New Who Review – “Last Christmas”
This day has been an emotional rollercoaster.
The facts and details of the Christmas episode have been kept strictly secret, and for good reason. Rumors flew that Jenna Coleman was leaving the series just as the new season was a-borning, and her go-to answer for the events of the special was “If you know if I’m staying with the series, it’ll ruin the ending”. A spectacularly surprising cameo, a hilarious guest star, and a plot that keeps unfolding like a fried onion makes for a ripping yarn for the holiday. But for most of the year, we were never sure or not if this was to be Clara’s…
By Steven Moffat
Directed by Paul Wilmshurst
Clara and The Doctor team up again after Santa crashes on her roof. You heard me – Sweet Papa Chrimbo himself appears atop Clara’s home, and before any sense can be made of that, The Doctor reappears and snatches her away. They arrive at a mysterious science base where the scientists are combating Dream Crabs, an alien species that lull their victims into a peaceful dream-state while they quietly eat their brains. Clara is attacked by one, and “awakens” at home on Christmas morning, met by Danny Pink, inexplicably hale and hearty. It’s only when she properly awakens does she, The Doctor, and the scientists realize that they may well be all still asleep. Oh, and Santa Claus keeps appearing to help.
Moffat took full advantage of the rumors surrounding Jenna Coleman’s status on the show to deliver a series of heart-gripping false moves that left the viewer exhausted, but fully entertained. Moffat has always been good at creating characters that you immediately feel for, and this is no exception. Even when it’s eventually revealed that we actually knew nothing about the people, we’re happy to see them survive.
THE MONSTER FILES – The Dream Crabs are based on a very common concept, the idea of dreams being used to cloak a slow death. Comics fans will likely already thought of the Alan Moore story For the Man Who Has Everything, which featured Mongul using an alien plant called a Black Mercy to place Superman in a dream state where he believes he had grown up on Krypton with his loving family. It was even adapted into an episode of Justice League Unlimited, adapted by J. M. DeMatteis.
Fans of Red Dwarf will also recall the despair squid, a being that takes the opposite tack – inducing dreams to make its victims despair, causing them to take their own lives in the dream. The female of said species follows more the standard trope, causing a happy dream from which the victim(s) from which would be loath to awaken. The Dream Lord tried the same thing in Amy’s Choice – Heck, you could even argue that the Master’s plan with the Nethersphere was the same scheme – a artificial reality to keep the victims placated and off-balance until they were needed. Moffat takes a page from Inception as well, folding in the idea of multi-layered dreams, resulting in never being sure if they were truly awake.
GUEST STAR REPORT –
Nick Frost (Santa) is best know in the US for his frequent collaborations with fellow Who-lumnus Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright. But he’s got a long list of solo projects in the UK as well. He starred in the Sci-Fi comedy Hyperdrive, which also starred Kevin Eldon and the delightful and huge Miranda Hart. He hosted a mock “worst case scenario” style show called DANGER! 50,000 Volts! and worked with Daisy Haggard (Sophie from The Lodger and Closing Time) on the sketch show Man Stroke Woman.
Michael Troughton (Professor Albert) is the son of Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor. He has quite a respectable acting career in his own right, including a regular role on Rik Mayall’s The New Statesman. He took several years off from acting to care for his ailing wife, who passed away recently. This episode is the second acting role he’s taken in his return to the boards. He and his father are far from the only actors in the family. His brother David played King Peladon in the classic series Pertwee adventure The Monster of Peladon, and Professor Hobbs in Tennant’s Midnight. His nephew, Harry Melling, played Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films.
Dan Starkey (Ian) is well known to Who-fen as Strax the Sontaran, not to mention practically every Sontaran to appear in the last few years of the show. They chose to have him play an elf in this episode because as Moffat explains in a recent interview, “we thought it would be nice for him not to have to wear so much rubber. And I’m talking about his professional rubber not his personal life”.
Natalie Gumede (Ashley Carter) is known in England for an extended run on Coronation Street, and is currently starring in a web comedy called Sally the Life Coach. Her biggest mass media appearance was a tie for second-place showing in Strictly Come Dancing, the original British version of what came over here as Dancing with the Stars.
BACKGROUND BITS AND BOBS –
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO – Apparently Jenna Coleman did initially plan to leave the show at the end of the season – the original ending of the special was for Clara to really be 80-odd years old, and would die in bed after a long-awaited reunion with The Doctor. She had a change of heart (much like Clara did mid-season) and the ending was hastily amended. It’s one of the few times where “it was all a dream” was a perfectly logical progression of the story, and not merely a desperate hat-pull.
