‘Last Christmas’ as a title is almost certainly referencing the famous Wham!/George Michael hit which is one of those songs that is usually back in the Top 40 around Christmastime.
But while that song means “last Christmas” as in “the previous Christmas”, the title of this episode is more “last Christmas” as in “the final Christmas”.
As is common for the Doctor Who Christmas Specials, the guest star gets a mention in the opening credits. This time it is Nick Frost who is playing none other than Santa Claus, having already made a cameo appearance in the series seven finale ‘Death In Heaven’. However, Santa Claus is a bit of a red herring, as he doesn’t actually appear in the episode very much.
The episode begins with Clara being woken up by the sound of Santa Claus having crashed his sleigh on her roof. He has two annoying elf helpers and his reindeer have got loose and are flying in the sky. The Doctor arrives in the TARDIS and he and Clara go to the North Pole.
They arrive in the North Pole at a scientific research base which has become infested with creatures called Dream Crabs, which resemble a monstrous clawed hand. The creatures attack by attaching themselves to someone’s face and taking over their body. The Doctor explains that the Dream Crabs induce their victims into a dream-like state while devouring their brains. They are very like the Facehuggers in Alien, which is even lampshaded by one of the crew at the base. Hundreds of Dream Crabs descend from the ceiling onto the Doctor, Clara and the crew but in what seems like a deus ex machina at first, they are rescued by Santa.
When Clara is taken over by a Dream Crab we see an example of what their dream states are like. Clara is having an idyllic Christmas with her late boyfriend Danny Pink. The Doctor is able to communicate with Clara, which manifests itself in her dream as messages on a chalkboard telling her that it isn’t reality and she is dying. The Doctor then comes into Clara’s dream in person, having allowed himself to be attacked by a Dream Crab. This whole section reminded me very much of Red Dwarf, with the Doctor telling Clara how a Dream Crab has “put a straw straight through your skull and is drinking it”, which is the same way the Psirens in Red Dwarf killed their prey. The Doctor trying to tell Clara that what she was experiencing was too good to be true and she was actually dying reminded me of the Red Dwarf novel Better Than Life (more so than the TV episode of the same name), which features the characters lost in a virtual reality video game where their deepest wishes are true, but they are wasting away in the real world. It was also a bit like the Red Dwarf ‘Back To Earth’ episodes when the show was revived on Dave where a Happiness Squid induces the characters into a blissful fantasy.
Clara is persuaded to come back, and when she does we see that the Dream Crabs disintegrate into dust if their host regains control of their own body. This is something which doesn’t change throughout the episode, but from this point onwards things get a bit more complicated and reminiscent of Inception with concepts such as shared dreaming and dreams within dreams.
The Doctor theorises that the Dream Crabs took possession of everyone when they attacked from the ceiling, and that Santa coming to rescue them, and everything that has happened since, is part of a shared dream. He tries to confirm this by giving the crew their instruction manuals, asking Clara to come up with a random page number and asking each member to read out the first word on each page. It is extremely unlikely one person could memorise the whole book word for word, let alone four, so if they are in reality everyone should get the same word. They don’t. In fact, one time it forms a sentence. “We”. “Are.” “All” “Dead”. Santa turns up again to confirm he is simply the part of their brains which is trying to keep them alive.
Knowing that they aren’t in reality, everyone manages to wake up. However, Clara points out that if Santa was just a figment of their shared imaginations bought on by the Dream Crabs, then why did she meet him before they even got to the North Pole base? The Doctor thinks about it, and has an answer. They never came to the North Pole base, and the crew didn’t either. The base is just part of the shared dream, and everyone is back at home asleep with the Dream Crab on them. They are all from different places, maybe even different times as the series 7 finale ‘The Name of The Doctor’ established that time travel within dreams is possible. One of the crew ends up dying, which tragically means that he has been killed in real life. Instead of trying to will themselves to wake up, everyone imagines Santa coming to rescue them again and take them home. Everyone wakes up in their proper time and place, except Clara.
The Doctor goes to find her, and removes the Dream Crab from her. However, Clara is now an old woman. It turns out that 62 years have passed since the Doctor and Clara last met. They both express regret at not meeting up sooner. Santa turns up yet again, and both the Doctor and Clara realise they are still both possessed by Dream Crabs and everything in the episode up until this point has been a dream.
The Doctor and Clara both wake up again, finally back in reality, and with Clara the same age as she was when she and the Doctor last met. They decide that this is a second chance and that they shouldn’t waste the opportunity, and they begin to travel together again.
‘Last Christmas’ is one of the more finely tuned Christmas specials. It is a big mash-up of influences from other films and TV shows, as well as Christmas folklore, and has a fairly convoluted narrative, but it is all quite nicely orchestrated so it doesn’t come off as a mess. It also actually feels Christmassy, which to be honest a lot of Doctor Who Christmas specials don’t particularly. The ones that do feel Christmassy include this one, 2005’s ‘A Christmas Invasion’ and 2010’s ‘A Christmas Carol’. All three had the word “Christmas” in the title, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the reason. It’s more that in these three episodes Christmas has some relevance to the plot rather than it just being awkwardly in the background like most of the others.
There were several occasions in this episode where they seemed to be signposting the farewell to Clara, and that she wasn’t going to make it out alive, which seemed likely to happen as it fitted with rumours that Jenna Coleman was going to leave the show soon. It has since been confirmed that she will be staying on for series nine, which I am very pleased about.
I like nested stories, so I liked that they used that technique for this episode, even if it did make things a bit confusing at times. Visually, the episode was a treat, the colours were magnificent, which I guess is appropriate as the episode was a long Christmas fantasy sequence. But it had some very poignant lines about how every Christmas is potentially your last Christmas, or your last Christmas with loved ones, so that’s why people want to enjoy it and come together and celebrate with them.
This was a very solid episode with a lot going for it. I’m not sure I’d put it as an all time favourite, it’s perhaps a little too slick and polished for my tastes if I’m going to nitpick, but by any means it is a very good episode.