Sunday, December 25, 2016


Doctor Who 52: 06 – Ten Reasons to Watch Last Christmas

Introducing Doctor Who – Last Christmas

Tonight will be Doctor Who’s next Christmas, for this Christmas! If you find Christmas a nightmare, it’s time first to watch Last Christmas, where the Doctor meets Father Christmas – or does he? – and some aliens – or does he? – a bit like the Alien (shh, he mentioned it once but he might have got away with it) – and is trapped within dreams within dreams, a bit like Inception – or is he (spoiler: yes)? If it sounds too disturbing for Christmas, it’s also got some of Doctor Who’s zingiest one-liners, cracking dialogue. Christmas crackers, if you will. Too soon? Or too late? Because Last Christmas is actually from the Christmas before last now.

If you want last Christmas’ Doctor Who, which wasn’t Last Christmas but The Husbands of River Song, my husband Richard has a present for you – freshly delivered, his review. My Ten Reasons here were originally planned for last Christmas, when Last Christmas would in fact have been last Christmas. You see? It would have been immensely amusing. Well, cracker-standard, anyway. Before you grab a shepherd’s crook from the nearest nativity play or panto to pull me off the stage, there’s one more thing I should say in this introduction. I originally started these as a celebration of Doctor Who’s fifty-second anniversary, because the number suggested a year-round set of articles. That went off the rails along with my health. Although my health is if anything even poorer right now, I started again this November and am currently not so very far off target (I’m as surprised as you are). All the blog posts I’ve published in this series since then have been ones that I originally wrote last year, which I’ve re-read, rewritten and republished as Special Editions. I’ve actually now come to the one that I aimed to write last Christmas but wasn’t able to. Which means that, in a mind-bending twist, Christmas is the first time this is original programming and not a repeat. It’s all new today. Wish me luck for the rest.

Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski talked about sci-fi series having “Wham episodes”. He doesn’t mean this. It’s good, though.

Ten Reasons To Watch Last Christmas (warning: spoilers lower down the list)

1 – It’s Christmas!

And Christmas is always a day for Doctor Who now. This evening the twelfth Doctor Who Christmas special in a row will be part of BBC1’s festive line-up, so it seemed appropriate to choose one of the Twelfth. Last Christmas is an entertaining Christmas tale, funny, scary (a traditional Christmas horror story), and something to put you off your Christmas dinner – and, for me, easily the best of them since the very first official Christmas special, The Christmas Invasion. I’d better stop typing the word “Christmas” because at this point in the afternoon your eyes are probably already swimming as everything seems to be just Christmas, Christmas, Bloody Christmas (no, that’s TV Smith, not TV) and this won’t be helping. Some of you will be pointing out that there have been countless other, er, Yuletide specials in the worlds of Doctor Who, from Short Trips to audio adventures all the way back to A Girl’s Best Friend and The Feast of Steven, but casual readers will be too drunk to cope with that all right now and that’s my excuse. Anyway, that’s what Google is for.

I wonder if even Steven Moffat realised he’d pulled off a cracker, as the final scene of this one has not one but two callbacks to The Christmas Invasion… Oh no! I said the word. Better move on.

2 – The Doctor.

I love Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, and one of the reasons I so enjoy Last Christmas is that he gives here the most festively themed Doctor performance of all. More on that in a moment.

I was worried in a different way to the usual about the new Doctor when Mr Capaldi was announced for the part. In the past it’s been whether the actor would be right for it and waiting on tenterhooks for their first episode – though I loved Matt Smith from his prime-time interview being announced in the part onwards. But that very day I talked about my fantasy ‘any actor in all of space and time’ casting, too, and they were considerably older than Matt. There’s at least something I love about each Doctor, and my ‘favourites’ among the twelve – thirteen – fourteen – more – keep shifting, but for some years now, my absolute favourite Doctor’s been William Hartnell, and my preference instinctively for someone old, authoritative but unpredictable, acerbic but funny. I’d timescoop Graham Crowden – ironically once offered the role, but he turned it down and was too young anyway – for something like the demented majesty of A Very Peculiar Practice’s Dr Jock McCannon mixed with the child-like enthusiasm of his Tom in Waiting For God. Or go back further and take Alastair Sim (his extraordinary Inspector Poole often makes me wish for a Doctor Who reimagination of An Inspector Calls with Sylvester McCoy’s slightly sinister Time Lord). Coincidentally, my Grandad was rather dashing, came from Glasgow and was both testy and sparkling and I loved him very much. But, I’d keep reminding myself with every new Doctor, the Doctor doesn’t have to be a Scottish actor I’ve thought brilliant for years and who’s just at the right age to be crotchety with a twinkle.

