Doctor Who: Last Christmas
Doctor Who Christmas specials are a tricky affair. They need to be stand alone enough to attract the passing festive audience but still have enough relevance to the events of the previous series. Setting the story at Christmas works for the day of broadcast but then runs into the danger of seeming twee and out of place when you re-watch the episode in the summer. But for better or worse, the Doctor Who Christmas special has become a festive tradition, something that has now lasted an impressive 10 years.
Last Christmas - like most Moffat festive specials - is more intrinsically linked to the events of the show then the stand-alone, one-off companion glitzy affairs of the Russell T Davies era. But unlike last year's epic arc-ending regeneration affair that was Time Of The Doctor, Capaldi's first festive outing is given room to breath and tell a story that is just as accessible to casual viewers as it is to those who sat through the dark drama and heartbreak of series eight.
The biggest question hanging over the special was what would happen to Clara. After seemingly saying goodbye to the Doctor for the last time in Death In Heaven, the episode began with Clara meeting Santa and his elves before the Doctor rescued her for a terrifying trip to the North Pole. I loved that the every rumour of her departure seemed to play out - first seemingly falling victim to the face-hugger dream crab (more on them later) to the scene where an elderly Clara is reunited with her Doctor at the end of her life to the actual ending. Not only was there a chance that she was going to die but the 'old Clara' story seemed utterly plausible - if a little tragic - and would have served with a bleak conclusion to her story.
But then Moffat was able to pull the rug out from under us one more time, proving that the Doctor's encounter with old Clara was just another dream within a dream within a dream and that despite the tempestuous nature of their relationship, she was willing to join him for more adventures on the TARDIS. I couldn't help but grin as the episode announced that the Doctor AND Clara would return in 2015. Jenna Coleman has been magnificent this year alongside the brilliant Peter Capaldi and their relationship has become the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane of the modern era. I can't wait to see what the show brings next year for these two.
Last Christmas was certainly the scariest Christmas special but one that felt like a natural continuation of the darker, more chilling series eight. The victims rising from their beds in the infirmary, the crabs on their faces opening - maws dripping with slime - was a proper Alien moment and my kids were clutching our hands as the dream crabs descending from the ceiling. Yet again, Moffat used the old 'playing on human reactions to create something terrifying' motif; we've had don't blink, then don't breathe, this time it was don't think. The dream crabs were a marvellous - and truly terrifying - creation, but I would like Moffat to try something fresh next time. His ideas certainly seem a little over played to the point when they are in danger of becoming a cliche.
In true post-modern style, the episode played on the films it was referencing. If the Arctic base setting was a direct homage to The Thing, then the dream crabs themselves were Xenomorphs. Michael Troughton's Professor Albert even called them facehuggers, which led the best line of the episode when the Doctor learned what film those creatures came from.
"There's a horror movie called Alien? That's really offensive"
But the biggest gamble of the episode - and one of its biggest successes - was the Inception-style dream within a dream story line. It isn't necessarily a new idea but thanks to Moffat's script and Paul Wilmshurst's taught direction, it worked beautifully and the Yuletide setting only added to the magic.
It allowed for a welcome return of Samuel Anderson's Danny Pink in Clara's dream. At any other time, this additional farewell may have been a little indulgent but in the Christmas setting it worked beautifully and only added to the belief that - at the end of the episode - the old Clara was reliving a life with her lost love as well as the Doctor. But the dreams also added the chills to much of the episode, from Clara learning she was dying via the use of chalkboards in her dream with Danny (You are DYING) to the moment the crew of the base read the manuals and realised that they were the victims in the infirmary. The idea of the creatures sucking out your brains was a particularly nasty element too.
There was some great performances in the episode, not just from the two leads but everyone on the base, particularly Faye Marsay's Shona. The idea that the Alien / The Thing themes were part of her memories - a lonely Christmas day viewing schedule - and that this dream world was far more exciting than reality made for a sympathetic but amusing character - someone who wasn't afraid to speak her mind. Last Christmas certainly teased Shona as a companion, particularly when we all believed the episode was Clara's swan song. With Jenna Coleman on the show for 2015 too, it would still be interesting to see what a third person on the TARDIS would bring and there would certainly be a Donna-like style to Shona's personality that would bring some laughs and fireworks with Capaldi's Doctor. Who knows, perhaps like Donna, this is just the beginning of her story.
But there was one guest star that stole the show; Nick Frost's geezer-type Santa Claus. With his elf double act (a hilarious performance from Dan Starkey and Nathan McMullen as Ian and Wolf) Santa had attitude and joviality in equal measure. The dream motif was a great way to bring in old Saint Nick as the hero of the hour, while never fully addressing whether this Santa was real. There were plenty of great one liners and I loved the running tangerine gags. His presence certainly raised the festive nature of the episode and I would be quite happy for him to turn up again in a future Christmas special if he is real (as the last tangerine shot of the episode suggested.
I think A Christmas Carol still takes the top spot for Christmas specials but this might be my second favourite. Scares, laughs and festive cheer in equal measure, you would need to have a heart of ice not to enjoy that joyous sleigh ride through snowy London at the end of the episode. It is certainly going to be a long wait until series nine, but for now, Doctor Who bows out 2014 in style!