What do you want for Christmas?
By the end of “Death in Heaven,” the finale of Peter Capaldi’s inaugural turn as our favorite Gallifreyan gadabout, I was more or less a quivering heap in the corner, watching the Doctor and Clara going their separate ways, each putting on a brave face for the other when in reality their hearts, along with ours, were cracking. And as the Doctor begins to move on, we’re all dying inside. SOMEBODY DO SOMETHING!!! And then someone knocks on the TARDIS door.
“Doctor! You know it can’t end like that! We need to get this sorted and quickly. She’s not all right, you know. And neither are you. I’m coming in.”
And as a giant flashing neon WTF? goes dancing across Capaldi’s eyebrows, the door to the TARDIS opens, a chill wind blows snow across the Doctor’s seriously confounded visage. “Now, stop gawping, and tell me…”—and we cut to the Doctor’s POV and see Santa Claus (Nick Frost, Hot Fuzz) looking right at us—“what do you want for Christmas?” That line, addressed to the Doctor and audience alike, is the sort of narrative cleverness that Steven Moffat has more or less made his stock in trade. When it works, it works brilliantly; when it doesn’t, the audience starts muttering how Moffat isn’t nearly as clever as he thinks he is, and how maybe the show needs new blood. This time, it works quite well—in no small measure because it comes fast on the heels of a conclusion that riffs on O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, with both the Doctor and Clara sacrificing for the other.
Ever since Doctor Who returned to the airwaves in 2005, the series has invested a lot of time and effort into the emotional bond between the Doctor and his companions. At times, it got a little out of hand, with hints of romance popping up all over the place. Peter Capaldi came in, in part, to put a stop to that. While Capaldi’s first season as the Doctor was initially off putting, he quickly won me over. Gone were the cute posturings of the previous two Doctors—both of whom I enjoyed, but a change was definitely needed. He’s still somewhat arrogant, but at the same time full of self-doubt, as evidenced by the “Am I a good man?” theme running through the season. And while the undercurrent of romance was blessedly swept away, the deep emotional bond between the two remains—which is why the ending of the season was so devastating and why the above teaser does such a fantastic job of lulling us into the Christmas Special. What the Doctor, what all of us want for Christmas is for these two crazy kids to get back together.
And that’s how this year’s Christmas special, “Last Christmas”, operates: it knows where you want to go and it takes you there. Just because Moffat never hesitates at going all in with his meta-tropes, that’s also how the special’s monsters, the Dream Crabs, operate. Looking not unlike a facehugger from Alien, a Dream Crab clamps onto your face and induces a heavy REM state to keep you occupied with a happy, happy dream…while it inserts a straw into you skull and slowly consumes your brain. It’s the sort of thing Moffat loves—witness the hordes of other monsters that attack you through dreams or fears.
Here, Moffat uses the conceit beautifully, tossing out nods to Alien, Inception, The Thing, and countless others, working in multiple narrative fakes to keep everyone guessing. At the center of it all is Clara’s dream—a Christmas reunion with Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson, The History Boys). Nick Frost’s turn as Father Christmas is particularly inspired; he goes toe to toe with the Doctor, matching snark for snark, playing the character just unbalanced enough that it’s never quite clear if he’s legit, or if he’s a product of everyone’s collective unconsciousness. The supporting cast is solid; the two that really caught my eye were Maureen Beattie (who gets a lovely reveal at the end) and Michael Troughton, son of the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton.
The special, ultimately, does its job—allowing Clara to come to terms with Danny’s death, as well as bidding him a proper farewell. It’s a resolution that feels earned, not just some screenwriting sleight of hand. And it reunites the Doctor and Clara. There was speculation that Jenna Coleman was considering leaving the show, and that her last-minute change of heart is what really drove the episode. I dunno if that’s true or not, but the episode pulls a wonderful misdirect late in the episode to make us think that Clara’s traveling days are done. It’s a delightful sequence, in no small part because of how Capaldi plays the scene. Not everyone can buy into Moffat’s particular brand of storytelling, but if you do, it’s a solid ride.
The DVD has a solid transfer, with consistent colors throughout; the CGI get a bit wobbly at times, but it really wouldn’t be Doctor Who without some dodgy special effects. The surround audio track is fairly strong—there are opportunities aplenty to work with the sound field, between Clara’s roof and the Arctic research station at the North Pole.
The extras are comprised of a 10-minute “making of “featurette” as well as a commentary track with director Paul Wilmhurst and producer Paul Frift. It’s engaging at times, with a lot of behind the scenes info, I just wish that at least one of the cast members had been included.