The Doctor and Clara arrive at a scientific base at the North Pole. Can Father Christmas help them defeat the Dream Crabs which threaten to eat their brains?
It’s a great strength of Doctor Who that, after fifty years, you can’t entirely rule out the possibility that Santa Claus really would appear as a character. The show is so indefinable and surprising that it was entirely possible when we sat down to watch Last Christmas. This is strengthened as the episode unfolds, as ‘Sweet Papa Crimbo’ is aligned with the Doctor himself: as a fairy tale character with improbable, but instantly-recognisable, iconography.
A subtle clue as to the nature of this Father Christmas is the way he speaks differently to each character. When he first meets Clara on her rooftop he immediately starts lying to her. This echoes Clara’s series eight arc of becoming increasingly adept at deception. He mirrors the Doctor by taking his role in identifying the alien race, and later cheekily telling him that his sleigh is “bigger on the side.” He adopts a more sassy, modern attitude with Ashley and Shona (“My. Little. Pony.”).
The Dream Crabs themselves join the pantheon of Steven Moffat monsters who pose more existential horror than physical threat. As the Silence manipulate with memory, tapping into fear of losing your identity; the Crabs play with the solipsism – the idea that you can only be sure that your own mind is real. By the end of the episode we learn that the Doctor was under their influence by the closing credits of Death in Heaven. The planet he wakes up on looks so similar to the location Clara destroyed all the TARDIS keys in the medically-created dream state, I wondered if the entire series eight finale was being unravelled and re-written as a fantasy too.
Venturing onto Twitter before watching this episode you’d be forgiven for thinking that the episode is a wholesale plot-lift from Christopher Nolan’s Inception. I think it does a disservice to both stories to think that they can be summed up only by the way they are told. Besides ignoring the fact that the plots are not remotely similar, that unlike Inception, we don’t learn that the Doctor and co are experiencing dreams within dreams until the end… it also ignores the fact that false awakenings are a real thing that everyone actually experiences.
Last Christmas follows Listen as a great example of a Steven Moffat stand-alone story, unconnected with a wider arc, deftly mixing exploration of the regular characters with scares and laugh out loud dialogue. It’s a technique seemingly lifted from the Hinchcliffe-era of Doctor Who to make the scariest stories also be very funny. I suspect the dream-reveal ending ensures keener re-watching than most Christmas specials too.
Originally published on my Doctor Who blog, Trap One.