We don’t believe in Santa Claus because he’s real. He’s real because we believe in him.
There’s that kind of power in our fantasies, our fairy tales, our heroes. They don’t have to exist in our world. And it might be far better that they don’t. Reality can be a mess sometimes, maybe most times. And it’s a comfort to know that there’s something outside of it. Something better. Something impossible and incredible and great.
And so we create these heroes and vest our faith in them. Like Santa Claus.
Like the Doctor.
Beyond its festive surface, “Last Christmas” is the proper finale to Doctor Who‘s wild and wonderful eighth series. And Steven Moffat delivers on the two promises he made at the very end of “Death in Heaven.” He gives us Santa Claus, and he gives the Doctor and Clara the happy ending they deserved all along.
The plot is the kind of “base under siege by alien monsters” story you’ve seen before in episodes like “The Waters of Mars,” and “Midnight,” and many of the stories of Patrick Troughton’s era (son Michael Troughton’s appearance helps drive that point home). And because so much of it is so immediately familiar to us, it’s the perfect playground for a nightmare.
As the characters themselves point out, this particular assault is very reminiscent of Alien, right down to the face-hugging “dream crabs.” (This is where I’m legally obligated to quote the Doctor’s already classic response: “There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.”) And the way they attack their victims, offering them a dream life while they devour their minds, is a gruesome variant of Moffat’s own Weeping Angels. That’s the way dreams and nightmares work. They take the things we all know in our lives, and twist them. The familiar becomes strange, terrifying, wondrous, and sometimes all three at once.
Through several “is this real?” fake-outs that somehow never feel like cheats, the characters come to realize that the only way to escape the nightmare is to embrace the dream. And so, two characters, made real by their unreality, emerge to help the Doctor, Clara, and the base’s team.
(Before I go on, I have to shout-out the supporting cast. With very little to work with – since this is a nightmare, their characters are designed to be more type than true – Michael Troughton, Natalie Gumede, and Maureen Beattie still create characters you can care about. And Faye Marsay brings such heart to her role – do I even need to mention her opening dance number? – that you hope against hope she’ll one day find a place in the TARDIS.)
“How do you get all the presents into your sleigh?”
“Bigger on the inside.”
It was more or less inevitable that we’d see the Doctor and Santa team up. And you’d think that the more childlike Eleven would have been a much better fit for that. But I’m glad they waited. And I’m especially glad to see Nick Frost cast as Santa. His take is a perfect combination of the jolly legend and the wry hard man, and he almost steals every scene he’s in. Almost, because many of those scenes have him contending with the Doctor, and while Frost well holds his own against Peter Capaldi, they effectively share their moments.
And I’d be remiss not to mention Santa’s sarcastic elves, Nathan McMullen and the incomparable Dan Starkey. Their ongoing commentary is a hilarious bow on the gift of this episode – though, seeing “Strax” out of makeup should have been the first red flag for viewers that this might not be entirely real. (The Oz gambit, of course.)
It’s Santa who reminds our heroes that a dream can save them precisely because it’s a dream. And it’s another dream who reminds them that it’s okay to wake up.
It’s one of the great strengths of “Last Christmas” that Moffat doesn’t forget what the Doctor and Clara have been through to get there. He’s still missing Gallifrey. And she’s still mourning Danny Pink. So, of course, one of her dreams within dreams within dreams finds her sharing the life with Danny that she could never have in the real world.
I was always a fan of Samuel Anderson’s work on the show, but his performance in “Last Christmas” exceeded even my expectations. The dream of Danny is at once perfect and perfectly human. Even though he’s a projection of Clara’s mind, he’s still his own man, challenging the Doctor (“I didn’t die saving the world, I died saving Clara. The rest of you just got lucky”) and encouraging her to let go, move on with her life:
“Do you know why people get together at Christmas? Because every time they do it might be the last time. Every Christmas is last Christmas and this is ours. This was a bonus, this is extra. Now it’s time to wake up.”
In the end, she does. And so does the Doctor. But they’ve brought something back with them. Something we haven’t seen in far too long.
Their sense of wonder.
“I’ve always believed in Santa Claus. But he looks a little different to me.“
There’s a sense of hope in the episode’s final moments, a sense that after all the loss and pain the Doctor and Clara have suffered (to say nothing of one last gut-wrenching fake-out from Moffat), they’re finally ready to enjoy their adventures in time and space again. And nothing expresses that hope better than the Doctor’s sleigh ride.
Granted, that’s still in the dream world. We know that, and so do our characters. But none of that matters, because the Doctor’s joy is real. It might be the most real thing in the entire story. He’s so wrapped up in it, he even lets Clara hug him. After a season of consistently brilliant work, Peter Capaldi is still surprising us with new ways to see the Doctor. It’s a perfect place to end the year in Doctor Who.
And it’s a perfect start for the year to come. As promised, we’ll see Twelve and Clara again, in a story called “The Magician’s Apprentice.” It’s a great title, and one that gives me hope that we’ll get to see them have more fun with their characters, and to share that fun with us.
And who knows, we may even catch a glimpse of Santa again. As we’re reminded by that last shot of a tangerine that shouldn’t be there, there’s nothing more real than our best fantasies.
Thanks once again for following along. It’s been a great ride this season, and I’m excited to see where the next one leads us.