’s simultaneously scary and silly.
The Matryoshka Doll structure of dreams-within-dreams lends itself to a darker and more claustrophobic Christmas special than we’re used to; a sensation compounded by the panic of the small and talented cast. Samuel Anderson’s presence as dreamy dead Danny Pink is a lovely surprise but even his Santa is tinged with foreboding. Poor guy can’t get a break even when he’s imaginary.
Strutting through the frozen corridors of the mind, the ‘real’ Santa’s presence continually removes us from the immediate tension. But his incongruity is the point: in this nightmare on Christmas he’s the fantasy that you’re meant to take seriously. Not that it should be that hard. As Moffat keeps winking at, why should a man who delivers presents to every child on earth in one night be any less believable than a man in a time-travelling bigger-on-the-inside box?
Though he looks the part, Nick Frost as Old Saint Nick is a case of casting over character, feeling less like Santa Claus and more like Nick Frost with jingle bells on. His Claus is too passive-aggressive and Wernham Hogg managerial in his interaction with everyone and his banter elves (Dan ‘Strax’ Starkey and Nathan ‘Misfits‘ McMullen). We already have one stand-offish hero in the show; two is a bit filling.
Santa puts in the work, but rightly it’s The Doctor who is the true hero of Christmas. For die-hard and Die Hard fans there’s a heart-warming Dickensian joy at seeing Capaldi’s Doctor thaw as he pilots the sleigh with a cheeky ‘Yippee-ki-yay!’
Given that The Doctor is part of the dream it’s a Christmas miracle that The Dream Lord didn’t turn up. Or maybe this Time Lord has a better hold on his nightmares. He can certainly help dream an ending that would make us happy…
It’s hard to know whose dream it is – his, hers, or ours – as Clara, now The Impossible OAP, is reunited with The Doctor and they pull a cracker and our heartstrings. Silently he helps her just as she helped him when he was old, one year ago (for us) on Trenzalore. It was Eleven’s last Christmas, now it’s Clara’s. It’s poignant and beautiful and it feels final. Final and right.
But is it a goodbye? Dream on.
Did anyone else feel vaguely disappointed? Not by the idea that Clara is staying on – Jenna Coleman’s sparkling performance counterpoints Capaldi’s grumpy Doctor beautifully – but that it’s an excellent farewell wasted. It seems to be impossible to say cheerio to The Impossible Girl. After two wonderful ‘non-goodbye’ goodbyes, Steven Moffat’s going to have to give us something really really special when her time in the TARDIS is actually up. Coleman’s earned it.
A fitting farewell for Clara will be a gift for a future time. Right now this is the present: a juxtaposition of the scary-serious and super-silly that could only be achieved in a dream or in a Doctor Who Christmas special.
So Merry Christmas and sweet dreams, Whovians. We’ll wake you up when it’s time to meet ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’…
Aired at 6.15pm on Thursday 25 December 2014 on BBC One.
What did you think of ‘Last Christmas’? Let us know below…