Friday 26 December 2014

Reviews in Time & Space: Last Christmas

Doctor Who 2014 Christmas Special - Last Christmas

The annual Doctor Who Christmas special has been a staple part of the UK (and many other parts of the world) festive season, but despite this arguably each year the offering can be of varying quality. Since the show first returned in 2005, we've had everything from fun snow-filled romps to big game-changing stories introducing a brand new Doctor. This year's instalment comes after a pretty dramatic season finale for the Twelfth Doctor and Clara Oswald, which saw them separate on rather ambiguous terms. However proving you can never keep a good pairing down they're reunited for this episode, which goes by the name of Last Christmas. Wham song reference purely coincidental I'm sure...

Clara may be used to having a madman with a blue box turn up at a moment's notice, but that's not quite enough to prepare her for the surprise of seeing Santa and his elves atop her roof one Christmas eve! When the Doctor also arrives at this rather unlikely situation, he takes Clara to a North Pole base that's under siege from an alien lifeform that's slowly killing the personnel after placing them in a dream-like state. As the Doctor and Clara enter the dreams to fight off this invader, they'll need the help of old Saint Nick (played by Spaced/Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz star Nick Frost) as they learn that every Christmas should be celebrated as if it's their last.

The Doctor vs Santa
After 51 years they finally meet

Past Christmas episodes have featured flying sharks, a Narnia rip-off and even the space Titanic, but is the inclusion of the real Santa Claus where Doctor Who has finally gone off the deep end? Thankfully not quite, because his unlikehood of his appearance has been cleverly woven into the story - not quite confirming Santa's existence and leaving the right kind of ambiguity that suits the Christmas spirit. Moffat's Doctor Who has also felt like it plays up the fairy tale angle more the science fiction one, and here that's out in full force as Santa battles aliens with an army of toys and rides his trusty reindeer Rudolph like a stallion in the moonlight. This also means the BBC CGI department is out in full force, delivering varied results as per usual but nevertheless creating the kind of spectacle that's befitting of a Christmas special.

Clara returns
Though I am already in my pyjamas...

Ever since the first preview of the episode accompanied the closing credits of Death in Heaven, it was fairly clear that for this year's scares Moffat would be taking his cues from sci-fi behemoths Alien and The Thing. A crew slowly picked off by an alien in a cold secluded arctic base? Genius! However somewhere a line really needs to be drawn in how much a story borrows elements from its peers, and this is something that Mr. Moffat clearly wasn't aware of. It isn't just the setting that's all too familiar here, the Dream Crabs are the Alien franchise's Face Huggers in everything but temperament (because good luck getting away with THAT on 6:15pm Christmas Day) and the tedious "dream with in a dream within a dream" landscape Last Christmas devolves into is straight out of Christopher Nolan's Inception. Some of these references can arguably be justified with a bit of self-indulgent meta humour (a quick scan through Shona's to-do list fills in the gaps) but even with that in mind there's still some rather blatant plagiarism going on. For example - the arctic setting may be justified by the dream state, but what about the crabs? They exist outside the dream so their Face Hugger-ness doesn't get a free pass. Then there's the other little things, like the repeating of Ghostbusters catchphrase ad nauseum. It gets to the point where it's less an episode, and more an insight to the films Steven Moffat got over the last year.

The Dream Crabs victims
Disappointment lies under the covers

But the perhaps the biggest cop-out of the episode is the horrible mishandling of an aged Clara, which provides one of the episode's best moments but turns out to be yet another ruse. Nicely role reversing the end moments of last year's The Time of the Doctor where Matt Smith donned the dodgy old person makeup, this could have really provided beautiful closure on the Doctor and Clara's chapter. However it all amounts to nothing with Jenna Coleman signed on for another season (something I don't really have strong feelings on either way), utterly wasting what could have made an extremely powerful finale that may have dampened the Christmas cheer but stayed in the hearts and minds of fans worldwide.

It isn't all a total wash though, as Last Christmas really shines when in the rare moments its taken out of all its blatant copying. Nick Frost is simply brilliant as Father Christmas, going head to head against Capaldi as the two exchange quips and insults. While Tennant and Smith's Doctors would have acted like children on Christmas morning if they were given the chance to meet Santa, Capaldi's Doctor is as sharp and scornful as ever - seeming almost a bit jealous that he's been upstaged by someone with a more ridiculous premise than him. It's also a rare pleasure to see Dan Starkey sans Sontaran makeup as Ian, who makes a little excellent comedy duo with fellow elf Wolf (played by Nathan McCullen).

Albert Smithe
Michael Troughton (son of 2nd Doctor Patrick Troughton) stars in the episode

Then there's the aftermath of Clara's relationship with the late Danny Pink, which is handled and developed in a far more believable way than the entirety of time they spent together in the last series. Danny was never a bad character and had several great moments in the episodes he appeared in, but his time on Doctor Who was rushed in such a way that he never really had time to settle in. Dream Danny continues these great moments in Clara's dream sequence, not only visualising what they could have had together but showing that even in her subconscious he's a selfless man truly dedicated to Clara. If the Doctor is able to still somehow give these two a happy ending, I don't think there'd be a better note for Clara to go out on.

Last Christmas is not a total wash of an episode, but personally I don't feel that any story that is so shamelessly ripping off elements of popular science-fiction should go down as an instant classic. Some of the homages to the setting of Alien and John Carpenter's The Thing may work in the context of the story, but the face-hugger rip offs and blatant riffing of Inception are far too in your face to make it anything more than typical Steven Moffat over indulgence. But despite its very obvious flaws Last Christmas had some moments of real heart, renewing the Doctor and Clara's relationship for another season and featuring the kind of festiveness that's injected into the show every year. After two years of heavy-going specials, maybe in some respects this is exactly what this Christmas needed.

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