Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special: Last Christmas

After encountering Santa Claus on her rooftop, Clara is taken by the Doctor to an Arctic base. There they discover its crew are being attacked by sinister face-hugging creatures known as Dream Crabs, who induce a blissful dream state in their victims while absorbing their brains. But how can the Doctor defeat them when he can’t tell the difference between dreams and reality?

Santa and the Doctor - more alike than unalike? (Image: BBC)

Santa and the Doctor – more alike than unalike? (Image: BBC)

The myth, the man: Santa Claus

It’s the North Pole. It’s Christmas Day. You’re dying. Who’re you gonna call?

So Santa is real, then a collective figment of the imagination and then, finally, with the final lingering shot of a tangerine as the TARDIS dematerialises in the background, real again.

Steven Moffat treats the legend of Santa playfully throughout, even drawing comparisons with the Doctor himself. Both are cantankerous older men, travelling in vehicles that are bigger on the inside and able to accomplish seemingly impossible feats that confound our linear perceptions of time.

And Nick Frost plays Santa with the same hint of unworldly devilment that we associate with the Doctor, adding an edge to the good-natured, avuncular figure we traditionally regard Santa as. I could have done with him throwing in fewer of David Brent’s mannerisms, though.

Dreams within dreams

Have you ever woken up from a dream and discovered that you’re still dreaming?

This story draws obvious parallels with Alien, with Professor Albert even stating the similarity between the film’s Facehuggers and the Dream Crabs. But the episode’s central concept of life-like dreams nested within dreams reminded me most of Inception.

Although the Dream Crabs’ appearance is fearsome, the visual scare quotient is kept relatively mild, in keeping with a family-friendly early evening timeslot. It’s the psychological horror that is more likely to send shivers down viewers’ spines, with the idea that a person could be trapped along with others within a series of happy dreams to anaesthetise the pain of being slowly killed. As the Doctor says:

No one knows they’re not dreaming. Not one of us, not ever, not for one single moment of our lives.

Here Moffat is invoking the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou, whose work Zhuangzi contains the famous passage:

Once upon a time, Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting about happily enjoying himself. He did not know that he was Zhou. Suddenly he awoke, and was palpably Zhou. He did not know whether he was Zhou, who had dreamed of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhou.

In Clara’s case, her blissful dream involves a world in which Danny Pink is still alive and they are enjoying a perfect Christmas morning together. It’s a reminder of what her life might have been, made all the more heart-breaking when the Doctor tears her away from it for her own good and the 62 years later dream revelation of her never marrying.

In the end, though, Clara finds the next best thing in reality. She pursues a second chance to travel aboard the TARDIS after she and the Doctor admit the lies that separated them at the end of Death in Heaven: that Danny is dead and that the Doctor never found Gallifrey.

What do you get a Time Lord for Christmas? You reunite him with his best friend.


But is Last Christmas actually any good?

It certainly benefits from being less busy, confusing and continuity-heavy than The Time of the Doctor, although casual viewers will have been left scratching their heads about all the Danny references. There’s also plenty of buddy movie humour in the Doctor’s interactions with Santa.

But I can’t help but feel that Clara’s renewed travels with the Doctor feels too much like back-tracking on the events of Death in Heaven. The whole of season eight built up to the moment where a bereaved Clara quietly turned her back on her life of adventure. That felt like a fitting end to the character’s journey, and I’m not sure whether there’s still a worthwhile story to tell.

Maybe now we will get a definitive answer as to whether the timeline that leads to Danny’s descendant Orson Pink remains intact, and whether that means Clara is pregnant, as has been hotly debated in the fan community.

Beyond Clara and the Doctor’s reunion, like much of season eight this story is strongly character-focussed, to the extent that there’s actually very little action other than the concluding sleigh flight above the streets of London. The CGI here wasn’t the best the show has ever produced, and the whole sequence felt tacked on and a little gratuitous to me. It was still fun, but felt like a box-ticking exercise.

So, back to my original question: was this year’s Christmas special any good? It wasn’t a patch on The Christmas Invasion or The Runaway Bride, but neither was it the unholy mess of Voyage of the Damned. It was okay. No more, no less. Like the dreams the characters experienced, as a story this felt incomplete and lacking in fully formed detail. A diverting hour, but no classic.

Fun stuff, references & quotables

  • “It’s a lovely story, dear, but it’s time to start living in the real world.”
  • The dusting of snow that flies off the spinning TARDIS during the opening credits.
  • The song playing to keep Shona distracted as she enters the infirmary is, of course, Slade’s 1973 Christmas number one, Merry Xmas Everybody.
  • Shona: “Reindeer can’t fly.” Santa: “No, no, they can’t. It’s a scientific impossibility. That is why I feed mine magic carrots.”
  • How does Santa get all his presents in his sleigh? It’s bigger on the inside, of course. Where have we heard that before?
  • “There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.”
  • As in Listen, an important message – “You are dying!” – is conveyed via words scrawled in chalk on a blackboard.
  • “I can commit several million house-breaks in one night dressed in a red suit with jingle bells.”
  • “How much more obvious do you want me to make it? Cos I can text the Easter bunny, you know.”
  • “As the Doctor might say: ‘Oh, it’s all about dreamy-weamy.'”
  • “Who’re you gonna call?” The answer to anyone of a certain age is, obviously, Ghostbusters.
  • “God bless us every one” is a line associated with the character Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Dickens himself appeared in the Ninth Doctor story The Unquiet Dead.
  • “Time travel is always possible in dreams.”
  • Professor Albert is played by Michael Troughton, the son of second Doctor Patrick Troughton. His brother David also appeared in the Tenth Doctor story Midnight.
  • Yes, that’s Dan Starkey playing the elf Ian – for once appearing without all the prosthetic make-up that turns him into everyone’s favourite Sontaran, Strax.

Rating: 7/10

Doctor Who season 8 reviews

8.1 Deep Breath

8.2 Into the Dalek

8.3 Robot of Sherwood

8.4 Listen

8.5 Time Heist

8.6 The Caretaker

8.7 Kill the Moon

8.8 Mummy on the Orient Express

8.9 Flatline

8.10 In the Forest of the Night

8.11 Dark Water

8.12 Death in Heaven

2 Comments on Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special: Last Christmas

  1. Agree largely with your review. Not the best, not the worst. The Xmas specials are largely to be endured as well as enjoyed by us harder core fans. Capaldi can still be brilliant in mid-range tosh like this. Hopefully Series 9 will get back to the good stuff. I like Jenna’s Clara and am happy for her to just be there. Does she need a huge arc? Sarah Jane never had one, but the chemistry with Tom Baker made those episodes shine.

    • Yes, absolutely. I understand that the Christmas specials need to cater for a wider, more casual audience, but this was definitely, as you say, mid-range.

      Fair point about whether Clara needs an arc. It does seem to be the way of modern Who – and Moffat’s companions in particular – that each companion has had a particular arc to travel. That’s not to say that they need one for Clara next year, though, as she’s had two significant ones already. As you say, the chemistry of Capaldi and Coleman is enough to carry any story.

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