“You know what the big problem is in telling fantasy and reality apart? They’re both ridiculous.”
Possibly the only inviolate Christmas tradition in our house is that of the Doctor Who Christmas Special. On a day of prime telly, nobody is allowed to watch anything else while Doctor Who is on, if only because it gives us all something to talk about afterwards.
So it was a surprise to discover this year that the Special was actually not that bad.
The trailer was not promising, featuring what looked like a fatally ridiculous combination of Santa Claus, stupid-looking green aliens and Clara. (Back? Again? Can’t she just die or something?) The story, however, once the initial irritation of experiencing actual Santa Claus appearing on actual Doctor Who had worn off (“seriously, Steven, it’s not a kids’ feature film, you know”), turned out to be much tighter, much scarier and much more interesting than I’d feared. It sees the Doctor and Clara rocking up at a remote North Pole base to find its occupants being terrorised by dream-crabs, creatures which feed by sending their victims into a euphoric dream-state, keeping them happy and relaxed as they are eaten. Kind of like The Matrix but organic. And there’s a twist: they pick up on images of themselves in nearby brains, so if you think about them, you wake them up.
In other words, Moffat is on home turf here, with the kind of psychological mind-effery that made Blink one of the show’s best-ever episodes. Correspondingly, the story here, so far as it goes, is suspenseful and clever, with a satisfying amount of the kind of timey-wimey cleverness that has been sadly missing from recent episodes, and a touch of whimsy that’s just enough for a festive uplift while not making the whole thing trite. Nick Frost makes a great Santa, sarcastic and earthy, and the backstories of the team at the base, especially that of streetwise Shona, are rather touching.
Where Last Christmas drastically falls down, though, is with Clara’s ongoing character development, which invariably takes place in a series of unnecessarily drawn-out, irritatingly schmaltzy, deeply unconvincing soft-lit dialogue scenes. Moffat seems intent on waving the ghost of Danny Pink in all our faces, which would be irritating enough if the relationship had been a convincing one when he was alive; since it wasn’t, the show’s slavish adherence to it has all the emotional subtlety of a sledgehammer. This, more than anything else, is why Clara needs to leave: her presence, and the apparent need for a character arc which Moffat doesn’t have the talent to deliver, is weighing down promising storylines.
It would be good to see Doctor Who improve from here, and I think it could if Moffat returned to plot-led stories as opposed to disastrously emotion-led ones. But I fear that Last Christmas will only be a blip in the show’s long history; a good episode, but an anomalous one.