Friday, 16 January 2015

I Dream Of Ripley

Doctor Who
Last Christmas
2014 Christmas Special

I must admit I'm getting bored with Doctor Who.  (On TV at least, whereas Big Finish have kept me perfectly entertained.)  Series Eight wasn't for me, and I haven't revisited it.  Then again, perhaps I'm just bored with the (seemingly endless) Moffat era and its associated tropes, most of which show up in this Christmas Special.  It's not a bad episode, but with it being a particularly busy Christmas I was going to let the episode go and come back for Series Nine.  Ah well: iPlayer keeps these things for 30 days, so why not?

As was sign-posted at the end of Death In Heaven, it's not the end for the Doctor and Clara.  Meeting on a rooftop, enticed there by Santa Claus (played sassily by Nick Frost), they head to a Remote Arctic Base (TM) to confront the dream crabs: sinister blue face-huggers that keep you dreaming while they eat your brain.

Merry Christmas!
Similarities to Alien and The Thing are positively encouraged.  I'm not sure we've ever had such direct references in Doctor Who: the "Purge" screen from Alien is a comparatively subtle nod, but the Thing-ish Arctic base, the full-on conversation about face-huggers and the oh-why-the-hell-not list of movies at the end all tend to reach through the fourth wall and slap you.  I suppose it's one way to tackle suspiciously familiar source material, and it does work given that they are (spoiler alert) dreaming most of this.  (Except the dream crabs are real, and the similarities to Alien are due to Steven Moffat, not the characters' movie-themed brains.)  All of which makes me genuinely surprised no one says "It's a bit like Inception, isn't it?"

Yep, it's a dream story, and you know what that means: what is real?  This can be done exceptionally well, like in Amy's Choice.  That episode had two scenarios, each ridiculous-yet-convincing in their own way, with a countdown to decide which is the real one.  They even had a sinister fantasy figure calling the shots.  (It's quite a bit like Amy's Choice, isn't it?)  Where this one is more like Inception is in the layers: dreams within dreams within dreams.  You pretty much know going in that they're going to "wake up" more than once, which takes something away from the dramatic reveals.  Still, even this just about works, because despite Santa Claus being a big hint that all is not for realsies, the Doctor doesn't know that for certain, and so can't rely on it.  (And neither can you.  Shh!)

To compound our stay in TropesVille, Steven Moffat also tackled dream worlds in Forest Of The Dead (six years ago!), and with considerably more flair.  We also have another of his "conceptual" monsters: rather than moving when you're not looking, or being forgotten when you're not looking at them, or whatever the thing was in Listen, the dream crabs home in on your own thoughts about them.  So don't think about them and you're fine.  (Don't think, eh?  Where does he come up with this stuff?)  We've also got characters telling each other to shut up (which makes me want to punch them – yes, Clara, you too), and Santa, accompanied by two elves, trying to rationalise the ridiculous by mocking the sensible.  (That's not just Steven Moffaty: trying to make practical sense of Father Christmas is the modus operandi of virtually every Christmas film that gets made nowadays.  Even Elf does it.)  To say it's all a bit familiar would be an understatement.

Bonus trivia: pretty sure that's the volcano set from Dark Water.
If I seem to be obsessing over references, tropes and details, well, I am a Doctor Who fan.  (Among the mountains of Doctor Who non-fiction written by people more anal retentive than me are at least two books comprised entirely of lists.)  But the episode encourages nitpicking just as it acknowledges its inspirations.  It's a dream world, so the Doctor (and Santa) urges Clara (and us) to concentrate on everything.  There's even a sneering rebuke from Santa that the characters haven't paid enough attention – for my money, the exact tone Steven Moffat adopts in most of his interviews.  Is it any wonder people look for things that aren't there, and notice plot holes as if they're painted luminous yellow, when episodes adopt such a challenging tone?

Anyway: the dream crabs are creepy, the don't-think concept works rather well (except when the characters forget about it, think about them, and predictable havoc ensues), and if you haven't seen Inception or aren't a curmudgeonly smart-arse, the still-dreaming stuff probably lands with a satisfying thud.  Its ingredients might be unoriginal, but sticking Father Christmas in The Thing is pretty damn novel.  However, there is more going on here than Santa Claus, dream crabs and an Inception paradox.  Rumours were rife that Jenna Coleman might leave, and Clara's certainly suggested as much.  Will she stay or will she go?

