We've had many different types of DOCTOR WHO Christmas special; some enthusiastically embrace the festive season's trappings and clichés (once even putting a sci-fi spin on "A Christmas Carol"), others use yuletide as a glitzy backdrop, some are just regular episodes with Christmas garnishes halfheartedly added to the mix (Matt Smith's weak valediction "Time of The Doctor", which was impenetrable to casual viewers). Where did "Last Christmas" sit? It dipped its toe into many of the approaches we've had since 2005, actually, but it was primarily a non-festive storyline that, thanks to its use of dreamweaving aliens, managed to evoke Christmas in both subtle and heavy-handed ways. In others words, we got Ridley Scott's Alien at the North Pole, mixed with the dream-within-a-dream twists of Inception, with the occasionally awkward involvement of Santa Claus (Nick Frost) and his flying reindeer.
What rescued this hour, written by showrunner Steven Moffat, was the successful creepiness and effective scares of the central menaces: Dream Crabs. Despite the fact they owed a huge debt to the facehuggers of Alien (something the show had to acknowledge twice), and were another creature with a modus operandi that once again required a difficult inhibiting of human nature ("don't think about them" joining the "don't look away from them" menaces of The Weeping Angels), the Dream Crabs managed to overcome a core of unoriginality.
This was primarily because the trouble they caused was interestingly staged, and ultimately led to a lot of enjoyable 'waking dream' fake-outs—where, most memorably, Clara (Jenna Coleman) started to believe in a hallucination where dead boyfriend Danny (Samuel Anderson) was still alive, as a Crab sucked her brains like a milkshake. Considering the genre highs that Steven Moffat is capable of, I was a little disappointed much of "Last Christmas" felt like reheated ideas from better projects (including Red Dwarf's "Back to Reality"—which handled its own dream-twist much better), but hopefully casual viewers were suitably impressed.
Overall, "Last Christmas" entertained and can be considered one of Who's stronger Christmas specials—although my favourite remains "The Snowmen". I particularly liked how the story played around with rumours (started intentionally to aide this hour?) that Jenna Coleman would be leaving the show, and almost gave us a bittersweet ending where she'd been left to age into an old woman by the time The Doctor was reacquainted with her. Luckily for us, Coleman's coming back for Series 9, as she's become one of the best things about the show thanks to her character's personality rehabilitation last year.
What did you think of this year's Christmas effort? A solid hit, despite shaky connections to the holiday season, or a tepid mix of pop-culture ideas that pulled through because of good creative choices and nice performances?
- Nick Frost was the big guest star in this episode, and yet he didn't leave a lasting impression as Santa Claus. Despite looking like the spitting image of Richard Attenborough in Miracle on 34th Street, the character just didn't have that heartwarming core. Hard to balance the family-friendly expectations of Santa in the context of a scary alien siege, perhaps.
- Amusing to see regular Who actor Dan Starkey as elf Ian here, who's best-known as Strax the Sontaron. Starkey's also appeared in the past three Christmas specials.
- Professor Albert was played by Michael Troughton, whose father, Patrick Troughton, was the Second Doctor