And then they only went and cast bloody Peter Capaldi. This time I was terrified because he seemed just too perfect to be true and it could only go wrong. But you know what? He is nearly perfect after all. And going back to the famous Alastair Sim role inevitably shown again just yesterday, it is impossible to find a better Doctor for the Christmas special than the one who every time is a viper-tongued grouch before he throws everything he has into saving someone else (“There was only one way to get to you…”) and discovers joy all over again (“Yes, but – do you want a go…?”).

Peter Capaldi’s Doctor has always played Scrooge.

3 – Alien.
“They’re a bit like Facehuggers, aren’t they?”
“Face… huggers?”
“Yeah, you know. Alien. The horror movie, Alien.”
“There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.”
Of all the brilliant lines in Last Christmas, this is the one that never fails to crack me up. Especially the Doctor’s face going from incomprehension to being utterly appalled.

4 – Father Christmas.
“There’s not just one Santa delivery team. How could there be? There are five hundred and twenty six million four hundred and three thousand and twelve children all expecting presents before tomorrow morning. So, hmm, that’s twenty-two million children per hour. It’s impossible!
“Obviously, I’ve got a second sledge.”
This year, going all-out for Christmas, it’s the big one – Santa Claus himself (or is he? etc). Nick Frost is utterly brilliant in the role, showing no signs of his usual casting as the dim but well-meaning hot bear (here at the Pole!) best friend, nor of the fear that surely any actor must suffer on being given a role with double nominative determinism. Nick is serious, powerful and only occasionally jolly. And with Dan Starkey (nearly naked from the neck up) and Nathan McMullan (grubby superhero – no relation to tonight) his equally perfectly-cast elves, the sexy one and the sassy one – your mileage may vary on which is which – Santa has assembled a perfect comic team. Because for all the Christmas spirit, drama, hero reindeer neigh, moral of the story and even army of slinkies, what really makes them and makes the episode is all the zingers.
“OK. No. Hang on. Stop. Shut up. What? Seriously, you – you’re Father Christmas. You’re – real.”
“Of course I’m real. Ho, ho, ho!”
“How could he not be real?”
“Huh? How do you think those presents got under the tree every year? By magic?”
“Well, I thought it was my Mum and—”
“Mum and Dad?”
[Derisive cheers and applause]
“Well, of course it was.”
“I mean, it makes perfect sense.”
“Yeah, your Mum and Dad, one day a year, for no particular reason, just out of the blue, suddenly decide to give you a great big pile of presents.”
“No, no, no. Because they love you so much. It’s a lovely story, dear.”
“Yeah, but it’s time to start living in the real world.”
It’s probably my favourite Doctor Who story for Steven Moffat comic dialogue.
“Not often we get upstaged on a rooftop.”

5 – The Dream Crabs.

One of the most ickily successful monsters of recent years, both conceptually and visually horrible, creatures that envelop your head and feed on your brain while twisting it into mind-bending dreams within dreams. They do, as has been noted, look rather like Facehuggers, and that’s not the only way in which they’re familiar, but they’re a terrific monster for all that.

They wriggle when you think of them, they leap from the ceiling on gooey strands, they tie your psyche up in knots. They have the extra-disturbing level in our household that – bear with me on this. You see, there’s another famous Doctor Who monster that’s a sort of crab that messes with your head and which may not be real. The Macra first appeared in 1967’s The Macra Terror with Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, but we saw them again with David Tennant in Gridlock (both brilliant stories, by the way). That 2007 episode was the first to use the season’s big new epic piece of music, known on soundtrack releases as All the Strange, Strange Creatures but always to Richard and me as ‘Dance of the Macra’. But only to us. No-one else has ever called it that. So when Santa Claus comes to save everyone from them one last time and his ‘hero theme’ sounds an awful lot like ‘Dance of the Macra (Reprise)’ after several years away to fight more crabs, that feels disturbingly like someone’s messing with our own reality. As long as none of the characters are revealed to be a dream that’s actually something like an account manager for a perfume company…

Just because we’re told they look like something out of Alien, though, doesn’t mean we have to take something out of a dream’s word for it. Look at the Dream Crabs. Horrid scary alien egg-heads. Eggs? Doesn’t that make them a bit Easter? No. Focus. What is it that always comes back at Christmas to terrify everyone yet, like all good horror, exerts a strange fascination? Grey-green. Gnarled. Round.

They. Are. Sprouts.
“We know Dream Crabs are still on Earth.”
“There are lots of dangerous things on this funny little planet of yours, Clara, most of which you eat.”

