“Last Christmas” is the first holiday special of the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure, penned by Doctor Who’s showrunner Steven Moffat. And like many of Moffat’s holiday specials, it sets out to explore the true meaning of Christmas spirit, while also delivering a few frights along the way. “Last Christmas” is, in many ways, a spiritual sequel to both “Amy’s Choice” and “Robot Of Sherwood” when it comes to the two main storylines of this episode: giving us a bit of much-needed levity after how bleak the previous episode was, while also having a darker undercurrent running through it as well. It initially seems like your typical base-under-siege story (“The Impossible Planet“, “The Rebel Flesh“, “Under The Lake“), with all the usual tropes and trappings of that genre, before it gradually turns into a much more trippy and surreal experience than that. It also gives our two main characters, the Doctor and Clara, a chance to properly deal with the fallout of the Series 8 finale, as they’re paired up again on another case.
By this point in the series, Jenna Coleman had reached the end of her contract and “Last Christmas” was originally intended to be her final episode, where her character would part ways with the Doctor for good at the end. However, Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi both encouraged her to stick around for another year, and after some consideration, she decided to do the same as well, changing her mind fairly late in the game, which resulted in the final act of this episode being re-written. Had she gone through with the original plans, Shona (one of the side-characters) would have been Clara’s replacement in Series 9, which is certainly an interesting alternate universe to think about. A lot of the ideas Moffat had in mind for Shona were later re-worked into the character of Bill Potts, Clara’s actual successor in Series 10.
In “Last Christmas”, the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is alerted to a crisis at the North Pole, by Santa Claus of all people, which should be impossible. The Doctor is the only man on Earth who understands all the intricacies of how the dream crabs operate and why they’re so dangerous, so he’s a very large part of the reason why most of the human characters survive this episode. Twelve has always been characterized as a rather grouchy curmudgeon, so naturally he’s very suspicious of old St. Nick, and he keeps trying to poke holes in the man’s outrageous story. He also starts to grow rather competitive with the Christmas icon, because Santa knows just how to wind him up, and he gets on the Doctor’s bad side when he actually tries to steal his job of delivering scientific technobabble.
In general, this episode repeatedly pushes the Twelfth Doctor outside of his usual comfort zone: Clara keeps on hugging him, he’s dragged into a group huddle he wants no part of, Santa and his elves keep teasing him, and it’s all very funny. However, when the gang is making their escape from the dream crabs in the climax, he does enjoy getting a chance to fly Santa’s sleigh when the jolly fat man with a beard offers it to him. He indulges his own sense of whimsy and the childlike joy that’s always been a part of the Doctor’s character (even in his stricter incarnations), because an opportunity like this only comes around only once in a lifetime – and it’s easily the happiest we’ve seen him be all season. Over the course of his tenure, the Twelfth Doctor grows from being a very stern and aloof character into a more laidback time lord. Now that he’s resolved his identity crisis in the previous episode, “Last Christmas” marks a turning point where Twelve’s personality starts to mellow out a lot more.
“Last Christmas” also continues to develop the Doctor’s relationship with Clara, as he takes her along with him on his trip to the North Pole. Their mutual lies to each other from the end of “Death In Heaven” are exposed pretty quickly, when the Doctor unwittingly insults Danny’s memory. After getting a real update on how they’re faring, both of them are pretty bummed to discover they’ve been wallowing in their own sadness and loneliness for months for nothing. When Clara gets attacked by the dream crabs and trapped inside her own mind, the Doctor decides to risk getting his brain eaten as well so he can go in after her, once again showing the lengths he will go to to help his best friend – something that’s about to become very significant to the overall story arc of Series 9.
During the last act, the Doctor discovers Clara has aged into an old woman while he was away. Not only is he sixty years too late to have some more adventures with her, he’s also skipped over most of her life. He still loves her, just as much as he’s always done, but he’s heartbroken that he’s missed out on all that time he could have shared with her (this scene also serves as a callback to “The Time Of The Doctor“, bringing their relationship full circle since then). Thankfully, it turns out they were just in the final layer of the dream and Clara is still fine in the real world. After that incredibly harrowing close shave, they both decide not to waste the second chance they’ve been given. Life is too short for them to keep denying themselves what they both know they want, so they decide to make the absolute most of their time together and set out to see the universe again with renewed vigor. Much like the ending of “The Power Of Three“, this is portrayed as a joyous and uplifting moment for the Doctor and Clara, that might not have been the best decision to make in retrospect, now that we know what it ultimately leads to.
