...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Day 5107: DOCTOR WHO: Wizard vs Aliens vs Santa

Christmas Day flashback:

26th March 2015 makes it ten years to the day since Christopher Eccleston first took Billie Piper by the hand and, with one word– "Run!" –changed television for good. So in celebration of that first episode of the gloriously successful return, here's a look at the most recent…

"We are such stuff as dreams are made on…"

I normally count Christmas Specials as the first episode of the new season, but "Last Christmas", the point where the Doctor and Clara stop lying to each other and run away together, feels properly the conclusion to Season 34 (8).

As a necessary measure of reality, true information does pass between them: the Doctor admits that he did not find Gallifrey; Clara tells the Doctor that Danny is dead. So in a strange way, in spite of it "all being a dream", this is, in a sense "real".

"It was all a dream" or "it was all a story", and that that does not necessarily stop something being "real", are of course defining characteristics of Stephen Moffat's time on Doctor Who.

The eleventh Doctor survives the crack in his first season because Amy remembers his story back into existence; the Silence arc is mostly about things being written in stone because they are history and how to rewrite them; the 2012 stories are set in the shadow of the Doctor erasing his story; Clara the "impossible girl" is the ultimate retcon, reinserting herself into the whole of the Doctor's story; and Peter Capaldi's first year has dwelt extensively on the danger of the story in the form of the lie.

This makes Santa only the most-cuddly of Moffat's self-insertions into his own writing, explicitly telling us that he is a dream; more than that, a dream that is trying to help.

Santa having an existence in the Doctor Who universe (as written by Mr Moffat) has indeed been alluded to before: the eleventh Doctor claimed to know him as Jeff in "A Christmas Carol"; while Rose asks the ninth if he thinks he is Santa in "The Doctor Dances" – "who says I'm not? Red bicycle when you were twelve," he replies, quoting "Miracle on 34th St" though Rose is perplexed enough that he may have genuinely delivered that red bike to her, too.

And the idea that the Doctor might be Santa does not entirely go away here. Since he first appeared to the Doctor alone, at the end of "Dark Water", you can infer that this "story" of Santa is a little corner of the Doctor's psyche that finds strength and resonance in the shared dream with first Clara and then the other victims of the deliciously creepy Dream Crabs, making him something a little bit more than the Dream Lord and a little bit less than the Valeyard – a distillation of all that is Christmas somewhere between the Doctor's twelfth and final incarnation. (sorry!)

This means, of course, that Nick Frost is playing the Doctor here, applying his usual "bumbling Nick Frost" persona with a salting of asperity, giving his Santa a grumpiness and fake bonhomie, to make it a not-quite-but-almost-reflection of Capaldi, which certainly fits the fact that they rub each other up the wrong way (he always does). As always, there's a lot of humour to be found in different aspects of the Doctor trying to score points of each other ("No one likes the tangerines", "bigger on the inside", "No, I do the science bit", "Dreamy-weamy"). Terrifying to think what the elves mean for the Doctor's view of his companions, though.

"…and our little life is rounded with a sleep."

But if Santa is not ever real, then how many of the other people in this story were really there? Do we accept at face value the Doctor's explanation that it was a shared dream? Does that not raise rather more questions – in terms of how the Dream Crabs arrived on Earth; why they picked the small number of people they attacked; why only those people – or are the rest of us supposed to be still trapped (which will make Fiona's Christmas dinner "uncomfortable" to say the least); are there more Dream Crabs (a whole invasion force, as is implied)? Or is it possible that Ashley, Fiona, Shona and Albert, the "Professor" with the suspiciously-familiar face, were all dream-aspects of the Doctor too?

The charismatic competent leader, the science-genius mother-figure, the gobby shop-girl who's smarter than she appears… don't they all sound just a bit like generic companion descriptions? While the nasty "Professor" who is the butt of the Doctor's scorn… would anyone like to hazard that he's not a reverse-Dream Lord, with the Doctor dishing out the self-hating instead of receiving it? Makes for a whole new take on death-of-the-self when he's swallowed by his own image. (And a Troughton interacting with a television screen is itself an in-series flashback to the second Doctor era.)

