Doctor Who Last Christmas review

Despite not being a natural fan of festive Who, Patrick Mulkern raises a glass to a touching and particularly dreamy affair

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★★★ Light the log fire, dim the lamps, draw the curtains and pass me a tangerine… I’m just settling down to watch the Doctor Who Christmas special. Ahhhhh…

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First Christmas… The Weeping Angel Gabrielle appears unto Clara and transports her back to AD 0… And – lo! – in Bethlehem the Virgin Clara is about to give birth to a very untimely, un-wimey baby… new hubby Joseph Pink, Biblical forebear and striking looky-likey of Danny Pink, really doesn’t mind at all that the child won’t be his… A band of Silurians abandon their sheep to follow an ominously hovering comet, and Three Cyber Men arrive from the East bearing deadly gifts… Meanwhile Missy, cross-dressed as Herod, orders the slaughter of a generation of newborns… Oh dear, but what’s that squirming and squawking in the manger…? It can’t be… an embryonic Dalek mutant with the face of Peter Capaldi… No-oooooo! 

But wait…! What’s that on my face? Urghh! Get it off! And what’s that crumbling to dust on the hearth rug? Phew! So it was just a dream… a delirious nightmare…  

Well, blow me… Let’s settle down again. Pass me the crackers and a tangerine. (Those tangerines are tough this year!) Another glass of brandy, please…

Back to BBC1. It’s Last Christmas. Aahhh… So Clara believes that Danny is still alive, only he’s dressed as Santa and an inch taller. Except she’s dreaming. She’s got a Dream Crab on her face, burrowing into her skull… She wakes to realise she’s on an Arctic base beset by aliens… Except the crew are all dreaming too because they have Dream Crabs on their faces… Except that Clara, the Doctor and the crew are all sharing that dream too because they have Dream Crabs on their faces… Except the Doctor finds an elderly Clara dreaming in bed… But maybe that’s a dream too… and Santa is real… Santa is real

Ho ho ho! Ha ha ha! I’m just having another delirious nightmare. Come on then. I’m waiting for that crabby critter to fall off my face again… Come on. Fall off! No…? What do you mean, no? Too much Port and Stilton…? Ooooh, wake me up, Grandma. What! It really happened? That really was the 2014 Christmas Doctor Who? And it went out on BBC1? Ho ho… hmmmm!

“It’s certainly the strangest bloody thing I’ve ever written,” admitted Steven Moffat, when I interviewed him for the pre-Christmas edition of Radio Times. Well, he didn’t undersell it there. And at the BFI screening on 17 December, he pointed out that he often has such dreams blurring into other dreams within dreams… We all do. And essentially, everything on screen (other than the final scene), going as far back as Santa knocking on the Tardis door in Death in Heaven, is a dream. Which is the aspect I enjoyed most about Last Christmas.

Its very kernel is Clara’s dream about Danny – a vivid dream she does not want to wake up from. I’m sure we’ve all dreamt about loved ones who have died, and they’re suddenly right back in front of us again in full “Sensurround”: you can see them, hear their voices, almost touch them. They survive in our memory. Our past comes alive. As Vastra stated in The Name of the Doctor last year and the Time Lord reiterates now: “Time travel is always possible in dreams.” How true and touching.

It’s also rather poignant when the three women “scientists” vanish from Santa’s sleigh and wake up back in their mundane realities. Note that the milieu of the shared dreams has been a mash-up of Shona’s Christmas DVD list: Alien, The Thing from Another World and Miracle on 34th Street. Never has source material been so transparently acknowledged.

Steven Moffat’s Russian doll storytelling is clever, if guessable – depending on how addled you’ve become on Christmas evening. The macabre, almost horrific, tone is bold for a 6.15pm timeslot, even if it’s ridiculous that the skull-burrowing face-huggers don’t leave a pinprick on their victims. There are dabs of humour, too. The line that made me snort is the Doctor’s: “There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.”

If the action plods and stalls in places, the production is lusciously directed by Paul Wilmshurst (who also helmed this year’s Kill the Moon and Mummy of the Orient Express). The CGI is magnificent: the sleigh ride across the London night sky may be the showpiece, but the sweeping shot towards the Arctic base is also very beautiful. 

I can live with what Steven describes as “a big lump of goodness in the form of Nick Frost as Santa Claus”, even if it’s ladling absurdity upon absurdity. Frost is so “big status”, his name puffs up in the snow-enhanced title sequence, yet his Santa lacks sparkle and grandeur. Please let this be his and his annoyingly chirpy elves’ first and last Christmas in the Doctor Who universe.

I’ve bored my regular readers with my Scrooge mentality before. No, I’m not big on Christmas and don’t like it daubed over Doctor Who, yet I was peculiarly touched by Clara’s sentiment, “Every Christmas is last Christmas” and her admission that the Time Lord is her very own Father Christmas. It would be churlish not to share their elation: the grouchy 12th Doctor, for once very happy indeed, taking the reins of Santa’s sleigh and getting his “second chance” with Clara. Ultimately, Last Christmas makes the Doctor and Clara’s dreams come true.

*

What’s remarkable is that Last Christmas is Doctor Who’s tenth yuletide special since the 2005 reboot, and it’s Steven Moffat’s fifth, matching predecessor Russell T Davies’s tally of five. Indeed, since 2010, Moffat has executive-produced almost as many individual episodes – 57 to Davies’s round 60. And he’ll easily exceed that in 2015. There’s no stopping him.

On stage at the BFI, Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi looked delighted at the prospect of another year’s collaboration. The read-though of episode one had taken place that very afternoon, and filming starts in January. Steven revealed, to wild applause, that Clara will appear in all 12 episodes next season. None of these three are giving up the reins of the Tardis any time soon – and that suits me fine.

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I’ll raise a glass now to the Time Lord and his makers as they prepare for their 11th year on BBC1. Happy New Year!