It is often said, in the tradition of quips on life and livelihood dating back to ancient Rome, that we must strive to live every day as though there were no tomorrow. This might especially be the case this time of year, as glasses are raised and clinking, and resolutions for the next twelve months are offered to the ambience of rooms filled with loud voices, jangling bells and jewelry, and holiday cheer. Seldom do we get second chances in life, after all.
Second chances, long coveted like the warmth of the burning Yule log, were also a theme throughout the BBC’s annual Doctor Who Christmas Special this year. Dubbed Last Christmas, the story, which could easily be likened to a bizarre mashup between Miracle on 34th Street, John Carpenter's The Thing, and a touch of Flatliners, takes place in a research facility near the North Pole. Besieged by aliens, the madness is interrupted by the arrival of The Doctor and his companion Clara, who has made an abrupt return following their touching departure in the last episode of Series Eight, and in lieu of being dishonest with one another. However, the real danger unfolds with the slow realization that the reality they all think they are perceiving is merely an elaborate dream-state, induced by the aliens that have already succeeded in claiming them as hosts. The battle to liberate themselves from the alien sleeping sickness ensues, as Santa Claus, portrayed by actor Nick Frost (perfect name for the part, huh?) intervenes throughout, wielding napalm-charged tangerines and other technologically updated apparel fit for Father Christmas.
It's only fair to say here, in our analysis of Last Christmas, that spoilers lay ahead, so read no further unless you've managed to watch it already.
As the many layers of the perplexing dream-world unravel throughout the episode (dare I say, like peeling from around a Christmas tangerine), a number of touching scenarios are presented, which include the return of character Danny Pink, who, despite being merely a dream within Clara's mind, is hinted at posessing some sense of sentience of his own, retorting angrily after the Doctor reminds her that he had died saving the world, arguing that, "I didn't die saving the world, Doctor. I died saving Clara. The rest of the world just got lucky." Despite it being Clara's dream, the inference here is that Danny appears to have manifested within it, and is actively participating from beyond the grave, rather than merely a construct from within her mind.
The idea that loved ones might visit us from beyond the grave--particularly in dreams--is a staple of many, if not most cultures around the world. Equally strange, and strangely prevalent among those philosophical enough to question the reality of reality itself, is the notion that life can be a dream existing within a dream. This was brilliantly outlaid in the book A Dream Interpreted Within a Dream: Oneiropoiesis and the Prism of Imagination by Elliot Wolfson, in which the author literally extrapolates through philosophy whether "the dream state and waking reality on an equal phenomenal footing; that the century world is the dream from which one must awaken by waking to the dream in which one is merely dreaming that one is awake."
The thematic usage of dreams within dreams, second chances, and last meetings all plays into this episode in a rather curious way by the story's ending, but largely as a result of things happening in the "real world" of contracts and actors, rather than the "dream world" fantasy of the Whovian universe. In the months leading up to Christmas, there had been much speculation about whether actress Jenna Coleman would actually return to reprise her role as Clara Oswald in Series Nine, fulfilling what would be her second complete season on the program (she first appeared midway through Series Seven, in the role of the mysterious "Oswin", one of many manifestations in The Doctor's adventures as "The Impossible Girl". Series Eight was her first complete series with appearances in every episode, featuring Capaldi as The Doctor).
Though shrouded somewhat by the "rumor mill" of speculation amidst tabloids and blogs, the story seems to be that Coleman hadn't officially confirmed her presence in Series Nine, and that the 2014 Christmas episode had been written with her departure from the series in mind. The original ending would presumably have seen Clara, now having aged more than six decades since her last meeting with The Doctor, spending their last Christmas together--fitting, one might suppose, considering the episode's title. However, as the two are sharing their bittersweet reunion in Clara's twilight years (which, rather interestingly, includes hints at a long-held, but well-hidden romantic attraction Clara has maintained for The Doctor all this time), the story's rewrite comes into play with the final appearance of Frost's Saint Nick, revealing that this "final meeting" is, in fact, merely another manifestation of the alien dream world.
There is an interesting layer of complexity added here since, by all intents and purposes, had Coleman left the program, the show actually really might have ended here. However, since it is now understood that Coleman does have plans to return for the next season, the already somewhat "layered" ending resolves with one final rewrite, where The Doctor rescues Clara, youthful once again, and presumably only a short time after he had left her at the end of Death in Heaven.
"Well, look at you all happy! That's rare," we hear Coleman saying as she and The Doctor sprint happily toward the Tardis. "You know what's rarer?" Capaldi answers. "Second chances. I never get a second chance, so what happened this time? I don't even know who to thank." The scene resolves with the camera panning down just enough to reveal one of Santa's trademark tangerines resting on the windowsill above, alluding to the Merry Old Man of Christmas delivering one final gift to The Doctor and his companion.
In truth, however, perhaps we have Coleman to thank, since she agreed to return for the new series, no doubt thanks in part to the negotiations taking place behind the scenes. Most ironic of all, however, is the fact that while the original ending would have featured that long-sought "second chance" for The Doctor and Clara before the end of her life (and, arguably, his next regeneration), it now appears Series Nine will feature the two time traveling companions reunited after all; not that's what we call a second chance!
Last Christmas seems to have received mostly favorable reviews online, with a few complaints nonetheless ensuing around the Twittersphere on Christmas night (though it's hardly any surprise: remember that bit of wisdom directed at those who make their lives a performance: Everyone is a critic. Sure, making Santa Clause the Don of the North Pole with a penchant for explosives presents cause for a little cheesiness. But be reminded that Doctor Who is, and always has been, a program that keeps the little folk in mind; with its proclivity for subdued violence and alien invasions that are enjoyable both to adults and wee folk alike, the program maintains a rather torturous balance between those elements that can wildly entertain, and those able to send children barreling off to hide behind the couch. It's a razor's edge, and no doubt, Stephen Moffat and his cast of writers for the program are aware of this. Hence, with the criticisms, must be an acknowledgement for the necessity of childish things appearing in the Whovian universe. Like Jelly Babies... oh, and Christmas tangerines.
Largely, this was a well played addition to the program's now famous Christmas additions which, in the past, have often always featured the supporting actors and actresses from the regular series, instead placing The Doctor in different scenarios with entirely new characters, played in one-offs by what are often respected British actors and actresses. Altogether, it was a nice change to have not just a reunion, but a continuation of the present storyline featuring The Doctor and Clara, his impossible girl. Plenty of dynamic twists and emotional turns were offered in the interplay between them, and on many levels, it may have been their finest performance yet, so far as the on-screen dynamics between them go.
One might liken it to a perfect nightcap for an already impressive first series, pairing Miss Coleman with that enigmatic and delightfully busy-browed Peter Capaldi, in what may already be their most memorable roles as actors to date.
Merry Christmas indeed; and here's to "seconds" this holiday season... so long as they don't fruitcake, and of course, tangerines.