We see them wake up… but we see Clara wake up, too and that turns out to be a dream…

And what about the Dream Crabs? The fact that they look like Face-huggers doesn't just get a lantern hung upon it, it gets a 1000 Watt spotlight trained on it and gives us the best gag in the show ("No wonder you keep getting invaded!"). So do Face-huggers look like Dream Crabs because Giger was once a victim too, or do Dream Crabs look like Face-huggers because the Doctor (in his real reality) has seen "Alien" and is still pissed about it?

It's not completely impossible that all of this takes place in the TARDIS, inside the Doctor's head, in the minutes (seconds?) after the end of "Dark Water": everything from the moment Santa first appears, Dream Crabs included, being a Doctor-generated dream. He did open up the telepathic circuits again earlier in that story so that Clara could lead them to wherever, if anywhere, Danny was. And he did smash up the console (again) just before the end. There's no knowing what sort of state the old girl was in, and could easily have been cross-wiring the Doctor and Clara's brains (especially if his subconscious is trying to tell him that he cannot leave things that way).

And so what about Clara herself? Of all of them, she seems the most likely candidate to be in the Doctor's dreams – just as Danny Pink is (in a beautiful sequence) in hers. Well, we will have to come to the conclusion that aside from the Doctor she, and perhaps only she, is real. But it's a definite Descartes's second axiom moment ("cogito ergo sum" proves that "I" exist, but other people are real… because God's not a bastard.)

There is some rather clever direction going on, changing the lighting and tone to suit the different "depths" of the dream. Clara and Danny's dream Christmas is full of warmth and soft focus, and a lot of blurring of time – not just the jump-cuts allowing the intruding Doctor's thoughts to place chalkboards in her dream home, but the entire day vanishes in seconds. In short the artificiality is heavily emphasized so you cannot help but arrive at the Blackadder conclusion: "Baldrick? Who gave you permission to turn into an Alsatian?" (Oh, all right: "Oh god, it's a dream, isn't it? It's a bloody dream!")

But notice too, the way that all the scenes at the North Pole are filmed to be reminiscent of the movies – well "Aliens", specifically, from the creepy laboratories to Santa's "war movie" entrance to the bucket-loads of X-Files blue lighting – setting them apart from the more conventionally "TV" looking scenes on Clara's roof at the start (and for that matter inside her house at the end).

"If we shadows have offended; Think but this, and all is mended…"

Here, the clue of the tangerine on the windowsill, the last image of the episode, might suggest that it's all been a comforting dream in the mind of the dying Doctor, with the happy outcome that he gets a second chance with his friend.

So if you're one of those people who've lost the taste for the series – and it happens – then this is one of those rare moments when Doctor Who occasionally provides "jumping off points" (the opposite of "jumping on points" such as "An Unearthly Child", "Spearhead from Space" or – since we're celebrating it – "Rose"), places where the story can be said to have "ended". Places like: the conclusion of "The War Games", for example (and any stories you might imagine being made after that are in fact an illusion woven by the Time Lord guardians of their prison planet Shada where the Doctor is imprisoned); or "The Well-Mannered War" (Gareth Roberts' slightly-spiteful novel set at the end of Season 17, which ends with the Doctor and Romana leaving reality altogether before the John Nathan-Turner era can begin); or the end of "Survival", which sees the Doctor and Ace depart with work to do (with no messy modern-era New Who getting in the way).

This is one real flaw with the Moffat approach to storytelling: when story is treated as as important, as "real" as "reality", then it's never entirely clear where the dream or the story ends and the "real" events begin. If you're the sort of person for whom that matters, if you want your stories to be reportage (if of a fictional world), then this is going to become grating, an abdication by the writer to tell you what "really" happened.

But in our really real "real world", of course, the series hasn't been cancelled, indeed new production is already under way. So we know that the Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman will be returning to our screens in the Autumn (probably) for more episodes. So the meta-reality is telling us that in the story-reality, these events must properly finish as they appear to, with the Doctor and Clara escaping to adventures new.

