Monday, December 29, 2014

Doctor Who Christmas Special 2014: Last Christmas

Believe it or not, Last Christmas is the tenth Doctor Who Christmas Special so far! Ten! It doesn't seem possible. Savor this episode though, because if the pattern holds, the show probably won't return again for another nine or ten months. At least.

Christmas Specials seem to be a thing in England, a tradition I wish would spread to our shores. Sure, most American TV series have Christmas episodes, but they're just part of the regular season. They're not, well, special.

Technically this is Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi's second Christmas Special. He appeared in the final seconds of last year's The Time Of The Doctor. His appearance there was so fleeting though that it probably shouldn't count. This is his first fully starring Special. 

Show runner Steven Moffat wrote Last Christmas, and as with most of his episodes from Season 8, it appears he assembled it from bits and pieces of various movies and previous Doctor Who episodes. It's part ALIEN (which one of the characters even points out), part The Thing, and a whole lot Inception. There's even a little bit of Titanic tossed in for good measure at the end. And the "Base Under Siege" setting has been done many, many, many times before on the show.

Even the "new" monsters in the episode are familiar. They've got the trademark Moffat "don't do something" rule about them that worked so well with the Weeping Angels. Give it up, Steven. You're never going to top the Angels, so please stop trying. 

Moffat seems to be completely out of ideas at this point and keeps on trotting out his old plots and characters, hoping we don't notice. Nice try, Steven, but throwing Santa into the mix isn't going to distract us from the fact that the Dream Crabs are pretty much the same thing as the Weeping Angels, the Vashta Nerada, the Silence and the Hiders.

Did you ever see the Star Trek episode The Ultimate Computer? It concerned a scientist named Dr. Richard Daystrom, who invented a revolutionary new type of computer when he was in his early twenties. He then spent the rest of his life trying to top his early success, which eventually drove him mad. I'm starting to think Steven Moffat is going to end up just like Dr. Daystrom.

This episode was a bit on the dark side, especially for Christmas day. Maybe a little too dark. In addition to the seriously terrifying Dream Crabs, the heartwarming theme of the episode was "Every Christmas is someone's last Christmas." Good night, everybody! Happy Holidays!

Lastly, this episode seems a bit less epic than past Christmas Specials. The Runaway Bride, Voyage Of The Damned and The Next Doctor were all very cinematic and could have easily been shown in a theater. This one is much less expansive and seems like a regular episode with a few scenes of Santa grafted onto it to qualify as a Christmas episode. There doesn't seem to be anything all that special about it. 

Was the lack of epic scope the result of yet more BBC budget cuts?

CHRISTMASSY SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Plot:
Clara is awakened by a noise on Christmas Eve, and finds Santa Claus has crashed his sleigh on her roof. As she's trying to decide if he's real or not, the TARDIS materializes and The Doctor emerges and tells her to enter.

Meanwhile at a remote Arctic outpost, which absolutely doesn't remind us of The Thing, a group of scientists are studying colleagues who've been taken over by Dream Crabs, which absolutely don't remind us of face huggers from ALIEN. The creatures attach themselves to a person's face and induce a dream state while they slowly devour their brain. To top it off, the Crabs are only active when you're thinking about them.

Just then the Doctor and Clara arrive at the base. Seeing the Crabs, they think about them, which causes them to attack. They're saved at the last second by the timely arrival of Santa.

While the others are discussing the situation, one of the Dream Crabs attacks Clara. She wakes up in a perfectly realized Christmas dream world, populated by her dead boyfriend Danny Pink. The Doctor willingly allows a Dream Crab to attach itself to him in order to enter her dream and save her.

He does so, and the two awake back in the Arctic base, as the Crabs attached to their faces fall off and turn to dust. The Doctor then realizes that they're still not in the real world. He, Clara and the four scientists are still victims of the Dream Crabs, living inside a dream within a dream within a dream, which absolutely doesn't remind us of Inception. With the help of Santa, they wake up.

Clara reminds the Doctor that they met Santa before they arrived at the base, proving they're still in yet another dream level. The Doctor tells them to all dream of Santa again, and he returns to save them once more.

