TV Happy Boxing Day. Christmas Day passed off, as it so often does, like some fever dream, a more acutely lucid experience this year thanks to Sefton Park being hit with all the weathers the meteorological elves in the sky could throw at us, having a discussion over dinner about when Jesus was actually born and realising that calendars stop making sense if there wasn’t a year zero (or some such), Simon McCoy’s bearfriend and the Queen referencing Game of Thrones in her speech to the nation (if she’d done this whilst sat in the iron throne, Buzzfeed’s servers would have been down for the rest of the day). In the evening we watched Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy with its portentous party flashbacks is surprisingly Christmassy.
Fittingly in the middle of all that there was Doctor Who’s Last Christmas, which is what it is, just as these Christmas specials usually are. Let’s get the main business out of the way first. It’s fine. It’s not the best of all the specials which is still The Feast of Steven (because of Peter Purves’s accent), not the best of these modern specials, which is still The Christmas Invasion and not the best of Moffat’s which is probably A Christmas Carol and not the worst (The Next Doctor hasn’t aged well, has it?). It’s also certainly one of the better television episodes of the year though given how low the bar has drifted on that, this might not seem like much of a complement. But it is.
As Charlie Jane Anders notices in her excellent review, effectively what Moffat’s doing here is taking the accusation that all he ever seems to do is recycle old story types by recycling old story types In general terms, Alien, The Thing and Inception (of all things) are here as are Amy’s Choice, The God Complex and Journey To The Centre if the TARDIS with the writer making sure that we know that he knows that he knows and that we know by actually referencing the films within the episode and Shona’s list at the end. In the classic series, it’d be the equivalent of the Doctor actually noting the Android of Tara’s literary antecedent or indeed the whole of The Mind Robber.
Cue a YouTube fan montage to the tune of Jane Wiedlin’s Inside A Dream, the chorus for which is “And lose myself inside a dream / Opening up a secret door / I lose myself inside a dream / And find a world worth living for” which isn’t just the plot of this episode but pretty much a mission statement for every companion in the programme and probably us fans. Incidentally, this was the best of Wiedlin’s solo work, even better than Rush Hour which arguably didn’t really actualise until Joy Rider’s McBusted sounding pre-McBusted teen rock run out. Wiedlin’s album Fur was one of the cornerstones of my teen vinyl collection, purchased alongside all the Debbie Gibson picture discs from Penny Lane Records when it was in Mathew Street.
But this really is the work of someone who’s entirely aware of the criticisms made against him. Oh how he must have giggled as he also misses out the time loop or paradox, even though it’s appeared in all his previous specials in some form or other. With the entire episode apart from the coda happening inside a dream, there isn’t room for one even if you assume that all of the different participants have been drawn together from different time zones. Perhaps Listen’s gotten it out of his system. Let’s hope so, unless it’s used in a particularly interesting new way. My one hope now that we know Clara’s back for another year (yippee!) is that it’s about a straightforward search for Gallifrey or some such.
All of which means that in this case it’s the Twelfth Doctor’s lack of human understanding and alieness, the two things which were brought to the fore in the previous series, which hinder rather than help him. If he’d seen all of these things, or at least remembered seeing them because I’ve always assumed the amnesiac Eighth Doctor in the century he spent waiting for Fitz in the Earth arc was a big movie buff, he would have twigged what was going on much earlier, as I think Moffat expected his audience to. It’s the sort of proverbial bomb under the table as winking narrative device which the writer’s been very good at across the years.
Capaldi’s clearly having a ball playing these shades and between the writing and his performance, a few things have clearly been tweaked in terms of allowing the audience to like him some more and to allow him to be enjoy being the Doctor, both the actor and his incarnation. When he utilises emotional cruelty it’s as a weapon rather than as something he just apparently does and importantly is remorseful about it afterwards not least when he discovers that what he thought to be the truth was a lie. Though to be fair I’d forgotten he didn’t know Danny Pink was dead which added a whole other complexion to my first viewing of the facehugger avoiding scene. I even thought the Doctor might have been visiting Clara in the wrong order.
