Monday, December 29, 2014

Dreams, Movie References, And Another Unresolved Doctor Who: “Last Christmas!”

The Good: Good plot development, Decent performances
The Bad: No real character development, Lack of resolution
The Basics: When alien parasites attack The Doctor, Clara and an Arctic base, the entire season of Doctor Who comes into question, thanks to “Last Christmas!”

Regardless of how the rest of the season finale of Doctor Who went, it is pretty hard to fight the feeling that Peter Capaldi’s first season as The Doctor ended in a pretty shit place. Regardless of what the BBC would call it, I tend to consider the last episode before a long hiatus the season finale and, despite how much the rest of “Death In Heaven” (reviewed here!) played itself up as the end of the season, the last moments of the episode and its follow-up “Last Christmas” argue otherwise. It is virtually impossible to discuss “Last Christmas” without talking about where “Death In Heaven” ended, so consider that a spoiler alert!

“Last Christmas” is the latest Doctor Who Christmas special/season finale and it has the unenviable task of picking up the Doctor Who story at a terrible place. The eighth season of Doctor Who climaxed with the death of Danny Pink, a Cyberman attack, and The Doctor being told that his long-lost homeworld of Gallifray had returned to our universe at its original coordinates. While the problem of Missy lying to The Doctor (as Peter Capaldi’s performance in “Death In Heaven” strongly implied) was fertile ground from which to launch a new character arc for The Doctor, “Last Christmas” is saddled with the burden of trying to be clever, while still being surprising. The crux of the problem at the end of “Death In Heaven” and at the outset of “Last Christmas” is that the viewer knows that Danny Pink cannot be permanently dead as the story would have us believe; in “Listen” (reviewed here!), Clara and The Doctor met Danny and Clara’s descendant. Given that Clara and Danny had not conceived a child from which to have an ancestor, Danny could not remain truly and completely dead. The implication at the climax of “Death In Heaven” was that the mechanism by which Danny Pink would be resurrected would be . . . Santa Claus.

Clara wakes up in bed, discovering that Santa Claus is on her roof, talking about tangerines. The Doctor and the TARDIS appear and he demands Clara come with him, before he confronts Santa Claus. Hopping in the TARDIS, The Doctor asks Clara if she actually believes in Santa Claus. In the Arctic, a four person team is trying to get to an airlock, through a medical bay that houses their four contaminated comrades. The victims are unconscious, having fallen prey to a parasite called dream crabs. They only attack when the victim thinks about them and it detects a mental picture of itself in the victim’s mind. When the Doctor and Clara arrive, it leaves the mission of the Arctic team compromised and after the parasites attack all six, the group is rescued by Santa Claus.

As The Doctor and the Arctic team study the dream crabs that have infested the station, Clara is attacked by one. Clara finds herself back with Danny Pink and, despite seeing chalk boards telling her that she is in a dream and dying, she shrugs off the warnings of her subconscious mind. The Doctor enters her dream directly and convinces her of it lack of reality. But when she wakes up from it, thanks in part to the dream Danny making another heroic sacrifice, the lack of a wound on her head from the dream crab makes her question reality. As she and the base’s inhabitants struggle to wake up, the Doctor tries to combat the dream crabs and formulate a way out of their telepathic attack.

“Last Christmas” might well be the episode of Doctor Who that alludes to the greatest number of other works. The dream crabs are reminiscent of – and explicitly referenced as similar to – the facehuggers in Alien (reviewed here!). The description The Doctor gives for what the parasites are doing to the brain is an allusion to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Phantasms” (reviewed here!) where Data sees invisible parasites through dream imagery. And the tangerines in “Last Christmas” are Steven Moffat’s equivalent of the spinning top in Inception (reviewed here!).

So, “Last Christmas” starts fun as a series of clever lines and quickly devolves into a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream. The problem with “Last Christmas” is that the audience that is savvy-enough to understand what Steven Moffat is doing with the layers of dreams is smart enough to see the reversals late in the episode coming a mile away. So, there is something of a “fuck all” aspect to “Last Christmas” and it is basically that the episode serves to call into question not only the whole final arc of the season finale, but the entire prior season. (***More on that below the “Not Quite Spoiler Version” note below!***)

Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman and Nick Frost (Santa) play their parts well and, unfortunately, much of their role is to explain the plot. “Last Christmas” is an exposition-heavy episode with no real character development. As a result, it is an episode that leaves one without much to say about the episode as it is, as opposed to the episode as it fits into the larger context of the season and series Doctor Who.

That said, the dream crabs are a cool idea that are designed to be creepy. It is a fitting tribute to the 35th anniversary of Alien as much as it is a neat Doctor Who alien. Still, “Last Christmas” is an episode that ultimately insults the intelligence of Doctor Who fans by setting up the biggest reversal of the season without bringing an actual resolution to it. In other words, Steven Moffat strings viewers along before essentially admitting that the past few episodes have been unreal . . . but then does not give the viewer the satisfaction of having a true “wake up” moment. That means that, just as “Last Christmas” opened with the burden of pressure for the series to resolve resurrecting Danny Pink, the episode finishes with the immense pressure of making another episode that does not simply explain the multi-layered dreams, but compellingly resolves the entire arc.

Otherwise, it is impossible for fans to continue watching and not simply cry “bullshit” at all that comes next.

For other works with Nick Frost, please visit my reviews of:
The World’s End
Snow White And The Huntsman

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Eighth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor here!