They all escape in Santa's sleigh. While sailing through the air, the "scientists" realize they're all just ordinary people from different areas and perhaps even different time periods, who were attacked by the Dream Crabs. One by one they disappear from the sleigh as they wake up in their real lives.

The Doctor wakes up on an alien planet, and senses that Clara is still dreaming. He races to her side and uses his sonic screwdriver to get the Crab off her face, which causes us all to wonder why he never thought of that until now. As the Dream Crab turns to dust, we see that Clara is now an old woman. Sixty two years have passed since she and the Doctor last parted. Clara tells him she's had a good life, but never really got over him, which absolutely doesn't remind us of Titanic.

The Doctor regrets not connecting with her sooner. Suddenly Santa appears and gives the Doctor a second chance. He races to Clara's side once again, sonics the Crab and sees that she's young again. The two take off in the TARDIS, as Santa leaves a tangerine on Clara's windowsill, proving he's real after all.


Thoughts:
• All through the episode everyone calls Santa "Santa Claus." I thought they had "Father Christmas" in Britain? 

Technically they're two different characters with totally different origins. Has Father Christmas been shoved out of the limelight by Santa?

• A nice touch: In the opening credits, the TARDIS is briefly covered in snow before shaking it off as it zooms past the camera.

• Nick Frost makes a wonderful Santa Claus. I enjoyed the rivalry between him and the Doctor, along with the implication that he just may be a Time Lord himself.

He's got the perfect name for the part too. Who better to play Santa than someone named Nick Frost?

 Why does Santa only have three reindeer? Is it because three cgi reindeer are cheaper to render than nine?

 Santa's accompanied by two elves named Ian and Wolf. Ian, the one on the right in the top photo, is played by actor Dan Starkey.

Starkey's no stranger to the show, as he's played various Sontarans in numerous episodes. He's probably best known as Strax, of the Paternoster Gang.

• Santa thinks everyone likes his signature gift of a tangerine, and seems genuinely hurt to find out this isn't true. Sorry Santa, but it's true. I remember when I was a kid I used to get oranges in my Christmas stocking every year, and never much cared for them. All they did was take up valuable space that could have been used for toys.

• Apparently the Arctic base segment of the episode takes place in some indeterminate future year. The technology all seems more advanced than what we have now, and there's talk of neural links and body scanners and such.

 As I mentioned earlier, once again Steven Moffat comes up with another monster that preys on childhood fears and comes with a set of rules. This time it's the Dream Crabs, who are only aware of you if you see or think about them.

All his monsters require the suppression of some bodily function in order to survive an encounter with them. Don't blink, don't breathe, don't look, don't think and on and on. 

I can't wait for Moffat's next creations. Maybe it'll be the Olfactory Weevils, who only attack if you smell them. Or the Babbling Midges, who consume your brain if you stop talking. How about the Omni Maggots, who have every power you can't think of?

All that said, I will admit that the Dream Crabs were pretty darned scary, especially in that first sequence in which everyone's trying not to think about them. 

• In the Arctic base, scientist Shona McCullough is trying to make her way through an infirmary full of comatose Dream Crab victims. If she looks at or thinks about them, they'll come to life and attack.

To distract herself, Shona listens to Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody (which is a very popular Christmas song in England) on her headphones and dances her way through the infirmary. 

I get what she's trying to do here, but how about walking briskly through the room instead of performing an elaborate dance routine that takes twenty times longer? A couple of times her wild gyrations almost cause her to bump into the patients' beds, which I'm sure would have roused them whether she was thinking about them or not.

 There's a lone male scientist at the Arctic base named Professor Albert. He's played by Michael Troughton, son of Second Doctor Patrick Troughton! Cool! I can definitely see a bit of his dad shining through his eyes.

• While observing the Dream Crabs on a monitor, Professor Albert says what everyone in the audience is thinking, suggesting they look a lot like the face huggers from ALIEN. He probably didn't have time to list the numerous other familiar things in this episode.

The Doctor is then shocked and offended that humanity made a horror movie called ALIEN. He's over two thousand years old at this point. Seems like he should have at least heard of the film before now.

• Just as everyone in the base (including the Doctor and Clara) are surrounded by Dream Crabs, Santa bursts in to save the day. He sends in a small army of marching toys, including robots and Slinkys, to distract everyone and keep them from thinking about the Crabs. 

