Like the last couple of Doctor Who Christmas specials, this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special come with some intrigue for the series going forward. Last year’s saw the denouement of the Eleventh Doctor and the introduction of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor.
This year, the intrigue was all about Clara. Lead actors and actresses on Doctor Who haven’t been particularly long-lived on the show with Amy and Rory being the longest tenured at two-and-a-half season. So while we were all hoping for a happy Christmas story, the whole episode would be about the mystery contract status of Jenna Coleman.
While the departure of past Doctors and companions haven’t been kept much of a secret since the show exploded in popularity during David Tennant’s time at the helm of the TARDIS, the future plans for Clara had been kept secret by everyone involved in the show. It couldn’t have been a small task as Doctor Who is one of the BBC’s most profitable properties and because table reads for Season Nine started the week before Christmas.
To his credit, Moffat used the uncertainty over Coleman’s future on the show as the crux of the episode’s drama. While we were waiting to see how Amy and Rory were getting written off the show last year, no one knew what would happen to Clara until it actually happened. It’s such a rare dramatic device because the entertainment press lets us know about cast changes forever in advance. The rarity of such a circumstance made its use here great.
And Moffat didn’t just use Clara’s future as a dramatic advice. Even though this is a Christmas special, we got a mix of the classic Moffat horror with the whimsical holiday adventure.
As he is wont to do, Moffat took the opportunity to make kids scared of an everyday thing in the middle of a Christmas special. He’s done statues, shadows and the feeling that you’re being watched. This time, he’s trying to make kids scared of sleeping because it could really be facehuggers trying to suck your brains out. Could be worse. They could be trying to implant a chestburster.
Mind you, before everyone realized they were in a facehugger-induced dream, we spent half of the episode thinking that Santa Claus actually existed in Doctor Who canon. Nick Frost was absolutely delightful as a smart-aleck Santa who also kicked ass and took names. When you’re so used to seeing Nick Frost as the lazy and dimwitted sidekick, he got a great chance to take the bull (or, in this case, reindeer) by the horns and be just as important in this episode as The Doctor and Clara.
The real heart of this episode was Clara. The good possibility that you didn’t know whether she would live or die made the episode compelling. In a quasi-Inception-like plot, Clara was trapped in multiple levels of dreams within dreams but never really wanted to come out of them because she didn’t want to face her reality. Of course, it was her dream Danny who also convinced her to come out of one dream and back to reality. Granted, I was disappointed that the mentions that Clara and Twelve lied to each other about Danny and Gallifrey were quickly glossed over and they didn’t play into the tension for the rest of the episode. Maybe it’ll be brought up again in the next season but I thought it should have played a bigger part here.
But the number of times that Clara didn’t want to come out of a dream or seemed close to dying was given some dramatic context by the fact that no one knew if Clara would be back after this episode. So every time that Clara could have died, I was expecting them to pull the trigger. It’s not like they could have done this with Twelve because there would be no tension because you know that he would be safe. With Clara, there was no guarantee and Moffat leveraged that to add some extra drama and tension to this episode.
Overall, this was a really fun episode. I think it straddled the line between Christmas special, proper episode of Doctor Who and homage to science fiction perfectly. Of course, I can be thinking all of this because the episode’s main dramatic device that Moffat didn’t have to write because it was all behind the scenes. Mind you, Santa and his tangerines were pretty fun too.
When you look back at Moffat’s collection of Christmas specials, he doesn’t do the standard Christmas story particularly well. What he does succeed at is combining Christmas story tropes with a plot-driven episode of Doctor Who. Look at A Christmas Carol and The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe and compare those to Time Of The Doctor and Last Christmas. The latter two are far superior because they’re building to a conclusion rather than being a happy Christmas story isolated from the rest of the Who-verse. The show needs that carrot to chase to get a good episode. They had the carrot the last two years and we see the benefits of that in the last two Christmas specials.
Other random points of note:
- Fun fact: One of the elves was played by Dan Starkey (top-left of the header picture) who you more often see in costume as Strax, the loveable Sontaran associate to Vastra and Jenny. I bet he didn’t mind being in an episode of Doctor Who without having to sit two-plus hours in makeup getting his face applied.
- While most sci-fi exists in its own little bubble outside that the rest of recorded history lives in, this episode absolutely bathed in sci-fi references. There were obvious references to Alien, The Thing From Another World (referenced in Shona’s to-watch list), A Christmas Carol and Ghostbusters while the episode itself took inspiration from Inception and Miracle on 34th Street. That’s not a bad series of homages for one episode of Doctor Who.
- As excited as I was for this episode, I was a lot more excited before Space’s half-hour pre-show which was previously seen interviews and two of the three hosts lamenting that they hired an old man to replace Matt Smith. They’re lucky I didn’t turn off my TV for the night while watching that dreck.
And that’s the last episode of Doctor Who we’re going to see for a bit. Filming for next season starts this month with episodes coming later on this year, probably starting in September. The Doctor and Clara will return in The Magician’s Apprentice. I wonder if that has a deeper meaning or if it’s just a joke about Twelve’s outfit looking like a magician’s.