This piece first appeared in DWM #482 and brings us up to date (but hopefully not for ever) on my current reviews for the magazine. If you’ve ever wondered about the timetable of these things, the preview copy was made available to journalists on December 16th, and I submitted my text on the 18th, the day before Tom and Peter were to close up shop for the year.
Christmas Day 2014 was mostly about binging for Shona. Sure, her dad was popping by and she had to attend to some other unfinished business (probably of the heart, and quickly resolved by ticking off ‘Forgive Dave’ on the to-do list) but that aside, she was to feast upon Alien then The Thing from Another World and then Miracle on 34th Street. After? A Game of Thrones marathon, but that’s another story. A long story.
Anyway, there was Shona.
My big day, and yours too I’m sure, was spent in equally indulgent form, but with those three movies minced into a rich stuffing for Doctor Who‘s one-hour special, Last Christmas. It was an adventure of such uncommon merriment, Steven Moffat proved happy enough to delineate his filmic influences – bar the other obvious one, Inception – in the form of our heroine’s festive itinerary, which we glimpsed near the end of the episode. I liked that. It felt as if he was waving at we viewers: ‘Look what I did! Look at me!’ Not in a showy-off way, but as a giddy and unabashed display of pure enthusiasm, much like the Doctor himself when he takes the reins of Santa’s sleigh; my very favourite bit.
The appropriation of other stories is something that’s always fuelled Doctor Who, but in a tale that takes us – at its deepest point – four dreams down (that’s where we are when we reach Clara and Danny’s fantasy day), it feels all the more fitting to lash in other narratives. The polar base, the “face huggers”, the debate about Santa’s existence. Let’s have it all. As ever, Moffat is working the mixing desk skilfully, adjusting and merging levels plus adding in new ones to create something with its own unique harmony. Not only is this an alien horror at Christmas, it’s also a parable about second chances.
Let’s talk more of that later because I want to linger around the festivities. As Moffat has pointed out in the past, there’s a proper synergy between Doctor Who and this time of year. The notion he expounds here – that each Christmas may be our last – is, cleverly, both melancholic and hopeful. It utilises the real magic at the heart of the programme, a show that, despite its mechanics (and the nostalgic yearnings of we fans) is almost brutally committed to the future. New Doctors, new companions, new baddies. Danny’s return is a further demonstration, in that he not only counsels Clara to go forward in all her beliefs, but his cameo also works as a gentle settling of his ghost. There he goes, now firmly crossing over into the past tense.
Bringing another kind of magic is Nick Frost as Santa. That he never really seems anything other than Nick Frost is not a problem – it feels like a performance and a casting decision. As soon as he’s forced to admit his identity to Clara, Frost drops the bluff ho-ho-ho-ing and reverts to his familiar geezerish guise. Father Christmas is Father Christmas, a silhouette we can fill in however we wish. As long as he’s got the beard and the reindeer and the presents, then, like the Doctor himself, the specific persona is up for grabs. The actor is charming and charismatic in the role, meaning his man in red has easily enough stature to stand alongside the Time Lord.
I was also drawn to the aforementioned Shona, played by Faye Marsay. Sometimes you can find characters within Doctor Who who feel surprisingly real. Who aren’t trying to conform to a useful archetype, they’re just trying to be. She’s one of those, and so I found it particularly gratifying that beyond the glimpse of her jumbled home life and her devotion to Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody, Moffat painted her as the second-smartest person in the room. “This is ridiculous,” she says, early on. “Am I dreaming?” The Doctor twigs it. “Oh, very good,” he mutters.
And then there are the Kantrofarri, who are part of that respectable pantheon of one-trick creatures who exist only to serve a plot function. Like the Boneless or the Vashta Nerada, no one expects a return bout. But what they do here, they do rather well. “You think about a dream crab, a dream crab is coming for you,” says the Doctor, invoking both their lurid colloquial name and their rather smart high concept. Visually they’re best caught in glances, behind globs of ooze. Clamped over someone’s face – someone normally wearing a gilet – they’re less of an excitement. Although I did honestly wonder if in this form they’d been specifically designed in the image of another unwelcome Christmas interloper, the walnut.
No one likes walnuts. They end up as bollards on the Christmas Day post-apocalyptic landscape of bird bones, toffee wrappers and flaccid biscuits. But it’s boring, isn’t it, when, every year, someone points out the sin that is over-consumption. I don’t think Moffat’s script is doing that, but it does play with ideas of feasting. Most notably, the crabs gorge upon our brains (ah, reviewing Doctor Who can deliver up some wonderful phrases), while at the same time Professor Albert (the brilliant Michael Troughton) is noshing his way noisily through a turkey leg. Is there learning here? I’m not sure, but there’s certainly a neatness.
Hungriest of all are the Doctor and Clara whom, one can imagine, have spent the interim between Death in Heaven and Christmas Day aching for each other. Moffat’s script and Paul Wilmhurst’s commendably snappy direction throw the pair back together at a pace. “I grew out of fairy tales,” says Clara with mere millimetres of foreshadowing to exploit before the TARDIS then arrives. More than any other story, this one nails their bond. I could actually believe in the friendship. I could see it, particularly when the Doctor flapped about in panic at the realisation a crab had fixed itself upon her. Later there was another sweet glimpse. All bashful at the thought of joining some kind of communal circle of love with the polar camp personnel, our hero accedes to just one thing: “I will hold Clara’s hand.” There are other instances that don’t work quite so well – Clara rhapsodising about the dematerialisation sound was a little too lacquered, and her attempt to portray the Doctor as synonymous with Saint Nick (“I’ve always believed in Santa Claus, but he looks a little different to me”) is a stretch too far no matter how pungent a rarebit dream we’re in. He’s certainly lightened up this Yule, but TV’s current incarnation of Father Time is still far too much of a humbug to be taken for Father Christmas.
Revealing it’s all a dream is an infamous storytelling cop-out. Not only does it give a writer an easy exit, it allows them to pay scant interest in reason and pile up the incident in any which way they please. Not for Moffat, though, whose work is so often characterised by its perfect structuring. Despite embedding fantasies inside one another, this is one of his most measured pieces, with no detail proving redundant. As is his way, the show runner ruthlessly interrogates the logic of nightmares. He brings us the ingenious Helmen-Ziegler test, and writes a beautiful sequence where no one quite manages to give out their phone number (I’ve been in that frustrating reverie many a time). And all of this prefaced by a clever nod from the Doctor towards the absurdities of weaving fictions inside fictions: “Do you know what the problem is in telling fantasy and reality apart? They’re both ridiculous.”
The final layer of dreaming is the superfluous fake-out ending in which Clara is depicted as an old lady. Presumably, a bookend to the fate of the Doctor in last year’s special, it left me with three specific thoughts. 1) Okay, so she’s now in her 80s. You’ve got a time machine, Doctor, pop back to when she wasn’t. 2) It remains the case that no prosthetics or CGI yet concocted can convincingly make someone in their 20s look elderly. Thankfully, Jenna Coleman’s performance is strong enough to blast through the latex. Third thought? 3) This woman’s enjoyed more farewell tours than Cher.
But once the illusion is also peeled back, it becomes clear we’ve reached the heart of things. A final, uplifting portrait of our time-travelling twosome, running off to adventure together again. Both now fully redeemed. All lies revealed. “I never get a second chance,” says the Doctor, following his look at Christmas future. “So what happened this time?” Pan down to that tangerine. Maybe it was Santa. Or, perhaps, after a year in which the Doctor’s tested the strength of his relationships like never before, perhaps this time he just wished really, really hard for it.