I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't point out that Slinkys don't "walk" on a flat surface. I guess Santa can make toys do whatever he wants though.

• Santa's two elves accompany him on his rescue mission. Ian is holding a balloon animal like it's a gun, while Wolf is holding what appears to be a BB gun. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if it's an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two Hundred Shot Range Model Air Rifle BB Gun With A Compass In The Stock And A Thing Which Tells Time!

Was that an A Christmas Story reference, or just a coincidence?

• After Santa saves everyone from the Dream Crabs, Ashley, the leader of the base, asks him who he is. The Doctor says, "Oh, take a guess. Go on, push the boat out."

For all us non-Brits, "Push the boat out" means "to behave extravagantly, or make a purchase beyond what you can afford." Kind of another way to say, "Take a wild guess."

• As proof of his identity, Santa lists gifts he gave to Shona and Ashley when they were children. 

Santa praises Ashley for becoming a scientist, and says the microscope he brought her as a child really paid off. He says her parents wanted him to bring her a "toy microscope," but he took a chance and brought her the real thing.

Is there such a thing as a toy microscope? What would be the point? A toy microscope that didn't actually magnify anything would be a big waste of time. Heck, even an Easy-Bake Oven actually cooks something. 

• The Doctor had the best line of the episode: "You know what the big problem is in telling fantasy from reality? They're both ridiculous."

• Shona doesn't believe Santa is real, so she grills him with questions, trying to poke a hole in his story. She says it would be impossible to deliver gifts to the entire world in one night.

Santa agrees, saying there's no way he could deliver toys to the 526,403,012 children of the world in twenty four hours, because that works out to 22 million kids an hour. That's why he has a second sled. 

Um... a second sled isn't going to be much more help. Is that the joke? Did I get it?

• The Doctor and Clara have a Gift Of The Magi moment. The Doctor thinks Danny Pink is still alive. Clara says she told him that so he wouldn't fuss with her and would go find Gallifrey. The Doctor says he never found his planet, and only told her he did so she'd stay with Danny. Whoops!

• When the Doctor asks Santa how he gets all the presents in his sleigh, he says it's bigger on the inside. Either Santa's a Time Lord, or they've shared their technology with him!

• One of the biggest problems I had with the episode: The Doctor says the Dream Crabs' victims don't suffer, because they keep you happy and relaxed in a perfectly realized dream world.

When Clara's attacked by a Crab, it sets up a perfect warm and fuzzy Christmas world for her, populated by her late fiance Danny Pink. So far so good.

But what about the scientists at the Arctic base? We eventually find out that the base is actually a dream that they're all sharing. How the hell is doing research in the harshest environment on Earth a perfectly realized dream world?

Clara's thinking about Danny when she's attacked. Did that have something to do with the content of her dream world? Were the others thinking about arctic expeditions when they were taken over?

• There are four Dream Crabs stuck to the Arctic Base victims. Santa brings in another Crab from god knows where, which attaches itself to Clara's face. The Doctor determines the only way to save her is to allow himself to be attacked and enter her dream world.

So where'd they get the Doctor's Crab? Did they have unseen extra ones in the infirmary?

They're all living in a dream within a dream at this point, so I guess we can chalk up any mistakes to that.

• Danny has my least favorite line of the episode, when he asks Clara, "Do you know why people get together at Christmas? Because every time they do it might be the last time. Every Christmas is last Christmas."

Oy gevalt! That's pretty dark for a Christmas episode. He's right of course, but damn, that's grim.

It reminds me a bit of my all time least favorite Christmas carol, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. One of the original lines in the song was, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last."

• Kudos to the producers for keeping Danny Pink's appearance a surprise. That's not easy to do in these days of Twitter and spoiler sites.

• The Doctor saves Clara from her dream world and they both wake up. As they do, the Dream Crabs fall from their faces and dissolve. The Doctor doesn't celebrate his victory though, as he begins to suspect they're all still dreaming.

He asks them all, "Have you ever woken up from a dream and discovered you're still dreaming?"

FOR THE LAST TIME, NO! A thousand times no. Once more with feeling, NO!