As the sleigh ride scene shows (the teeth, oh the teeth), there probably is something admirable in having a generally stoic Doctor who will eventually crack and let his hair down when given the right encouragement. It’s very Spock, if you’ll pardon the expression, makes those moments when Capaldi’s face beams all the more special (cf, the giddy dance, oh the giddy dance in Flatline). It’s not all perfect. His general rudeness to people he’s just met isn’t attractive. “PE” was back with a vengeance too (though that could be rationalised as him gauging the nature of this dream construct version of Danny and how he’ll be interacting with him). But if we’re now in the post The Twin Dilemma world, that’s fine.
On the basis of Last Christmas I’m also willing to shift Clara to being my fourth favourite companion of all time behind Polly, Martha and Charley Pollard (who I can now play alongside Eighth in the Legacy game thanks to the Big Finish Humble Bundle) (phew). Those tears in the teaser, those teaser tears. Those dream tears would clearly have had even greater weight if the apparent original (and frankly awful) companion conclusion had stayed in place, her seeing that interior for the first time in decades, but even after six months and an assumption that she’d never see her again, you can understand why, having had time to think, she’d be flabbergasted.
The Danny Pink business is still problematic and I’m not sure that we needed yet another farewell scene for the both of them, but it was beautifully played by the three actors and there is a poignancy that not only would this fictional paradise be her last Christmas with her boyfriend, it would be her only one, them having met and him dying between festive seasons. But the notion of the last Christmas is something which has been playing on my mind for the past few years. It’s why, even with me at the age of forty, our family still fills the bottom of the tree with presents, why I still treat Christmas the way I did when I was ten years old and I’m going to stop this paragraph here because I don’t want to cry like I did during the episode.
With all of that good will out of the way, let’s deal with the rest of it. I didn’t really like Nick Frost’s Santa or the elves and I don’t think they worked within the context of what they were supposed to mean within the dream construct. Would these people really envisage this version, the one doing an impression of Simon Pegg doing an impression of Toby Young? I think the jokes were fine and I enjoyed the verbal jousting with the Doctor and the thematic undercurrent of their spiritual similarities. But I would have much preferred a figure closer to the Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street, born of comfort rather than cynicism, especially since we’re in the realm of children’s belief systems.
Speaking of which, and because I am forty but without children, I would like to know how kids reacted to the notion that Santa only exists in dreams, of being told flat out that he’s a fantasy. Granted such things are also available to kids with internet access and the Wikipedia entry, and the Satsuma at the end, perhaps a visual reference to the closing spinning top shot in Inception is supposed to imply otherwise, but I do wonder how many parents had to find a rationalisation of their own at the end of that. Though parents are very good at this. I found it entirely reasonable after visiting the Santas at both Lewis’s and Blacklers department stores in Liverpool on the same day that they were his ambassadors or helpers and the real one was busy up north making presents.
Now, here’s a question. Are we ok with the revelation that the three women scientists, the fact of there being three women scientists one of the great pleasures of the story up until that point, were only dreaming they were scientists and that two them at least Ashley and Shona (we don’t know the previous employment status of the grandmother, Fiona), respectively worked as an account manager for a Perfume company and as the other says "I work in a shop. I thought I was a scientist. That's rubbish."? Why not just keep them as scientists when they wake up or have them be themselves in the dream rather than shaming them for the jobs they otherwise have?
Am I wrong to take umbrage at this with its nested portion of umbrage reserved for the gender stereotyping inherent in the choice of jobs? Why Perfume exactly, assuming Perfume isn’t a software company? Again I’d be interested to hear feedback. It was suggested to me on the Twitters afterwards I may have overreacted to this and potentially I have and it’s true I have become quite sensitive to this sort of thing recently for various reasons. What of Albert? Was he still a Professor in the real world? His name is very professortorial. Perhaps he’s essentially David Brent in real life. Anyway, please feel free to leave your comments beneath the doubly-doos or the sub-Reddit (if I had one).
But apart from that, Last Christmas is fine. Any episode which has Faye Marsay apparently defending herself from alien attack by dancing to the music of Slade and a joke about Santa’s sleigh holding all the presents because it’s dimensionally transcendental can’t be all bad. The various obvious tweaks do correct some of my own cynicism about the future of the show, though my planned plunge into McGann catch up over the next eighth months should help too. Having finally “done” Santa, (Time) lord knows where Moffat will go with the special next year. It’s going to be the nativity, isn’t it?
Now, take it away Jane Wiedlin …