“Last Christmas” mixes and matches sci-fi horror tropes with Christmas tropes… to surprisingly good results.
Plenty of shows have holiday-themed episodes that air on or adjacent to major holidays, but since Doctor Who’s revival in 2005, the Christmas Day special has been a tradition. These special episodes always fall outside of the season’s air dates — season 8 wrapped up in November — which makes these Christmas stories one-off episodes that the show usually uses as an excuse to be especially silly. Still, that doesn’t mean that important continuity doesn’t happen here, and this year’s “Last Christmas” is no exception.
Here, we see Clara and the Doctor reuniting for — maybe? — one more adventure after they parted ways in November’s season finale, “Death in Heaven.” Their previous departure seemed a bit on the final side, but Santa Claus has staged something of an intervention to bring them together again — and remind Clara that she does believe in fairy tales (like the Doctor himself). The entire episode feels an awful lot like season 8’s earlier “Robot of Sherwood,” in which the Doctor and Clara met Robin Hood — and we couldn’t quite decide whether Robin was real or fictional right up until the end. Remove Robin and add Santa Claus and you’d be pretty close to “Last Christmas,” which toys with a lot same themes of reality vs. fantasy.
Despite the fact that parts of this episode feel very much like rehashes of things Doctor Who has already done — which is true for a lot of season 8 — Nick Frost as Santa Claus is an undeniable delight. Frost’s funny take on Santa serves as an excellent foil for Capaldi’s Doctor, and the character brings humor and brightness to what’s otherwise a fairly dark episode.
If you missed the episode, you might be able to catch a rerun on BBC America (which is doing a post-Christmas Doctor Who marathon) or you can find the episode for purchase on iTunes and Amazon. If you need to brush up on just what happened during season 8, check out our Doctor Who reviews.
Read on for a full review of the latest episode, “Last Christmas.”
Do You Really Believe in Santa Claus?
To set the stage for the episode, we start by seeing Clara awoken on Christmas Day to sounds from her rooftop, which turns out to be a crash-landed Santa Claus and two elven helpers (including Dan Starkey, whom Who fans will know better as Sontaran comic relief Strax), with escaped reindeer flying around in the background. This would be enough to make anyone wonder if they were still dreaming, but since this is Doctor Who, it’s not long before the TARDIS materializes and the Doctor — who doesn’t seem particularly fond of Santa — drags Clara off to the North Pole.
Nick Frost is, without a doubt, the best thing about this episode. He easily alternates between charming (trying to convince Clara that his presence on the roof is totally normal and has nothing at all to do with Christmas), menacing (often when talking to the Doctor, with whom he clashes from the start), and completely badass (when facing down the episode’s alien menace). Doctor Who‘s vision of Santa is firmly grounded in modern pop culture Santa Claus tropes, but the show doesn’t let itself be tied down by what the world thinks Santa should be. Frost’s Santa Claus is running the show this episode and he has the breadth of knowledge, technical know-how, and simply the presence to pull this off even when he’s in a room with the Doctor — not something that just anyone, fictional or no, could pull off.
Claus and crew are a delight whenever they’re on screen, bringing most of the episode’s laughs and many of its best moments. Various characters try to quiz Santa on how he’s manages to, well, be Santa, and he always has a quick and clever answer — the sleigh carries presents by being bigger on the inside, the reindeer fly because he feeds the magic carrots. Even if you don’t like any of the rest of it, it’s a fun episode just for Nick Frost’s take on Santa Claus.
Who Ya Gonna Call?
The Doctor and Clara arrive at the North Pole (at a base which looks an awful lot like the moon base from “Kill the Moon”), where we meet a crew of four on a mysterious mission… but they’ve been attacked by alien face-huggers, or “sleepers,” who are drawn to anyone who looks at them (another familiar concept) or thinks about them. We’re introduced to the premise by watching one of the crew members walking past four sleepers by dancing through the room with her eyes closed — which not only makes for a great (and suitably bizarre) scene to kick-start the episode, but also seems to work… at least until the Doctor and Clara stumble in and draw the sleepers’ attention.
To distract Clara from thinking about the monsters closing in on them, the Doctor starts talking about Danny. The Doctor intentionally pushes her buttons to provoke an emotional response, which gets her to slap him — because, unlike what she told him at the end of season 8, Danny’s dead, which means the Doctor’s really hitting a sore spot with his needling. Clara’s tendency to lie is apparently contagious, though, as we later find out that the Doctor also lied about having found Gallifrey — he wanted Clara to stay with Danny and be happy instead of being tempted to run around the universe with him, while she wanted him to leave her behind without guilt… something that doesn’t seem to have worked out well for either of them.
This momentary distraction, unfortunately, doesn’t help them escape — especially when the rest of the base’s crew barges in with guns while most definitely looking at and thinking about the sleepers. They’re rescued — of course! — by Santa, who blasts his way into the base (he’s preceded by a parade of slinkys and toy robots) and sends the sleepers back to bed with a clap of his hands. (“It’s Christmas Eve! Early to bed.”)