SET PIECES – The unnamed planet upon which The Doctor was attacked by the Dream Crabs looked remarkably similar to the planet that Clara attempted to threaten him into saving Danny in Death in Heaven. That that version of that world was also only a dream only makes it more fitting that the same set be used again when it isn’t…IF it isn’t/
“It’s time to start living in the real world” – It’s always fun when one of the first things said in an episode turns out to be the solution all along, and you never notice. See also Clara’s line shortly after re-entering the TARDIS, “This is real, yeah?”
“Clara Oswald…mostly favors travel books” – When we first meet (this) Clara in The Bells of St. John, her room is filled with travel books, starting with the one she got from her mom.
“Don’t think about them…don’t look at them” – Once again, Moffat takes a commonplace thing and makes it scary. The old joke “try not to think about a tap-dancing elephant” comes to mind here – it’s almost impossible NOT to think of something once it’s been brought to your attention. Trying to keep your mind blank was also touched on in Time Heist as well as a way to stay clear of The Teller.
“They can only see you if you see them” – The idea of a being that hacks into your senses to get a look at where they are is a neat idea, but I couldn’t keep from thinking of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, “a mind-bogglingly stupid beast; it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you” from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
“Three hundred and four minus seventeen” – The Doctor would often start asking his Companion maths questions as a method of getting them to concentrate, and keep from being distracted by the wild situations they were in. He once asked Sarah Jane Smith to recite the alphabet backwards.
“It’s Christmas Eve ; early to bed” – Santa speaks to the Sleepers like children, a trick that that worked very well for The Doctor in The Doctor Dances, written by…Steven Moffat!
“It’s a long story” is right up there with “I’ll explain later” as a standard hand-wave to get past having to provide a large amount of exposition to cover a point that really doesn’t need explaining. Moffat simply uses the cliché as an actual plot point, confounding expectations.
“That’s a bit rude, coming from a magician” – Moffat does love his callbacks. That’s a reference from Time Heist, where The Doctor says his new look “was trying for minimalist, but ended up with magician”.
“They’re a bit like face-huggers, aren’t they?” – Professor Albert points out the similarity to the egg-laying form of the Xenomorph from Alien, but did you notice that when Shona awakens at home, one of the things on her Christmas To Do list was to watch not only Alien, but The Thing from Another World?
“Four manuals” – In yet another example of the “dream trap” genre, Batman is trapped in an electronic dream by the Mad Hatter in Perchance to Dream. Books play a role in his realization of his predicament – Dreams are generated in another part of the brain than the ability to read, so when Bruce opens a book, it’s filled with illegible gibberish.
“Time travel is always possible…in dreams” – It’s the method Madame Vastra used to have a quorum across several centuries, with one person that was already dead, albeit electronically saved, in The Name of the Doctor.
“About sixty-two years” – The Doctor has shown up late for more than a few of his friends. He was too late to see the Madame du Pompadour in The Girl in the Fireplace and he missed The Brigadier.
“I travelled” – This may be the closest we’ll see to a clean break between The Doctor and Clara, and it’s a good look at how being a Companion changes people. After only dreaming about seeing the world as a younger girl, she up and did it in this dream-version of her time after The Doctor.
Also note that When The Doctor has to help Clara pop the cracker, it’s a mirror of Clara having to help her Grandmother pop the poem-filled cracker in The Time of the Doctor.
NEXT TIME ON DOCTOR WHO – This is a very unique scenario, in that we actually DO know what’s up next time. If only to drive home the fact that Clara (and through her, Ms. Coleman) was staying, they’ve actually given us the title of next season’s first episode – The Magician’s Apprentice. Whether that’s yet another reference to The Doctor’s new look is something we can only guess.
Jenna Coleman has been confirmed for the full series, and Peter Capaldi for the next two, so we’re in a position where we don’t have to worry about anyone leaving for at least a little while. But I must admit, as well as Jenna and Peter work together, I don’t know if the ending of Death in Heaven wasn’t the right “out”. A bittersweet ending that left both characters sad at their parting, but both feeling that they’d done something good for the other, to let them move on with their lives. Much as with Amy and Rory’s first farewell at the end of The God Complex, everybody lives. But Steven had to bring them back that last half-season and give them a more dramatic and sad finish (for The Doctor, anyway), not to mention more final departure. Not to mention that to a degree, Clara has lost a bit of her independence – the overly emotional realization of how much she’s missed the sound of the TARDIS, and yet another overly sappy statement of what she thinks of The Doctor.
When we call back to the description of wanting to keep traveling as an “addiction” – even though she was allegedly asking it about The Doctor, it’s clearly a question that could be asked to, and about Clara. I can but hope that come the end of next series, we aren’t debating whether Clara overstayed her welcome.
My immediate reaction to that initial publicity still of Capaldi as the Doctor was “Okay, not only have we got a new Doctor Who, but i think we’ve found the perfect Doctor Strange, too.”
Very happy that your “surprise regeneration” conjecture was wrong. It was a great guess but I’m pleased it was incorrect :-)