At the start of “Last Christmas”, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) is still mourning her recently deceased boyfriend Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), when the Doctor and Santa Claus turn up on her doorstep, whisking her away to the North Pole for another adventure. It’s been quite a while now since she’s seen the Doctor, and they don’t immediately get back into the groove of their usual partnership. Clara clearly still feels guilty and regretful about Danny’s demise, and she’s still haunted by her thoughts of what could have been. So when she’s attacked by a dream crab and put into a coma, of course the first thing she dreams about is sharing Christmas Eve with Danny, as a regular, happy couple.
One of the big dangers of the dream crabs is that their victims can be seduced by the illusions they create: they can feel tempted to stay inside a fantasy to try to fill a void in their real lives. That’s what happens to Clara: she knows she’s in a dream and she knows she’s going to die, but she still tries to stay anyway, because it’s the only way she’ll ever see Danny again. True to his character though, once dream Danny learns what’s at stake from the Doctor, he puts Clara before himself and convinces her to return to the real world because it’s still not her time to die yet. He also gives her the closure that she needs to move on with her life, which doesn’t seem like the sort of thing a dream construct would do. It’s left ambiguous whether or not this scene is a physical representation of Clara talking some sense into herself in her head, or if this actually is Danny’s spirit somehow, giving her one last piece of advice through her dream so she can move on from him – either way, it’s a really heartwarming moment that puts Clara and Danny’s short-lived relationship to rest in a satisfying way.
As “Last Christmas” progresses, Clara’s wintery escapade feels a lot like a modern day fairy tale. The incredible feats and wisdom of both Santa Claus and the Doctor awakens her inner child again, which is exactly what she needs to start to emerge from her depressed state. She gradually starts to reconnect with the Doctor again, as she embraces just how much she’s missed all the magical things about her life in the TARDIS (with their ride in Santa’s sleigh being a particular highlight). Despite that however, she continues to display some troubling behavior. She once again tries to stay in another layer of the dream, despite the Doctor repeatedly warning her what the consequences would be. And eventually, Clara’s reckless, borderline suicidal behavior starts to make a lot more sense, once we discover that she’s seemingly an old woman now back home.
Her adventure in the dream gave her a chance to be young again, fight monsters, and see the two men she loved again for the first time in decades – it was the best night she had had in years and she didn’t want it to end. Everything about the final act is tragic, as Clara once again mourns the loss of what could have been, had she made different choices, until Santa Claus turns up with a Christmas miracle and reveals that they’re still in the final layer of the dream. Once they’re back in the real world, Clara no longer has any doubts about the things she’s been struggling with throughout the latter half of Series 8. She knows she loves everything about her fairy tale life in the TARDIS with the man she cares for, and she doesn’t want to have any regrets about chances she didn’t take with the Doctor, like she does with Danny. So at the Doctor’s request, she’s happily drawn back into her travels throughout the universe once more with renewed spirit, setting the stage for the final leg of her journey in Series 9.
Nick Frost’s Santa Claus proves to be a very snarky take on the folklore hero, with a certain cocky swagger and impish charisma to him. But that’s almost to be expected, since his dialogue is written by Steven Moffat: there seems to be an unspoken rule that almost every major Moffat character needs to be sassy and quick-witted. His patience is constantly tested by his helpers – a pair of gobby, overly talkative elves and some really unruly reindeer – and he also partakes in a lot of (good-natured) verbal jousting with the Doctor. The North Pole is Santa’s jurisdiction, so he acts as a guide of sorts for the Doctor and friends: he saves their lives several times, he offers them advice when they need it, and he even gives them some tough love.