That's sort of grating too – Moffat cannot, ultimately, pull off the (to pick a movie entirely at random) "Inception" trick of leaving you with an ambiguous ending, for the simple reason that he is making serial television. He might be able to keep us puzzling until September, but eventually the top has to topple over.

(Can't resist popping this in here: people say that the spinning top in "Inception" doesn't prove anything because it was never Leo DiCaprio's totem, it was his wife's. It doesn't matter whose totem it was; if the darn thing won't fall over, it definitely proves you're still in someone's dream!)

An interesting – at least to me – fact of semantics: adding an assertion of truth to a statement does not change that statement.

What I mean is:

"This is a dream"
"It is true that this is a dream."
"It is true that it is true that this is a dream."

All mean the same thing.

Moffat's hanging a lantern on the fictionality of his storytelling does much the same thing (or rather doesn't do). By repeatedly telling us that this is a story (within a story within a story) is he really adding anything (beyond circumlocution)?

"And this weak and idle theme; No more yielding but a dream."

But as a celebration of the telling of stories, and that stories – like Santa – can be "true" even when they are fiction, "Last Christmas" is a great success, unusually heart-warming for a Christmas horror story, and a much-needed antidote to the "year of lies", finally resolving Clara and the Doctor's position with some truth between them.

It is difficult to believe that Jenna Coleman ever thought of leaving because of working with Peter Capaldi, such is the quality of their chemistry here as always. She picks him up on his faults; he challenges her to better herself. (Shame Clara still thinks punching him is an acceptable chastisement, though.)

Coleman is touching throughout, emphasising the smug and controlling Clara when in the Danny dream, fading to self-effacingly good in the "old" make-up. (Many people thought the reverse of the Christmas cracker touching; I thought it slightly undermined the better moment with the eleventh Doctor – for me it was all about the companion doing something for the Doctor.) Again there is good direction for the "Doctor's eye view" where he genuinely still sees her the same, unchanged by the years (or perhaps just insufficiently changed by a human lifespan compared to his millenniums).

The guest cast are all outstanding too. Even the reindeer. It's always good to see a Troughton back on the show. Dan Starkey makes a great elf, and Nathan McMullan makes a hot one. And especial kudos to Faye Marsay as the loveable Shona. If she does turn out to be real after all, I'm with the many who would see her as a potential companion.

Even aside from the clever visuals, which I've already admired, the pacing of the story is very well handled – possibly the sleigh ride goes on a little bit too long – as usual, showing that Moffat can fill up the longer form story better than when keeping to forty-five minutes. There's a profusion of set pieces – the crashed sleigh on Clara's roof; all the pastiche Face-hugger attacks; Santa's rescue, a literal army of toy soldiers; the dream-within-a-dream of Danny; and so on, through to the old-Clara fake-out – and they all come off. I'm reminded of, say, "The Runaway Bride" or "Voyage of the Damned" where the one big set piece (the TARDIS/taxi chase or the trying to cross the abyss) seemed to draw life away from the rest of the story. Nothing like that here, with the dreams-within-dreams shtick actually helping the structure to build with each level of "but ah ha!". The jokes arise naturally from the script, and they are good, clever jokes too, whether pointed or even poignant. They even manage to get away with the car lock bleep gag that defeated David Tennant in "The End of Time". Maybe it's a shame – or maybe it's a relief – that Moffat couldn't quite bring himself to go the full meta and include "Blink" on Shona's DVD marathon list.

More challenging than the usual Christmas fare, even by Doctor Who's standards. And all the better for it.

And, at least for the few brief moments as they run to the TARDIS, the Doctor and Clara can actually be happy. A dream come true.

Next Time…
A very familiar Witch. Possibly the fastest ever bounce back from absolutely, categorically, unequivocally dead. SPOILER! "Did you Missy me?" I imagine that trying harder than ever to be the Doctor makes Clara "The Magician's Apprentice".

(Or will she be "The Witch's Familiar"?!)

But first… if you're really, really lucky, I'll go back and fill in the gaps with reviews of "The Caretaker", "Kill the Moon", "Mummy on the Orient Express", "Flatline" and the rest, but starting with "The Crimson Horror"!

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