Only continue to read this if you’ve seen “Last Christmas” and the rest of the eighth season of Doctor Who!

“Last Christmas” is just riddled with problems, even though it seems to be the answer to a number of issues. Ironically, several of the problems are actually encapsulated in the way the episode fails to genuinely resolve.

The dream crabs are a neat idea, but they are an entity on the order of the creatures from “Listen.” In “Listen,” the Doctor goes hunting for a creature that is the perfect hider. The dream crabs are only active when they sense creatures perceiving them (a concept that sounds great, but is entirely hinged on the idea that the parasites recognize themselves . . . get it? The parasite only knows the thing you’re thinking of is it if it reads your mind, sees you looking at it and considering it and then it recognizes itself as the creature you’re thinking of!). As the dream states “end,” the creatures desiccate. There is no reason in nature for a parasite, which is presumably dying because its host is either dead or rejecting it, to immolate itself. If the creature can only exist in the alien environment for a short time unattached to its host, then that makes some sense, but not the act of resisting (think about trying to set yourself on fire with the power of your mind when you’ve just starved).

So, between that and the lack of significant wounds on the faces of those who have “escaped” and the tangerines, viewers know that the victims are still in the dream.

The question, then, becomes “how far back does the dream go?” The unsophisticated answer is “Dark Water” (reviewed here!). That faux-answer comes from how and where The Doctor appears to wake up from his dream. The Doctor, whenever he wakes up alone in “Last Christmas” is outside the TARDIS on the edge of the volcano that Clara took him to in “Dark Water.” The problem for the more sophisticated viewer is that The Doctor on the edge of the volcano was an image . . . from Clara’s dream, not The Doctor’s. That leaves two possibilities: 1. Clara succeeded in knocking The Doctor out with his patch and all that has followed is moments after Clara and the Doctor were reunited following Danny’s death or 2. The Doctor, Clara and Danny were attacked by dream crabs far, far, earlier in the season . . . like back around “Listen.”

“Last Christmas” forces fans of Doctor Who to go back and question everything from the current season of the show. Given how many scenes include only The Doctor, Clara or Danny, the only permutation that makes any real sense is that the three of them were attacked by dream crabs (the fact that the Doctor and Clara remain in the dream state at the climax of “Last Christmas” is the evidence – in series – of the existence of the parasites). In other words, from a narrative sense, it makes no sense to have scenes with Danny if he is not a part of the parasites telepathic link (much like it makes no sense in stories of characters who are in the middle of a death dream to have scenes where that character is not present). The thing is, “Last Christmas” is so unsatisfying because it calls into question everything in the season, including the season premiere, but having raised the questions, it fails to answer them.

Clara and the newly-regenerated Doctor went through a series of adventures that were remarkably mundane in the current season. Almost everything encountered by The Doctor and Clara in the eighth season were things that were human, humanoid, and/or encountered by both of them in the past. The Doctor (in his prior incarnation) and Clara had encountered Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax before. The first time we see The Doctor in this season is after the TARDIS has been ejected from a dinosaur’s throat. “The Time Of The Doctor” saw The Doctor regenerating from Matt Smith to Peter Capaldi. As “Last Christmas” belabors pointing out, dreams have incongruities and leaps that those in the dream do not question. Director Paul Wilmshurst seems to realize that by the way he directs the episode – the group is attacked, cut to a shot outside the base for a massive explosion and then a rescue from Santa’s toys. But look back at the season of Doctor Who: it opens with a complete non-sequitor from the last time we saw The Doctor.

Moreover, episodes like “Into The Dalek” (reviewed here!) which begins with The Doctor arriving from the distant future and illustrates what appears to be a flashback works much better in dream terms. In other words, if the episode happens in its literal order, The Doctor arrives at Clara’s school moments after he was in the future and in telling her the story of their mission, he actually experiences it only then (it’s not a flashback, it’s a temporal discontinuity that makes sense in dreamline nonlinear).

But a parasite that needs to keep its host in a dreamstate to feed upon it would want to make its dreams as much like reality as possible. Things like exploding dinosaurs in Victorian London might fit in perfectly with The Doctor and Clara’s lives, but things like Jenny’s TARDIS blue vest and Strax reading her thoughts in “Deep Breath” along with the familiar monster of the week for that episode make for a remarkably rational introduction to a dreamstate.

The tirade The Doctor gives in “Deep Breath” is, unfortunately, the best argument for the parasite attacking ridiculously early in the narrative. In that episode, The Doctor comments that his face looks familiar and he asks what could be happening that he couldn’t just tell himself. If the prior incarnation of The Doctor was attacked on Trenzalore (an idea that is not out of the question considering that prophecy stated he would die on Trenzalore and the planet was surrounded by every adversary in the universe), choosing a familiar face as he regenerated would provide his next iteration with a clue that he was trapped in an unreal state.

Even such a lavish theory does not improve the current season of Doctor Who . . . for one simple reason: “Last Christmas” does not resolve. Instead of having a season that tells a single, complex story that is brilliant, “Death In Heaven” ends on an anticlimax, “Last Christmas” says “question everything” and it all hinges – as too much recent Doctor Who has – on the next episode.

. . . And yes, The Missy subplot actually works as a function of The Doctor’s subconscious guilt in a dream narrative! Sadly, none of this makes “Last Christmas” any better on its own.

For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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