TV Recap: Doctor Who, ‘Last Christmas’

Doctor Who (s8) Christmas Special

Last Christmas Plot Summary:

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Olivia Coleman) must battle dream crabs – alien beings that attach themselves to the face’s of their victims and slowly kill them by lulling them into a dream-like state – by enlisting the help of…Santa Claus (Nick Frost)?

It goes without saying that the Doctor Who Christmas specials won’t necessarily be remembered as being some of the best in the show’s run. The annual special has to hold some kind of universal appeal more than it does an artistic one; often being something that can be considered light and easy to put on in the background at dinner time. Still, there is room for quality and Steven Moffat has (for the most part) had an impressive run at this by never overdoing the Yuletide themes. This year’s entry, “Last Christmas” keeps the the darker tone of Series 8 but somehow strikes a balance between creepy and jolly making this special feel like a winner with an overall cracking good story.

Photo Credit: Adrian Rodgers/BBC
Photo Credit: Adrian Rodgers/BBC

As far as being ambitious, there is a lot to praise especially when you consider that this story is more or less a horror movie disguised as a Christmas episode. Structurally it feels like familiar territory and the set-up is so bare bones I would say it’s not worth discussing here. It’s a “base under siege” story, a specialty of the Patrick Troughton era, which considering that his son Michael plays Professor Albert, here feels rather appropriate. Much of the back story is washed over in favor of jumping right into the action and Moffat does a good job of hiding that by having the polar base scientists be rather vague about their mission. That rather wishy-washy attitude would probably annoy the loyal viewer of most shows ,but being a Christmas special, (and also the standard pattern of Doctor Who) a lack of back story is rather common. It also serves as a great plot device that layers the viewer’s worries about not knowing what is and isn’t a dream — a very Inception-esque approach.

Photo Credit: BBC
Photo Credit: BBC

“Last Christmas” also shows no shame in tipping its hat to its obvious influences: The Thing, the aforementioned Inception, and Alien (the latter of which is acknowledged head on with one of the best lines of the episode). Borrowing from these sources makes for a trippy time especially since the episode’s baddies, the dream crabs, share much in common with the face huggers from Alien. Their ability to burrow in the mind and prevent their victim from knowing whether they are constantly in a dream-like state plays a lot of tricks on the mind. However, “Last Christmas” is all about playing tricks especially once you factor in one Kris Kringle.

The Doctor hints on multiple occasions here that Santa could be real. He plays up with the themes of myths and legends that came up earlier this year in “Robot of Sherwood.” Doctor Who prides itself on having at least one idea that seems preposterous in a story. Santa Claus could, for all intents and purposes, be real and the viewer is left to wonder just that. It’s ideas like this that separate the Smith era from the Capaldi era. If this were the Eleventh Doctor this would come off like a reunion for the Doctor and “Jeff” as he so lovingly called him years back. However, the presence of dreams and fantasies throughout the story allows the Santa myth to stay intact instead of the story just rolling with the absurdity of the Doctor and Santa both existing in the same universe.

Whether Santa is real or not, he is brought to life with much expected jolliness and grandeur by Nick Frost (who in hindsight is such an obvious shoe in for Father Christmas it’s not even funny). He earns that top billing he gets in the opening titles. Much of this has to do with how Frost portrays Santa as an actual person rather some fairytale. The parallels between The Doctor and Santa have been mentioned in the past — which is why moments like when Santa delivers a scientific explanation and The Doctor claims that’s his job feels genuine. This isn’t Santa with a dark side, this is Santa who has a job and possibly a 401k lined up for his elves with no magic dust swirling around him. This is one of two times in “Last Christmas” that we have grounded versions of specific characters. The other being the dream form of Danny Pink, who makes a not-so-surprising-but-still-welcomed return as part of Clara’s idealistic dream state.

Photo Credit: Adrian Rodgers/BBC
Photo Credit: Adrian Rodgers/BBC

The big takeaway from the Danny Pink scenes is we get a simple yet bittersweet coda to Clara’s grief. The end of “Death in Heaven” didn’t cover the depth of her sorrow. It was nice that this is wrapped up in such a profound manner by Danny asking Clara to remember him for just 5 minutes a day and then spend the rest of the day living. She adheres to this request as we learn when The Doctor visits Clara 62 years too late as she is nearing the end of her life (also continuing the trend of terrible old age make-up in Doctor Who). It’s a moment that allows The Doctor to get his ending as he realizes that his dream state of missing her life shows what he should be doing as he returns to her young and filled with hope and possibility.

Both The Doctor and Clara are given a second chance which is something that needed to be addressed. The Series 8 finale felt unfinished but now we know with the closing moments of this episode that the story is definitely far from over. We got some nice codas here for this part of the Doctor and Clara’s lives leaving room for new adventures which despite the rumors we now know Clara will be back in full for Series 9 starting with the next episode “The Magician’s Apprentice.” That is still months away but for now “Last Christmas” has succeeded in being the best Christmas special not trying to be a Christmas special.

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Jason Stives is the resident Anglophile and Pop-Break representative for BBC America conducting weekly reviews of Doctor Who and Orphan Black. He is currently a contributing writer for PropertyofZack.com and a freelance creative consultant for fundraising and marketing campaigns in New Jersey’s various art communities. He is a graduate of Rutgers University’s class of 2010 with a bachelors in Journalism and Media Studies. When he isn’t attending concerts or writing the great American novel he moonlights as lounge crooner J.M Heavyhart turning the works of Dokken and Dio into Sinatra-esque standards (or at least he would like to be). Follow his constant retweets and occasionally witty banter on Twitter at @jaystives.
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