And then they woke up and it was all a dream

Doctor Who: “Last Christmas”
By Steven Moffat
First broadcast: 25 December 2014

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Doctor Who’s annual Christmas special was so good this year! It was funny, and well-plotted, and thrilling, and it all made perfect sense, even as we sat there in our Turkey Comas.

—and then they woke up and it was all a dream.

Is there a sentence more derided in fiction than the above? It’s the original cliché, the get-out clause, the enemy of a creative writing teacher. And yet here it is, in BBC One’s mainstream hit, the star atop its Christmas TV tree. And as a direct result, the series has been axed from our screens, and Amazon is considering a reboot starring Dame Judi Dench.

and then they woke up and it was all a dream… again.

By extension, it’s perhaps even more annoying as a device when it is nestled within another dream.

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Granted, the concept nearly works. Some of the rug-pull twists definitely work. As we have come to expect from writer and showrunner Steven Moffat, it’s a fiendishly clever and complex plot. But herein lies the problem – it’s not as entertaining as it is clever, and it’s too complex for Christmas Day. Nan is talking and leftovers are being offered and presents being played with and dogs are being lairy and, let’s be honest, everyone over the age of 14 is pissed. That is simply not conducive to picking up on minute details of an (at times) inaccessible story.

This is the other key problem – accessibility. Christmas Day is usually when Doctor Who plays to its biggest audience; it’s when people who wouldn’t usually make time for the show catch it because their grandson wants it on, because it has become the day of TV. Which is all the more reason for it to be a strong, appealing, not-untypical slice of Doctor Who. Many casual viewers watching Last Christmas  could have been scared off.

By far, the best usage of the concept playing out is when the Doctor realises that the events he is involved in do not make sense – because dreams are not logical, they’re disjointed, and they prevent you from asking the correct questions. I would say he’s saving Moffat the task of making sense, but he doesn’t often bother with that much anyway! (I jest.) I do, however, think Moffat needs to leave the senses alone from now on. We’ve had don’t breathe, don’t blink, listen!, don’t think. It could start becoming a little trite…

Above all, the reason the dream-end is the scourge of creative writing teachers is because it can leave you thinking, well what was the point? And, whilst some may enjoy scouring for clues on second viewing, on repeat the episode could instead feel redundant; a problem for a show like Who which will probably be watched again for years to come.

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The other key component of the episode is Nick Frost’s Father Christmas, his elves and the reindeer. Yes, you read that correctly. Much of this is played for laughs, but none of it showboats the comedy to its full potential, as though the direction was stuck on creepy-base-under-siege-mode and forgot to change gear. As a result, we get a slightly flat opening scene – the last thing you want on Christmas Day! – which meanders to the point. Having said that, the Doctor’s entrance is great, the set of the snow-capped rooftop is thoroughly convincing, and Jenna Coleman’s glistening eyes as she admits she does believe in magical things again, manages to sell it.

So there are fundamental problems with the episode – but what of the minutiae? Unforgivably, we get a few too long, dull standing around chatting scenes, with the key moments not particularly well punctuated by the editing. The dream crabs are such an innovative concept that it is a shame the design doesn’t match up, but instead is slightly nondescript and clunky. Still wouldn’t want one wrapped around my face, so maybe they’ve done their job!

The ensemble cast is also slightly nondescript, which is a fatal flaw in this type of base story. . Shona’s dancing to So here it is, Merry Christmas is great fun but not to the extent that I could understand calls for her to get aboard the TARDIS full-time. However the way the characters are sketched, neatly and quickly, at the end (Shona and her DVDs!) is incredibly skilful.

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But I hate being negative about this glorious show – especially where Christmas is concerned. There are more lovely Twelfth Doctor moments, such as when he says he won’t hold anyone’s hand apart from Clara’s, and the line “There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive, no wonder they keep invading you!” The final sequence on Santa’s sleigh reads like a script editor told Moffat to lighten up – it’s Christmas Day! – but it works. Capaldi’s sheer childlike joy as he shouts “I’m riding a sleigh!” is a nice antidote to this Doctor’s gruffer moments.

Because that is what this story really boils down to: the Doctor’s relationship with Clara. They are either parting ways, or reuniting. I didn’t really like the Danny Pink dream because it felt like tying up loose ends last year when this should be new new new, but it did give us some chilling moments with a chalkboard. The metatextual way that recent episodes have interlinked with press speculation over Coleman’s potential exit – and the brilliant way Coleman herself played up to it – has made for some really unpredictable storytelling.

Viewers have been hankering to see the Doctor and Clara tell the truth to each other since Death In Heaven, and the scenes where they confront their complicated relationship are extremely accomplished. The writing deftly links their lying back to dreams, and links their final ‘fake ending’, with the Old Clara pulling a cracker, to a similar scene in last year’s The Time of the Doctor. On first viewing I was concerned that a brilliant companion might leave in this way, in an episode I was less keen on, so her reprise was a marvellous moment! When they run off, jovially at last, to new adventures, it’s properly exciting. Here’s to second chances!

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Like The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe, Last Christmas feels like a slightly unnecessary Christmas special, with some companion development tacked on to the end. To be fair, in most other ways, Last Christmas is unlike every other Doctor Who story ever, and that is always a good thing. It didn’t work for me, but it worked for some viewers. I must admit I enjoyed it more on second viewing.

For detractors, perhaps the best thing about Last Christmas is the fact that it never happened for the Doctor or Clara means we can pretend it never happened for us, either.

Except there’s that ruddy tangerine…

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5 Comments

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  1. That’s probably the most negative review of Doctor Who I’ve read :o. The Doctor Who Christmas special is my special Christmas moment. Me and my fiancé leave the room for the duration to make sure the Christmas rumble of the family isn’t a distraction!
    Nice post though, very detailed and I can most definitely see your point – my Whovian goggles just don’t allow such negativity any more!

  2. Great post. This one was always going to be risky and conteoversial with fans but, honestly, I absolutely adored it. I think it rivals A Christmas Carol as the best Christmas special yet. But I’ve found I tend to be a lot easier to please than most fans anyway.

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