Doctor Who's tangerine dream and Clara's death wish in Last Christmas
Time-travelling Scrooge goes all fuzzy
TV Review Readers please note: THIS IS A POST-UK-BROADCAST REVIEW – THERE WILL BE SPOILERS!
I don’t usually have much time for schmaltz and sentimentality, but I make an exception for Christmas. I can take a certain amount of it at this time of year, the season of goodwill and all that.
But the sight of the new and improved - more serious, less boyish - Doctor Who whooping in Santa’s sleigh in a scene that went on for far, far too long, was way too much. The whole deal with Peter Capaldi’s Who all year has been how grumpy and non-fuzzy and warm he is, so the idea that he would be as excited as a little kid to be driving the reindeer is ridiculous.
And since when does the Doctor get pop culture references? Half the fun of Who has always been his tendency to completely misunderstand humans, yet here he is shouting “Yippee-ki-yay” on Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve. What were they thinking?
Last Christmas started off pretty well. The whole bit about Clara waking up and spotting Santa Claus on her (very easily accessible and flat) roof was funny, silly and schmaltzy in a good Christmassy way, especially with old Saint Nick played by Nick Frost (never noticed what a Christmassy name he has before). Sure, the elves were kind of annoying, but hey, they were bearable.
The fact that from there we segued into a North Pole/Alien/Inception plot was odd, but at least they acknowledged half of the stuff they were ripping off when one of the explorers blatantly pointed out that the aliens were pretty much face-huggers from Alien. They clearly didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the plot “twist”, it was fairly obvious, but the dreams within dreams were fun and Jenna Louise Coleman managed to emote hard enough in the saccharine scenes with Danny Pink that you could get over his brief cameo.
In fact, Clara was the standout of the episode. Her dignified grieving for the love of her life was played just right: you never felt sorry for her; instead, you empathised. And in the final scenes, where Capaldi just about managed to work up the requisite feeling at meeting her again as an old woman, she was a triumph. The whole idea of Doctor Who running into one of his old companions as a very old woman could have come off really weird and uncomfortable (I know we had the Sarah Jane Smith/David Tennant’s Who bit, but that wasn’t quite the age difference we saw here).
But once again, Coleman gave elderly Clara a quiet dignity that was really moving. There was no ridiculously croaky voice or squinty peering, she managed to convincingly convey old age with no loss of inner spirit and it was a damn fine bit of acting.
But once again, they sold us a dummy. Every time I see a Clara/Doctor Who break-up scene, I start to think there’s hope for Clara yet and then every time, it turns out she’s not going anywhere at all, I’m a bit disappointed. It just doesn’t work with Coleman and Capaldi, they haven’t found a chemistry that makes sense yet and it’s just difficult to imagine that the people they are would actually enjoy hanging out with each other.
I am beginning to wonder if this is Capaldi’s fault more than Coleman’s though. At times during the Christmas episode, he seemed almost embarrassed to be delivering his lines, particularly that joke about the Alien movie, which admittedly, was pretty poor. If you can’t embrace at least some of the silliness of Who, you’re not going to do a very good job of selling it to an audience. Maybe the reason so many of the plot-holes have seemed so blatant this series is because Capaldi isn’t carrying us all along in his madness as David Tennant and Matt Smith did so well.
Forget Inception, the superlative dream-within-a-dream thriller that was the framework for Last Christmas. Forget Alien and The Thing - the sci-fi-horror hybrids referenced in by this year’s Doctor Who special on Christmas Day.
This is Christmas - the time for miracles. And what’s more miraculous, or Christmassy, than a bitter old cynic having his faith uncorked?
The real theme of Last Christmas was the redemption of Peter Capaldi’s curmudgeonly Doctor using one of the biggest guns in the seasonal arsenal: Father Christmas. To that end, the totem of Last Christmas was not a modern sci-fi but a Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street – the 1994 remake.
The big hoopla about this year’s Christmas special had been the portrayal of Father Christmas by Nick Frost, acting and writing partner to Simon Pegg.
Frost’s Santa is a street-talking muther of an action figure with a strong physical resemblance to that 1994 Santa, played by Sir Richard Attenborough. If you've seen Hot Fuzz and similar Pegg-Frost works, you knew the kind of Santa that would be coming down your chimney – and Frost delivered.
For those who’ve not seen it, Miracle on 34th Street is the story of a little girl who’s been told by her mean mummy that Father Christmas doesn’t exist.
But her faith is restored after meeting a department store Father Christmas, convinced he is the real deal.
How does that related to the Doctor and how did Last Christmas sit in the pantheon of Christmas-Day TV staples?
The clue is in the closing scenes and the jocularity around Santa’s signature gift: a tangerine.
I’ll come back to this.
First, the story: Clara is back, baby, and she – along with the Doctor and some rather ineffectual, mismatched and evasive scientists manning ye olde remote base in the North Pole – has started seeing Santa.
