Friday, 30 January 2015

Review: Doctor Who 8.13: Last Christmas

Doctor Who Christmas specials are, respectively: fantastic, good, So Bad It's Good, unnecessary, overblown So Bad It's Amazing, okay-if-you-don't-think-too-hard, boring, and "Oh my god, this is the worst thing I've ever seen." Last Christmas doesn't attempt to make up for last year's travesty, and nor should it - the show's moved on from that era of terrible writing and slapdash plots. We have to focus on the era of mediocre writing now! Deciding that NuWho wasn't quite derivative enough, this week's episode is what happens when you combine Alien, Inception and, presumably, a late night of last-minute script-writing while flicking through the movie channels.
Father Christmas, while not true to the archetype, is
surprisingly entertaining. From the BBC
     Clara is awoken by the sound of Father Christmas arriving on her rooftop. The Doctor appears, and they travel to a base on the North Pole staffed by a cast of characters, all trying to traverse a room of face-hugger possessed people. The monsters are the Dream Crabs, who can only see you if you're thinking about them, and who can put you into a recursive dream state. Just as the group is about to be cornered by them, Santa appears again with his comical elves to save the day. Clara is later attacked again and this time enters a dream state in which Danny is still alive. The Doctor enters this state to get her out of it, but the resulting knowledge reveals that the whole thing was a dream - and then again, another time. Soon the dream is finally broken, with the crew of the base returning to their old lives. The Doctor wakes up and visits Clara to find she is in her 80s. At the last second, Father Christmas appears again and reveals one last layer of dream. Clara is normal age, and the secrets are all out, so she agrees to travel with him once again.
     The two main influences on this script are Inception and Alien - not really hard to see what that means, either. The Alien thing is fairly blatant, with the film itself being discussed within the episode, and the episode blended that film's claustrophobic setting with the show's usual "Base-Under-Siege" plot. The Inception thing I'm less sure of - it's about four years late to be riding that film's coattails, and the dream-within-a-dream thing is part of the consciousness now. What's more important is how the setup is used. While the interal logic of the dreamscape was interestingly realised and intriguingly thought out, there were a few too many layers for me. By the third wake-up I was beginning to wonder if it would ever stop with the revelation. It also tied into a problem with Clara's departure, but I'll go into a bit more detail on that further down.
     The episode's weirdest concession to the Christmas spirit was the appearance of Nick Frost as Father Christmas, at first pushing the "the fiction is real" argument like back in Robots of Sherwood and then thankfully transforming him into a shared avatar of hope and goodwill within the dreamers' minds. I wasn't that confident of Frost's performance initially, but once it transformed into something more outwardly comical, his cheeky and off-kilter delivery of the cliched Santa lines actually gave me a few chuckles. At the same time, he was able to deliver a few warm moments too. The same can't be said for his two sidekicks, Ian and Wolf, who were both unnecessary - even if it was nice to see Nathan McMullen in something now that Misfits has finished.
Capaldi was on fine form and provided the best performance
of the episode. From the BBC

     Character wise, this week was a continuation of the themes from the finale, with The Doctor and Clara's mutual closing lies being revealed to one another fairly early on and going on to have an important part in the story. While it felt rather unnecessary to carry on their partnership, it was nice to see those issues actually covered, and for the rest of the episode the pair were written in a surprisingly sensitive and enjoyable manor. The scene with the aged Clara, replaying out a particular scene from Time of the Doctor, was quite heartfelt and touching, and would have made an excellent finale for the character of Clara. But Jenna Louise-Coleman decided to stay on, so that was shelved and it was just another dream. I was disappointed by that, especially as that extra layer confused the nature of the episode's supporting cast, who were all given fairly effective micro-characterisations. Despite that annoyance, Capaldi and Coleman are on top form as always, as they have been for the rest of the series.
    I'm still not fully on board with Moffat, but this episode marks the close of a season much improved on the last. It feels like Moffat and his writers have been working on their criticisms - sometimes to good effect, sometimes not. Last Christmas was that same mix of surprising quality in some places and uneasy decisions in others, but Im I'm so much more invested in these characters that I'll actually be looking forward to next season instead of just watching it out of tradition.


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