Thursday, October 29, 2015

8.13: Last Christmas

As I’ve said before, children find me a cross between the Wizard of Oz and Father Christmas.
                             William Hartnell


Unlike Philip Sandifer, (whose TARDIS Eruditorum absolutely everyone should read), I don’t really believe in redemptive readings and narrative collapses and what-not. I was the target audience for a lot of old Who — a little English boy perfectly happy with his monsters and spaceships and corridors and cliffhangers — so I have a built in affection for most of the old stuff. But when an old story was genuinely bad, I don't feel the need to say. “Of course it was bad: it was meant to be bad. That’s the whole genius of it. Isn’t it wonderful that Doctor Who, unlike Star Trek, doesn’t try to do anything as old fashioned as make sense. When correctly viewed all Doctor Who stories are wonderful. Except the ones where Europeans play Chinese characters. You aren’t allowed to like those ones.” 

It is entirely possible that I am parodying his position just the tiniest little bit. 

I am tolerant of bad things. I am happy to say, about a movie for example, “Well that had a lot of what I liked about the original trilogy in it, although I could maybe have done without the kid and the alien”. Some other people are more inclined to say GEORGE LUCAS RAPED MY CHILDHOOD. 

But I am not going to defend the indefensible. 

Season 8 is much the worst Season of New Who, featuring the most pointlessly vacuous companion and the worst Doctor. (Not the worst acted. Merely the worst.) This Christmas special, which somewhat ties the previous twelve parts together, was always going to feel like a kick in the teeth. I see no point in saying that kicking the audience in the teeth is an interesting idea, something no other TV series would attempt; and a challenging commentary on the dental industry.

I’m not going to stop watching. I was ready to give up during the Tennant years, and then Matt Smith happened. But I am not going to pretend that it didn't really, really hurt. 

I’m not saying there’s not a good idea in there. The Doctor fighting aliens in an Arctic base under siege, complete with dark corridors, panicking crew, monsters and cliffhangers — proper old school Who. That’s a good idea. If Doctor Who is fighting aliens at the North Pole at Christmas, then of course Santa Claus is going to show up and help. That’s a good idea, too. And once you have the Doctor and Santa in one story you are bound to tackle the idea that they are both legends, both things that kids believe in. That's an interesting idea, albeit one that we've seen eighteen or nineteen times before. I would have liked a more out-there explanation than "if this is Father Christmas, then we must all be dreaming." (Maybe Santa is literally real in Amy's world, but differs from the fairy-tale character in some some subtle and disturbing ways? Remember the slightly scary Father Christmas in Narnia?) No matter. Nick Frost’s portrayal of the right jolly old elf is good fun; slightly more cynical than we'd expect Santa to be but not a full blown Raymond Briggs’ sdebunking. The banter with the elves ("it’s not racist, you are an elf") made me properly laugh.

This is the wrong season to be doing this kind of thing in,. This is the Season in which the human race has discovered that (depending on what you think the One With The Cybermen was about) there is either definitely no after-life or else that there literally is. And in which it’s turned out Walter Scott’s Locksely is historically real. And that the moon is an egg. That’s not the time to be telling us that Father Christmas can't be real because he's obviously silly. 

The dream-explanation kicks in far too early. I was reminded of the Next Doctor travesty from 2008, where a funny set up about a human who thinks he’s the Doctor gets sidelined after ten minutes by an uninteresting run around involving Cyberdogs and Cyberqueens and Cyber-transformers. The Dream Crabs are all very well and good as a device to get Doctor Who and Father Christmas into one story-line. They too rapidly become what the story is about. 

More Father Christmas meets Alien, please; more Doctor Who in a Christmas fairy tale. Less sentiment. Less Inception. Less True Love.

*

Oh, it’s all very meta-textual and clever. Shona wakes up to find that she had been intending to spend Christmas watching DVDs: Alien, the Thing From Another World and Miracle on 34th Street. Ho-ho-ho. She has taken the trouble to write the list in large letters because Moffat can't think of a less subtle way of telling us. Thing From Another World is the original Base Under Siege narrative, and it takes place at the North Pole. (The more famous remake takes place at the South.) It's already been pointed out that the Dream Crabs look a lot like the Face Huggers. Miracle on 34th Street is the definitive film about how Virginia should believe in Santa even though he doesn't exist. You aren't being derivative if someone pops up on the screen and says "Hey, look at us, we're being derivative!"

A Doctor Who take on Miracle on 34th Street isn't an intrinsically bad idea. It's become something of a Thing for Doctor Who Christmas specials to be skits on classic Christmas stories. (The Snowmen was Mary Poppins, up to a point; The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe was Narnia, obviously, Time of the Doctor had overtones of Pinocchio and a Christmas Carol was based on some Dickens story the name of which currently escapes me.) And with so many base under siege stories taking place at the North, or more usually South, pole the idea of Santa Claus wandering into the plot of Tenth Planet is quite funny.

