Why I Love… Last Christmas
Guest contributor Will Atkinson revisits last year’s festive special.
To be honest, Doctor Who Christmas specials have traditionally been a bit light-weight. Fun, frothy and festive, but not particularly taxing. Your Nan might even like them, even if she keeps asking why Doctor Who doesn’t wear a scarf anymore (to which you reply: “Doctor Who is the name of the program, not the character Grandma. GET IT RIGHT.”). And that’s all fine. So what if it’s a wee bit naff and inconsequential? It’s Christmas!
Well, that’s the idea anyway.
Often with a Doctor Who Christmas special, the balancing of Yuletide with Time Lord can feel a bit off, with references to the holiday season forming a distraction from the adventure. But the reason why I’m now typing these words is because, so close to this year’s Xmas instalment, there’s an oh-so-recent example of a Christmas special that it gets it all so very, very right, and that’s last Christmas’ Last Christmas.
I have to say, I had my reservations about Last Christmas before it aired. I wondered if the Scottish Scrooge that is the Twelfth Doctor could fit in with the fanciful festive frolics of the typical Xmas outing, and whether the tale would feel out of place compared to the darker nature of Series 8. I needn’t have worried though – Last Christmas slits in perfectly with the stories of the year before it. Part of this is down to the excellent direction of Paul Wilmshurst, who’d helmed the same year’s Kill the Moon and Mummy on the Orient Express. I like my Who to be scary and on that front Wilmshurst definitely delivers. He ekes as much terror and humour out of the tale as he can, and balances the Santa with the scary perfectly. By blending body horror, hallucinations and spine-tingling tension with elves, reindeer and Old Saint Nick, in the hands of a lesser director this could have been a recipe for disaster (a description that could be applied to a few Christmas dinners I’ve had…) but Wilmshurst most certainly does a great job.
It helps that he is gifted with such a fine script from Steven Moffat. The Moff’s record on Christmas specials has been a tad variable – for every The Snowmen there’s a The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe – but this is one that’s definitely in the former camp. From heartbreak to bellyache, this is a Christmas special that is redolent of all the finest writing assets that the Paisley pen-wielder brings to the program. There are so many memorable scenes – Clara being snuck up on by the Dream Crabs, the revelation of what’s really going on via the manuals and the sleigh-ride at the end – but there are two that really stuck with me.
The first is Clara and Danny’s final goodbye. With the death of the Impossible Girl’s gentleman friend hanging over Clara at the start of this story, it was great to give the relationship one last hurrah in the scene where Clara dreams of the happy life she could be having with the veritable Mr Pink. It was rather nice to see her vow to move on with her life while still pausing to remember him for five minutes each day. This also counterbalances my other favourite scene, which was that Doctor and Clara’s one at the end. I feared the worst for the lass from Lancashire when I first saw her all aged up – were the rumours of her departure really true? But no, in last, joyous twist Clara was spared her OAP fate and was whisked off for another year’s adventures, and for this fan at least, that was a final Christmas present from a continually rewarding tale.
But there’s no point in having a great script if it’s not performed well, so it is lucky that Last Christmas scores well in the guest star stakes. Natalie Gumede made an excellent base commander as Ashley Carter, and she was ably assisted by the charming Maureen Beattie as Fiona Bellows and Albert Smithe, played by Michael Troughton, whom I am now obliged to remind you, due to ancient Whovian law, was the son of Patrick Troughton. My favourite of the base crew has to be Faye Marsay’s Shona though – fun, hilarious and rather marvellous, I really wanted her to come on board the TARDIS at the end of this story. It’s a shame that she didn’t, as in any other festive tale she’d be the best young Northern lass to fulfil the companion role.
There was also the yearly special guest star, and Nick Frost certainly had a top-notch outing as Papa Crimbo himself, and his elves, in the form of Dan Starkey and Nathan McMullen, weren’t that shabby either. Samuel Anderson’s return as Danny has already been mentioned, and his performance is perfectly in line with his earlier ones.
However, special praise has to be reserved for this tale’s two leads. Shining like a pair of Christmas stars, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are the… er… stars of the show and both are fantastic. My worries about Twelve’s suitability for the festivities was quickly shown to be ill-founded as Capaldi pulled off a master class in late December Doctoring, knocking out of the park gag after gag and chilling pronouncement after chilling pronouncement, never faltering for a second. But the prize for the best performer in Last Christmas must be awarded to Jenna Coleman as Clara. If anyone needed convincing that Clara should stay for another series, then Last Christmas should have certainly won them round. Last Christmas is one of Clara’s very best episodes as she show’s all of her best qualities – her energy, her adventurousness, her sense of right and wrong and her devotion to the Doctor – and Coleman acquits herself far more than just admirably. So then, here’s another reason why I love Last Christmas – on the acting side, I feel, there is not a single fault.
Finally, I can’t sing this story’s praises without mentioning its great setting. As readers of my previous articles will know, I’m a sucker for a good old base under siege and with that in mind Last Christmas’ Arctic base is a perfect setting for Who. Providing the requisite snow as well as the requisite scares, I love the way that the Arctic setting and isolation enhances the character’s fears and ramps up the tension. And, in line with this story’s Alien references, at the North Pole, nobody can hear you scream…
Therefore, I really do love Last Christmas. It’s my favourite Christmas special, and I’d urge all of you to give it a rewatch before The Husbands of River Song. Feel free to tell me whether you agree or disagree with me, and what you love about Last Christmas, in the comments.