Doctor Who Christmas special: Last Christmas review

Peter Capaldi's first Christmas special in the Doctor Who lead role came laden with tangerines. But was it any good?

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

Last Christmas

“A skeleton man, and a girl in her nightie”

It’s one heck of a gamble to go for an hour long Doctor Who Christmas special, where all but a few minutes at the end turn out to be a dream. Yet that’s just what Steven Moffat pulled off with his far improved Yuletide episode, Last Christmas.

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As he confirmed at the Q&A after the press screening, everything you see in the episode, from the first scene onwards, is strictly a dream, up until the finale, and the placing of Last Christmas‘ final tangerine. A poignant tangerine, that also seems to suggest that Santa is real. That’s a mystery solved, then.

Last year’s oft-criticised The Time Of The Doctor had a lot of work to do, in its defence. It had 60 minutes to wrap up the tenure of Matt Smith’s Doctor and quickly introduce (for the second time) Peter Capaldi’s take on the Time Lord. That, and it took a tour via lots of other Doctor Who threads. It had its moments, but, on the whole, it didn’t quite give Smith the send-off he deserved.

Last Christmas, however, had just one main issue to resolve – that of Clara and the Doctor – but for the most part, it was a little freer. Moffat chose, for the bulk of the episode’s running time, a base under siege idea, albeit with a trip via InceptionMiracle On 34th Street and the well-used Alien boxset. There’s Nick Frost’s excellent Santa Claus flitting in and out, but the core is the Doctor, Clara, and a small group of people apparently stuck on a polar base.

“There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive”

It’s a rather scary one for Christmas day, too (well, not just for Christmas day). Certainly, there’s enough in Last Christmas to put the frighteners up one or two younger viewers in particular. That said, the monsters here felt familiar, even if we’ve not seen them before. Don’t think about them, don’t look at them? They sounded a bit holding-your-breath-whilst-not-blinking-esque-critters, but the Dream Crabs also owed an ultimately overtly acknowledged debt to the xenomorphs of those Alien movies. Earlier this year, Kill The Moon paid a homage of sorts to the films, but here, Alien is addressed by name. Not that it needed to be: the close up monster with the drool coming from its mouth more than did the job of putting it in our minds.

Director Paul Wilmshurst, one of the stand-out stars of Doctor Who series 8, clearly loves this kind of material too. Accompanied by a strong Murray Gold score he tightened the screws, upped the tension, and even managed to make a simple chalkboard responsible for one of the episode’s most creepy effects. He does detail exceptionally well.

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The main guest star this Christmas – getting his name in the festive credits – was Nick Frost, who proved a rather excellent Santa (if less effective when doing an impression of Peter Capaldi!). Frost’s controlled performance had warmth and measure, leaving enough mystery to help make him key to the episode’s resolution. His sleigh looked a bit of a bumpy ride, but he gave it his all to convince us Santa is very much real. Maybe a standalone Santa movie is in his Christmas future.

In fact, all the guest stars here – including Dan Starkey (out of Strax make-up) Michael Troughton, Nathan McMullen, Natalie Gumede and Maureen Beattie – were good value. A special nod to Faye Marsay though, who – to date – is the only person to try and fight off a Doctor Who monster by dancing to Slade. Maybe that’s where Adric went wrong. She mixed her role with a tinge of sadness at the end as she tried to organise a reunion, and Marsay’s performance was excellent (check her out in the marvellous movie Pride too, if you haven’t already).

Furthermore, Moffat’s script had a lot of fun with Christmas itself. Comedy remains a real strength of his writing, and Doctor Who continues to crackle with successful one liners. It goes without saying that Peter Capaldi continues to strike each one pretty much perfectly. And was it us, or was his Doctor just a little bit lighter in this episode?

“Long story, isn’t it?”

If there’s a grumble here, then there was a slight overreliance on retreading one or two story threads that the series before had dealt with. The reappearance of Danny Pink was clearly pivotal to Clara (“I died saving Clara… the rest of you just got lucky”) – who else was going to convince her to wake up? – but it felt like he’d already had one powerful ending, and didn’t really need another. The point is perhaps double bagged too that to Clara, the Doctor is basically Santa. Aide memoires of this were provided, in case you hadn’t twigged.

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That said, what Last Christmas ultimately boiled down to, though, was that relationship between the Doctor and Clara once more. This time with the Doctor taking more of the lead. Through the reappearance of Danny and the resurrection of the arguments over him, to another unfortunate trip to the Doctor Who Ageing Make-up Department (if that happens again next year, we’re calling it a Christmas tradition, and not a good one), it seemed that the apparent destination of Doctor Who series 8 was set to be confirmed. Clara was off, wasn’t she?

But ah-ha! The end of episode rug pull. They’ve still clearly got a lot to work out, but Clara and the Doctor have another series of adventuring ahead of them (again, at the Q&A, it was said that she’s signed up for a full series). That makes Clara the longest serving full-time companion since Doctor Who returned just under a decade ago, as she heads into a third series run. We’ve had the impossible girl. We’ve had the relationship with Danny. It’ll be intriguing to see where Clara’s story goes next.

“This is real, yeah?”

Not that series 9 is short of potential threads anyway, and Gallifrey surely lurks at the very least in the background. But therein starts the questions for next summer onwards. For now, Last Christmas, effectively episode 13 of series 8, ensured that one of Doctor Who‘s strongest years in recent times was capped off very nicely indeed. Pass the tangerines…