Sunday, 28 December 2014

WHO REVIEW: 8-13) Last Christmas

Christmas is a time of mixed emotion, when joy, love and frivolity are tempered by loss, heartache and inequality. The best Christmas stories have this bittersweet balance. Christmas is also a time for ghost stories, a tradition that has risen again in recent years. So Doctor Who should be perfect for Christmas, and the status of the annual Christmas special as a modern-day tradition would support this. However, as many of the Doctor's festive adventures have been mediocre as have been fantastic, and even the best, (which is, clearly, A Christmas Carol), are rarely as good when watched at other times of the year. With its tenth Christmas special, however, Doctor Who delivered a genuinely gripping, moving, frightening and funny adventure, one that will surely stand up just as well when watched when the nights have grown shorter and Christmas indulgence is far from our minds.

Last Christmas follows on very closely from the main run of Series Eight. It is, after all, mere weeks since the Doctor faced down the Mistress and Clara lost Danny, so to play this as a separate event would have seemed off. The events of Death in Heaven were uniquely traumatic for both the Doctor and Clara, and to shrug that off in favour of a festive knees-up would have felt false. It's Christmas; people who love each other get together and have arguments. Perhaps Clara and the Doctor overcame their mutual lying a little too quickly, but the underlying tension of their parting, and the reasons behind it were still simmering, most prominently with the unexpected presence of Danny Pink.

A classic sci-fi base-under-siege story that riffs on Alien while chucking in layers of dreams and fantasies and has Father Christmas as its special guest star is not something many series could get away with. Indeed, it's not something that Doctor Who could have got away with until recently. The Santa-robots from the first two Christmas specials felt silly enough at the time. It's hard to imagine the series actually running with a full-on Santa episode even as recently as two years ago. Last Christmas does see Steven Moffat using his usual clever tricks and tropes to craft a spooky story, with “Don't blink!” now having evolved into “Don't think!” and monsters you cannot look at instead of ones you must. However, by taking a tried-and-tested approach to Doctor Who as its foundation, it's free to go off in wilder and more ridiculous ways than ever before. Certainly one thing this last year of Doctor Who has had in abundance is confidence. They might not have pulled everything off, but the production team have had some guts in trying bold and strange new things, particularly since the halfway point of the series was reached. Last Christmas sees them at their most confident yet.

It's also very hard to this episode working as well with another Doctor. Eccleston could have pulled it off, if it he could have taken it seriously, but both Tennant and especially Smith would have been completely unsuited to it. They would have been thrilled to see Saint Nick, bouncing around the set and telling him how brilliant and beautiful he was. No, this needed the most grounded, most bad-tempered and most cynical Doctor to make it work. As well as the seething rivalry between these two fantastical old men, the twelfth Doctor makes Father Christmas work as a character by taking him seriously (well, just seriously enough). With Capaldi giving him credence, we can sit back and accept that Santa is part of this episode. And sure, it's great seeing grumpy-faced Twelve growl at Santa Claus and piss on everyone's parade when they think they're free, just as it's a joy to see him give in to the nonsense and fly the sleigh. (I have to admit, while I'm getting more and more Twelve-like as I get older, I'm still an overexcited Eleven when it comes to Christmas. I just sleep through more of it than I used to.)

Telling a story that's almost entirely set in dreams is a risky approach, of course, and it's hard not to make the audience feel that they've been cheated. This is precisely the problem that affected the previous episode to try this, Amy's Choice, but where that failed, Last Christmas succeeds because it maintains its threat. Indeed, the dream itself is the threat, linked precisely to the slow death of the characters as the Dream Crabs digest their brains. This is supported by some genuinely unpleasant nightmarish imagery, not least the flickering tentacles of the Crabs themselves, or their slimy carapaces covering their victims' faces. Indeed, this might be a little much for 6.15 on Christmas Day, when young children are still fully charged on festive excitement. I sat down to watch this with my best friend's six-year-old son, and he lasted about fifteen minutes before declaring he was bored and wandering off. It was only the next morning that he confessed that he was too scared to watch it. It only took a little reassurance that none of it was real, of course, and that it's fine to be scared and it can be fun, but even so, I do wonder if perhaps this was a little strong for its slot.

On the other hand, it has Nick Frost as Father Christmas. While trailers did suggest that jolly Saint Nick might potentially be the villain of the piece, happily this was not the case, and while Frost is indeed a gobby and confrontational Santa, he is also a courageous and reassuring one. The storming of the polar base by Santa and his trusty elves, their entrance heralded by a phalanx of slinkies and toy robots, has to be one of the most audaciously absurd and wonderful in Doctor Who's history. And anyone who thinks the joke with Rudolph's nose isn't funny is a misery. That was bloody hilarious. Still, none of this could have worked without Nick Frost (truly the perfect name for the man behind Father Christmas), along with Nathan McMullen and Dan Starkey (finally recognisable outside of his Strax makeup). Frost is capable of standing up to Capaldi's Doctor while balancing the humour and threat of the scenes he appears in. No mean feat.