What develops is Inception: there’s a new foe in the Whoiniverse, Dream Crabs who look and act like face huggers from Alien but eat your brain while giving you hyper-real, happy dreams to lull you into a sense of serenity and surrender.
Their ability to generate a telepathic field that controls perception is important because this leads to the Inception bit: it also forces you, the viewer, to work out the number of dreams within dreams and characters dreaming who think they are awake. As the Doctor warns, you can’t believe anything you see.
Last Christmas featured some standard sci-fi and horror set ups and set pieces: yes, there was the isolated scientific base, yes, somebody – Clara – was sent alone into a spooky lab – like Ripley and Newt in Aliens, with a face hugger on the loose – and, yes, the scientists got locked outside their freezing base with the predator inside – just like in The Thing.
There was action: the attack of the crabs in the med lab with Santa’s explosive intervention, blowing them away. There was tension: the Doctor trying to convince the scientists that it is they who are bodies in the med lab.
There was comedy and in-jokes. How does Father Christmas get all the gifts in the sleigh? Answer: it’s bigger on the inside. The best line was was from Frost’s Santa: “This is a dream. How much more obvious do you want me to make it? I can text the Easter Bunny?”
Santa, it turned out, was a figment of the minds created by those wearing a face hugger to make them aware that what they were experiencing wasn’t real.
That explained the presence of Father Christmas. But the set up?
It wasn’t explained why people from different walks of life should dream themselves into a setting of scientists stuck at a spooky, snow-bound lab.
Nor why the Dream Crabs seemed to have tapped the mid of Shona to serve up the Alien and The Thing scenarios and also Frost’s Attenboroughesque Santa: these were all films that newly single Shona had put on her Christmas Day DVD list. This served more as a vehicle to explain the scriptwriters’ desire to wrap in yet more Hollywood homage than come up with some fresh science fiction.
The big development was that Clara is back, and apparently still suffering suicidal tendencies brought about by the death of her true love Danny Pink.
Her Christmas scene with Danny was a tinsel-tinged horror – the reverse tracking shot of Clara in a hallway of blackboards scrawled with “you are dying” like something from The Shining.
And yet, Clara didn’t want to let go of her dream – either with Danny or, later, on the sleigh with Santa. She blocked her ears and her mind to waking up.
The episode’s biggest shock was not the advent of the face huggers, rather Clara Oswald suddenly aged 62 plus, a life lived and in her twilight. We teetered briefly on the precipice of a final exit for Clara along the lines of Amy and Rory and Sarah Jane. But, no, the Doctor was still wearing a face hugger.
And this was the real crux of Last Christmas – the redemption of a character who’s been built up to be a time-travelling Scrooge.
In his dream-like state, the Doctor was wild eyed and alive, flying Santa’s sleigh across London. Afterwards, he virtually dropped to one knee and proposed to Clara.
“I never get second chances. Don’t know what happened this time. Don’t even now who to thank,” said a giddy Who dancing back to the TARDIS with Clara.
Back to that tangerine, a fruit that Who told Santa at the beginning he hates. The closing scene was a tangerine nestling in the trimming around Clara’s bedroom window.
Why close on a tangerine? It was ambiguous: if it is Santa’s calling card, then Father Christmas was real and Who was still wearing a face hugger.
If the tangerine were a metaphor, then our weary time traveller was touched by the spirit of Christmas, rediscovering faith like that little girl in Miracle on 34th Street and enjoying a minor redemption.
What did you expect? This is a Christmas special, after all. But at least there were no Victorians.
No one likes tangerines and no real Who fans like the Christmas special. There’s always far too much thrown in. Too many decorations on the tree, weighing it down. Too many nods and winks to traditional themes, not to mention the maudlin sentimentality! Who can forget the Narnia-inspired The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe nonsense?
So I was thoroughly prepared to hate Santa. And then a funny thing happened, specifically Nick Frost. And he was brilliant. Not too saccharine, not too, ahem, frosty.
It's no secret that I've found Miss Goodie Two Shoes Oswald to be a complete pain for most of the season, but she provided the first actual LOL moment with her comment that she often has to use her imagination. It probably went over the heads of most younger viewers, but was a welcome indication that Steven Moffat hasn't completely forgotten the adult fans despite the time of year.
But dear god there's no getting rid of Danny! Even though he's dead he still managed to pop up and be inane in two episodes. He'll probably still be faffing about in the background two or three companions down the line.
Attack of the Brussels sprouts was fun. They made properly sinister baddies. What could be more terrifying than not even knowing you were being killed by something inside your head controlling your thoughts? Although clearly Inception-inspired, it felt fresh. And was a handy knack for having your Santa and eating him... or something.
We've reached the end of Capaldi's first stint as the Doctor and he's really settled into the role. If Moffat & Co can leave Clara and the "big emotional questions" behind and take us on a real hunt for Gallifrey, viewers will be in for a proper treat.
Best thing about Last Christmas? It was mercifully free from any ageist claptrap about Capaldi not being a spring chicken! ®