Santa Claus, sassy elves, dream crabs that suck out your brain, the Doctor and Clara together again, and Christmas - how could it miss?
I wasn’t a huge fan of “Last Christmas” my first time through, even though the episode had a great many things I liked, including a sarcastically funny Santa (played by the wonderfully-named Nick Frost) with his aforementioned sassy elves, some great dialogue, one last hurrah from Danny Pink (of sorts), and not one but two touching endings.
First things first: a brief recap. Clara wakes to a noise on her rooftop, only to find that Santa and two elves have crashed the sleigh. The TARDIS arrives (after Clara tells Santa no longer believes in mythical creatures) and the Doctor insists Clara get in. The two arrive at the North Pole, where a four scientists are studying four alien life forms in the infirmary - dream crabs that have landed on the faces of the base’s crew, putting them in a dream state and coming active whenever someone thinks of the creatures. As the crabs wake, Santa arrives to save them. Clara falls under the influence of a crab and dreams that she’s having Christmas with Danny. When the Doctor fails to wake her, he goes into her dream (with another crab now attached to his face) to induce her to wake. The Doctor slowly realizes that they are all in a dream state, and Clara’s was only a dream-within-a dream. He convinces them of this by having each read the first word on a random page of their base manuals - each one is different. They all “wake,” and the Doctor prepares to leave with Clara before he understands that they’re still in the dream. Santa again saves the day, taking the crew away on his sleigh while each wakes. When the Doctor wakes, he uses the TARDIS to travel to Clara’s house, where she is still under the influence of a crab. He removes the crab, only to find that over sixty years have passed. He and the elderly Clara talk, before the Doctor realizes it is he who is still dreaming. Waking once again, he takes the TARDIS to Clara’s house, wakes her, and the two leave in the TARDIS.
The basic plot - the collective dreams, the dreams-within-dreams and the impossibility of knowing when one is actually awake - was good, and the monsters were downright scary. Others have compared this to “Inception,” but I haven’t seen the movie. I was uneasy about the plot the first time through, and I think the reason came down to: how do we know that any of those endings were real? I’d hate to sit through Season 9 and find out that it was all an extended dream of the Doctor’s. The second time through, this bothered me less, and I was able to enjoy the adventure. I suspect that knowing from the start that this was a collective dream state allowed me to ignore any strange logic, as dreams seem to have a logic of their own. The episode never explained how the Doctor was caught by the crabs on whatever alien planet he was visiting, which is fine. More perplexing is how the crabs also got to Earth to infect Clara and the four unfortunate members of the “North Pole expedition.” That part isn’t dream logic; it’s just a plot hole.
I did like a great deal of the episode. Santa and his elves were terrific, as were the toys that made periodic appearances - the balloon toy one elf used as a gun, and the army of toys, led by a whole bunch of Slinkeys, that arrived as Santa came to save the day. When Clara says she stopped believing in Santa when she was old enough to understand that her parents were the ones who left gifts, the elves sneer, “Sure, parents. Because they pick one day a year to just give you a pile of presents. Just because they looooove you." When the Doctor asks Santa how he manages to get all the presents on the sleight, Santa replies, straight-faced, “Bigger on the inside.” The scene with dream-Danny, Clara, and the Doctor was terrific, especially when the Doctor reminds Clara that this can’t be Danny because “he died saving the world.” Danny responds, “I did die, but not saving the world. I died saving Clara. The rest of you just got lucky.” The line that the North Pole crew all use when the Doctor asks a question - “It’s a long story” - let the Doctor realize they were in a collective dream, and the payoff came later in the episode, when Clara used it as well. When the Doctor visits Old Clara, there is a touching reversal of the scene in “Time of the Doctor,” in which Clara has to help the aged Doctor pull his part of the Christmas cracker. Here, Old Clara can’t manage the cracker, and the Doctor gently helps her. (He presents to her two paper hats that come in crackers and gives one to her, saying, “Everything seems funny” when people wear them.)
Listening to the Verity! podcast discussing the episode, Tansy Roberts said she was apprehensive watching the episode with her young children because she was afraid the episode would blow the cover on Santa’s existence. In the end, she thought they danced around the topic enough to preserve the holiday for the kids for a few more years. I re-watched the episode after listening to the podcast, and I thought the episode came awfully close to saying flat out that Santa was a fiction, appearing only in the dreams to give aid and comfort to the dreamers. Certainly no child who was on the fence about Santa’s existence would see the episode and come away with renewed faith in his existence.
Although the scene with Old Clara would have been an amazing exit for the character, I was glad to see Jenna Coleman signed on for more episodes and that we’ll see her in Season 9. Now to wait out the long time until then...