I never know if I enjoy the Doctor Who Christmas specials on first viewing: for some reason, the "big event" episodes just make me too nervous to actually enjoy them. (Somehow I'm sitting there the entire time thinking, Please don't screw this up.) And "Last Christmas," the 2014 Christmas special, was particularly nerve-wracking: once Santa Claus himself shows up on Doctor Who, after all, the fear that this will turn out to be an all-time stinker is powerful. Oh god, they're not really doing this, are they?
But, as it turned out, I needn't have worried. By the end of the episode, it was clear that Steven Moffat had threaded the needle with "Last Christmas," flirting dangerously with disaster but coming through with a fiendishly clever, reasonably logical explanation for a lot of different elements that seemed, on their faces, preposterous. It's like he knew what we'd all be thinking, and toyed with us and our expectations in delightful ways. (Am I the only one who thinks that, sometimes, he just likes to screw with us?)
But it was only on second viewing that I realized Moffat had also done something more: yes, "Last Christmas" was an excellent, entertaining hour of television that worked as a Doctor Who story, but it also resonated outward with wisdom, and maturity, and more than a little melancholy. It's not my favorite of the Moffat-era Christmas specials—2010's "A Christmas Carol" still holds that title—but it's an impressive and surprisingly deep piece of work.
I watched it again last night, and today I woke up knowing more or less exactly what I wanted to write about it. It's not a review, per se, and certainly not a recap. You've all seen it, after all, and you don't need me to tell you what happened or whether you liked it.
So let's just talk a bit, shall we?
In the third episode of the 2014 season, Mark Gatiss's "Robot of Sherwood," the Doctor met Robin Hood. Not the long-lost historical figure that inspired the legend of Robin Hood, but Robin Hood himself, straight out of the legends. "He's made up!" the Doctor (and I) protested. "There's no such thing!" But that didn't seem to matter. "Remember, Doctor," Robin said. "I'm as real as you are."
Which, strictly speaking, is true. I hated "Robot of Sherwood," and I took major objection to how it played fast and loose with historical fact and presented this cartoonish fiction as an actual person. I still stand by that, but I can also ask: to what was I really objecting? A fiction, meeting a fiction? A legend meeting a legend? A dream meeting a dream?
There's a similar moment of self-awareness in Moffat's "Last Christmas," when Santa Claus (Nick Frost) is cataloging all the preposterous elements that prove the entire scenario is a dream. "And so it gives you me," Santa says. "It gives you comedy elves, flying reindeer...a time traveling scientist dressed as a magician...You see how none of this makes any sense?"
Unlike "Sherwood," "Last Christmas" provides an explanation—and a fairly clever one—for why the mythical Father Christmas suddenly seems to have been made flesh within the world of Doctor Who. But it also continually reminds us that Doctor Who itself is a dream we are sharing, in which things don't necessarily make sense. Stories are always dreams. "They're funny, they're disjointed, they're silly, they're full of gaps, but you don't notice because the dream protects itself, stops you asking the right questions." All that is true of Doctor Who itself. Even the entire premise of the show is couched in those terms: "Time-travel is always possible in dreams," the Doctor says at the end.
What's the problem with trying to tell the difference between fantasy and reality? "Both are ridiculous," the Doctor says. And certainly, within the "reality" of Doctor Who, that is undeniably true. So I suspect there is a very gentle remonstration intended for those of us who like to take issue with the show's occasional lapses in realism. Even as he takes great pains to make this particular episode make sense within the show's overall logic, Moffat reminds us that Doctor Who is all a comforting, thrilling dream, and that the glorious heights the show can reach—say, a sleigh-ride high above London at Christmas—are no more or less wonderful for being varying degrees of "real."
We could interpret all of this in a sinister way, of course. Perhaps I've just been watching too much Black Mirror, but during "Last Christmas" I found myself entertaining the notion that the entire episode was a critique of television: can we not see TV itself as the "Dream Crab?" We have to choose to look at it, but, once we do, it latches onto us and feeds us delightful dreams—dreams in which we become more exciting figures than we might be in real life, and have more exciting adventures—but all the while it is slowly, painlessly, imperceptibly eating our brains. (The scene where the Dream Crabs come right out of the television screen would seem to support this interpretation: the only person who actually dies is the one who gets too close to the TV.)
But if that theme is there, it's just one minor layer in this multi-layered tale, and not the most important one: it's just a little salt to cut the sweetness of this Christmas feast.
We could focus on the darkness—and certainly this is one of the darker and scarier Doctor Who specials, for all its comic elves and flying reindeer—but let's focus instead on the lighter and warmer elements. (It is Christmas, after all.) For this is an episode that also celebrates itself, and celebrates television, and celebrates Christmas. "The sleepers are you," the Doctor says. "Wherever you are, we're all being networked into the same nightmare." All over the U.K.—and all over the world—viewers network themselves into the Doctor Who special every year, people who don't know each other plugging in so they can share a dream for one hour on Christmas.
And then we can extrapolate further out, and realize that this episode recognizes Christmas itself as a preposterous shared dream that we chose to network ourselves into every year. Once a year, we choose to believe in magic, we choose to believe in peace on Earth and good will towards men, we choose to come together and be the best version of ourselves. To quote the Bill Murray comedy Scrooged:
"It's the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be."
So the shared-dream premise of "Last Christmas" is kind of brilliant, and the notion that Santa Claus—and everything he represents as the spirit of Christmas–is what we call on to save us is kind of profound: we live with cynicism and fear and horror all year long, but once a year we summon the will to believe—however briefly, however fleetingly, however tentatively—that we (and the world) are better than the evidence of our experience the rest of the year. As Clara says near the end, "It's a pity we have to wake up, really."
