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Instant reaction has it with 76.88% at an 8-10, with an 8 being the most popular rating, which is pretty standard issue. And to be fair, its faults announce themselves somewhat forcefully. There’s a bit of a pacing problem – the ten minutes or so after Santa wakes everybody up the first time and before the sleigh sequence are an entirely unnecessary bit of padding, and I found myself getting restless on first viewing. Second viewing was kinder, but also solidified my sense that there’s a problem there. Yes, it resolves a few levels of the Inception pastiche, but it’s not delivering any significant development, and mostly seems there to get a forty-five minute story to take an hour. Also, the “last Christmas” metaphor is a bit vapid, or, at least, seemingly missing a definite article.
But the reason these problems seem so visible is because this story’s chief virtue is its sheer level of confidence in what it’s doing. Inception meets Alien, only with Santa Claus. The fact that Doctor Who is at a point where it can do that, for a mass Christmas audience with an unusually large number of non-fans, is genuinely impressive. And yet the episode just gets on with it, trusting that the individual components of this are all broad and high concept enough to work so long as you spend a little time establishing them.
A corresponding part of this is also the confidence that they can do all of this. Here the virtue of casting Nick Frost really announces itself. He’s a fantastic choice for Santa, or, at least, for Steven Moffat’s Santa, which, as you’d expect, is mostly a series of jokes about how Santa is no harder to explain than anything else in Doctor Who. Frost’s instincts on how serious to pitch the performance are spot on. But there’s also a tremendous amount of confidence in the visuals. The sequence in which Santa arrives to save the day, with an army of toys marching into the polar base is flat out one of the maddest things Doctor Who has ever done, but there’s not a trace of the program seeming embarrassed by this or worrying whether or not it can get away with it.
As a result, it pretty much does get away with everything. Even the obvious accusation that Moffat is recycling things, and he unabashedly is, seems silly here. It’s difficult to imagine how the sentence “it’s business as usual: Inception meets Alien, only with Santa Claus” would even seem like a sensible and coherent thing to say about Doctor Who only two years ago. That this feels like a completely organic and sensible thing for the show to be speaks volumes about the degree to which the program has become flexible and varied even by the standards of Doctor Who. Much of this gets into what I’ll say in the Season Eight wrap-up post next week, but its nevertheless worth stressing just how much further Moffat has taken the idea that Doctor Who can do anything than previous writers.
To some extent, actually, that’s what Last Christmas is about. It studiously explains all of the magic tricks, unapologetically making explicit the idea that Doctor Who stories are always dreams, or at least always work according to the logic and structure of dreams, which is indistinguishable from how television editing works. There are several points where the Doctor quietly switches from describing events to narrating the, explicitly marking the switches in mood in a way that blurs the line between cause and effect. And the existential dread of it is wonderfully cheeky – Doctor Who makes waking up from a nightmare scary. I mean, that’s just beautiful, that is.
And then there’s the ending. I don’t mind as such that Clara is still around. It would be difficult for me to justify that position, really, given how fantastic she’s been this season. Equally, there are obvious hurdles to overcome. If she stays through all of Season Nine, she’ll set a new series record for most number of episodes for one companion. The change of Doctors after her first ten episodes helped her tremendously, but it’s not entirely clear what else there is to do with the character at this point. Perhaps more significantly, we’ve now had, what, three separate stories where Clara has gotten a seeming ending? Four if you count Mummy on the Orient Express separately from Kill the Moon. After this many rough drafts of Clara’s departure, one really starts to hope that Moffat has a spectacular idea he’s been keeping in reserve for the actual one, when he does get to it.
But these are problems for another day. What we have here is a story about two best friends reconciling on Christmas in their own inimitable way, in a story that mixes classic base under siege thrills with Santa Claus and makes it all work. I’ve said before that my basic standard for an episode of Doctor Who is that I want something I haven’t seen before. This certainly fit the bill.
- So, Paul Wilmshurst directed this, Kill the Moon, and Mummy on the Orient Express. That’s a hell of a case for director of the year there, even with Ben Wheatley’s impressive effort on the first two stories. What really stands out about Wilmshurst – and it was probably most highlighted in Mummy on the Orient Express where he had a writer with a similar skill – is his ability to introduce a concept. All three of his stories require quite a bit of setup time to explain their rules, and he makes those sequences lively while still quickly communicating everything that needs communicated. I really hope they don’t immediately lose him to better paying work.
- Notably, instead of a narrative substitution we have a sort of repeated and emphatic reiteration of the narrative. The cold open ends with what really is the key question of the story. The repeated waking out of dream states only serves to reiterate that this is the story it initially promised to be. It’s a masterpiece of doing exactly what you said you were going to do and still making it surprising.
- As this episode wrapped on Twitter, I saw the usually intelligent Laurie Penny with an immediate reaction complaining that it was sexist that the Doctor didn’t consider taking the elderly Clara on the TARDIS, saying “Same reason he couldn’t take Old Amy. Only young hot chicks allowed.” I really wish feminist critics of Moffat’s writing would stop being so completely idiotic. Yes, let’s give our lead actress a several hour makeup job in the future. And take a companion too infirm to open a Christmas cracker. This is a perfectly reasonable expectation and thus something that makes a sensible objection when it doesn’t happen. And never mind the fact that the episode includes the absolutely lovely scene of the Doctor being completely unable to tell she’s aged. For god’s sake. Have we really not progressed past the third year undergraduate realization that you can make a feminist critique of any text and to the useful and mature realization that this means that picking sensible and useful targets is important? Clearly not. Instead we’ve just declared Moffat an authorized punching bag against whom one should always raise a feminist critique with no regard for whether or not it’s a particularly good one. Ugh.
- The dance sequence to Slade stole the episode. Absolutely perfect. Other highlights: the series of spurious “that’s racist” gags that lead up to the actually quite reasonable point that naming a horror movie Alien says little good about us, Shona’s to-do list for Christmas (including a clear sign that my intent to do Game of Thrones reviews is sound), “magic carrots,” the reappearance of the “helping the old person open the Christmas cracker,” “you’re a dream that’s trying to save us,” and basically everything else to do with Shona.
- I’m going to do a final ranking for 2014 in the end of season post, so instead, a ranking of Christmas specials, from best to worst.
- Time of the Doctor
- A Christmas Carol
- The Christmas Invasion
- Last Christmas
- The End of Time
- The Snowmen
- The Runaway Bride
- The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe
- Voyage of the Damned
- The Next Doctor