Even though this version of Santa has got a bit of an attitude, he still has the heart of gold you would expect from him. He shows plenty of concern for everyone’s welfare, and he takes a certain shine to Clara in particular, helping her and the Doctor rediscover their inner children the longer they’re in his company. Like Robin Hood from “Robot Of Sherwood”, Santa Claus is a myth, a fairy tale. But since he and the Doctor are both fictional characters, “Last Christmas” asks the question of why can’t he be real – why can’t he also exist in the Doctor’s world? It’s later revealed that this version of Santa is apparently a figment of our heroes’ imaginations, a character they conjured up to help them escape from the dream crabs. However, much like with dream Danny, that explanation is eventually thrown into doubt. The final shot of the episode implies that Santa Claus does indeed exist, he got involved with the dream crab problem, and he did his part to give the Doctor and Clara a really good Christmas.
Compared to most episodes of Doctor Who, the side-characters in this adventure – Shona, Ashley, Bellows and Albert – are pretty one-dimensional, since Steven Moffat clearly gave most of his best material to the Doctor, Clara and Santa Claus. Shona is easily the standout member of the group when it comes to her characterization, which makes sense, since Moffat initially considered making her a companion. She’s an aggressive, quirky, lippy tomboy who doesn’t mince words with people who disrespect her and clearly covers up a lot of insecurities. The other three characters tend to be more professional about their line of work: they’re straight-laced, reserved, analytical scientists who are now being put under a lot of stress (though it’s implied that Albert might be a bit of pervert).
The final scenes with these characters, as they wake up from the dream and return to their old lives, one-by-one, fleshes them out a bit more, once we can see the contrast between their real world selves and the way they presented themselves in their fantasy. Shona is a very lonely woman who’s all on her own on Christmas Eve, and clearly craves some friends. She’s the only other person besides Clara who wishes she could stay in the dream a little while longer, so she can spend some more time with the people she bonded with. Meanwhile, Bellows is handicapped back home, and her sci-fi adventure gave her a chance to walk again for the first time in years. Most of the humans manage to escape the dream alive, thanks to our heroes, except for Albert, who fell victims to the dream crabs because he grew a bit too curious about them for his own good. Ironically, the rest of his peers proceed to have a fun sleigh ride with Santa, having the time of their lives, only five minutes after he just got murdered.
The one-off villains for this episode are the Kantrofarri, more commonly known as the dream crabs. They’re not evil or malicious antagonists: they’re simply creatures of pure instinct, looking for their next meal, and unfortunately for humanity, we happen to be on the menu. With the dream crabs, Steven Moffat recycles and repurposes several elements from previous antagonists in his era. They can trap people inside of their nightmares, like the Dream Lord from “Amy’s Choice”, and they can read people’s minds, like the Teller from “Time Heist“. If they sense themselves inside someone’s head, they’ll go on the attack, which means the only way to evade them is to try to avoid thinking about them – something that’s basically impossible. The Kantrofarri can layer dreams within dreams, as the perfect way to ensnare their prey and make sure they can never escape them while they devour their minds in the real world.
The Doctor and his friends are forced to constantly question what is or what isn’t real. There are numerous fake-outs scattered throughout the episode, to constantly keep the audience guessing, and there are also quite a few dream-tells that are foreshadowed to the viewers, long before the Doctor and Clara start to pick up on them – like vague backstories, decisions that are made for seemingly no reason, jump cuts, implausible rescues, the existence of Santa Claus, and alien attackers who are actually possessed doppelgangers of the main cast. A common problem you can run into with dream stories is a lack of tension: if none of it is real, then none of the leads are really in any danger. That isn’t the case here. If you die in the dream, you die in reality – which is the fate that befalls poor Albert – so the dream crabs are still a formidable threat that forces our heroes to race against a ticking clock before their brains get eaten.
“Last Christmas” is helmed by Paul Wilmshurt, who previously directed “Kill The Moon” and “Mummy On The Orient Express“, and of the three, “Last Christmas” is easily his most impressive showing, because this is a very visually beautiful episode. The extreme close-ups that are chosen during Clara’s heart-to-heart talks with the Doctor and Danny heighten the emotional intimacy of these moments, and are all the more effective because they’re used sparingly. The show’s lighting department provides some really sharp shadows during the scenes that are set in the Arctic base, creating a tense, foreboding and isolated atmosphere that’s later contrasted nicely with the soft lighting of Clara and Danny’s fireside fantasy – a warm and cozy world that looks and feels exactly like what you’d imagine an idealized Christmas Eve to be.
