Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Last Christmas written by Steven Moffat and directed by Paul Wilmshurst

This story in a nutshell: It's all a terrible dream...

Indefinable: 'I'm the Doctor, not your mam!' I've heard the rumours that Capaldi is going to be softened slightly in his second year (I can't count how many times people have said to me that they don't like his Doctor because he is too frosty/unlikable/moody/like my Grumpa) and whilst I found his grouchy approach extremely refreshing in series eight (after the 'I've just downed twelve packets of Skittles and look I'm a crazy naked all singing all dancing Caretaker with wavy hands and a sonic screwdriver hanging out of my butt' 11th Doctor) it might be the right thing for the series. It is the same approach that Colin Baker wanted to take with the sixth Doctor, initially impossible to like but peeling away layers like an onion with each adventure so you can see what is at his core. A good man and a good Doctor. Capaldi practically glowered his way through the last season with some brilliantly acerbic lines but there was so little joy in his performance at times you had to start asking where the Doctor's zest for life had gone. So the whole idea of partnering up the grumpiest Doctor with Santa Claus isn't quite as mad as it might have seemed at first because they bring things out in each other that are quite surprising. Under the paranoid gaze of the Doctor Father Christmas becomes a potentially sinister and manipulative character (not a sentence I thought I would have to write) and after being saved by to the jolliest man on the planet the Doctor cannot help but take the reins of his Sleigh and whoop with delight as he experiences something delightful that he cannot resist. It might be insane but it is a character defining moment and I was whooping along with him - suddenly he is a man with a lust for the finer things in life again. It comes as no surprise to me that by the end of this story he is grasping the hand of his best friend and dancing his way to his next adventure. It is a long time coming, and whilst I still want to see those moments of darkness from Capaldi, it shows that he is going to be much more than just a one trick grumpy chops. The Doctor is greeted with a scream and described as a 'skeleton man' as though he is the product of somebody's nightmare. Just about sums him up. This Doctor is a natural cynic so he can cut through the nature of a false reality like a pair of rusty scissors, he has a naturally suspicious brain and it is keenly adept at solving mysteries within mysteries like this one. His trouble is trying to boil it down to a simple enough level so that the people around him can understand, hence the first word at the top of the page in the book. There's a delightful moment when the nature of the dream is revealed when Santa suggests that a time travelling alien is all part of the landscape of the lie...after all how can something as absurd as that be true? As soon as he walks away from a scenario, this Doctor deletes all the useless information from his brain including the people he has mucked in with. To tell them that is ice cold.

Impossible Girl: Something astonishing happened whilst I was watching Last Christmas. I'm sure it cannot have escaped your attention that I haven't been Clara's biggest fan despite the terrific efforts of Jenna Coleman. It's not just that the character had to be completely rebooted in series eight after her disgraceful mishandling in the latter half of series seven (the 'impossible girl' arc being the worst since the show started sporting running storylines) or that Moffat seems to favour the character more than the shows titular character (to the point where her name comes first in the titles and she gets to play Doctor whilst he's relegated to the TARDIS, Nyssa style) my biggest problem is that the character seems to transform with each new writer into somebody quite different with different values and motives (check out her opposing views in Kill the Moon and In the Forest of the Night). However...and it's a big however I feel as though we have been on a development period with Clara and she is now ready to take her place as a fully fledged companion at the Doctor's side. Danny has been wiped out and this story serves as an effective coda to their relationship and so with any luck all of this hopping back to Earth can be forgotten. My biggest surprise (of many) in Last Christmas was that I am genuinely excited to see that Clara is back for another season and that I am looking forward to seeing what come next for these two. Capaldi and Coleman have developed a great rapport and this could be one of those golden years for the series (like Tom and Liz or Tennant and Tate) where the relationship between the Doctor and companion transcends the stories and becomes something unique and special in its own right. We'll have to wait and see. But let's strike that as a massive win for Moffat - when The Caretaker aired I couldn't wait to see the back of the character so that is a huge turnaround for me.

It's impossible (hoho) to imagine Clara turning up on Santa's naughty list at any point because she is such a four square kind of girl. Of course she never grew out of fairytales, it is her belief that the Doctor is pure magic that kept her going throughout the more trying moments of the last season. Clara never thought she would step back in the TARDIS again and she realises just how much she loves that silly ship. How like this Doctor to use something like Clara's love for Danny Pink against her when she needs to be distracted to prevent the face huggers from attacking. Clara faces the pain of that moment head on because she was the one who lied about his fate. It is a little ironic that Clara should make elfist remarks, given her stature. I loved loved loved the scene where Clara was menaced by the Dream Crab - finally she is genuinely, shit-your-pants afraid and has no one liners and attitude to rescue her. I felt more for her here than I did for her plight at the end of Death in Heaven. It's important to remember that Moffat is invested in the Clara/Danny romance even if I am not so of course Clara chooses the warmth of her Christmas day miracle with him than being stuck on a cold, terrorized base with the Doctor.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I will mark you Santa.'
'There's a horror movie called Alien? That's really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.'
'Every Christmas is Last Christmas.'
'Have you ever woken up from a dream and realised that you are still dreaming?'

