Santa Claus becomes a character of surprising dramatic potential when you place him under the Doctor’s perspective. No longer is he a face beaming ruddily out at you from the insincere aisles of a department store. On Doctor Who he becomes a seat of judgment, qualified to tally the sins of a being that few in the universe could conceptualize, let alone consider objectively. He knows who’s been naughty and nice, so where does the Doctor stand in that estimation? (Which Doctor are we talking about? When?) Beyond the ability to truly put our Time Lord on trial, Santa Claus also represents an equal to the Doctor. Both are creatures of myth who defy the laws of their universe with regularity and as such they are both uniquely able to discuss the burdens of their loftiness with each other.
Doctor Who’s 2014 Christmas episode “Last Christmas” does not grapple with these facets of the Doctor directly. How could it? We are only human, as is Clara, and we can only imagine what it is like to be someone who can shift the very winds of fate itself. We can only create boundary-defying television shows like Doctor Who and depict the Doctor and Santa Claus as we think they would act and the only tool we have to shape this televised reality is our belief. These stories are only as real as we want them to be.
“Last Christmas” concerns itself largely with instilling this truth through the bleary-eyed, tricksy, dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams plot, but if this was all that writer and showrunner Steven Moffat had bothered to offer, then the episode would not have grown into the ambitious and touching story that it ultimately became.
Since the plot of “Last Christmas” is borrowed, that means its initial twists are as well. It takes a little while, but eventually the episode disposes with the insistence that Nick Frost’s Santa Claus is real, or that the viewer somehow isn’t watching the Doctor and Clara claw their way out of dream after dream. Moffat crafts the episode with that irritation in mind and before the revelation that all the characters have been dreamcrabbin’, “Last Christmas” puts all of its efforts into running interference, shifting from foot to foot before we can get too annoyed with any one thing.
Jumping from non-resolution to non-resolution runs the risk of just making us all the more irritated, and in a lesser episode this would absolutely be the case, but “Last Christmas” uses these moments of distraction to add a layer of joy and emotional satisfaction so complex that they would be multi-episode arcs for less imaginative television shows. While Shona’s dance is a pure drunken-wedding delight, Santa’s rescue of the North Pole base is some tour de force goofballery. I laughed and clapped hard when those robots and slinkies rolled in, and I am someone with a 401K, so I can only imagine the utter glee a child must have experienced at this sequence.
In the same manner, that child could probably only imagine the deep well of ache I experienced at seeing Danny and Clara happy together. False ideal lives are a favorite trick of Steven Moffat’s, starting from the Library episodes of Tennant’s era and reappearing about once a season since then, but “Last Christmas” is by far his most effective use of it. The ache we experience from Clara’s dream of Danny comes from more than just waiting for her to realize that he’s not real, it comes from the opportunity the sequence creates for Clara to mourn for Danny in a way that feels honest to her character and honest to how we the viewers have been affected by death in our own lives.
It would be easy, so easy, for the episode to make a point of how cruel the universe is for making Clara watch Danny die a third time, and before this scene concludes you suspect that this might be where the ominously-titled “Last Christmas” is going. We as viewers don’t know what Jenna Coleman’s future with the show is yet, and in the fiction of the show Clara knows that Danny exists within a real afterlife. So if just lets this dream play out then she could be with him again. The happy dream could actually go on forever. We could be watching a companion, the Doctor’s best friend, choose death right now, at Christmas. Despite the presence of Santa, the episode’s setting and tone has been bleak so far.
The fact that we don’t see that happen is so important in the face of the events of this episode and in the face of the harsher, more cynical Doctor that Capaldi thus far represents. Danny, dream Danny, is not just there to provide comfort for Clara, he is there fully as himself in her memory, and that means he’s the Danny that will always sacrifice himself for her. (“The rest of you just got lucky.”) Even dream Danny tells Clara to go, to live, to remember and being able to do so because he wishes it brings her such joy.
For us, the emotion of re-experiencing the loss of Danny is overshadowed by the bursting, spiraling shine of seeing that Clara remembers the very best of the man she loved. She honors him by mourning him in this way. She believed in Danny, really truly, and this is what sustains her as the darkness closes in around them in a bleak base in the North Pole.
This is the real plot twist of “Last Christmas.” The revelation here isn’t that Danny isn’t real, it’s that Danny is the only thing that is real. This makes the monsters that she and the Doctor face all the more scarier. Now we know that those Legend of Zelda Wallmaster creeps are capable of trapping their victims in dreams where they fight for and realize what they actually want. Okay, I’ll be straight with you now, says “Last Christmas” to its viewers. It’s all dreams-within-dreams like you thought and Santa isn’t real, but this episode isn’t actually about that! It’s not even about Christmas or Santa! They are incidental totems representing the real story here: Who do we believe in? Why do we believe in them? What quality of the universe does their existence promote and sustain?
Santa is an excellent answer to this question. He is purity; a reward for spreading goodness and cheer in a universe that is 99.99% darkness. He is an ideal that there can be something more beyond what you can see and touch, and that this “something more” can be encountered without fear. Of course Clara has always believed in Santa. She travels with the Doctor.
Learning the kind of people that Clara believes in gives us a much clearer idea of what Clara believes in herself, a piece of information that, despite the substantial character-building Clara has undergone in season 8, was still missing from the series. Seeing this revelation construct itself is also why we don’t see who the Doctor believes in until the very end of the story. This isn’t the Doctor’s story; it’s Clara’s, it’s ours. Our belief shapes the story and that story becomes reality. We believe that the Doctor gets a boy-ish thrill in being asked to drive Santa’s sleigh, so he does. (And it’s great.) Shona believes that she’s a scientist and that her North Pole base compatriots should all be friends in real life, so she takes charge of that narrative upon waking.
Most importantly, by the end of “Last Christmas” everyone real and fictional and Santa believes that the Doctor believes in Clara. And so, when season 9 appears next August, this will be the reality we watch unfold.
What begins as a by-the-numbers tale about dreams, fear, and believing in the spirit of Christmas ends up as a deeply honest exploration of why it’s important to believe in others in the first place. It’s one thing to believe in Santa, Moffat seems to be saying in “Last Christmas,” but you should know just how important that ability to believe really is and the profound affect it has on the way you live your life. When we come into this life we are granted time and space, but believing and connecting with others—our loved ones and our beloved fairy tales—is what gives that life its relative dimensions.
- Okay, when the Doctor woke up on the fire/volcano set from “Dark Water” did anyone besides me FLIP OUT at the possibility that most of the season 8 finale had been a dream and that the Master hadn’t been vaporized yet and Danny could be saved? I really thought they were going to go there.
- But it was probably just bad set continuity, which is odd, because I thought Clara’s last Christmas with Danny was one of the best shot and designed sequences they’ve done lately. Check out how Clara gets smaller and more childlike the more she refuses to accept that she’s dreaming. Then the pet carrier in the background under the tree after she follows Santa-Danny downstairs…so perfect.
- “There are all kinds of dangerous creatures on Earth. You eat most of them.”
- That’s a hat trick for the Troughton family! Both sons of Second Doctor Patrick Troughton have now appeared on the program. Michael Troughton was the ill-mannered Professor Albert in this episode and his brother David Troughton was similarly ill-mannered professor in Tennant-era episode “Midnight.”
- I thought this was a dodgy episode at its outset but it cohered into one of my favorite Who Christmas specials ever. The only thing that really didn’t land for me was Nick Frost’s performance as Santa Claus. He was okay, but the role was seemingly written for a performer with an imperious wry humor, and not the bumblingly innocent coiner of “fuck ugly”s that Frost is so great at playing.