5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
Want us to let you know when we post a new review? Click here to join our mailing list.
Admittedly, we were slightly drunk on leftover trifle at the time. (Not sherry! God. Limoncello, bitches. Did you know it’s possible to cram an entire bottle into a single trifle? You can, and you should.) But we concluded that Last Christmas is streets ahead of the usual festive slushfest.
Granted, we lower our standards for Christmas episodes. Not because we’re overcome with the spirit (or the spirits) of the season, but because there’s no other option. By their very nature they’re going to include an unavoidable quotient of drippy sentiment. Even on limoncello this still doesn’t seem like entertainment to us, but we concede that it’s compulsory nevertheless.
We can’t say we were looking forward to it. The appearance of Santa at the end of the previous episode had sent a chill through our very marrow. But ironically, Santa and his elves turn out to be a highlight, taking a sparkling script and running with it. Not only does Nick Frost absolutely knock it out of the park, we actually get to see Dan Starkey without his usual encasing potato. Our only complaint is that there wasn’t more of them in it. Like, in every scene. That would have been nice.
Instead, we reluctantly abandon the rooftop for a base under siege. Given that that’s such a staple of the Second Doctor’s reign, we really appreciated the casting. One of us, neglecting her reviewly duties to rustle around in a box of chocolates for a peppermint cream, looked up instantly when Professor Albert began to speak: “That’s got to be a Troughton!”. Course it was. Nice.
In fact, the casting all around is ace. Faye Marsey is instantly appealing as Shona, but to be fair, she has a lot of fun things to do. Natalie Gumede as the calmly competent Ashley, and Maureen Beattie as Fiona, with her killer delivery of “For whom?”, are just as impressive.
The plot creaks into motion, and we groaned. Shona and her creative interpretation of Slade is great, but it’s also very, very familiar: yep, it’s the old don’t blink/don’t think thing again. However, we think what’s going on here is that Moffat’s trying to be terribly clever by pulling a reversal on his own modus operandi. Surely (surely!) he’s trotting out his signature plot knowingly, setting us up to think we know what’s happening only to pull the rug out from under us? We hope, kind of desperately, that that was the idea.
Just when it’s getting terrifying with crustaceans all up in your face, here comes Santa and his adorable crack troops of Slinkies and robots. And Moffat starts busily dropping hints about his real plot. It’s not about not blinking at all: what’s really happening is to do with dreams. There are a lot of clues in here before it’s said outright: Shona’s “Am I dreaming?” followed by the Doctor’s ““Oh, very good”, and Ashley talking about working with someone who might be a dream only to have the Doctor riposte that he’s in the same position.
Then whammo, Clara pays the price for doing maths under a table instead of running away very quickly, and wakes up with Danny Pink. Alas. We liked the way they left this in Death In Heaven: there was plenty of goodbye in there, but still some bittersweetness, some regrets, some loose ends, just like in life. We really, really didn’t want it to come back to be tied up with a big silver bow.
But that’s what we get. It’s clear that this is the Danny of Clara’s dreams, not the real one: she talks about “that painting we saw in Paris” and train tickets when the real Danny made it clear South London was enough universe for him. So instead of the real life constant spats they had, all is stickily tranquil. It’s a bit weaselly, really: Clara gets her closure, but only with a Danny who could never have existed.
Still, at least Ideal Danny knows what to say to move Clara on from her grief. Which means we never have to see him or hear about him again, right? Put that on your Christmas list. As much as we didn’t want to see any of this stuff, it could have been worse, because we were gripped with terror that they were going to bring him back.
And Clara and the Doctor wake up from their dreams. Or do they? Well, no, obviously. We’ve seen a lot of people moaning that the nested dream thing is a blatant ripoff of Inception, although we thought Inception was a blatant ripoff of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. Whatever, it’s scarcely original, but then all of this has been done before in one way or another. Red Dwarf did the wonderful dream life while you die thing in Better Than Life, for a start. Nothing new under the sun and all that, but we do wish the dream thing had been handled a trifle less obviously, especially given its resemblance to Amy’s Choice.
But it’s not all retreaded: one thing we really like about the sleight of hand is the way it plays with our expectations. We’re all used to devices like the camera cutting away, so we let them get away with it when the dream crabs are dropping towards everyone yet they get away scot free when Santa arrives. The camera just cut away before the crabs reached their faces, right? Wrong, and playing with that assumption is how they keep the shared dream state from us. That’s genuinely innovative and genuinely clever. And we also love the use of the manuals to detect whether or not they’re dreaming. Again, that’s a really innovative solution.
And they’re also ringing the changes with the lovely “Is everyone all right? Bye” scene. It hilariously undercuts the group hugging we were expecting, and we love the Doctor accurately pointing out that he can’t solve every single problem.