Considering the scale of this holiday special, a lot of green-screen effects are used throughout the hour, and most of them hold up well – like the establishing shots of the frigid Arctic landscape, or the climatic ride on Santa’s sleigh through London at night. Murray Gold, the show’s composer, always steps up his game a bit more than usual during the holiday specials, because he has a lighter workload to deal with and a different style he’s aiming for, and “Last Christmas” is no exception to that. His music for this episode can range from sweet-natured and wintery, to ominous and sinister, to bold and audacious in tracks like “Three Perfectly Ordinary Roof People“, “Ghosts“, “What Seems To Be The Problem?“, “We Don’t Know What’s Real“, “Clara’s Dream Christmas“, “The Doctor’s Dream Christmas“, “Dreams Within Dreams“, “Believe In Santa“, “Sleigh Ride“, “A Reunion” and “Every Christmas Is Last Christmas“.
“Last Christmas” could very easily have been a hot mess of clashing tones and ideas, if it was handled with less love and care. As it stands, it ranks alongside “A Christmas Carol” and “The Snowmen” as one of the better Christmas specials from the Moffat era of Doctor Who, and it makes for a very heartwarming epilogue to Series 8.
* “You’re a fairy tale. I grew out of fairy tales” “Did you, Clara? Did you really?”
* The comedic highlight of this episode is easily Shona’s sweet, sweet dance moves in the infirmary.
* Speaking of which, Doctor Who has been reusing the same song, “Merry X-Mas Everybody” by Slade, in many of its holiday specials since the RTD era, as a running gag for long-time fans of the show.
* “Stop being so good at arithmetic!” “I can’t help it!”
* “He’s probably flirting with your neighbor or texting women of low moral character!” Clara always kept her pimp hands strong, for moments just like this one.
* “I’ve got three words for you, Shona. Don’t make me use them. My Little Pony”.
* “Shut up, you” “Yeah? I’ve got lots more, babe” “I will mark you, Santa“.
* “That is elfist! And a bit hypocritical, from someone of your height” Oh snap.
* “Beardy-weardy, how do you get all the presents in the sleigh?” “It’s bigger on the inside”.
* “There’s a horror movie called ‘Alien’? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you”.
* Ian, one of Santa’s elves, is played by Dan Starkey, Strax’s actor. And Albert is portrayed by Michael Troughton, the son of Patrick Troughton who played the Second Doctor, back in the 1960’s.
* “How do you make you being clever into me being clever?” “I always protect your ego from the truth”.
* “I didn’t die saving the world, Doctor, I died saving Clara. The rest of you just got lucky”.
* “Do you know why people get together at Christmas? Because every time they do, it might be the last time. Every Christmas is last Christmas, and this is ours”.
* “Chocolate. Why did I get chocolate? What’s that about?”
* “You see how none of this makes any sense?” “Shut up, Santa”.
* “Look, we don’t need all this touchy-feely stuff” “Shut up, Doctor”.
* “No, no, no. Line in the sand. Santa Claus does not do the scientific explanation!”
* “I’m scared” “Congratulations, that means you’re not an idiot”.
* “Come on, it’s Christmas, the North Pole. Who you gonna call?”
* “Just focus on this. Do you believe in Santa Claus?” “I’ve always believed in Santa Claus, but he looks a little different to me”.
* “I work in a shop. I thought I was a scientist. That’s rubbish” “Finally, something that makes sense” “You’re horrible, you”.
* “There was one other man, but it would never have worked out. He was impossible” I see what you did there, Clara.
* Steven Moffat confirmed that Santa Claus did his part to keep the Doctor and Clara together in this episode. Suffice to say, Missy approves. In fact, if it turned out Santa Claus of all people was evil and was in league with Missy all along to create the Hybrid, that would have been beautiful.