But it all goes beyond "sly references" and "derivation" and into a Greatest Hits compilation. Crabs who can only see you when you are thinking of them (with thanks to the Silence and the Weeing Angels.) The world which might, or might not, be a dream (hats off to Amy’s Choice, and Turn Left, and the first five minutes of the One With the Cybermen, and Every. Damn. Episode. Of the Sarah Jane Adventures.) Skipping a character’s life and seeing them when they are old (with permission of Blink, the One With Agatha Christie, Sarah Jane again, and others too numerous to mention.)  The alien which sucks your mind by making you think you are experiencing a special Christmas with dead people (a special guest appearance by Star Trek: Generations). The conflation of the Doctor, Father Christmas and, er, God goes back to the very first Eleventh Doctor story, when Little Amy was discovered saying her prayers to Santa Claus. Further than that, actually, to Moffat's first New Who script, when Doctor Chris claimed in passing to have give Rose a red bike when she was a little girl. Further than that, come to think of it, to Emma's speech in the definitively seminal Curse of Fatal Death. ("You're like Father Christmas, Scooby Doo and the Wizard of Oz, and I love you very much.") And of course, every Christmas episode contains a tonally identical Magic of Christmas speech involving sappy music and someone explaining about how Christmas is totally special even though it doesn't seen to be actually celebrating anything in particular.

Nothing against secular midwinter festivals. Season Greetings, and all that that entails. Never believed that Christians own Christmas and that everyone else should get out from under our Christmas tree. No objection to Richard Dawkins and Tim Minchin claiming to like carol singing, even if I do think it's a bit like David Cameron telling us how much he likes the the Red Flag and the Interntionales. That Slade Song catches the mood perfectly well. Christmas is about having a lot to eat and drink and being silly with your family and friends and what is wrong with that?

It’s the idea that all over the universe Christmas is a special and magical which makes me want to sick up my mince pie. You never hear people talking about the magical essence of Guy Fawkes night or how in a very real sense people all over the universe get caught up in the spirit of Eid al-Fitr.

*

Six weeks ago, we had found a quite satisfactory means of cutting the Doctor/Clara/Danny knot. The Doctor chose to lie to Clara; Clara chose to lie to the Doctor; and the Danny chose to remain dead. Before we have even got to the end of the pre-cred sequence this week, that satisfactory ending has been chucked out of the window. Clara is back on the TARDIS. Everyone has admitted that they have lied to each other, and with a single face-slap everything is back to normal. 

Then, in the last five minutes, something uncharacteristically clever is pulled out of thin air. 

Everything in the story has been a dream within a dream. Everyone has been under the influence of the Crabs since the episode started. The Doctor didn’t go back for Clara mere seconds after leaving her behind: he only dreamed that he did. The Dream Crabs can attach themselves to different people in different time periods, but their victims all end up sharing the same dream. (Hand wave, hand wave, hand wave.) So Clara is sharing the same dream as the Doctor, but decades later. She’s a very old lady, dreaming about a person she knew when she was young. And now, in what we are supposed to infer will be her Last Christmas, he comes back to her. She’s spent her whole life believing that she did the right thing in lying to the Doctor, only to find out, when she’s 80 or more, that it was an unnecessary lie. It’s a beautiful scene, reinstating the “gift of the magi” ending but adding a bittersweet little coda. Like Sarah and Jo and Amy, Clara has filled the Doctor-shaped hole in her life by touring Europe, aeroplanes and generally having a fandabbydozey bucket-list crossing-out life. So although they are sad today, their mutual deception was all for the best, probably. There’s a lovely little moment where the Doctor helps Clara pull a cracker, just like Clara helped the Doctor pull a cracker last Christmas, when he was old. 

And then, just at the last minute, out of the blue, it turns out we’re still in the bloody dream world. In comes bloody Father Christmas and up we jolly well wake to rattle around the universe fighting monsters and saving planets, what could be more fun?

It’s an unforgivable cheat. You cheated us into having emotions about your made up characters, twice, and then wiped them away and said they didn’t matter. A story is a promise. You can’t make us care emotionally about the characters and then use “it was all a dream” to put everything back how it was before.

The death of Danny – the whole existence of Danny, come to think of it – and all the monsters under the bed and Daleks and Cyberzombies – all that was so you could return us to the exact and precise place where we started. To reset to where we were in Cold War and Hide, only with a Scottish accent? The nasty Doctor and his vacuous companion off having fun adventures. 

And that isn’t even the worst thing. 

A story is told about Colin Baker and Eric Saward. There is a scene in Trial of a Time Lord where the Doctor appears to torture Peri. Colin is said to have gone to the producer and said “I don’t understand this scene. Is the Doctor mad? Or still under the influence of the baddy’s mind control? Or is he pretending to torture Peri so the baddies will let him into their confidence? Or is the whole scene false evidence concocted by the Valeyard?” 

“I don’t know”, the producer is said to have said. “It’s a nice scene. Play it however you like.”

And somehow, that moment disseminated itself throughout space and time and became the aesthetic on which the new series was predicated. 

The worst thing about Last Christmas is this: the false ending was originally intended to be the actual ending of the story. The O Henry bargain was going to stand; Clara was really going to have lived 60 years without the Doctor. This last farewell was going to be how Wonderful Jenna bowed out of the series. But at the last minute Wonderful Jenna decided she’d like to stick around for a few more months, and the scene was given a happy ending. 

That’s where we are. The touchy feely drama about love has replaced our monsters and cliffhangers show. But the touchy feely drama about love is unable to actually tell a love story. It’s just a sequence of goodbye scenes and death scenes and breaking up scenes between people who never really break up or die or say goodbye. 

Dreams, ha-ha. They are disjointed and full of gaps and they don’t make sense, but you don’t notice. 

Perhaps it is best to assume that the Doctor and Clara have had crabs on their heads forever and will never take them off again.



And what's the tangerine in the final frame mean? Does it mean that Father Christmas really does exist in Clara's world after all? Or does it mean that the Doctor and Clara didn't really run off together and are still dreaming? Or does it not mean anything at all? Am I the only person who is bothered by this kind of thing?



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