Then the obligatory bucket o’ slush we have to suffer through arrives (you know we don’t see this till Boxing Day, right? Even limoncello can’t compensate for watching Christmas goop after Christmas) although with a bittersweet twist. Fiona’s wheelchair feels a bit gratuitous, and Ashley’s ending is just nothingy, but Shona has a different feel altogether. It’s clear from her eagerness to get together with the others, and her house in which the only person she’s going to be seeing at Christmas is her Dad, that she’s lonely. And her list, as well as covering the sources for this plot, also makes it clear she’s a geek. Sad lonely geek: is Moffat having another pop at the people whose criticism stings him so much? That’s our guess.
Clara is reluctant to leave the dream. ‘“You really should be waking up too, Clara.” “Just a little longer.” “Why?” “Every Christmas is last Christmas.”’ And when the Doctor visits her, he discovers there’s been a gap of more than sixty years. Hmm. There are rumours that Clara was supposed to die in the Doctor’s arms but Jenna Coleman changed her mind at the last minute and decided to stay, and we believe them, because that’s exactly how this episode plays out. All of it would make a great deal more thematic sense if that was the real ending. The whole episode is soaked in death: count the number of times they mention Easter, for example, which otherwise would be slightly weird in a Christmas episode. And they keep underlining that the crab victims, and Clara in particular, are not just threatened by the crabs, but actually dying. The blackboards covered in “Dying” in Clara’s Danny dream particularly hammer this home.
And isn’t it otherwise deeply strange that Clara is wearing the same nightgown and dressing gown when she’s old as when she’s young? We think the original idea is that the entire thing happens when Clara’s old, but that we’re seeing her as young through the Doctor’s eyes. That certainly also would explain why she’s reluctant to go home when she’s on the sleigh, why the Doctor points out they could all be from different time zones, and all the doomy references to the last Christmas. This would have been a fantastic ending to Clara’s story, and it’s a shame, because the obviously hastily rejigged ending has nowhere near the impact. All the Clara being old stuff is merely brushed under the rug as a Christmas wish.
What’s more, let’s face it, all season the Doctor and Clara have had issues. Big, big issues. But you’d better heave the corner of the rug up again, since because Jenna’s staying on that’s all swept underneath it with zero explanation. Not really good enough, though, is it?
As for Clara returning, we’re cautiously optimistic. When the writing for her’s been good, Clara has sometimes been the best thing about an episode, and with the Danny debacle behind us, let’s hope for a fresh start. Jenna Coleman’s certainly got the acting chops for it: it’s just up to the writers not to mangle her as horribly as they’ve done for most of the season.
Clara’s ending’s not the only throwaway here. How is your brain dissolving reversible, exactly? And why, if the crabs leave a half-inch slurping hole in your skull, is there no wound when they eventually wake up? And while we’re on matters crustacean, they paint a picture at the beginning of the entire world under threat from the dream crabs, with Santa talking about how the human race may already have had its last day and how he’s here to save Christmas. Yet once the six of ‘em are safe the Doctor appears to wash his hands of any threat to anybody else. Yes, we know he points out he can’t solve all problems, but he has no reason to think these were the only six, and it seems a touch careless to waltz off and leave Earth to its crabby fate.
So is the Doctor still dreaming at the end? We don’t think that’s what the tangerine means. With the Doctor’s “Don’t even know who to thank”, we think it’s just meant to hint that Santa is real. If he’s as funny as Nick Frost, that’s fine with us.
It’s not perfect. The lack of originality means the plot becomes too transparent. Like many of the episodes this year, there’s too much yapping. And the whole thing suffers - a lot - from Jenna Coleman’s late decision re another go-round in the TARDIS. But there are some great ideas, some good characters, and a wonderfully successful Santa/elf combo. And you know what, we realise we've entirely forgotten to mention that Peter Capaldi is spectacular. Well, he is. Utterly utterly. Hey, if we got Christmas episodes of this quality every year, we’d be waving our paper hats in the air.
REALITY IS OVERRATED
“You know the big problem in telling fantasy and reality apart? They’re both ridiculous.” A superb line, one of the best in Doctor Who, and delightfully Doctorly. There’s great comedy here which is tailored perfectly for Peter Capaldi, and as a result, he kills it.
Following the elf’s “Yeah, do the math, baby”, Nick Frost has clearly forgotten the “baby” part of the line as he steps on it with his own next line.
HOW VERY DARE YOU
“What you said about Danny…unacceptable.” Well, Clara, if you don’t want the Doctor cracking jokes about your boyfriend texting women of low moral character, don’t make out he’s still alive. (Um, and why did the Doctor never ask how Danny got deCyberfied, anyway?)
TURN THE OTHER CHEEK
When Clara slaps the Doctor (again, sigh) on one side of the face, he puts his hand up to the other side.
THE DARK SIDE
Beautiful lighting in this. Bravo.