The Good:

* I love the fact that Moffat is willing to let you think that Doctor Who has gone insane in the first couple of minutes of Last Christmas with Santa visiting Clara and having a domestic with his elves. I was sure this was going to turn out to be a dream at the time (the music and the way the scene is framed makes it appear so) until the Doctor arrived and I thought 'oh shit, this is real.' The fact that Moffat leaves until much, much later to reveal how much he has hoodwinked the audience and that this episode was a lie from the off knocked me out.
* More fool me. I thought I was going to spend most of the Christmas special resisting Nick Frost's Santa Claus because the whole notion of his existing in the Doctor Who universe as an actual person caused my brain to short-circuit. Instead Moffat has found an extremely clever way for him to take part in a story without throwing all sense of logic and good taste out the window. And isn't Nick Frost superb? Like bold as brass, in your face superb. Barry Letts always said that no matter what they were presenting the audience with during the Pertwee era they always insisted that it was played for real and Frost takes that approach to the nth degree - there is no sense that he is playing a mythological character but a living, breathing person who genuinely has to wrap up this adventure as soon as possible because he has a wealth of presents to deliver before morning. The moment when he makes his entrance with an army of toys leading the way might just be the most jarring shift in tone from one scene to another in any Doctor Who story (it comes immediately after our heroes are attacked by the face huggers) and it tells you everything you about the confidence of this storyteller that he leaps from The Thing from Another World to Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium with such unapologetic brazenness. It probably got the hardened fanboys in a tizzy too, so much the better. The moral of the story (and the whole reason for including Santa) is a doozy, believe in magic one last time. Why would you ever stop?
* An isolated base in the Artic under siege. It's a setting so clichéd that by the end of the episode Moffat has the nerve to reel off his influences. But it is also the sort of location that a Doctor Who story thrives upon, especially when it is designed and lit this well and the menace that threatens it's characters is as tangibly frightening as the face huggers are. I love how Moffat exposes the emptiness of these kind of stories, this is a base under siege story because that is what the characters expect a Doctor Who story to be. Is it the Doctor's influence that is the strongest and is this the environment that makes him feel most comfortable, fighting against a foe in close quarters? It boils down the essentials of a Doctor Who to it's most basic form; an enclosed setting, scared characters and a monster. As we realise what is happening it is clear there is no substance beyond that, that the whole point of the story is that it is a glossy front to the terrifying brain devouring that is really going on. And yet it still works. Beautifully directed, genuinely scary with some enjoyable characters, those essentials of Doctor Who work even when they aren't supported by foundations. Can you imagine a more Doctor Who like scenario than the Doctor and his companion dashing out into the snow for the TARDIS being pursued by nasty monsters and at the last second monsters emerging from the TARDIS and barring their escape. Topping that even further, those monsters turn out to be them.
* What do we learn about the face huggers? Not a great deal but who cares when they are as icky and as mind-bendingly fascinating as this. Disgusting, crabby, gooey nasties that spring from the ceiling and envelop your face and feed on your desires and fuck with your reality so they have time to devour your brain. What more do you need to know? It's not an original idea but the concept of creatures that have weaponised dreams against their victims is terrorizing. 
* Proof, if it was needed, that guest actors can bring a huge amount of personality to the screen even when they are handed empty characters. That's not a criticism, they are supposed to be silhouettes of real people and yet to me they had more substance to them than a whole list of supposedly 'real' characters that have appeared in the Moffat era. It comes down to a committed cast, some delicious twists about the nature of reality the truth of who these people really are when they wake up. Colour me impressed - a Moffat era story with a dramatis personae that impressed me. I thought we were past all that. Faye Marsay was particularly impressive as Shona, the sort of character that usually gets right on my tits for undercutting the tension of a scene but instead of that she uses her enormous personality and ability to bring a sense of normality to the situation to her advantage. I really fancied that reunion at the climax and I felt she would have brought a great deal of charm and humour to the TARDIS had she gotten her way to hop on board. The little character reveals at the conclusion are bittersweet (the wheelchair) and heart-warming (forgive Dave). It's the sort of little moments that Davies was so good at.
* My favourite type of film is a really good psychological thriller that gets under your skin and twists and turns in intense ways. Inception, Identity, Shutter Island. As such my favourite part of an extremely good episode was the sequence that featured my favourite (note the sarcasm) character, Danny Pink. It took for Clara to suffer horribly within a perfect dream of their existence together to feel something for this relationship. It's a trippy and surreal set piece that sees Clara running away from reality to get comfortable in this snapshot of perfection with Danny only for the Doctor to slap her out of it by reminding that by staying she will be killed. Heart-warming, playful and genuinely frightening, especially the moment when Clara is confronted with walls of blackboards exclaiming the word DYING. Also very worthy of note is the moment Moffat draws the curtain back and reveals who the victims of the face huggers have been all along - the same character the Doctor and Clara have been sharing this adventure with.
* Clara as an old woman works beautifully because it feels like one twist too many in a story that has already allowed Moffat to be clever clever over and over again. Despite the warmth that exudes between her and the Doctor, it feels like Moffat is boxing himself in a corner with this scene because he will have to worked around it in order to write Clara out (of course this was originally supposed to be her last story and it would have worked much better in that context). So when this turns out to be one last face hugger dream I was clapping with delight. Moffat acknowledges that this is a step too far. Hurrah, he's become his own critic.

