Doctor Who 2014 Christmas Special “Last Christmas”
Directed by Paul Wilmshurst
Written by Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Nick Frost, Samuel Anderson
Air Date: Thursday, December 25, 2014
Will she, or won’t she? That is the question hanging over “Last Christmas,” the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas Special. Does Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald stay for Series 9 or not? Real world considerations like contracts aside, there is unfinished business between Clara and the Doctor from the end of Series 8. There was the overt problem of Clara wanting her traveling life with Doctor, but a more challenging career as a teacher and a more settled home life with Danny Pink at the same time. Underneath all that was the problem that Clara and Peter Capaldi‘s Doctor were thrown together about a year ago and they’ve tried to get along as best as they can. Knowing what they now know, do they want to continue or just let it end?
Writer Steven Moffat resolves these difficulties by revisiting the familiar thematic territory of the dream world. As is often true with Moffat’s writing, the ideas come along fast and furious with the audience often barely left with time to catch its breath. Dreams are sometimes repetitive in their content as if they can’t let go or get past certain ideas. That both approaches largely work is due to some taut direction by Paul Wilmshurst and the tendency to tackle dramatic problems from odd angles. This is an episode that is neither coda to Series 8 nor prequel to Series 9, but a bridge between them. It works in that context, but it is not the dramatic highlight of the year.
Steven Moffat has treated us to a number variations on the dream world in Doctor Who thus far. In “Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead,” the dream world is a place of repose (temporary or final) in a computer core for those killed by the Vashta Nerada and The Girl. In “The Name Of The Doctor,” the dream world is place where characters can meet across the boundaries of time and space, though their physical bodies are still subject to outside attack. In “Death In Heaven,” Missy creates an afterlife that is effectively a dream world where she can store the identities of the dying until she needs to reanimate their bodies as Cybermen.
Here, we’re treated to a new variant of the dream world: a base under siege. We are handed a set of characters who are trapped in a dream world as some alien facehuggers attempt to devour their brains. (Was the mention of Ridley Scott’s Alien a legal dodge for the use of the term or a wink at the fact that Ridley Scott was originally supposed to design the Daleks in 1963?) The dream is a recursive attempt to a) determine that everyone is actually asleep, and b) wake up.
This affords some interesting opportunities to dramatically resolve the differences between the Doctor and Clara. First, it allows the dead to appear as living in order to bring closure to the past. I’ll leave it at that for the sake of spoilers. Second, it enables both the characters and the audience to see similar scenes repeated for dramatic effect. This makes sense because dreams often have a repetitive quality, and repetition of their meetings and partings let the Doctor really discover what they mean to one another. Finally, Santa Claus can plausibly appear as a character (played by Nick Frost!)… though let’s hope that no kids who believe in Santa got their minds changed in the process.
In the end, I believe that we got the conclusion we needed to accept Clara Oswald for Series 9. Clara and the Doctor in Series 8 always seemed to be a little bit of a marriage of convenience. The show often gave the sense that Matt Smith’s Doctor was always the one she really wanted; he was the one she flirted with and the one who would let her set more of the terms of their relationship. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor was older, less dashing and far less interested in letting her set all the terms. They also communicated poorly, or with more difficulty at least. Of course, the flip side of this was that Clara got to grow as a character significantly, and the show’s audience got more than one hard look at the ambiguities of being the Doctor along the way.
To go forward, Clara and the Doctor must accept each other for who they are now, not who they were then. This is the real gift that Steven Moffat is hoping to give this Christmas. The dream lets him get there, in two ways. It lets the Doctor see the opportunity he missed only to regret it, and it lets him ask her to join him in the TARDIS all over again. Her acceptance of that offer is as much about accepting Peter Capaldi as the Doctor as it about the prospect of travel and adventure. It’s a new beginning and hopefully sets a new tone for Series 9. I would call Series 8 a bit of a return to form, but Doctor Who has never really been about the Doctor and his companions fighting with each other.