The Doctor Who Christmas specials are now an essential part of the BBC Christmas Day programming not just because it gets a huge audience, but because there’s so much shite on normally that even a crap special is better than the latest revamp of whatever programme the BBC have decided to bring back from the dead. These Christmas specials are generally all over the place in terms of quality. Some are great fun, some are just appalling. This falls more into the badlands between both grounds while nicking from Alien, Inception and a large chunk of Alan Moore’s Superman story, For The Man Who Has Everything; a story that features an alien life form that attaches itself to Superman and gives him a perfect life in a dream just like the ‘Dream Crabs’ in this episode that attaches themselves to people and gives them perfect dreams before they die.
This episode picks up after the end of the last series where the Doctor and Clara and split up with the Doctor thinking Clara had gone to have a life with the presumed resurrected Danny Pink (she hadn’t, he was dead and she was lying) and that Clara thinking the Doctor had gone to stay with his people after he rediscovered Gallifrey (he hadn’t, he was lying) so the pair split on less than honest terms. At the very end of the final episode of last series, the Doctor was interrupted by Santa Claus on the Tardis and this episode starts right on from that as Clara is awoken by Santa emptying his sack into her chimney before the Doctor arrives to whisk her to the North Pole and a base populated by scientists in a pretty typical Doctor Who type of set.
At the base there are four survivors of an attack by alien ‘Dream Crabs’ that have taken four of their colleagues by attaching themselves onto their faces and here’s from here where the Doctor and Clara arrive to get to the bottom of what’s going on. From here the story falls into Alan Moore territory via Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and some of it is very good, some of it is appalling and much of what makes it appalling is Nick Frost’s Santa Claus which is so clearly telegraphed as a dream that Frost may as well have ‘LOOK I’M A DREAM’ on his costume throughout the entire episode.
So somehow these monsters are attacking people randomly across the planet as the Doctor discovers they’re all dying as these aliens are sucking out people’s brains as they’re attached to people’s faces, but these people are stuck in a dream within a dream within a dream and on and on, so that what is ‘real’ becomes hard to work out. It is a little bit too obviously Nolan but through the filter of BBC family television so it ends up a bit neutered, but even so, it’s still so obviously lifted from Christopher Nolan (who himself lifted the idea from things like Little Nemo in Slumberland, another thing writer Stephen Moffat uses for inspiration here with Clara being Nemo) along with all the other bits of ‘inspiration’ that becomes so obvious that Moffat has a character referencing the fact the Dream Crabs look like Facehuggers from Alien. I think Moffat sat there looking like a cat that’d just learned to shite in the litter tray after throwing these references in but the problem is that the story gets clogged down in them and doesn’t flow. Especially as it’s Christmas Day and a large number of people watching it are expecting a decent adventure story which is what the Russell T. Davies specials were, even if some of those were also not very good.
It’s not that Last Christmas is terrible, it’s not, but it’s not especially good either. As said, it falls into a badlands between both mainly because the tone is all over the place. One minutes it’s all jolly and Christmassy, the next it’s being all meta about where it’s drawn it’s influences, the next it’s descended into a bad CBBC programme and on and on. Moffat doesn’t decide on a tone and stick with it, but instead makes a soup with chunky bits that look like they shouldn’t be floating in it, He doesn’t know whether to make it a light episode, or one that’s grim, or one that’s uplifting, so he just welds it all together and ties it up in his influences in the hope most people are too stuffed and/or pissed to notice that it really doesn’t work. It’s a distracting enough bit of telly but the main problem with Last Christmas is that it’s all so very boring and you don’t make a Doctor Who Christmas special boring as people will switch off, or judging by a quick look on social media, they’ll watch it and think it’s just shite.
There is one moment that made me think that perhaps this could be a fantastic episode. It’s the scene where the Doctor realises that the Dream Crabs can go through time, so goes to rescue Clara but discovers 62 years have passed for her so she’s now an old woman essentially waiting to die after a life where she’s lived it to the full even though the Doctor has left her behind. It’d have been a great dramatic exit for Clara and a reminder for the Doctor of humanity’s transience so the Doctor could have been put back in touch with his compassion which would have nicely developed the Capaldi Doctor on. Instead Moffat pulls the rug out from under us and this scene is a dream within a dream which means Clara is still young and still travelling with the Doctor, even though her story has hit a nice dramatic ending that gives her a close, and tells the audience that even the Doctor can suffer loss. Nope, it’s all back to normal as if nothing happened. Lies and deceit is forgotten about as the Doctor and Clara go off to have adventures next series.
Now before anyone says ‘aye, but it’s Christmas, you can’t kill off or get rid of a companion on the Christmas Day episode when everyone is full of booze and meat?”, they’ve done it before. There’s still hordes of 30-40 somethings traumatised by the death of Kylie Minogue.
Moffat chooses the easy route. The safe route. After the last series which on the whole was excellent that makes it all so disappointing as I know this could have been better but the whole thing seems like an idea they firmed up in the pub one lunch rather than make it something that is going to stand out in years to come, because really, few are going to remember this episode in years to come. In fact apart from Moffat’s first Christmas special, his Christmas episodes have been patchy to terrible.
This isn’t to say that I think Moffat’s time in charge is over as the last series showed that perhaps that was a wee bit premature but his time should be coming to an end as the audience needs a new voice in charge, and hopefully the BBC are smart and don’t make the next ‘showrunner’ (terrible American expression) a fan, but instead someone interested in making the best programme they can rather than pander to their own fan fantasies. Peter Capaldi is shaping up to be an excellent Doctor but it’s depressing to think that he’s going to be stuck in this occasionally infantile fantasy landscape Moffat seems to enjoy. We’ve had the programme since it returned be a soap opera, a 2000AD influenced SF/adventure, horror, a romance, then into the Moffat era it becomes this Harry Potter type fantasy which although Moffat does dive outside of that, it’s stuck in this odd middle class fantasy which although is different from RTD’s more working class based drama, is still odd and somewhat tiresome now. I hope Moffat does move on after the next series so we can see a new person in charge.
Last Christmas isn’t a great hour of telly. It has moments but overall it suffered from being too dull, let alone too mired in showing off it’s influences. All we need on a Christmas special is a good, well told story that holds the attention for 60 minutes while the turkey works its way through people’s colons. Throw in some action, some adventure and some fun and bingo you’ve got a Christmas special as opposed to Nick Frost mugging his way through an episode in a Santa suit.
We now have to wait eight months til the next series and indeed, the tenth anniversary of the programme returning in 2005. I hope it’s a good one…..