It feels like we have been here before. Amy’s Choice explored the philosophy of the “dream argument” and did it very well, so this is covering some familiar ground thematically. As we saw when we looked at Amy’s Choice, genre series have tended to look at the dream argument by moving back and forth between the fiction of the sci-fi or fantasy and something non-sci-fi or non-fantasy, challenging the very existence of the series concept. Amy’s Choice avoided this by placing both alternative realities within the fictional world of Doctor Who, and therefore steering clear of some dangerous territory in which the viewer disbelieves the basic premise of the show because it is shown to be ridiculous in comparison with the real world. Last Christmas plays exactly the same trick, because although there are repeated awakenings, every one of them is still within the realms of what we know to be Doctor Who. In fact, every one of them actually moves us back towards what we are familiar with, and away from a heightened fantasy version of Doctor Who in which Santa Claus exists. So the nested dreams are a nest with fantasy in the middle and sci-fi on the outside.
Intertwined with all this is nested dreaming with false awakenings, and also the concept of shared dreams. This combination is a less-explored path in sci-fi, although Star Trek: Voyager had a decent stab at it with Waking Moments. In that episode Chakotay pre-programs his brain with a trigger to help him to escape the dreams by moving them into the realms of lucid dreaming, that trigger being the image of the moon. Here we have something much more clever with the manuals, because rather than being pre-programmed it is something that is figured out by the Doctor.
So we are again walking the tightrope of challenging what is real without destroying the viewer’s ability to suspend disbelief while watching. The method borrowed from Amy’s Choice of setting all possible realities within the fictional world of Doctor Who is not sufficient this time to stop the episode falling from the tightrope, because the basic premise of Doctor Who is challenged further by comparison with the Santa Claus tradition. There is a very telling line where the Doctor questions the difficulty telling reality from dreams when both are ridiculous. That is brave because it is a dangerous commentary on Doctor Who plotlines, but also Santa Claus (a man who flies around on a sleigh delivering presents down chimneys) is shown to be every bit as logical a character as the Doctor (a man who travels through time in a phone box). This really highlights the Steven Moffat approach to Doctor Who, placing the series firmly within the realms of childhood. Previously that has been children’s fiction (The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe is our Christmassy example), but here we have the child’s view of Christmas. What you think about this approach, and whether you feel that it breaks down the Doctor Who premise too much or not, will probably be informed by your own thoughts about Santa Claus. Of course, the truth of the matter is that Santa Claus and the Doctor are both real, so none of it matters.
Last Christmas leaves us with a couple of lasting impressions. Firstly, out of all the “real lives” we are shown, the most thought-provoking is Shona’s. This might have hit home with some viewers because it is simply a portrayal of loneliness at Christmas. She might be a reflection on some sections of Doctor Who fandom, longing to escape from a lonely existence into a world of adventure. Whether you find this whole idea bittersweet or simply bitter is not for me to say, but there is a not-unreasonable line of argument that it is a cruel dig at Doctor Who fans, which would not be entirely unprecedented. Either way it is a moment to make the viewer think about the different aspects of Christmas for different people. Not everyone gets to enjoy a happy day in the company of their family.
Secondly we are left in some doubt as to whether the Doctor actually escapes from this episode at all. It’s clearly not meant to be taken too seriously, and is just a fun little final twist of many, many twists in this twistiest of episodes, but it leaves us with a small lingering doubt about how rational this whole, often-incoherent, 50 year story of Doctor Who actually is. But who wants rational and coherent from Doctor Who? I’m just happy for Doctor Who to exist on the same level as Santa Claus: an amazing magical figure who will live in our imaginations for ever.
Oh, and in any case we already know he’s still stuck in the matrix. One day the Sixth Doctor will wake up and walk out into a brave new world… RP
The view from across the pond:
By contrast to The Time of the Doctor, that laughable excuse we saw the year earlier, the Christmas Special of 2014, Last Christmas, was heavy on Christmas spirit with Santa Claus playing a critical part, elves, reindeer, a sleigh ride and even a Christmas tangerine. But it did offer a perfect solution to a problem that had been going on for a while … it just failed to deliver on that solution.
