Doctor Who: 8X “Last Christmas” Review
Reviewed by John Hussey.
I’m going to put it out there and say that this year has been shaky grounds between me and Doctor Who in terms of Steven Moffat’s recent changes to the show’s mythology. Though on a plus side I have hopes that after more development with the Master that I can come to terms with his directions. Anyway, these changes made me a little unsettled and even unbothered by Doctor Who’s arrival onscreen this Christmas. But despite this minor blimp I did deep down have hopes for this year’s Christmas Special through what I knew about it.
Did ‘Last Christmas’ impress me? Yes. Allow me to use this review to explain why.
‘Last Christmas’ showcased what I loved about Steven Moffat’s ideas of how a Christmas tale should be told. I’m not saying Russell T Davies’ specials weren’t any good, far from it, but I feel Moffat has a certain charm to his writing at Christmas. The little happy-spirited boy inside him rocks out to deliver some Christmas cheer and dilemmas. There’s always a sense of magic as well as a serious undertone that brings peril to the adventure. This year’s Christmas Special really took the serious nature to new heights through this year’s change in tone.
What I loved maybe the most about this episode was Moffat didn’t take it easy just because it was Christmas. Yes we had Santa Claus, played perfectly by Nick Frost, but the darker nature of Series 8 came back with a vengeance to place more children behind the couches. The balance between Christmas spirit and horror was perfect in my eyes and delivered a unique story line set around the idea of dreams. This factor of the story became the dominant threat throughout the adventure. Once again Moffat took an everyday thing and turned it on its head to frighten us. Everyone has had a dream where they’ve woken up within a dream and Moffat used that aspect to tell a sinister tale of escaping the dream world.
As Moffat pointed out in Doctor Who Extra, they’d already delved into the world of dreams within ‘Amy’s Choice’ but ‘Last Christmas’ took this innocent idea further. The chilling nature of the story was down to the enemy. It’s rare to see such grotesque creatures as the villain. I like it sometimes when the enemy is a mindless creature that just wants to kill. There’s more to fear from something that follows natural instinct and doesn’t speak. It just wants one thing. The Kantrofarri, also known as the Dream Crabs, really created that old science-fiction horror vibe, resembling Alien through their distinct resemblance to the well-known Face-hugger (which incidentally got John Hurt, the War Doctor, killed). What I loved most about these creature’s was their inventive way of killing their victims; inducing them in a dream like state whilst they eat their brain like drinking a milkshake through a straw. Their design and presence gave the episode that edge that made it stand out from other Christmas Specials. It didn’t try to be nice and jolly like most other shows and instead went for being dark, serious and somewhat scary. I compliment Moffat for his hard efforts.
The extra bonus of the story was its isolated appearance. Some of Doctor Who’s best episodes have been ‘base under siege’ stories and this one was certainly one of the best examples. It reminded me of Alien and The Thing. It echoes back to The Thing in the sense of the character’s not knowing what to trust around them and Alien, for the reasons said above. What was great was hearing Professor Albert, played by Michael Troughton (nice to have more Troughtons onboard), reference the fact that the Kantrofarri reminded him of the Face-Huggers. The Doctor’s response was just hilarious, implying that films named after extraterrestrials was the reason Earth is invaded so much.
The dream part of the story left me completely engaged and honestly got me every time. It was clever of Moffat to have multiple dream sequences and making us constantly question whether or not the characters were still dreaming. Even upon believing they were safe Moffat would throw another curve ball into the works. It made me think after the second time that perhaps this card was being used too much and may even go as far as spoiling the impact of the said card. But it didn’t. Each time the card was used it left me surprised in a good way. It never failed to impress me.
Clara’s return to the Doctor’s life was a great journey to watch because it was established at the end of ‘Death in Heaven’ that they had parted ways through the usage of lies to make the other one happy. This was now apparent to both characters who quickly changed the subject. I think it hit the Doctor a little bit because he had now discovered Clara wasn’t happy and that he’d abandoned her when she needed him most. It must have been sad also to know she lied because he lied, showing how much they cared for one another and operate on the same level of complexity.