The Bad: I will knock a point off because the episode doesn't go into much depth about the nature of dreams themselves, it simply uses them as a method to plot out this labyrinthine story. Whilst I'm not looking for dream analysis (because there is little that is more tedious than listening to somebody spell out their entire dream in painstaking detail) I was hoping to get a little more insight into the essentials of dreaming itself, maybe even get a unique Doctor Who spin on why people dream (why not, the show has offered up explanations for plenty of other things we take for granted). As the Doctor spells out, dreams are the weapon of choice of the face huggers and that's pretty much all there is to it. Wouldn't it have been wonderful if Santa's sleigh danced around the TARDIS in the last scene as the Doctor and Clara depart to make you question if the whole next season is reality. Realistically Moffat could do absolutely anything with the series now and pull off a JR in the shower/Crossroads hotel 'it was all a dream!' - as unsatisfying as that would be.

Result: 'Do you know what the biggest problem between telling fantasy and reality apart? They're both ridiculous...' Last Christmas tosses originality in a trash and for once it is a good thing. The dream within a dream plot is something that every science fiction show has to have a pop at at some point but it usually works within its rigid formula. Star Trek, Buffy, The X-Files...nobody is exempt from trying this kind of episode out. But Doctor Who nails it by making it as funny, scary and quirky as possible. Moffat subverts all the clichés by refusing to acknowledge at any point that what we are seeing is the truth once the cat is out of the bag. He plays the same trick over and over and over until I was giddy and wondering if we will ever see reality again. Even when the Doctor and Clara hop off in the TARDIS at the end of the episode I was still waiting for one more twist that this happy ending wasn't authentic. That's how much he made me doubt what was fiction and what was true. I especially love the knockout twist that the entire 'base under siege' scenario is a massive con, so much so that what happens during this episode marks it as one of the least relevant in the shows history because everything that we experience is a lie. Escaping that lie is the entire point of the story. Don't mistake my words though, on a character level this is one of the most relevant stories in the whole of the Moffat era. It gives the Doctor and Clara a chance to reveal their deceptions from the end of Death in Heaven and part company in an honest fashion where they acknowledge exactly what they think of each other. Moffat's final twist is that they don't wish to part company at all and as they dash into the TARDIS in an excitable fashion I felt as though I was being catapulted into series nine with boundless enthusiasm. I had a huge smile on my face. I have given up try to guess what Moffat will deliver at Christmas. Will it be something as visually stunning and as morally corrupt as A Christmas Carol? Or a gorgeous fairytale like The Snowmen? Or something so boring that I never found the enthusiasm to revisit it like The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe? Or something that re-defines how not to end an era like Time of the Doctor? Last Christmas is his best Christmas special yet, one which confidently springs from set piece to set piece, which surprises and innovates as it progresses and contains much amusement and moments of terror within. Fantastic guest cast too. It's all wrapped up in polished direction too. I absolutely love it: 9/10

1 comment:

Tango said...

In my opinion, this was the only episode that the Clara/Twelfth Doctor team that really worked and, judging by your review, you had such high hopes that they would become something special (like Sarah Jane and the Fourth Doctor) instead of the generic and boring disaster that was Series 9.