TV Review: ‘Doctor Who’ Mixes Funny and Scary on ‘Last Christmas’ [Rewritten]

Caution: This review contains spoilers.

My mother enjoys recounting the story of how I really wanted to try some Coca-Cola during dinner about 24 years ago. Someone passed the bottle and poured out some soda for me. Just imagine her dismay when mere hours later, she was awoken by a certain three-year-old. I insisted that there was a round dark crab on my pillow and a couple of his friends were on the wall. Shortly thereafter, I was coaxed back to bed and fell asleep. I actually remember this event, so is it any surprise that I found last night’s “Doctor Who” episode just a wee bit scary?

“Last Christmas” starts with Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) waking up to find that Santa Claus (Nick Frost) has crashed on her roof. The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) arrives to whisk her away to an adventure on the North Pole, where a team of four scientists are trying to survive against the mysterious “Sleepers.” The four Sleepers are thought to be other crew members who were attacked by dream crabs that latch onto your face in the style of “Aliens.” During an attack, it seems that Santa has come just in time to help everyone escape that part of the base.

Unfortunately, these “face huggers” put you into a happy dream state while they dissolve your brain and kill you. The big question thus is whether or not you’ve woken up from your dream or stepped into yet another dream. Yes, it’s a rather complicated trap for the Doctor, drawing from “Inception” and philosophical debates on dreams. From “Time Heist,” we’re all familiar with Clara’s ability to clear her mind against telepaths (not very good). The Doctor tries to distract Clara early on by asking if Danny Pink is flirting with a neighbor, which earns him a hard slap. They both discover that they’d been lying to each other in the series 8 finale.

Another dream crab comes, throwing Clara into a dream where Danny Pink is alive. One can almost imagine hearing Capaldi’s voice telling Clara that she’s dying before those sounds actually kick in, which is due in part to Paul Wilmhurst’s excellent direction of this episode. The Doctor succumbs to a dream crab on purpose in order to pull Clara out when his initial warnings on the blackboard don’t work. Once out, everyone realizes that the dream is still going on and has progressed into a nightmare.

Santa returns again and in spite of the animosity between him and the Doctor, helps everyone leave with his sleigh. The dynamic between Santa and the Doctor is quite interesting here. Santa is portrayed wonderfully by Nick Frost as a legend that is smug, terrible at disguises (we’ve all caught onto his long white beard) and ignores the gift preferences of parents. He’s also quite good at traversing large physical spaces in such a small span of time. When the Doctor asks how the presents fit in the sleigh, Santa quips back, “Bigger on the inside!” The independent and rebellious spirit exuded by Father Christmas easily resembles that of a certain “Rebel Time Lord.” Clara seems to like both, but holds the Doctor in higher esteem when she tells him, “I’ve always believed in Santa Claus. But he looks a little different to me.”

Ultimately, “Last Christmas” is about friendships, honesty, and forgiveness before it’s too late and you grow old with regrets. “Every Christmas is last Christmas” is a poignant and layered message, a great one for us to take away during the holiday season. Steven Moffat’s use of dreams to tease this lesson out is a nice touch. Recall in the series 8 finale, neither the Doctor nor Clara could tell the other the truth about Gallifrey and Danny Pink. The dream crabs brought them into a shared dream state. Here we can equate a shared dream with talking in your sleep, where their secrets come out into the open.

With the Christmas special, we know that Jenna Coleman will be back for series 9 of “Doctor Who” in 2015. Last night started to present a way for Clara’s exit, with the Doctor supposedly arriving much later in her time stream to find her an old woman. It’s a concept that has been discussed with previous companions. It seems that Clara’s real departure from “Doctor Who” will probably take a different path.

The premiere episode for next year is called “The Magician’s Apprentice.” Is Clara the apprentice, given the references to the Doctor as a “magician”? Whenever Clara leaves, who will the next companion be?

I’ll leave you with a few highlights from last night’s episode:

– Santa parks Rudolph and uses a key alarm with that familiar beeping sound.

– Shona, one of the “scientists,” looks at her list, which includes Christmas and alien films. There’s also a line for “Thrones Marathon.” A reference to “Game of Thrones”?

– “There’s a horror movie called ‘Alien’?” the Doctor says in dismay. “That’s really offensive! No wonder everyone keeps invading you.”

(Note: I rewrote this article from memory after accidentally loading my review of “The Imitation Game” on top of the one for “Last Christmas.” Please excuse any minor differences.)

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