** Some spoilers follow**
After what I thought was a weak close to season 8, and compounded with what I thought was the wrong focus for the season (too much Clara and Danny at the expense of getting to know the new Doctor), I was trepidatious about this year’s Christmas special. But season 8 also had generally stronger writing and ideas than the last few seasons, so there was a small part of me that was hopeful, too.
The hopeful part won out, because I thought “Last Christmas” was a lot of fun. Yes, its premise was a hodgepodge of borrowed ideas — Alien, The Thing from Another World, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, the 2010 Eleventh Doctor episode “Amy’s Choice” — but I enjoyed what Steven Moffat, who wrote this episode, did with that source material. (Having Shona wake up to a to-watch list of movies — as well as “Thrones marathon,” which had me laughing — which makes these references overt actually works for the episode, not against it. It’s a very self-aware story.)
Moffat’s strength as a writer has always lied in little character moments and humor, and in “Last Christmas” we get a lot of both. The Doctor taking offense that there’s a horror movie called Alien is one of the best jokes of the episode, and pretty much everything Faye Marsay’s Shona did was great. I would welcome this character’s return to the show any time. If she became a companion, I would be very happy with that.
Moffat’s weakness as a writer, however, has always been plot logic, and “Last Christmas” suffers from that, too. Once it’s revealed the Arctic base is also a dream, the logic starts to unravel pretty fast. If the science team didn’t discover the dream crabs in a subterranean Arctic cave, then where did the crabs come from? How did they find each of these individual people? The Doctor didn’t even appear to be on Earth when he woke up from his dream-crab dreams (it looked like they were reusing the set of the volcano planet from “Dark Water”!), so how did the dream crabs get to him? The Doctor explains that he and Clara shared the dream because of their connection and that everyone else was “collateral damage,” but that doesn’t make sense. The ingredients of the dream — the Arctic setting, Santa Claus, etc. — are clearly on Shona’s mind from her list of Christmas movies, not the Doctor’s, so how did they all come together? Why, when they got too close to the people in the infirmary, did the dream crabs on their faces start to open up, as if to show them who was underneath? If that’s a defense mechanism, it doesn’t seem like an effective one. And most of all, why would the dream crabs give them dreams of being in a base under siege from the crabs themselves instead of happy dreams like Clara’s brief one with Danny, where everyone would be much more docile and easily digested? (One possible answer for this is the Doctor’s mind being mixed with everyone else’s. He’s more analytical and more used to being in bases under siege, so he unconsciously helped create the scenario. That’s just a guess, though. It’s not mentioned or suggested in the script.)
Unfortunately, Moffat’s usual ageism creeps into the story, too. After the final dream, in which Clara is an old woman, she wakes up again and immediately asks the Doctor, “Am I young?” Not “How old am I?” or even just “Hand me a mirror.” No, it’s “Am I young?” followed by a deep sigh of relief when she sees she is. It makes Clara come across as extremely shallow. Moffat also relies on his “don’t” monster idea again. We’ve had don’t blink, don’t breathe, don’t look at it, and now we have don’t think about them. (Although, to be fair, we kind of had that already in “Time Heist,” too.) I would be happy to see him get rid of both these tropes for good.
But mostly I liked “Last Christmas,” and the biggest reason why is that it let the Doctor be the Doctor. One of my main complaints about season 8 is that after a very strong first half, it A) started relegating the Doctor to the background of many of the episodes, and B) lost track of who the Doctor was, to the point where he was acting like a different person from episode the episode. “Last Christmas” lets him be the Doctor again: smart, funny, methodical, and a bit persnickety. Gone is the manic lunatic of “The Caretaker” and the unnecessarily manipulative asshole of “Kill the Moon.” Gone and good riddance, say I! Letting the Doctor be the Doctor again is the smartest thing Moffat could have done with this episode. It gets me excited about season 9 after “Dark Water”/”Death in Heaven” made me wonder if I should just stop watching Doctor Who altogether.
But the bulk of the strength of “Last Christmas” is thanks to Peter Capaldi. He is exceptional as the Doctor, and when the scripts actually let him be the Doctor he shines. I’m less excited about Clara staying on as the companion, but now that she and the Doctor have finally been honest with each other about Danny and Gallifrey, respectively, I like their rapport again. (The whole lying-to-each-other thing never should have happened in the first place. It felt incredibly forced.) Maybe next season will allow them to actually be Doctor and companion instead of Doctor and occasional travel buddy. (And maybe next year they can actually start looking for Gallifrey. Wasn’t that what he was going to do ever since the end of “The Day of the Doctor”? Come on, already, let’s do that!)
“Last Christmas” isn’t without its flaws, but it’s lightyears ahead of last year’s craptastic Christmas special “The Time of the Doctor.” Mostly, it leaves me eager to see where Doctor Who goes next season, which I didn’t think I would be.