For it is fleeting: that is one of the messages of "Last Christmas," beginning with its title. "Do you know why people get together at Christmas?" the dream of Danny Pink asks. "Because every time they do might be the last time. Every Christmas is last Christmas, and this is ours."
For all its reputation as a treacly-sweet holiday, there is always a melancholy undercurrent to Christmas. (A deep well of sadness bubbles at the center of all the best Christmas stories, from A Christmas Carol to It's a Wonderful Life to A Charlie Brown Christmas.) In "Last Christmas," the true heart of the tale is Clara's dream of a happy, ordinary Christmas with Danny Pink. One suspects, in fact, that this was the real seed of the episode, and one can imagine an hour of Doctor Who that was all about this: it would have been about Clara's grief over Danny's death, and her understandable unwillingness to let go of a dream that gave him back to her. (Moffat has flirted with this sort of idea before, after all: 2008's "Forest of the Dead" found Donna Noble living a happy dream-life with an imaginary husband and children whom she eventually—heartbreakingly—had to give up.)
If I have one regret about "Last Christmas," it's that Moffat didn't give us this full exploration of the grieving process that we might have gotten—but that, of course, would have been too much melancholia for Christmas Day. As it is, the balance was probably perfect: we got Santa Claus and comic elves and scary Dream Crabs, but we also got—smack in the middle—this surprisingly touching interlude in which Clara and Danny got to be happy, briefly, and then say goodbye.
Doctor Who, like Christmas itself, is for kids and grown-ups both, and one thing Moffat does when he is at his best—as he is here—is make sure both audiences are covered. The kids (and the kids in us) were well-served—if challengingly so—by the more fanciful elements, but the adults were given this sad recognition that Christmas is also about loss, about the passage of time and the urge to treasure what might one day be gone. We get together every Christmas because every Christmas could be the last: that's not a child's notion of the holiday, but a grown-up's, and it's one familiar to anyone of Moffat's age—or of my age.
And the notion that time is fleeting comes back in the end, as the Doctor returns to Clara and discovers she is an old woman: he has stayed away too long, and he has missed her entire life. "I was stupid," he says. "I should have come back earlier." This, too, is a familiar feeling: how many of us go home so rarely, see our loved ones so infrequently, that when we finally return we find them different people? Parents have gotten old, friends and siblings have changed, children have grown up while we missed their entire childhoods. Every Christmas may be the last, but one thing we know for certain is that every Christmas comes but once: when we miss them, they're gone forever.
There is a rumor—I have no idea if it is true—that Jenna Coleman was considering leaving Doctor Who this season, and that, if she had, this would have been the real ending of "Last Christmas." As it is, Coleman has now signed on for another season, and so this encounter just turns out to be yet another dream within a dream. Whether it was or wasn't a last-minute rewrite on Moffat's part doesn't really matter, however, because it functions beautifully here as a reminder of the overall theme of the episode, and of one of the overall themes of Christmas: that it is the one time of the year when we stop to mark what is really important. It functions here precisely as the Ghost of Christmas Future functions in A Christmas Carol: as a glimpse of what might be, so we can change what is. The Doctor gets a second chance to not miss Clara's life, to not take the person he loves for granted, and he takes it.
Christmas is a shared dream we have every year about being our best selves, and it's a pity we have to wake up. Doctor Who is a shared dream too, and—at its best—it, too, is about being our best selves. And—to discuss one final bit of meta coming out of this episode—we want to hold onto that.
"We might not know each other, any of us?" Shona (Faye Marsay)—the loneliest of the "dreamers"—asks. When the story is over, Shona wants to arrange a reunion, stay in touch, build on the sense of shared experience and community that this adventure has forged. ("Do you want to hang out sometime?") Isn't that one of the things Doctor Who episodes—and all such entertainments—do for us? Doesn't it speak to what's best in us that we have the urge not only to experience an entertaining story, but to share it, to talk about it afterwards, to form a community around it, and to feel the reassuring presence of the invisible thread that links us, through the story, to people we've never met?
And isn't that, in a sense, what you and I are doing right now? (It's a Christmas miracle.)
Happy Holidays, everyone. See you next year.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- A couple of interesting casting bits, in case you missed them. Professor Albert (who gets sucked into the television) is played by Michael Troughton, one of two actor sons of Second Doctor Patrick Troughton. (Michael's brother David is also a Doctor Who veteran, having played Professor Hobbes in 2008's "Midnight.") And one of the elves, Ian, is played by Dan Starkey, whom we are more used to seeing in a Sontaran potato-head as recurring character Strax.
- I thought a little more might be done with this, but there was a subtle echo to another Christmas story—"The Gift of the Magi"—in the lies Clara and the Doctor told to each other in "Death in Heaven." (He told her he found Gallifrey, so she would stay with Danny; she told him Danny was alive, so he would go to Gallifrey.) Just like in the O. Henry story, it's the thought—and the love—that counts.
- Since the Alien homages were so obvious, I appreciated the episode's hanging a light on them. "There's a horror movie called Alien?" the Doctor asks, outraged. "That's really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you."
- Is the tangerine/satsuma thing just a British Christmas tradition? I confess, the reference (here, and in 2005's "The Christmas Invasion") is lost on my colonial ears.
- Only Doctor Who could feature the scary scene of Clara being attacked by a Dream Crab, and the terrifying image of her standing in a hallway surrounded by the word "DYING," in a Christmas episode. (God bless this show.)
- I've been on record as saying that Capaldi didn't really feel like the Doctor to me throughout Season Eight, but that wasn't true here. For whatever reason—because I've finally grown used to him, because he was written better here, or because this episode struck a perfect balance between his warmth and misanthropy, the miracle finally happened for me: he is the Doctor.