6 – Clara gets some closure.
“Clara? Page number. Make it a good one.”
But not as much as you might expect.

This was, infamously, her last Christmas, the episode where she was going to go out, at last a Moffat-era companion letting go… Then going on, again. The touching last dream would have been a far better exit than she got, but I can’t begrudge it for all the marvellous moments she then got in between (before, at the last, being left dangling in between).

I loved the 2014 Doctor Who season – Season Thirty-Four or Series Eight, according to taste – and it’s by some way for me the best season since Steven Moffat took over. There are several reasons: Peter Capaldi being immediately marvellous as the Doctor; some terrific episodes from beginning to end (if not every single one in the middle); and Jenna Coleman and Clara suddenly becoming far more interesting. But no season’s perfect. It’s left dangling awkwardly for both the Doctor and Clara, and this Christmas special helps bring them both back together, telling the truth to each other at last, providing both an end to one strand of their relationship and the beginning of a better one.

That year was also defined by the other relationships for each of them. Two other people, neither quite in every story but both threaded throughout, both seeing themselves as the life partner of one of our heroes, both unable to see just why Clara or the Doctor didn’t fit in with exactly how they obviously ought to be, each finding ways to force them into the right shape. Missy is a terrible force for evil. Danny’s just a bit of a git. I found it much easier to enjoy Missy than Danny Pink. Perhaps this is because I enjoy a massive, deliciously evil villain, because I know where I stand with them, and so does everyone else watching, and so does the Doctor. But I’m not at all sure that the writers didn’t think Danny was a hero and a nice guy and a good catch, even as he bullied and blackmailed and controlled Clara in a very banally ordinary way and she went along with it. So one thing I like about Danny is that, here, he’s not that bad. Because he’s a dream. And Clara’s idealised version of him lets her let go. And she teeters, but decides to leave the dream of a nice Danny and live.

Besides, if Clara had left here we’d never have seen what a fantastic relationship she gets to have with Missy next time. Well, fantastic from Missy’s perspective, anyway. Maybe Thelma and Louise to Clara, Tom and Jerry to Missy. And totally exterminating hilarious. Plus (as – spoiler – she survived) – far healthier than the relationship with Mr Pink.
“Oh, that noise! Never knew how much I loved it.”

7 – It’s a Moffat Selection Box.

What could be more Christmassy than being given the selection box, with just a little sweetie of each flavour, not enough to make you sick, or the greatest hits album, all the better tracks at single edit length so you don’t start skipping them?

Once upon a time, Steven Moffat was best-known as a sit-com writer with funny dialogue and intricate farce. He moved on to Doctor Who and became much better known for scary stories and intricate time-travel puzzles, and then for doing much of that over and again in several combinations. Last Christmas is a remarkable piece of television for several reasons, but one of the reasons that most appeals to me is that it presents some incredibly familiar Steven-Moffatiness and makes it fresh and likeable again. Perhaps because it’s all done in an hour. Perhaps because of the utter confidence it’s done with. But mostly, I think, because for the first time in his Doctor Who work, he rediscovers his sit-com roots not in the relationships but in the sheer blizzard of one-liners he lets loose. For all that this looks dark and has so much about death, at heart the story appeals to me because just this once Mr Moffat does funny again.

A perfect life for the straight couple, but it’s not real– today, in dreams. An everyday experience weaponised to make you neurotic – today, in dreams. And also, in ice cream! But which flavour Cornetto? A terrible scary new monster that you forget about or that appears when you think about it, and third go the Dream Sprouts are so much more fun and so much more horrible than the Silents, aren’t they? But new to Doctor Who, if not to Mr Moffat’s early work, Santa and the elves and zinger after zinger. It may not be quite the very best episode he’s written, but one especially good reason to watch it is if you want a story that shows off his writing to all his different strengths.
“The North Pole isn’t an actual pole.”
“Course it is. Look.”
“If it was an actual pole, it would not be stripy.”
“It’s got to be stripy.”
“Otherwise, you couldn’t see it moving round.”
“Mmm. It’s actually basic physics.”
Even the obligatory meta-reference to Doctor Who itself as a TV show and cultural phenomenon – well, one of them, anyway – is repurposed into a gag about some of the reaction to casting an older Doctor:
“Urrghh! …We’ve – we’ve got ghosts!”
“Yeah – yeah – it’s a skeleton man and a girl in a nightie!”

8 – It’s beginning to look a lot like Troughton.

