Last Christmas makes a distinct departure from Christmas specials in previous years. The annual seasonal romp in Christmases past has been either fluffy, frivolous “Who-lite” (The Runaway Bride, A Christmas Carol, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe) or a regeneration story with Christmas elements tacked on (The Christmas Invasion, The End of Time, The Time of the Doctor). This is neither, notwithstanding the presence of Santa Claus, Christmas elves and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This is a proper, scary, traditional Doctor Who thriller. It’s a base-under-siege with terrifying monsters and an absorbing psychological twist. It’s very much standard fare Doctor Who, and especially standard fare Moffat Who. It could easily have been an episode in the ordinary series, and a well-received one at that. Although I love the fluffy, overtly Christmassy specials, this makes for a bracing, thrilling change-up, and, although I think A Christmas Carol remains the best Christmas special yet, I enjoyed this one so much it became my instant favourite.
The biggest distinction between this special and previous (non-regeneration) specials is the presence of a threat that feels tangible rather than throwaway. It certainly feels like a lot of care went into the construction of this story, and particularly into the psychological conceit at its heart: the “dream state” induced by the horrific Dream Crabs. I love a good psychological thriller of the likes of Blink, Midnight and Listen, which is why I was sat bolt upright, totally absorbed by this episode. The Dream Crabs are a genuinely frightening and repeatable new monster, and they definitely incite a real sense of claustrophobia and terror, and make for a convincing threat. I thought they were ingeniously conceived, as good as any of Moffat’s creature creations. The only doubt I have about them is that, if they’re used again in the future, they might give writers licence to deploy the dreaded “and they woke up and it was all a dream” get-out card to undo events. Nonetheless, I loved the Inception-ness of it all; this episode actually did something really effective with the idea of dreams-within-dreams that Inception didn’t do: you never actually knew at any point (except when it was made explicit in Clara’s dream) whether the characters were dreaming or not. I, at least, found that really gripping.
I think the real highlight of this episode, though, was Nick Frost as Santa Claus. What a masterstroke of casting that was. Nick Frost’s interpretation of Santa was a hilarious cross between a mob boss and Jack Whitehall. I know I said this about Robot of Sherwood, but I take it back: this is the Doctor Who story that made me laugh more than any other. Every time Frost opened his mouth I couldn’t help guffawing. Same goes with the elves. From the moment Santa appears on Clara’s roof, he exudes comedic energy (“How did you recognise me?”). There are so many quotable lines in this episode, particularly those from Shona’s interrogation of Santa, where Santa comes across as though he’s intentionally trolling the increasingly bewildered girl: “Obviously, I’ve got a second sledge”, “It’s a scientific impossibility. That is why I feed mine magic carrots.” Also: “It’s bigger on the inside.” Classic. The comedy of Nick Frost’s Santa and his elves appropriately lighten the mood enormously of what could otherwise been an episode too dark and heavy for a Christmas evening. I also loved the rivalry between the Doctor and Santa. Peter Capaldi and Nick Frost, two great comedy actors, were a terrific joy to watch together.
Inevitably, the episode made time for the emotional fallout from the end of the finale. The critical moment was when the Doctor and Clara both admitted they lied to each other for the other’s good, prompting them both to wistful rumination. Moreover, Clara’s dream, inhabited by a romanticised Danny, had a distinct melancholy about it, even before the Doctor showed up and ruined the party. In any case, Clara and Danny were given the touching farewell they deserved; it felt like the fitting end to that onscreen relationship, that chapter to Clara’s life. The teasing of Clara’s exit at the end was a real emotional merry-go-round. It was a profoundly beautiful scene, and, if the Doctor and Clara’s relationship had ended there (as was originally planned, before Jenna changed her mind), it would have been perfect. But the euphoric reunion of the Doctor and Clara as they run off into the Tardis again was so exhilarating that I think I prefer the real ending. Before watching this episode, I was hoping Clara would leave, but this final scene changed my mind: the sheer excitement and ecstasy of those final moments made me excited to see them both together in Series 9, presumably at ease with each other and in a much stronger, more understanding partnership than before. Roll on the new series.