All of the cast are excellent here, though, from Natalie Gumede's no-nonsense head scientist Ashley to Maureen Beattle as the pragmatic elder Bellows. It's lovely to see Michael Troughton finally appear in his father's show, after many appearances by brother David, even if his character does get the short end of the stick when it comes to brains and decorum. (Now, let's get Sean Pertwee in series nine, yeah?) Samuel Anderson provides a truly beautiful coda for Danny, far better and more moving than the misjudged angel moment in Death in Heaven. It is, however, Faye Marsay who steals the episode. Shona is cute, silly and not particularly competent, and feels so real that she absolutely grounds this fantasy-based episode and all that it features. Having spent the bulk of the episode making us adore her, and desperately trying to get the other characters to like her, she wakes up in a scene of heartbreaking loneliness. It's the scene that best embodies that bittersweet quality of Christmas and it's the one that has stuck with me long after the Dream Crabs have lost their creepiness. Judging by the reaction on the interwebs, there hasn't been such a call for a character to be raised to companion status since Carey Mulligan appeared as Sally Sparrow. Let's hope we see her again. (IMDB also informs me that it's Marsay's birthday on the 30th of December Happy birthday Faye!)

As of yet, though, there's no vacancy for a companion. I'm of two minds concerning Clara's staying on. Clara's character has improved enormously over the last year, now that she is free of the “impossible girl” baggage, and this in turn has allowed Jenna Coleman to improve her performance. She has been genuinely excellent throughout Series Eight, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Clara and the Doctor develop their relationship in the ninth series. On the other hand, he has been part of the show for a long time now, and there's a real risk of it becoming stale. Especially considering that Clara has been living her own life this year, she would perhaps work better as a Martha-style occasional companion. Last Christmas boasts some of her best performance, particularly her finally bidding fairwell to Danny. It is, however, that beautiful scene with the Doctor that shows both Coleman and Capaldi at their best. The Doctor finally returning to Clara, sixty years too late, not even registering her age but helping her celebrate on last Christmas... it's truly beautiful, and perfectly reflects the inverse scene in The Time of the Doctor, right down to the Doctor helping Clara pull a cracker. It works so perfectly that it's hard to imagine that Clara's eventual departure will work anywhere near as well. In fact, the episode really should have ended there, however well the final rug-pull works. Indeed, I think it's pretty clear that in the initial treatment this was how it ended, bookmarking Clara's story, but after Coleman's last minute decision to stay a rewrite was necessitated.

Despite this, Last Christmas is one of the best Christmas specials Doctor Who has produced, and also a damned fine episode of the series as a whole. It may not be the end that Clara deserves, but it could be a great new beginning.

References: This episode was more open than usual in name-checking its inspirations: Alien was referenced explicitly, of course, and there were nods to The Thing from Another World and Miracle on 34th Street, but what else? Videodrome, Inception, UBIK and any number of Philip K. Dick works were evoked. Santa Claus vs. The Martians in a vague way, perhaps, and the opening from Scrooged (a trailer for The Night the Reindeer Died!) came to mind, but probably coincidentally. Shona's dance into danger wasn't unlike Star-Lord's introduction in Guardians of the Galaxy, while there were frequent nods to Ghostbusters (“Who ya gonna call?”) Then there's those three words: “My. Little. Pony.” Shame there was no cameo by Doctor Whooves.

Links: “Time travel has always been possible in dreams,” says the Doctor. This is just what Vastra said in The Name of the Doctor, during her transtemporal conference call.

Threads: I never thought I'd see the day that the Doctor wore a hoodie. He pulls it off, though.

Sweet Papa Chrimbo: Santa Claus, Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas, whatever we're calling him this minute, has been mentioned in the series before. The eleventh Doctor suggested he knew him as Jeff, while the ninth Doctor even implied that he was him (“Red bicycle when you were twelve!”). Off television, the Doctor has met Santa several times. Their first appearance together was in “A Christmas Story” in TV Comic back in 1965. Since then there have been several silly Christmas stories in the Short Trips anthologies that have featured Santa as a character. Iris Wildthyme also encountered the man himself, and his wife, Mary Christmas, in the audioplay The Claws of Santa. But is he real? Well, that tangerine at the end surely gives it away. Indeed, it is perhaps significant that he only appears once another Time Lord has made her way back to the universe at large. So when anyone asks, I say yes, of course Santa is a Time Lord. Just like James Bond and Captain Birdseye.

Hanky-Panky in the TARDIS: A lot of sex appeal on offer here, with Clara staying on to brighten up the TARDIS and the beautiful Natalie Gumede playing Ashley. But the one I really fancy is Faye Marsay. I guess I like funny little northerners. The Doctor fancies Bellows, though.

Who's dream was it? It was Shona's. She's the one whose movie list formed the basis of the dream, she's the one who was most clearly lonely, reaching out for others to bring into her dream, and she's the one who was most upset to find that she just worked in a shop, rather than as a scientist. Don't worry, I thought I was a scientist, and now I work in a shop.

Best line: “I will mark you, Santa.”

No comments:

Post a Comment