An isolated base, in the ice, a team of scientists, appalling monsters, in the darkness, laying siege… And even a Troughton! Since its return to TV in 2005, Doctor Who has intriguingly reimagined and borrowed from and made a total dog’s Christmas dinner of and hauled off the back of the lorry elements from all periods and formats of the series, but some writers have been more drawn to some histories than others. Russell T Davies was especially eclectic, but kept coming back to the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker eras, and to storylines from the Eighth Doctor novels; for Steven Moffat, there’s often a feeling of Patrick Troughton, perhaps with a dash of Sylvester McCoy (and the same Paul McGann novels lovingly ripped off).

Last Christmas both revels in and sends up the much-repeated Second Doctor trope of the ‘base under siege’, and does it brilliantly (so much so that when another one comes along in a couple of stories’ time it looks pre-ridiculed before we even have a chance to ridicule it on its own merits). That format is one reviewers particularly identify with Season Five of the show, and the season in which much of that Season took place was, as here, Winter. Michael Troughton makes his first appearance in TV Doctor Who – though he’s acted in Big Finish’s audio adventures – and as a “Professor”, one who even interacts with a TV screen in the way his father’s Doctor often did (though with less happy results). The Doctor tells everyone to run, and sets off with a moment of Chaplinesque physical awkwardness. Monsters rise from hospital beds, as they did in The Moonbase and Mr Moffat’s own The Empty Child – though what seems like a reference to the earlier story in Clara not in fact fetching a cup of tea for the Doctor seems to misunderstand what happened there with Polly and the coffee

9 – But is it real?*
“You know what the big problem is in telling fantasy and reality apart?”
“They’re both ridiculous.”
Yes, it’s another of those tales that asks about the nature of reality and dreams and layer upon layer – and both script and direction do all that rather well. There are very effective shocks as people wake up from one dream only into another, but there’s more to it than making you jump. Father Christmas gets to be a metaphor for both religion and the Doctor – is the Doctor now as much a part of Christmas as Santa? That’s what the BBC is banking on. And are either real? And does that matter? Why should you ever stop believing, if it widens your life and might help you escape from it? As is, my husband muses, especially if this is all the Doctor’s dream, Santa Claus yet another aspect of the Doctor? He even has a disguise that’s become a bit of a trademark. He even does the science bit. Until he’s told not to.

Santa gets to interrupt the opening titles – or at least Nick Frost does – after interrupting the previous story’s end titles by waking the Doctor to cheer him up and stop him leaving things badly with Clara. So perhaps it’s all a dream. But within this story, the Doctor and Clara do indeed start telling each other the truth. So isn’t it…?

*Technically, no. It’s a story. Shh.

10 – “Yippee ai-yay…!”

The story ends with a beautiful scene of the Doctor helping Santa deliver everyone the presence of themselves back home for Christmas, swooping about the landmarks of London and, in surprisingly un-Christmassy turn, not destroying any of them.
“Hey. You want to take the reins, Doctor?”
“You’re a dream construct. Currently representing either my recovering or expiring mind.”
“Yes, but – do you want a go?”
“Yeah. All right. …Look at me! I’m riding a sleigh. I’m riding a sleigh. Yippee ai-yay!”
The unfolding joy on the Doctor’s face is wondrous to behold. The sleigh taking everyone home at the end of what may be a dream recalls The Box of Delights. But the Doctor’s cry of delight always brings to mind something else for me, a metatextual reference that I can’t be certain isn’t deliberate.

At the time Peter Capaldi was announced as the new Doctor, he’d been a fantastic actor across many parts and several decades, but he’d become a household name for one role. Malcolm Tucker, the impossibly aggressive Labour spin doctor from political satire The Thick of It, the most explosively sweary man in the history of television and whose vocabulary is as far from the occasional gentle reference to the Doctor swearing in an obscure Martian dialect as could be. Months of hilarious redubbing of Doctor Who scenes with Tuckerisms spread across YouTube (no, really, some were funny, but definitely not for parents). Because of course the Doctor would never, ever say such things.

Yet every time I watch Peter Capaldi dashing through the sky, it is impossible to expunge from my brain a bit of Tucker as his line continues into the famous seasonal benediction from that most wholesome of family Christmas movies, Die Hard:
“Yippee ki yay, mo—”
[Hurriedly queue theme from Blackadder’s Christmas Carol]

What Else Should I Tell You About Last Christmas?

Spoilers – in more than one sense – because there’s always someone at the big family Christmas dinner who says something that makes you wince and wonder what decade they’re living in. I like several of the women characters here, and that there are several women characters here. The only person who doesn’t get much of a character and ends up dead is (spoilers) the only man on the base. So far, so feminist. Except that… The first time I watched Last Christmas, I was appreciating the mix of ages and characters among the women scientists, and then remember suddenly shouting some Tuckerism as the rug was suddenly pulled.

