If I had to describe the 2014 Doctor Who Christmas Special, “Last Christmas,” in one word, it would be “Boo.” If I had to use one comically long word, it would be “BOOOooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!” This one flopped on so many levels, and just when we thought it might maybe turn around, it used the oldest, dumbest, laziest writer trick in the book: the “it was all a dream” conceit. Nobody may like the tangerines in their stockings, but I would’ve taken an hour of tangerine jokes over what this episode turned into. Spoilers ahead, obviously, though I don’t know how even a spoiler could make this episode more rotten.
We begin with Clara getting “woken from sleep” (the reason for the parentheses will become obvious later) by Santa Claus & his elves. We get to see Nick Frost, easily the highlight of the episode, muddling through some poor writing where he tries to pretend he’s someone else, then admitting who he is. His elves (played as ably as the roles allowed by Nate McMullen & Dan Starkey) have a bit of oddly dark banter about the unlikelihood of parents giving gifts to children out of love, and then Clara sets Santa up by saying she doesn’t believe in fairy tales, so Mr. Claus can slam it home by questioning that fact as the TARDIS appears.
The Doctor shows up and takes Clara away because, well, that’s what he does. Throughout the episode, whenever there’s a question about why some plot is happening, folks just respond with “it’s a long story”, taking any burdens of continuity or plausibility off the writer (Stephen Moffat) by making us think it’ll all make sense eventually. It does… but in the worst way possible.
So suddenly we’re at a base on the North Pole (it’s a long story), where face-hugging Alien knock-offs (a fact that’s even acknowledged by a researcher played by Michael Troughton, son of 2nd Doctor Patrick Troughton) are eating the brains of “people” who are in a perpetual dream state. Why? It’s a long story. Why is there even a base at the North Pole? It’s a long story. What’s Santa Claus doing here? It’s a long story. What in the heck is going on with this episode? Well, actually that’s a moderately short story.
See, when Steven Moffat was in his late teens and early 20s, there was a hugely popular program on American television called Dallas. After the cliffhanger “Who Shot JR” mystery was solved in one of the most watched television episodes of all time, the writers followed it up a few seasons later with an entire ninth season that turned out to be a dream sequence, with a character waking from sleep to see that the entire last year of plot didn’t actually happen. From that moment onward, the “it was all just a dream” trope has been a too-often-used hackneyed way for writers to get themselves out of corners they’ve written themselves into. Did you kill off a character the audience liked? Oh, it was a dream that didn’t really happen. Did an actor quit the show and you need an explanation? They only existed in a dream sequence. Do you need an excuse to do something zany without messing with the principal ideas of the show? Use a dream sequence.
Throughout the last several decades, dream sequences have been a go-to for writers of all calibers. When they’re done well (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s season 4 finale “Restless”), the audience is given interesting insights into characters’ minds & motivations. When they’re done poorly (like the finales of Roseanne or St. Elsewhere), the viewers just feel cheated. The Dream Sequence got a bit of a revamp in the 2010 film Inception, which played rather well on ideas of dreams within dreams, but writing classes the world over have still warned students to avoid that plot well if at all possible. It’s very difficult to do the “it was all a dream” bit properly, and very easy to use it as a stupid cheat. In “Last Christmas,” Steven Moffat did the latter, and it was awful.
We got to see some more of Danny Pink, who was one of the better parts of season 8 as a whole. Granted, it was only “dream Danny”, but still nice to see Sam Anderson on screen again. As the dream sequences became more clear, though, the plot unraveled even further. The scientific team at the North Pole base had, in actuality, no reason to be together at all, and weren’t even really scientists. They were just random people who happened to have dream crabs attached to their faces, which somehow (I guess) linked them psychically to the same dream… or something. Oh, and the Doctor and Clara also had these things on their faces, for no real reason beyond “It’s a long story.” Also, Santa Claus was a dream construct as well.
The thing that really riles me is that this is not the first time the new Doctor Who has done a dream sequence episode. 2010’s “Amy’s Choice” did it rather brilliantly. Granted, that was written by sitcom writer Simon Nye, and not Moffat… but surely Moffat was aware of it. Why go back to that trope to do it so poorly?
We ended with what would have been a lovely ending for Jenna Coleman’s Clara (once we finished that impossibly long sleigh ride, that is)… the old woman dying in bed, having lived a full life teaching people after the Doctor opened her eyes to the wonders of the world. It almost called to mind Sarah Jane Smith’s life after the Doctor or the likely life of the aging Amy & Rory back in where ever the Angel sent them. But no, even that was a crappy dream sequence. Like the Kubrick/Spielberg movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence, or even Jackson’sReturn of the King, this episode felt like it had too many endings. Had it ended with elderly Clara in bed, I would have swallowed my bile and accepted that it was a sloppy way to get to a decent ending. I would have even ignored the whole “Clara has to be currently pregnant to account for her descendants looking like Danny” plot point that the earlier season 8 episode “Listen” introduced. But no, here come Santa Claus to tell us that we’re once again in another dream sequence, and that EVERYTHING we’ve just watched has been completely without merit, completely irrelevant to any over-arching plots, and just a sloppy way to waste our time on Christmas evening.
Perhaps even more inexplicable than the utter laziness of the writing has been the overwhelming opinion from many, many others on the internet that this episode was just lovely. The Guardian and the Telegraph can be forgiven, since, as British rags, they tend to fawn over the show no matter what the actual content of an episode has been. But WIRED, the Nerdist, IGN, TV.com, and even Den of Geek are all crackers and Christmas hats over the episode as well. Thankfully, the Register and Indiewire did not drink the blind acceptance Kool-Aid, but I am always intrigued to see how other reviewers’ opinions and my own sometimes differ so wildly.
Think of it what you will. I’ll be over here sucking on my tangerine and hoping that maybe season 9 will wipe away my disappointment in this episode. Speaking of Season 9, we know that Moffat is show-running, that Capaldi and Coleman are confirmed to return, and that actress Michelle Gomez has said she’ll return as Missy (I knew that “vaporization” looked more like a teleport flash!). Elsewhere in the rumor mill, Moffat has said that he’s open to bringing River Song back, and Neil Gaiman has said that, while he’s not on the writer list for season 9, he is very eager to write a Doctor Who episode for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. I guess we’ll just have to wait until August 2015, when the show is set to return for Season 9.