I've NEVER woken up from a dream, only to find I was still dreaming. Ever. No one has. That's something that only happens for shock value in lazy scripts written for TV and movies.

• The Doctor performs a test to find out if they're all still dreaming or not. He passes out four identical manuals to the scientists and has them all read the first word on a certain page. They all see a different word, indicating they're still in a dream world.

This test scene was very reminiscent of the one in the 1982 version of The Thing. That said, it was effective and suitably creepy though. Moffat really knows how to cherry pick.

• About three-fourths of the way through the episode I realized the Doctor was wearing his horrible top again. The black one that looks like battery acid ate holes in it. I don't know who thinks that thing looks good on him, but I wish it would meet with a severe laundry accident soon.

• After climbing up through several layers of dreams, the characters finally all wake up in the real world.

Shona wakes up to find she's not really a scientist assigned to an Arctic base, but a lonely shopgirl. She looks at her Christmas day itinerary, which reads:

1. DVD (ALIEN)
2. DVD (The Thing From Another World)
3. Dad Comes Round
4. DVD (Miracle on 34th Street)
5. Thrones Marathon 
6. Forgive Dave

Apparently the Dream Crabs cribbed their shared dream world from her list. There's an alien invasion (ALIEN), an Arctic base under siege from said aliens (The Thing From Another World) and Santa's even involved (Miracle On 34th Street). One could even argue that "Dad comes round" might have generated the Doctor's appearance!

Note that Shona apparently owns DVDs of three of the movies, but not Game Of Thrones. She's probably pirating it like everyone else on the planet.

Also, she crosses off the last item on the list, apparently deciding to forgive Dave, whoever he is.

Lastly, a lot of fans are apparently clamoring for Shona to become the Doctor's next companion. Eh, I don't know. She didn't do much for me, and I don't see what the big appeal is. Each to their own, I guess.

• When the Doctor wakes from the final dream world, he's lying on the surface of a reddish planet. Apparently that's where the Dream Crabs first attacked. So he's the one who started the whole dreamy ball rolling.

By the way, the planet looks a lot like the one where Clara tried to blackmail him in Dark Water. Is it really the same planet, or just the budget limitations kicking in again?

• After the Doctor wakes in the real world, he realizes Clara plans on staying in her dream. He rushes to her home, sonics the Dream Crab from her face, we see that she's now well into her eighties. He waited sixty two years too long to get back in touch with her.

When he asks her if she ever married, she says no, implying that no one could ever top him or Danny. But she says she travelled to every country and even learned to fly a plane.

Old Clara talking about her life experiences is very, very similar to Old Rose doing the same thing in Titanic.

• Santa appears and gives the Doctor a second chance. This time he sonics the Crab off of Clara and we see that she's youthful again. The Doctor says he can't tell whether Clara's young or old.

Yes, this was a nice little moment and reinforces the idea that the Doctor doesn't pay attention to our outer shells and sees what's really inside us. 

Unfortunately it just doesn't work. I get that he doesn't share human concepts of beauty, but surely to Rassilon he ought to be able to tell the difference between a twenty five year old and someone who's days away from the grave. It just makes him look like an idiot.

And if the Doctor really doesn't have any concept of human beauty standards, why is it that earlier in the episode he looks at Bellows, an older scientist in the Arctic base, and calls her "sexy?"

• About that "Old Clara" shocker: rumor has it this was supposed to be Jenna Coleman's final appearance. The original ending was for the Doctor to discover Clara was now an old woman, far too old to travel anymore. He then walked slowly into the TARDIS alone, regretting the sixty two years he wasted and could have had with his friend.

Then at the last minute Coleman decided to stay, and the ending was hastily rewritten to accommodate her change of heart.

I don't know if any of this is true or not, but I can certainly believe it. The ending in which Santa gives the Doctor a second chance certainly seems tacked on. We may never know what the original plan was.

And so begins the long, hard wait for Season 9.

1 comment:

  1. Very thoughtful and in-depth review, I'd love to see your monster suggestions on screen :) What do you think about the whole Orson Pink timeline and Clara's potential pregnancy?

    I live in Britain and from my experience most people just say 'Santa', 'Father Christmas' is quite a formal address, so not as many people use it. Then again I can't speak for the whole country :)

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