A clever Christmas present from Steven Moffat.
|Season's greetings. (Image: BBC)|
I’ve always had a bit of an awkward relationship with my Dad and Christmas Days have sometimes been tense affairs. This year’s, though, was pleasant and quietly memorable. Equipped with his festive whisky and dry ginger, Dad mellowed out and became talkative, warmly reflecting that it seemed like only yesterday when I’d been a little boy. For once, he seemed genuinely pleased with the present I’d bought him, and found his talking Only Fools and Horses ‘Triffic Dad’ Christmas card funny. It doesn’t sound like much, but it means a lot.
Which is largely why I was so impressed that this year’s Doctor Who special got to the heart of what the season of goodwill is really all about. ‘Last Christmas’ is a clever title. Yes, it’s a pun on the classic Wham! song, but, as the Doctor said, the essential point of the yearly present-giving tradition, is that it might be the last time you have quality time with your family and other loved ones, so make the most of it. That’s a deeply mature sentiment that makes Peter Capaldi’s first yuletide voyage in the TARDIS genuinely deserving of the label ‘Christmas Special’. In fact, I think it’s the most sophisticated, honest and moving festive story that the series has done so far. ‘A Christmas Carol’ came pretty close, but ‘Last Christmas’ scores higher because the Doctor and Clara working out their issues, the seasonal angle and some very intelligent (and disturbing) science fiction all worked seamlessly together – not to mention outlandishly.
‘There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.’
The guest star status of Santa Claus is a case in point. Actor Nick Frost wasn’t joking when he said that he’d be playing a bona fide ‘Sweet Papa Chrimbo’, made up to resemble the one in Miracle on 34th Street. What’s stunningly clever is that the story kept asking just what Father Christmas is: an idea, a fantasy, perhaps – surely not – a real person? Such a deliberately self aware approach can sometimes topple over into self indulgence, so for a complex idea like this to work the writing has to be very disciplined, and, once again, Steven Moffat more than delivered.
Before anyone at home could shout ‘You’re ripping off Alien!’ Professor Albert (Michael Troughton) said as much, and The Thing from Another World was on Shona’s ‘to watch’ list at home, so she’d obviously brought her enthusiasm for the film to the characters’ shared dreamscape. The collision of Victorian Christmas folklore and sci-fi motifs also made for some memorably surreal comedy business, with Santa’s assault force consisting of a tangerine, some bendy springs and toy robots, Saint Nick turning off Rudolf’s Red Nose by remote and a literal North Pole, while the Doctor and co. were threatened by gruesome alien mind parasites. In terms of storytelling and Christmas Day TV spectacle, that really is mind blowing.
The dream world scenario is appropriate to Christmas as there’s a tradition of seasonal fiction using it that ranges from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, right up to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror special a couple of weeks ago. ‘Last Christmas’ is also the Doctor’s It’s a Wonderful Life as, distressingly, he gets to see what would have happened to Clara if he hadn’t gone back for her. Staying in a pleasant cocoon of illusion with your dead lover may be tempting too, but it’s part of the moral of festive stories that you learn from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Future or a kindly angel called Clarence and, as the terrific Samuel Anderson’s Danny Pink says, ‘get the hell on with it.’
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman improve with every story. They’re so natural together now it’s hard to imagine anybody else travelling in the TARDIS, though that day will surely come. Capaldi now appears to be Dr Whody (nice new threads), and watching him prowl around the familiar Doctor Who setting of a scientific base under arctic conditions makes you realise – again – what a classic Doctor he is. Jenna once more showed off her range as an actress, playing a vulnerable, dressing-gowned Wendy to the Time Lord’s amusingly grumpy Grinch. It was particularly satisfying to see the Doctor cheer up at last as he took the reins of Santa's sleigh, revealing that his warmth and simple enjoyment of life are still there.
‘Last Christmas’ wasn’t perfect. To start with, I just know that for some people accepting Santa as a guest star in Doctor Who is a big ask. Bearing that in mind, it didn’t help that Paul Wilmhurst’s direction dragged in a couple of crucial places, particularly the pre-titles sequence, which seemed to go on forever – yes, we get the point, IT’S FATHER CHRISTMAS! – and the scene where Shona (Faye Marsay) threw some shapes across the infirmary floor. She’s a brilliant comic actress and stole every scene in Fresh Meat and Pride, but the amount of screen time Faye’s routine was given shows that there’s a very fine line between funny and silly. Everywhere else Wilmhurst was on top form, notably in all the scenes with the brilliantly named Dream Crabs, and the heart-breaking meeting between the Doctor and the older Clara (and how long must that make-up have taken?).
When the title of the special was announced, I was half expecting a duet between Peter Capaldi and George Michael on the Wham! classic to close the story. While that would have been a brain-scrambling, fourth wall-demolishing show stopper, what we got instead was just as good.
And full marks for a TARDIS showered with snow in the title sequence!