This year, we get “Doctor Who” does “Inception” with a side order of “Alien.” And Father Christmas, of course. The combination is dark, unsettling and heartbreaking – this Christmas, our characters might not get what they want but, thanks to the episode’s dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-ratings-busting-TV-show, at least they get what they need.
Designed to be watched in a post-Christmas dinner slump whilst picking at a box of chocolates even though you’re not really hungry, “Last Christmas” (written by Steven Moffat) suffers from the same problem of great concept but messy execution that plagued the previous season, but at least it’s tighter than last year’s mess of a regeneration. (Has it really only been a year since Peter Capaldi stepped into the TARDIS?)
After a rocky start at the beginning of the previous season, Capaldi and Coleman have hit their stride as a partnership, especially now that they’ve both come clean about the lies they told in the season finale – that Danny is alive and Gallifrey is found. So it’s a relief to have Clara sticking around now that dream!Danny gave her some much-needed closure. Nick Frost makes for a gloriously grumpy Santa and the rivalry between he and Capaldi’s Doctor is worth the price of admission alone. Joining the jolly fat man in the red suit is a terrific ensemble cast that includes Dan Starkey, liberated from his Strax costume to play an elf (always a welcome sight), and a team of scientists at the North Pole led by Natalie Gumede. Peter Capaldi calling fellow Scot and old pal Maureen Beattie (Professor Bellows) “sexy” is both sweet and right on the mark – it would have been nice to see both Beattie and Gumede given a bit more to do.
Of course, the North Pole scientists aren’t really scientists – in fact, they’ve never met, just four strangers who wound up in the same dream. The reveal that Professor Bellows’ “real” self is in a wheelchair felt patronizing – it would have been easy to have had the character in a wheelchair throughout the entire episode, so it felt maudlin, manipulative and more than a little ableist. But shop assistant Shona’s plea to stay in the dream a little longer to avoid waking up alone in her flat was heartbreaking. She’s what Rose Tyler could have been if she hadn’t met the Doctor, and only the Grinch wouldn’t hope that the TARDIS materializes in her living room in the not-too-distant future.
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Overall, it was the perfect mixture of festive froth and proper old-fashioned sci-fi we’ve come to expect from “Who” Christmas episodes, led by a Doctor with a naughty twinkle in his eye and a companion who’s teaching him to be nice. The dream team is reunited – let’s hope neither of them wakes up.