Taking the mickey out of Troughton is one thing. But one of the problems with Second Doctor stories set in isolated bases with teams of scientists is that, while the teams were usually quite diverse in terms of nationality and even race, they tended all to be men. By the end, the Doctor’s “You don’t seem much like a scientist” turns queasily from a slightly crass line to something queasily like sexual determinism. When people say ‘You don’t look like a scientist / footballer / President’ to a woman, it tends not to be because it’s that particular woman.
“I thought I was a scientist. That’s rubbish.”
“Finally, something that makes sense.”
It turns out that the base under siege isn’t real. But of course neither is the idea of a woman scientist. And because, in retrospect, the only one of the team we don’t find out is not a scientist is the man (even though it’s probably because he doesn’t survive long enough for us to see his real life). Which leaves an awkward feeling that, in all the silly dream of Troughton bases, the only bit that these bases got right is that it’s a silly dream to imagine there could have been any female scientists in them.

Then there’s the Doctor’s line about “texting women of low moral character”. Yes, it’s something to wind Clara up, deliberately. But it’s rather like the Doctor being appalled at a man’s internet browsing history and telling him to get a girlfriend back in The Eleventh Hour. In almost every other writer’s hands, the Doctor encourages difference and making your own mind up, and is more often than not a little baffled by other people’s sexuality, but never judgmental. I think Mr Moffat tries. I really do. And he often gets it right. But so often his Doctor just sounds like he’s telling everyone not to find their own way of life, but to follow the one that Mr Moffat has simply found is the best, so why wouldn’t you? It’s not heteronormativity: it’s just his normativity. And anyone who thinks that’s the point of Doctor Who is for me missing the point by so far I can barely countenance it.

But then there’s the Doctor’s relationship with Clara, which doesn’t feel like that at all, and which seems to me that Mr Moffat has really thought about – not least the way the Doctor’s mean when he tries to be kind and kind when he tries to be mean about her, especially her face. One of the reasons I think that scene near the surface of the sea of dreams would have made such an appropriate exit for Clara is that he’s always seen her with a different eye, and even here he still can’t tell how old she is or how to judge her ‘looks’, and that she doesn’t care either.

And, if you need one, my score:


If You Like Last Christmas, Why Not Try…

The Return of Doctor Mysterio, on BBC1 (or wherever you are) today at 17.45! It’s Christmas. There’s a Christmas special. I know next to nothing about it. Yippee ai-yay!

The Unquiet Dead. Doctor Who’s Christmas special from April 2005, before they knew the series would be a big enough hit to survive, let alone become a shining Christmas BBC star. Simon Callow is Charles Dickens. The yellow and blue gaslight glow suffusing the whole thing makes it an exceptionally beautiful piece of television. And it received just about the single best review Doctor Who has had in its entire history (as well as one pointing out a problem with its ‘no room at the inn’ attitude that you may have to search harder for).

And from actual last Christmas, a rather fun piece of new Doctor Who for Christmas 2015, where the Twelfth Doctor starts off on his own and is joined in an unexpected guest turn by everyone’s favourite time-travelling archaeologist, someone who’s been a big part in and out of the Doctor’s past, introducing herself with one of my favourite ever Doctor Who multiple-meaning in-joke lines, I recommend…

Big Bang Generation, by Gary Russell, available in all good bookshops.

And The Husbands of River Song is quite entertaining, too. It does, as my husband points out, have rather more decapitations than most screwball comedies, but’s it probably my favourite adventure with River Song. I’m ever so glad I’m Richard’s husband instead, though.

Next Time…

I’ve had to make my series travel in time to write this for Christmas, so once again next time, or previously if you’re pedantically reading them in order (I so hope you do, I’m an appalling pedant and it would make my Christmas): The next tale I have planned is a heart-warming nativity story… And there’s still no such thing as a final evolutionary form, but who’s going to tell them that?

Or, properly… An older and much younger Doctor discovers joy again in one of the series’ most Dickensian tales with absolutely no questions of whether any monsters or people are real.

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We were both shocked and upset last night when news broke that George Michael had died. Though it's been a tonic to read today how someone who so openly celebrated sex and breaking norms in his life had a secret life no-one was allowed to mention - apparently one of the biggest anonymous celebrity givers to charity that anyone in the business ever met.

So I thought about the awful timing of this piece, and about maybe taking out the "Wham" line, but I'd rather remember.
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