One should never put too much trust in rumours, but there's a ring of truth to this one: Jenna was going, and changed her mind at the last minute, thus prompting a reshoot.  Last Christmas not only namedrops its ominous title as often as possible, but also spends its final minutes setting up a possible death for the Impossible Girl, even going so far as a lovely callback to last year's Christmas Special.  (Where the youthful Clara once helped an aged Doctor pull a Christmas cracker, now their roles are reversed.)  This is all good stuff, and the Doctor failing to spot any difference between Claras old and new is done with aplomb by Peter Capaldi, who is barnstorming in general this week.  Jenna Coleman gives us a convincing older Clara, and while I am bored to the back teeth of Clara – who has already left the TARDIS twice, once angry, once resigned – this has the makings of a dignified exit, the echo of Matt adding a certain shape to her time in the show.

"I've always believed in Santa Claus... but he looks a little different to me."
Not the only Doctor-Santa comparison here, and yes,
they're all this subtle.
But, no: the Doctor wakes up again and it's back to the TARDIS for fun, adventure, and good times!  Which is a moment we already had almost word-for-word in Mummy On The Orient Express, and (in spirit) even earlier in Deep Breath.  Clara now faces the same problem as Amy: the more times you fake out that she's leaving, the less convincing her exit will be.  Amy eventually left via a histrionic rendez-vous with the Weeping Angels, and still there was the grim spectre of "No, really, why can't he just go and get her?"  How's Clara going to cop it?  When we get there, what's to stop us simply expecting her back next week?

It's a real shame, because inasmuch as Last Christmas is really about anything, it's surely this.  (Of course there's a chance this was always the plan, and Moffat meant to set us up for an emotional ending only to not deliver one.  In which case... mission accomplished?)  For good measure, we also get closure between her and Danny – or at least, her and dream-Danny, which... sort of counts?  But coming right after a progressively less interesting Danny arc, culminating in a whole episode about closure on his death, this lands with all the weight of a dry sponge, particularly as the person giving her closure isn't really Danny.  Once again, it's not Samuel Anderson's fault; there's just no emotional itch that still needed scratching.  (These scenes can't even rely on their it's-all-just-a-dream creepiness, thanks to Forest Of The Dead already raiding that cupboard.)

Emotionally, it left me cold, and that's pretty much my central problem with Doctor Who these days.  But there's some solidly entertaining dialogue, particularly from Santa.  ("Reindeer can't fly!"  "No.  It's a scientific impossibility.  That is why I feed mine magic carrots.")  Peter Capaldi is a dab hand at proclaiming doom and struggling to get on with humans, both represented well here; at times you can see the Doctor making an effort not to be crass, which is good work.  It's all a bit too long, possibly to accommodate the unnecessary Danny stuff and the redundant parting-of-the-ways ending.  I got the sense that it might have been a great 45-minute episode.  At 60 minutes, it's often entertaining, far creepier than you'd expect at Christmas, and some of the dream mechanics do, for once, actually repay you for having thought about them.

If it were shorter, and if Clara had finally shuffled off this mortal coil (or gone anywhere, really – I'm not fussed), it'd be a solid, strong piece of Who, overcoming its limited originality with sheer wit.  As it stands, Last Christmas is among the more coherent seasonal episodes, but it sacrifices an emotional sting to keep everything nice.  As it happens, Steven Moffat has done that before, too.  That this may be down to the companion's enjoyment of working on Doctor Who does not, sadly, make much difference to the end result.


  1. Is it any wonder people look for things that aren't there, and notice plot holes as if they're painted luminous yellow, when episodes adopt such a challenging tone?

    Hmm, yes. Thought-provoking. Slap on the hand to all of us: we're watching it wrong.

    This really misfired spectacularly because of the obvious U-turn at the end, making all the emotional buildup twang like a broken guitar string, but we can't blame Moffat for that, we guess. They can't kill her off now, though, can they? It would be horribly bathetic after this.

    1. What can they do with her? She's flounced out of the TARDIS, bittersweetly parted ways under a white lie, and very nearly, er, aged to death. (It's not really clear.) Like Amy, any reason to leave will probably strike me as "Oh. Why *that* one, and not the other ones?"

    2. You're right about not, ultimately, blaming Moffat for the ending. I've added a (hopefully) more balanced final sentence.