Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, meeting Santa. (BBC)
To begin with, let’s just get this out of the way: No, a lot of what happens on this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special doesn’t really make very much sense. It is a fun story about dreams within dreams, several of said dreams involving a real, living Santa Claus who may or may not exist. And if you think about it for about 20 seconds, it all starts to come unraveled.
For instance, the whole chain of events that led to our protagonists’ series of nested dreams, we find out, is set into motion when the Doctor encounters a “dream crab”—a psychic parasite that reads your thoughts and traps you in a dream state while it eats your brain—on some alien planet. Then it follows the Doctor’s thoughts to find and suck out Clara’s brain, too. The whole story in which the Doctor flies to Earth and finds Clara and takes her to the North Pole turns out to be a shared hallucination. The Doctor was actually on the alien planet the whole time, while Clara was in her bed on Earth, both with crabs on their faces.
But if the Doctor never actually flew to Earth, then how did the crabs get to Earth to capture Clara too? The crabs don’t fly. And why on Earth did it pick four other random people to bring into their dream? And if the whole point is to keep them sedated and happy while they suck out their brains, why is their shared hallucination a freaky dream about being trapped at the North Pole with brain-sucking crabs, rather than about having a lovely Christmas at home, like Clara’s own dream-within-a-dream (within-a-dream (within-a-dream)(I think)) was?
Yes, it is really hard to pull off a dream-within-a-dream story without creating plotlines that make no sense—just ask Christopher Nolan. (Actually no, don’t. He’d just take three hours to tell you something he could have explained in 20 minutes.)
The thing is, though, it feels downright uncharitable to pull this episode apart this way. It is a Christmas story, after all. It is a fun, celebratory and ultimately great story, one that manages to split the difference between heartwarming and terrifying in a clever way that represents Doctor Who at the top of its game. It was certainly the best Christmas special this show has turned in since its 2005 reboot (not a high bar, admittedly), and it carried the main Clara plotline forward in a touching and emotionally satisfying way.
Say what you will about Stephen Moffatt and his narrative foibles (I certainly have), but he does have a particular talent for turning the weaknesses of his show into its virtues. And “Last Christmas” is the best example of this yet: It is an episode built around Moffatt using his own storytelling limitations, and the narrative limitations of Doctor Who, against themselves in productive and enjoyable ways.
By making everything we see parts of various dreams, the show makes us understand how the logic of Doctor Who has always been dreamlike. We are always being thrown into a new situation whose background is a bit hazy. There are always going to be things that don’t make complete sense if you think too hard about them. Some stories are always going to seem like they are reconstructed out of elements of other stories. And, most importantly, the Doctor has always been a living myth, a demented version of Santa Claus who bestows his gifts (“all of time and space,” natch) on just one lucky good child, every once in a while.
The special distinction of Clara as a companion is not her grit or her passion or her loyalty. She has all of those things in spades, but so did many of her predecessors. Her real accomplishment is her understanding of this basic fact: no matter how long you spend with him, the Doctor is not someone you know; he’s someone you believe in.
Which brings us to Santa Claus. Nick Frost portrays him with admirable realism, a funny guy who nevertheless never becomes a punch line, and who can go toe-to-toe with the Doctor when he needs to. And the fact that he may or may not actually exist only adds to and resonates with the clever themes of the episode—for one thing, how much more ridiculous are flying reindeer and a sleigh than a time-traveling blue police box?
In other words, Moffatt has also managed to find a way out of the conundrum of cheesy Christmas specials. This now-decade-old tradition generally suffers from its own contradictions: a heartwarming holiday tale, ostensibly for kids, set within the universe (and carrying forward the story) of a complex and self-referential sci-fi tale. The specials tend to slide into either treacly Miracle on 34th Street territory on the one hand or incomprehensible hodgepodgery on the other.
But by setting everything in dreams in which Santa is at once the savior figure and the signal that the world is really fake and therefore a trap, this year’s installment manages to sidestep that problem entirely. The heartwarming bit becomes the narrative complexity, instead of having to sit uneasily beside it.
It’s also a clever conjunction of themes. Dreams and Santa Claus don’t have all that much to do with one another. But there is one place, of course, where the two meet: wish fulfillment. And thus it is that, without sacrificing the dark tone of the show—they’re getting their brains sucked out my face-hugging crabs the whole time, remember—we get a series of narrative satisfactions that will gladden the heart of any Whovian.
We finally get a proper sendoff for Danny Pink (though hopefully not to Samuel Anderson; there’s still his grandson Orson, after all), set in the innermost dream of the episode. We get to see the Doctor smile with true joy, for once, reminding us that he is, in fact, an incarnation of the grinning boy Clara knew. We get one possible version of a final parting between the Doctor and Clara, a touching scene in which Clara has grown very old and lived a full, adventurous life without him.
And then, because the Doctor makes a wish, a real wish, Santa Claus comes back one last time to fulfill that one too. Because the old-Clara scene was actually the last layer of their dreams. (Or it was an original ending, written before Jenna Coleman decided to stay on the show for another season. Or both. Probably both.) And once they are fully awake and back in the real(-ish) world, the Doctor and Clara realize, touchingly, that their journey is far from over.