reviewed by Eddie McGuigan
The Doctor Who Christmas Special is now as big a part of the festivities as any BBC series has ever been. There is a generation of children who have never known it not to the case.
I know for us gnarled old veterans of the Dark Times it’s difficult to believe that the Special is still not a new fangled phenomena, but it’s not, it’s now as Christmas as The Top of the Pops Special or The Queen’s Speech.
But as it becomes so, so the expectations on it become greater. They can’t just churn out any old nonsense; they have to balance something that is Christmassy enough to be, well, Christmassy, Doctor Who enough to be, well, Doctor Who, and generic enough to keep the attention of Granny Muchy and Great Aunt Matilda as they sit farting discretely and digesting their turkey. Now, it’s fair to say, they probably get it as much as the breathless explanation little Johny gave earlier of Grand Theft Auto, but nonetheless it has to at least aim at that particular snowman.
It’s fair to say that in the past it’s been a little hit and miss. The Runaway Bride with its filmed-in-a-heatwave-but-here-are-some-baubles paid nothing more than lip service to the concept and The End of Time may have had a Christmas tree or two in the background, but the story itself was more important. That’s not to say these were bad episodes, not at all, but since Steven Moffat became showrunner he’s drenched the Christmas Special with Christmassiness by the bucket load, aping, with absolutely no shame such Christmassy tropes as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Victorian chocolate box Christmases and even that standard, A Christmas Carol. Last year’s offering went so far as to set the whole thing in a town called Christmas. The Moff definitely lets you know it’s Christmas.
Last Christmas is no different. It is, without a doubt, the most Christmassy Christmas Special of them all. It’s set at Christmas, in the snow, is all about wishes and dreams, has our old friend Merry Christmas Everyone not only take pride of place but danced too, with Noddy Holder crying out in dolby stereo, and has as its guest star none other than Santa Claus.
And make no mistake, this is Santa Claus. The hero of Christmas. With a sleigh and flying reindeers and elf helpers. Far from worried parents having to field questions about how Santa is an alien from Fla’Chant’Ra 5, Nick Frost cheekily fields questions about the absurdity of his character with verve and class, answering some of the curve balls parents have no doubt had to field this year. On flying reindeers: “Of course reindeers can’t fly, it’s a physical impossibility!” And, after a beat of superb comic timing: “That’s why I feed them magic carrots!” Frost is superb. He’s cocky, cheeky, clever, absurd and funny as well as heroic, kind and relevant. He’s more than a cipher and more than a caricature. We get a fully rounded Christmas spirit filled real man. The real Santa.
The rest of the crew on the polar base Clara and the Doctor find themselves on – that’s a long story, by the way – are likeable and believable. None are too precious but neither are they particularly stand out, but they don’t need to be, as the big characters are what this episode is about. Most underwritten is, surprisingly Michael Troughton’s Professor Albert, who, when we first meet him, is absolutely doing a vocal impression of his dad.
The story of this episode is difficult to explain without giving too much away. And it’s a long story… Santa crashes on Clara’s roof, the Doctor appears, takes her to a Polar Base under attack by something called Dream Crabs, which latch onto people’s faces and slowly digest them whilst psychically inducing a dream state to subdue their victims. But is everything as it seems? When all seems lost, Santa pops in to save the day, but, again… that’s a long story.
The main thing about this episode is the relationship between Clara and the Doctor. It’s been… well, “some time” since they last met, but both have missed the other, and they fall back into their old team with little effort. Clara still takes no nonsense from the Doctor, who himself is a lot more open and less abrasive. In fact, this is Peter Capaldi’s most accessible and likeable turn as the Time Lord. Both regulars have tempered their performances and there is a love and warmth between the two characters that, whilst hinted at a lot over s8 was never properly explored. But oh how it is here.
One thing Steven Moffat is often criticised for is being more a concepts man than an emotion man – it’s a common perception that RTD did the emotion and the Moff does the plots – but here Steven out RTDs RTD with a superb study in friendship, love and second chances. There are some achingly beautiful scenes in this episode, and again, like the rest of s8, it doesn’t skirt the awfulness and horror of some of the situations they find themselves in or they remember from times gone by.
Also in keeping with the rest of the season (and make no mistake, Last Christmas, more than any other Christmas Special is very much episode 13 of s8 and shirks none of the tropes and themes from that here) is the development of the Doctor, despite his best efforts, he’s a lot more cheerful here, but also willing to walk away and forget the humans when he thinks the job is done.
Capaldi and Coleman are superb in this episode. I’d go so far as to say this is Capaldi’s best performance as the Doctor and (possibly) Jenna’s as Clara. Both are likeable, heroic, rounded and eminently watchable.
For continuity hounds, big questions left hanging in Death In Heaven are answered, including Clara’s fate – and then some! There is also a continuity thread from the main season in the derivative moments which ape old episodes or movies – Time of the Doctor is heartbreakingly mirrored here in a beautifully touching scene, and films from The Thing, Alien and A Nightmare on Elm Street are referenced, some even in the dialogue.
Director Paul Wilmshurst continues his fine work from Mummy on the Orient Express by balancing comedy, drama and horror whilst dousing the lot with liberal sprinkles of Christmas spirit and Murray Gold does a wonderful job helping all the winks and references be underlined with a subtle and heartwarming score.
I honestly can’t fault this episode. It’s as good as the best Capaldi episodes to date (Flatline and Mummy FYI) and the best Christmas episode ever. It manages to be a Special whilst also being a clever episode of Who that compliments its audience with intelligence and attention.