Andy Gogarty reviews the dreamy Doctor Who Special
This year’s Christmas special saw the return of many tropes typical of a Moffat, the writer and producer of Doctor Who, story.
First, we have a companion spending the whole episode in a nightie – harking back to early in the Pond era. Secondly, the general rules for surviving Moffat monsters have remained consistent – ‘don’t blink, breathe, look, listen,’ and now we can add ‘don’t think’ to the collection. Finally, and most typically, the usual references to fairy-tales and legends are continued.
Classic and popular science-fiction provided plenty of noticeable influences; the face-hugging Kantrofarri (a.k.a ‘dream crabs’) were reminiscent of the Xenomorphs in the Alien franchise, the icy, claustrophobic setting reminded one of The Thing from Another World, and the premise was very similar to Inception. Nonetheless, despite all these familiar ingredients, this episode was engaging, creepy and fresh.
The Christmas special finds the Doctor and Clara at the North Pole, where a research base is struggling to deal with a ‘dream crab’ infestation. The design of the Kantrofarri is well realised, maintaining a keen sense of repulsiveness while steering clear of Giger’s original horrors (this is a family show, after all). Rather than impregnating its’ victims, Kantrofarri cause a cosy dream state while they gorge on the dozy brain of their unlucky prey. Right when things are going south, Father Christmas conveniently pops up.
Santa Claus and his elf entourage, led impressively by guest star Nick Frost, bring the Christmas cheer and comic relief this episode needs. After the tragic events of the series finale, there was always a danger of a festive hour becoming a very dark and grim affair, or ignoring the consequences on the characters completely. Fortunately, a good balance is found. We are shown that the Doctor and Clara are still reeling from their goodbye at the end of the last series, but it isn’t dwelled on too much. The dream states become a useful outlet to show the effects of the finale, while the rest of the episode can focus on the increasingly intriguing plot.
The base staff is fairly well developed, including guest star Michael Troughton, the son of a certain Patrick Troughton, who played the second Doctor in the 1960s. Even so, most of the focus was aimed towards the character Shona McCullough. This was so persistent you’d be forgiven for thinking she was destined to become the next companion. Rumours of Jenna Coleman leaving this Christmas were widespread, and many thought this was to be her last outing in the TARDIS. As it appears Coleman really was unsure; it seems clear the ending of this episode was structured specifically so it could be altered quickly.
This episode forms obvious parallels, not only to other works, but from the series’ own past. Dreams have been used before as an engaging premise or plot device ( see 5.07 – Amy’s Choice and 7.13 – The Name of the Doctor). However, the most important references point towards last year’s Christmas special, The Time of the Doctor which saw the end of the 11th Doctor’s time in the TARDIS. Capaldi’s incarnation is shown helping an aged and dying Clara with a Christmas cracker, just like she helped the aging Doctor last Christmas. This seems to conclude a key part in Clara’s developmental arc, where she has grown to understand and accept the new Doctor by walking in his shoes. Seeing Clara’s character grow far more interesting in the last year, it would have been a shame to see Coleman walk out.
Although this special is mostly successful, the show still suffers from familiar pitfalls. The amount of times Clara has appeared to die, only to be immediately resurrected, has become far too many, only serving to cheapen the drama. The same mistakes were made with Rose Tyler and Rory Williams, and we may now be seeing it creeping into Moffat’s other brainchild, Sherlock.
All in all, Last Christmas still remains the most satisfying Christmas special to date. Instead of going for a throwaway story, this ties in with the arcs from earlier in the series. It has a number of memorable scenes, a top notch guest cast and ends on a high note. A few episodes last series lacked consistent writing or even a decent threat, and with the filming of series nine beginning this month, one hopes this type of episode sets the standard: genuinely threatening monsters, sensible yet adventurous writing, and a convincing guest cast. Long may it continue.
Featured image credit: David Venni/BBC via cnet