I obviously couldn’t go without mentioning the wonderful surprise return of Danny Pink, welcome back Samuel Anderson. It was a fitting reappearance and didn’t feel out of place, flowing in sync with Clara’s ordeal of facing his demise and life without him. The story hints heavily that she could’ve easily remained within the dream world in order to remain with Danny, which played out very emotionally and was sad to watch. Danny once again proved that he was a strong character and that his feelings for Clara were infinite. Even as a dream entity he gave Clara the courage to move on. I’m unsure whether or not Danny will ever return again, maybe within Series Nine as more echoes or maybe even a full on return (who knows with Moffat), but for me this was a fitting end to his character. He had his heroic end, followed by his emotional sacrifice in ‘Death in Heaven’ ending now within ‘Last Christmas’ with his spirit giving Clara hope within her dreams.
Nick Frost was a great addition to Doctor Who and he nailed it as Santa. He brought about an edgy performance that crossed the magical character between friendly and stern. It balanced out well with the story. I liked the fact that with the story being evolved around dreams both the characters, and us the audience, questioned his legitimacy because he is a magic character from our imaginations. As children we believe he is real through his magical appearance and the happy thought that such fantastical things could be real. This story went about to question faith within this legendary character, to which even the Doctor started to believe. It was thought maybe he was evil because there was some sort of connection between him and the dreams but luckily, to Moffat’s and Capaldi’s word, he was the real deal. I was unsure whether he was an image of the character’s imaginations, showcasing him as an image of magical thoughts like the character entails, but the nice little homage at the end with the Satsuma left on Clara’s window-sill really helped to ensure the idea that he was real. Santa entered the dream to help save the Doctor, Clara and the others on Christmas. I also loved Capaldi’s and Frost’s chemistry together on screen.
‘Last Christmas’ did certainly go about to bring remnants from previous Moffat Christmas Specials like with the sleigh ride scene, echoing back to ‘A Christmas Carol’. It was nice seeing the Twelfth Doctor enjoy himself, kicking back and smiling with happiness over his adventure. I really felt he enjoyed himself during that scene and it was nice to see that side of him come out. Though I will admit it was still great seeing his usual self throughout the story; cold, calculative and somewhat uncaring. It defines Capaldi’s interpretation and is why so many fans enjoy his take on the infamous character.
The other remnant came with the old Clara scene. This was certainly the most twisting of the alternative dream stages. We’d already seen the Doctor and co apparently escape the dream twice, the second being impressive by the Doctor figuring out the obvious; i.e. only four manuals when there were eight workers on the station. Old Clara really made me believe that this was going to be the tragic end for her character and this was why her efforts to remain within the dream world was apparent, because life had passed her by with nothing to show for it but loneliness due to Danny’s death all those years ago. This scene reminded me an awful lot of last Christmas within ‘The Time of the Doctor’ when Clara returned to the Eleventh Doctor only to see him aged into an old man. What put more salt into the wound was the cracker scene, also remnant of those scenes from ‘The Time of the Doctor’. I was sure for a moment that the Doctor was forced to retell that scene but on the opposite perspective, this time seeing Clara aged and on her deathbed.
Luckily this was just another dream and it was one last nightmare Santa wanted the Doctor to see in order to make him return to Clara and bring her back to the TARDIS. This, after all, was his sole purpose from the very beginning as established in his abrupt scenes during the credits of ‘Death in Heaven’. He wanted the two of them to come back together. With the Doctor and Clara back together again it’s time to prepare for even more adventures with Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. We at least know that their next outing, the first episode of Series Nine, will be titled ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ but unfortunately this probably won’t be due out till next Autumn. Still I’m sure the wait will be worth it.
‘Last Christmas’ was a beautiful piece of writing, in my eyes, and really brought me back on good terms with Moffat. I can’t guarantee he won’t disappoint me again, but overall I just love his writing style. He’s an amazing writer and ‘Last Christmas’ was another addition to his many fantastic pieces of work. My one niggle with the story would be that Professor Albert’s death seemed out of place, only pushing for some further serious scenes to emphasis the Kantrofarri’s threat. Perhaps another member of the cast could’ve died but I can’t complain too much at this. I believe this story was engaging, interesting, magical, Christmassy and above all incredibly clever and I can’t wait to watch it again.