‘Last Christmas’, written by Steven Moffat, mixes the classic ‘base under siege’ Doctor Who story with ‘Alien’, ‘The Thing’, ‘Inception’ and the Superman comic ‘For the Man Who Has Everything’ to create a delightful festive tale that manages to include Santa Claus in a way that makes sense.
Spoilers From Here On!
When Santa Claus, played by Nick Frost, appeared at the end of ‘Death In Heaven’ it raised the question of how the character was going to be handled. Was he the real deal or just a fake?
‘Last Christmas’ makes this question central to its themes, forcing characters to question what is real and what is fantasy. As the Doctor points out this isn’t so easy to determine in their universe, an idea already touched upon in ‘Amy’s Choice’.
The start of the episode is comedic with Clara being awakened by Santa and his elves crashing their sleigh into her roof. Santa initially attempts to deceive Clara into thinking that they are just ordinary roof people but eventually admits the truth. When faced with Clara’s scepticism Santa and his elves point out that it is equally ridiculous to believe that it is parents who get their children presents once a year for no reason.
Just as dream-like is the Doctors appearance, arriving in his TARDIS and commanding Clara inside. Jenna Coleman conveys Clara’s joy of being back in the time machine well and that this can reignite her belief in the fantastical.
We are in more familiar territory after the titles, with a scientific base at the north pole. Here Professor Albert Smithe, Ashley Carter and Fiona Bellows talk young Shona McCullough through her dangerous expedition into the infirmary. They have a good rapport in this initial scene, immediately establishing their individual characters. It was a delight that Michael Troughton, as Professor Smithe, sounded so much like his father in a setting that would have been perfect for the 2nd Doctor.
In the infirmary are the sleepers, incapacitated members of base with alien parasites over their faces. We’ll later learn that these are Dream Crabs and follow a new set of Moffat rules. In this case if you look or think about the parasites they can see you.
To distract herself Shona listens to Slades ‘Merry Christmas Everyone.’ This is a fun way to bring in a well-loved Christmas song and leads to an enjoyable scene in which Shona dances across the infirmary, all the while the sleepers lie motionless under sheets.
Shona’s plan is ruined by the arrival of the Doctor and Clara. With the sleepers awakened the trio are imperil until the Doctor distracts Clara by insulting Danny, not realising that he is dead.
Their safety is short-lived as the rest of the rest of the base arrive and more Dream Crabs descend from the ceiling in a particularly gruesome scene. When all seems lost the room is rocked by explosions and a cavalry of toys herald the arrival of Santa and his elves.
In a neat bit of foreshadowing Shona refuses to accept that this is real and questions whether she is still dreaming, something that the Doctor picks up on. The groups interrogation of Santa puts voice to the questions that the audience doubtlessly have yet Santa knows all about them.
We get some plausible backstory, with the polar team discovering hibernating Dream Crabs beneath their base. This is neatly shown through shaky recorded footage. The specifics of the teams mission are skirted over as the scientists claim that it is a long story.
The behaviour of the alien parasites is very familiar and it is nice that they lampshaded by Professor Smithe pointing out that it is all a bit like ‘Alien’.
All the talk of the Dream Crabs awakens a specimen that Santa Claus has brought with him. In a scene almost directly taken from ‘Aliens’ Clara is stalked by the Dream Crab. It is a tense, with goo dripping down towards her as the creature scrambles just above her head.
Caught by the Dream Crab Clara awakens in her bed, just like at the start of the episode, only Danny Pink is still alive and ready to celebrate Christmas with her. It is clear what has happened but these scenes are played well, contrasting the wish-fulfilment with the chalk messages warning that Clara will die if she doesn’t wake up.
Clara’s refusal to heed the warnings shows that she is a flawed character but who hasn’t wanted to remain in a pleasant dream? Not even the arrival of the Doctor, willingly letting himself become a victim of a Dream Crab, can convince her to give up the illusion.
This is left to Danny Pink and it is a pleasant surprise to have Samuel Anderson back in the role. Danny’s transition from disbelieving to being willing to sacrifice his existence so that Clara might live is moving. This is a much better final farewell to the character than ‘Death In Heaven’ provided.
When the Doctor and Clara do awaken they find that the parasites are dead. Their victory is short-lived as the Doctor picks up on Shona’s earlier observation and reveals that they never did escape the infirmary.
The Doctor proves this in a nightmarishly simple test, by having each of the scientists read the first word from the same page in the base manual only to come up with something different, revealing a message that indicates they are all dying.
Santa confirms this as the ultimate proof that this is dream, answering the question of his existence. This is a great scene for Nick Frost, who takes a silly character and makes him seem heroic. He is a dream who is trying to save them.
Throughout the past series we’ve had the Doctor compared to other heroic characters, in particular Robin Hood. Here Santa himself makes the comparison, pointing out that a Time Lord in a spaceship disguised as a phone book is just as unlikely yet the Doctor also represents the fairy tale character who will save us.
With time running out for them in the real world and the sleepers on the move (actually representations of the characters minds that have been taken over by the aliens) things look bleak. Professor Smithe is the first to fall, pulled through a security monitor in the twisted dream-logic of the scene.
Surrounded and without access to the TARDIS the group need a way to escape that makes sense within the logic of the setting. This once again leads to Santa coming to the rescue in his flying sleigh.
This is a magical moment that is justified by existing in a dream. The group flying above London with snow in the air is a perfect Christmas image.
Slowly the rescued scientists realise that their life at the base was a lie and that they are actually ordinary people. This excuses all the plot holes (such as the bases’ mission, why the Doctor and Clara went there or what Shona was attempting to achieve when they arrived) in a suitably breezy manner.
The group vanishing, one by one, captured that feeling of a dream falling apart as the waking world beckons. The brief glimpses of their normal lives were welcome and occasionally tinged with sadness, such as the revelation that Fiona Bellows is confined to a wheelchair in real life. A reminder that in dreams we are free from the shackles that hold us in reality.
The Doctor awakens and rushes off to find Clara, who is refusing to leave the blissful dream of riding with Santa. Using the sonic screwdriver to remove the parasite it is revealed that many years have passed and that Clara is now an old woman.
Jenna Coleman plays this scene well, aided by some impressive old age make up. It serves as a nice call back to the scenes with Clara and the 11th Doctor in ‘Time of The Doctor’, even down to them pulling a cracker.
While reminiscent of how Amy and Rory left the Doctor’s company, living a full life without him, I would have been perfectly happy for how Clara left the show. Yet there is one more twist as Santa appears to grant the Doctor’s wish that he’d got there sooner.
Awakening the Doctor rushes to Clara’s side and finds that she is still a young women. Thankful for their second chance together they vanish together in the TARDIS while a lingering shot of a tangerine suggests that either Santa Claus is real or that they are both still asleep.
I was worried that this episode might have been a farce but I really enjoyed the direction the plot took. Christmas is a magical time, where we put aside the worries of our everyday life for a short time, but sooner or later we have to accept reality. This story took that idea and applied it to the world of Doctor Who, promising that we still have something to look forward to.
The adventure was fun, the monsters gruesome and there seems to have been some character development for the Doctor and Clara.
I do feel that having Clara return was a bit of a cheat, especially after an emotional final scene. Once again there are also characters introduced that would have made good replacements, such as Shona (who wouldn’t want more episodes of her dancing her way through danger?).
Yet this aside this was a very good Christmas story.