DOCTOR: You know what the big problem is in telling fantasy and reality apart?
DOCTOR: They’re both ridiculous.
Bringing Santa Claus into a Christmas Special was a good move even if Capaldi’s Doctor was reluctant to accept him. The last 2 Christmas specials were decidedly lacking on Christmas spirit, so Nick Frost’s performance was both timely and fun. The elves, one of whom is played by Dan Starkey, Sontaran officer Strax to most of us, adds to the fun. Clara, having been living her life since the demise of Danny Pink, finds the Elves and Santa crashed on her roof. But this is where things get interesting. I’m a really big fan of the study of ontology: effectively, how do you know you exist? This story offers Doctor Who, Christmas Cheer, creepy aliens and a really healthy dose of ontology in the form of dreams – where do they end and where does reality begin again?
There are many influences on Last Christmas. Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio’s popular thriller, seems to be a huge influence on the dream within a dream imagery if we need a modern reference but go back farther and Edgar Allen Poe’s “Dream Within a Dream” probably started the idea. At least it’s more poetic and takes a lot less time to go through! Then there are the dreamcrabs. The episode has no issue calling itself out on the obvious facehugger reference in Alien leading to a particularly humorous line from the Doctor, but the creatures may also take their name from the popular Half-Life video game series with “headcrabs”. The episode also references Miracle on 34th Street, which appropriately questions the reality of Santa; a theme that runs throughout the episode. In both instances, there’s a loop like Inception asking where does reality end and dreams begin… or should that be the other way around?
To exacerbate matters, the cast is perfectly chosen for an episode living in dreams, with Faye Marsay sending us deeper down the rabbit hole. Her character, Shona, intends to watch Game of Thrones on Christmas Day. Since the actress played the Waif in Game of Thrones, this starts to get all Inception-y very quickly. Michael Troughton, professor Albert in the episode, doesn’t help the cause since in real life he is the son of former Doctor Patrick Troughton. Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?
The dreamcrabs are amazing looking. It’s so uncommon to get an enemy that the Doctor can’t defeat by talking to them. These are creepy, disturbing looking things not totally dissimilar to spiders, but far more frightening. They actually should make a return, but they are perhaps too frightening. How can one really stop them when sleep is so alluring…
The episode has one weakness. Had this been the end of Clara, it would have been a lovely send-off to a weak companion. I can’t emphasize enough: I adore Jenna Coleman. She’s super talented and utterly beautiful, but as a companion she was really better suited to Matt Smith’s Doctor. This would have made a lovely bookend including the scene with Clara being too old to pull apart a Christmas cracker and the Doctor helping her as she did for him when he became old on Trenzalore in The Time of the Doctor. Sometimes it’s the subtle things that make the biggest impact! Alas, it wasn’t to be! Instead, she becomes more reckless, more daring and more “I wanna be the Doctor ” that her subsequent season, season nine, literally stopped many of my friends from watching season 10. This would have been an amazingly heartwarming goodbye and would have endeared her to more viewers than her arrogant, unexcited, wannabe Time Lord self ended up with.
But, fair dues to Moffat, he did not want a downer on Christmas Day, so off she goes in the TARDIS once more.
DOCTOR: There’s something you have to ask yourself, and it’s important. Your life may depend on it. Everybody’s life. Do you really believe in Santa Claus?
CLARA: Do you know what? Yeah. Right now, here, I think I do.
That does lead to one last point and I’m still holding out hope that we discover season 9 was a dream. Throughout the episode a tangerine is used in the same way the spinning top was used in Inception to indicate they were still in a dream. As the final scene of the episode features the tangerine on the windowsill and the distant sound of Santa’s sled, this was an opportunity to let the audience know the story wasn’t over. We could have learned next season that Clara remained an old woman and that was that. Poignant, deep, brave… Yes, Moffat gave us a truly great Christmas Special recapturing the Christmas spirit but sacrificed an entire season at the altar of Jenna.
Every Christmas may be last Christmas, but frankly, I’m looking forward to this Christmas. And for that, we’re C-5…
Tangerine anyone? ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Magician’s Apprentice