Though there’s a lot of disbelief in the room, Santa’s charisma — and encyclopedic knowledge of what everyone got for Christmas as a child — seems to convince everyone. And, as Santa himself points out, they have bigger problems: these alien face-huggers are actually dream crabs, and if there are many of them on earth the human race could be facing its last day — and last Christmas. And when Santa asks if you want to help him save Christmas, you say yes… even if you’re the Doctor.
That Makes Perfect Sense, Right?
These face-huggers send their victims into a dream, where they stay while the crabs slowly devour their brains. These telepathic aliens mean they can’t trust anything they see, since it could be these dream-crabs messing with their minds. The problem with telling the reality from the fantasy, however, is that their real lives are pretty odd to begin with. After all, the Doctor traveling space and time in a blue box isn’t actually any stranger than Santa Claus being real… so how do you tell reality from fantasy?
The truth is, you can’t. We quickly find out that the entire crew of the station, plus the Doctor and Clara, are already under the influence of these dream crabs, and they have to fight to recognize what’s real and what isn’t to remember the real lives they have to go back to. This is makes for some interesting, Inception-style dream-within-a-dream narrative… but it also makes the plot senselessly convoluted in a way that has become a trademark quality of Steven Moffat’s episodes. Just how all of them got into this dream when they’re a group of unrelated (save the Doctor and Clara) people who have never met? How did they all wind up in a shared — and horrifying — dream about an alien invasion? Like many Moffat stories, the narrative starts to break up the more you think about it… so our advice is not to think about it too hard, but instead to enjoy the episode’s great character moments, of which there are many.
A Dream within a Dream within a Dream
Being stuck in a dream world means that Clara encounters Danny again, having a perfect Christmas with him. But even in this dream version of Danny prioritizes keeping Clara safe over anything else, and when the Doctor manages to barge into Clara’s dream, Danny’s the one who talks her out of believing the world around her. It’s one of the best moments of the show… and maybe the entirety of the season.
Do you know why people get together at Christmas? Because every time they do it might be the last time. Every Christmas is last Christmas… and this is ours.
The entire scene is a tear-jerker moment, not just for fans of Danny and Clara, but for anyone who’s celebrated Christmas without someone this year. That sense of loss echoes throughout the episode, making it feel like a melancholy reflection of times past, even as the episode wraps itself in the silliest trappings of the Christmas season.
It’s enough to wake Clara up, but only to realize that they’re trapped in another dream. They were saved, originally, by Santa…. but Santa’s not real and is, instead, part of the dream. Still, being an amalgam of what everyone thinks of as Santa Claus, Santa is actually trying to help them find their way out of the dream world.
You’re a dream who’s trying to save us?
I’m Santa Claus. I think you just defined me.
They wake from this second dream with Santa’s help — but, surprise, they’re still in a dream. There are four sleepers in the base’s infirmary and four other crew members… but everything points to their only being four crew members at the base. The sleepers and the crew members are, in fact, the same people, and everyone has been in a shared dream all this time.
They’re saved again by Santa, who picks them up in his sleigh (“Fortunately I know all of your home addresses”). Now, one by one, they wake to find themselves back in their own lives.
What About Clara?
This episode is a bit odd where Clara’s concerned. It’s been barely two months since we last saw an episode of Doctor Who, and Clara looks just as we remembered her — but throughout the episode, there are moments where she acts like it’s been a much longer time. She’s at a complete loss, unable even to speak when she first sees the Doctor again, not convinced he’s real. When she’s first on the TARDIS, she comments about how much she loved the noise it made. And at the end, in the sleigh, she gives the Doctor a long hug before he wakes and stays sitting by Santa for a long while, not wanting to wake up herself. This could be all about Danny, but it feels like it’s been a much longer time for Clara than it has been for the viewers at home.
It’s explained when the newly-awakened Doctor rushes to Clara’s to free her from the crab, only to find her an old woman. The resulting scene is very sweet, with the two of them celebrating Christmas quietly together, with paper hats and Christmas crackers, while Clara talks about her life. It’s reminiscent of last year’s Christmas special, in which Clara celebrated with an aged Matt Smith. Capaldi’s Doctor is awkward trying to do the family togetherness thing, but it’s precious to watch him try.
It’s would have made a lovely swan song for Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald, who’d been much-rumored to be leaving the show. “We should do this every Christmas,” the Doctor says… which leads to Santa Claus walking in, the Doctor waking up again and rushing to save Clara again. This time when Clara awakes, she’s her younger self again and both Clara and the Doctor decide to make up for their dream-regrets by traveling together again.
It’s great to see Clara sticking around after the character development she’s gotten over the last season, but this ending feels like it undercuts the emotional moment that came immediately before it… and it would honestly make more sense if it were a last-minute addition. But if it was, no one’s saying so. We’ll see Capaldi and Coleman again in season 9 of Doctor Who, which doesn’t yet have an exact air date, but we can expect to see it some time in 2015.
Bottom Line: Sure, the episode has flaws, but it’s balanced out with some truly great show moments. Plus: Nick Frost as Santa Claus.
Recommendation: “Last Christmas” is a solid episode of new Who, with a dose of sci-fi, a dose of Christmas cheer, a few scares, and some genuinely emotional moments. We’d tune in for this episode, even if you haven’t been a fan of the Capaldi era to date.[rating=4.0]