You remember it. Going to bed on Christmas Eve, waiting for a big-bearded man in red to deliver the presents you’d been hoping for. Gemstones or lumps of coal, it was exciting either way. Being older is much the same story, but it’s other, less tangible gifts you wait for.
2014’s once-again-Moffat-penned Doctor Who Christmas special was like any other. Families across Britain sat down to watch it, stuffed full of food and new gifts in hands, interested to see how well the 51-year-old show could ice the Christmas cake. As it turns out, the episode was a mixed stocking – some gemstones, some coal – but it ultimately topped off Christmas Day with a feeling of more-or-less pleasant frivolity.
Titled Last Christmas, the episode followed the trend that had been well established by Steven Moffat since he became show-runner: it would include something entirely Christmassy as a central element in the plot (replacing the previous model of simply setting the episode at Christmas). Moffat’s first Christmas special featured resonating Christmas carols, his second included a magical Christmas present, and his third revolved around killer snowmen. The woeful 2013 special, Moffat’s fourth Christmas episode, was set in a place literally called Christmas.
But by the time the 2014 Christmas special came around, there weren’t many Christmassy things left, besides Santa Claus. And they couldn’t very well throw him into a science fiction story – could they?
They did. Those following Series Eight of Doctor Who will remember that the surprise cliff-hanger tacked on the end of the two-part finale introduced Nick Frost as Santa Claus. This cliff-hanger has been completely forgotten in Last Christmas, and it acts more like an introduction to the themes of the episode than the start of the new story. When we watch the fairly sloppy pre-title sequence, we see the Doctor and Santa interacting as if the Series Eight cliff-hanger never happened.
But it doesn’t matter, because the tone of the episode is generally speaking so light. Nick Frost’s Santa brings a very familiar and even predictable style of comedy to the table. It isn’t a problem if some of the logic doesn’t make sense – and it often doesn’t. It doesn’t matter if it suffers from the usual writing and production issues like misguided dialogue, predictable reactions and Clara’s delicate “I just got out of bed” make-up. The charm of Last Christmas is that in general it isn’t meant to be taken seriously, quite contrary to its preceding episodes.
Think of the 2006 episode Love & Monsters, but at Christmas. As the first comedy episode of New Who, Love & Monters bent the rules a little and didn’t care who it annoyed along the way, because heck, this was new territory. Experimenting with such a popular show takes guts, and while Love & Monsters remains one of the least popular episodes of New Who to date, it should be commended for its attempts. Unfortunately, Last Christmas isn’t owed the same commendation. While the introduction of Santa is a gutsy move, the episode suffers when it tries to be serious amongst all the play.
When the stringed orchestra kicks in, you know the show still hasn’t changed. The drama, the ever so slight implications of the show’s left-wing morality, and the hit-with-a-brick subtlety of the borrowed movie ploys (which make it possible to summarise the entire episode with two science fiction movie titles… can you guess which?). Last Christmas’s moral position on euthanasia is touched on briefly, although less obviously than the issue of abortion in the Series Eight story Kill the Moon.
The first half of the episode is a collection of these attempts at maturity, all while Frost, as competent (and comfortable, it seems) as he is in the role of Santa Claus, makes quips about tangerines and jokes about how his sleigh is bigger on the inside to accommodate all the presents.
But it’s not all bad news. There are, in fact, some scenes that remain sinister while seeming jolly – even more so than Frost’s Santa. One in particular (which stands out as a Doctor Who great) involves a character rocking her dance moves to the theme of “Merry X-Mas Everybody” by Slade. Another stunner sees Clara get menaced by blackboards in her home. It’s not as silly as it sounds.
It’s worth noting, too, that for the most part, any silliness doesn’t extend to the Doctor. You can almost see actor Peter Capaldi rolling his eyes throughout the episode, and with good reason. The silliness may be one thing, but the emoti-drama is worse. The strange, unexpected, clichéd and frankly insulting penultimate scene with Clara and the Doctor is definitely worthy of an eye-roll, especially considering how insignificant a role it plays in the overall purpose of the episode.
It has been proven again that Doctor Who does action best, and while the emotional shlock and comedy are heavy in Last Christmas, there’s some high-quality suspense too. Of course, as you would expect in such a cheesy episode, you will see a flying sleigh across the moonlit sky before all is over. Doctor Who’s budget can only stretch so far, and stretching such high production values to cover clichés like that may have been heading the production team slightly astray. We can hope that the next season (which, yes, will again feature Jenna Coleman as Clara) will remedy this. But in the meantime, judging by the latest Christmas special, we can be happy that the show has recovered since last year, and we can enjoy what’s left of our Christmas spirit knowing it wasn’t a disaster. Merry Christmas, everybody.