For fans around the world, the Doctor Who Christmas Special is as much a holiday tradition as turkey, presents, and berating global climate change for eliminating any possibility for a white Christmas. This year’s entry, “Last Christmas,” is the series’ tenth annual holiday adventure, and after two years and two highly consequential chapters involving the first post-Amy & Rory episode and the passing of the torch from Matt Smith to Peter Capaldi, we might be forgiven if we expected tears and not a generally pleasing and jolly episode. Not helping were rumors that current companion Jenna Coleman would take her leave of life in the TARDIS in “Last Christmas,” and with such an ominous title, who could blame a Whovian for thinking the worst?
Adding potential insult to probable injury was that there seemed to be another companion waiting in the wings: Santa Claus. Nick Frost already appeared as Father Christmas at the end of “Death in Heaven” and he did not disappoint, as he added a welcome dose of comedy with help from two elves, one of whom was played by Dan Starkey, better known as the Sontaran Strax. In case you missed it, “Death in Heaven” was kind of a downer, and it ended with Clara walking away from life with The Doctor, and the two of them lying to each other about finding happiness in their lives; Clara with her actually dead boyfriend Danny, and The Doctor who didn’t really find Gallifrey. There was so much unsaid between Doctor and companion and we were left to wonder what would the tone be when and if they get back together again?
The simple pitch for “Last Christmas” was Miracle on 34th Street meets Alien; on the one hand you have a guy claiming to be Santa Claus with an equally likely chance that he is Santa as he isn’t, and on the other you have
facehuggers dream crabs. The dream crabs are not exactly Who’s most exotic or compelling monsters, but this was a Doctor Who adventure of the mind, and the threats are as much internal and they are external. But if we stick to the elevator pitch, “Last Christmas” turned out to be less like Ridley Scott’s Christmas and more like Christopher Nolan’s Christmas Inception.
Not for the first time, and definitely not for the last, Doctor Who gets its characters to question which reality is more real, and if the most bizarre of encounters is just par for the course or a sign of something gone terribly wrong. Frost’s Santa knows all the right things to say, and it’s certainly conceivable that Santa is real in the world of Who, but it’s a little on the nose isn’t it that Santa arrives to save the day at a science station at the North Pole?
Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat loves playing sleight of hand, and sometimes he gets so wrapped up in performing the act that he forgets that he doesn’t have an ending. Moffat’s script here launched us into the mystery briskly, and in throwing so much at us at once, we don’t stop and think of the things he’s not showing us, the clues that aren’t there saying not everything is as it seems.
This is where the Inception-ness of “Last Christmas” comes in. Why did The Doctor show up and sweep Clara away to the North Pole? What is the mission of the four scientists besieged by dream crabs at their Arctic outpost? What were the scientists doing when The Doctor arrived, and who were the four people lying in the infirmary with dream crabs facehugging them? None of that was really addressed until after a side trip into Clara’s dreams, where she lives a happy life with Danny Pink because he didn’t die as a Cyberman saving the world. The Clara/Danny ‘ship wasn’t the best part of series eight, far from it, so one can be forgiven if you just suffered though that dreamscape, especially as dream Danny, just as selflessly as real-life Danny, does the right thing and encourages Clara to follow The Doctor back to the real world without any hesitation.