“Last Christmas” was Doctor Who meets Alien and Inception with Santa thrown in for good measure. Like “A Christmas Carol” and “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” this Steven Moffat penned Christmas episode references stories already familiar to the viewer. It is also more in line with the aforementioned Christmas specials than with last year’s “The Time of the Doctor” in that Christmas plays a large role in the plot. While I did have some issues with the special, it was an enjoyable, if not exceptional story.
The ultimate purpose of this episode was to bring the Doctor and Clara back together after their goodbye at the end of “Death in Heaven.” The Christmas theme served that purpose well, since when else are you more likely to reunite with people (in a fictional story, at least) than Christmas? The plot, in a nutshell, is that Dream Crabs have attached themselves to the Doctor, Clara, and a few other people; these Dream Crabs induce a dream state while they attack, so the challenge is to find a way to wake up…with Santa’s help, of course.
The best parts of the episode were the parts with Santa and his bickering elves. If I were brainstorming a list of people who I thought should play Santa, Nick Frost might not have been the first person to jump into my mind. That being said, however, I really enjoyed his Santa. His Santa provided some nice comic relief and kept the episode from ever getting too dark. He played all the different dream versions of Santa well, from the awkward, slightly bumbling Santa on Clara’s rooftop to the John Wayne-ish western hero when he rescues everyone in the infirmary. Additionally, although the contrast was less dramatic, I enjoyed the dynamics between the Doctor and a hero with a much sunnier personality, just like I did in this season’s “Robot of Sherwood.” I also found the scenes with Santa’s two bickering elves very funny. It seemed appropriate that this version of Santa would travel with sarcastic sidekicks. Plus, Dan Starkey finally got to show his face on camera and proved that he has good comedic timing, even without being covered in latex.
Another strong aspect of the story was the time at the base. The characters were developed enough to keep my interest, but I found myself wishing that they could have been on-screen together a bit more. Once you know that they are all dreaming that they are at the base, it could have been interesting to go back and see more clues to that in their interactions. This is an interesting episode to view a second time because there are a few clues that something strange is going on (like the random turkey (?) leg that the Professor suddenly starts eating), but there could have been a few more.
In terms of the characters as individuals, Shona was definitely the most developed and memorable character; her dance through the infirmary alone would probably guarantee that. The other two female characters, Ashley and Fiona, had enough development to keep them interesting, even if they didn’t get as much screen time as Shona. The only character that I felt wasn’t really developed much was the Professor, which was a bit disappointing. I loved the appropriateness of having Michael Troughton, Patrick Troughton’s son, involved in a base under siege plot. Unfortunately, he never has much to do, and I can’t say his death bothered me all that much. In fact, I didn’t even remember that anyone had died the first time I watched this story.
Another strength of this episode was that it was successful in its ultimate purpose, that of reuniting the Doctor and Clara. The episode featured the usual strong performances from both Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman (do I even have to mention that anymore?). In particular, I enjoyed Jenna’s performance in her dream Christmas with Danny; she had just the right mix of happiness, confusion, and melancholy. Also, I have to admit that I liked her dream Danny far more than I liked the real Danny. The scene between the Doctor and the 90-year-old Clara was also touching, as you saw how much Capaldi’s Doctor really does care for Clara; the way that he was so tender with her was a nice way to expose this prickly Doctor’s soft underbelly once again.
The parts that didn’t work as well for me were the “borrowed” aspects, the first of which was the Inception-like second half. I know Inception isn’t the only movie to deal with dreams versus reality (even Doctor Who has dealt with the topic before in episodes like “Amy’s Choice”), but the dreams within dreams within dreams really had a similar feel to the movie without really adding anything new to it. Instead of the spinning top to test dream versus reality, we had Santa and the manual test, but other than that I would have liked to have seen Steven Moffat make the idea a bit more his own.
I had less of a problem with the facehugger-like Dream Crabs. I enjoyed the Professor’s reference to Alien (which is, of course, also Steven Moffat acknowledging the visual similarity between the two creatures), as well as the Doctor’s response, “There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.” The idea that they would create a dream-like state to keep you passive while they killed you was definitely a new twist on them (I amuse myself by picturing this story with the War Doctor, instead of Capaldi’s Doctor). They also were suitably disturbing, especially when attached to people’s faces and opening up (what exactly they were opening up, I’m not sure, but it sure looked creepy, and it was all in a dream anyway). It just didn’t help a story that already felt a bit derivative to me to have another component that so blatantly referenced to another popular film.
Ultimately, I felt that the end, when everybody returned to reality, left more loose ends than it should have. What happened to the Dream Crab that was on the Professor’s face? Since he died, is it going to move on to someone else now? How did the Dream Crabs get to those specific people? The Doctor’s explanation of collateral damage just doesn’t work for me. Even if it was for a very short time, how had nobody in Fiona’s family noticed that she has a huge scary thing attached to her face? Why did everybody that woke up react fairly calmly to a thing with wriggling legs that dissolves into a pile of ash in front of them?
On the other hand, the fact that most of the episode is a dream cleared up any questions I had earlier in the episode. I was wondering why exactly Shona had to go through the infirmary in the first place, other than to do her dance, but then I realized that there was no explanation and there didn’t have to be one. After all, how many times in dreams do you do something that make no sense at all? I am not a Moffat hater, as some people I know are, but I have to admit that I was left thinking that dream states might be the perfect forum for Steven Moffat to tell a story; he does have a tendency to leave a lot of loose ends, and loose ends don’t matter in a dream.
Overall, I enjoyed the episode, but I’d file it with many of the other Christmas specials: entertaining, but ultimately forgettable. However, when I saw that the first thing on Shona’s to-do list was to watch Alien, I wondered if more of that could have been a dream than we were led to believe. Were the Dream Crabs so much like the facehuggers because they were part of the dream as well, a part that Shona contributed? The fact that they exist when everyone appears to have woken up for real makes this unlikely, but maybe there’s more to this dream state than we know. She also has The Thing from Another World on her list, so that would account for the base in the shared dream. The tangerine that we see when Clara gets back into the TARDIS at the end could indicate a dream state too, but, logically, I know that’s just there to suggest that maybe Santa is real after all (a nod to Miracle on 34th Street, which was also on Shona’s list). Maybe that’s how Moffat is going to resolve the Orson Pink dilemma: Danny’s death was all a dream (in which case he’s now borrowing his ideas from Dallas). Don’t worry, I haven’t actually become lost in elaborate and ridiculous theories; I’m just pushing my random idea as far as I can. Still, it does leave you with something to think about…