Friday, December 26, 2014

In Which I Review the Doctor Who Christmas Special (2014)

Raise your hand if you think I liked this years Doctor Who Christmas special entitled, "Last Christmas." If you did, then pat yourself on the back, you're a smart cookie. Yes, I did indeed. It was like a little Christmas present all wrapped up just for me, complete with a big red bow. If we were to boil down the basics of this years episode, which was miles above last years terror, it would be thus: the collective unconscious minds of humans has a way of protecting itself with constructs drawn together that embody certain ideas and themes. In other words this episode was all about, say it with me now, archetypes! I did a little cheer of victory over here in my Jungian and Eliade corner and grinned as I watched The Doctor and Santa argue over who gets to give the scientific mumbo jumbo about the collective gestalt, a little wink from Mr. Moffat that these two men are one and the same in reality. This over abundance of praise is not to say that there weren't flaws but as I sometimes feel inclined to do, I'm willing to overlook those flaws because the rest of the episode was so darn enjoyable. It's Christmas time in Whoville and that means it's a time for miracles and second chances. And if you're Jenna Coleman, a new shiny contract for another year. Grab a tangerine and let's go. 

A most basic plot hash for this years episode would be: Inception at Christmas. How many layers of the dream world were there? I think I lost count eventually but, if you've seen the movie Inception (which Moffat was clearly and almost too heavily drawing from) then you should understand the basic premise of a dream world within a dream world and that there are tells. In dreams, there are clues that something is amiss. Food is crunched too loudly, lights are too bright, people speak in riddles, physics is wrong, and sometimes, if it's Christmas day and you're dying from an alien life force sucking out your brain, Santa and two elves show up to try and push your brain back into reality. What is Santa? I don't mean here in the show; in the show, he's a dream, a trigger, a touchstone that indicates that you are in a dream world because he's not real. But leave the show aside for a second. In reality, our reality, what is Santa Clause? Ignore all the "real" stories you've learned since you grew up and stopped believing in fairy tales and focus on what the children of the world, the whole lot of them, think of when they think of Santa and Christmas. Joy. Giving. Cheer. Happiness. Santa is the embodiment of all these things. But he's more than that; he himself is an archetype. We call him Santa here in the US but Clara gives his very proper name early on the episode. Did you catch it? Father Christmas. The father of Christmas. The 'Father' of course is a very old archetypical construct--and, guess who else gets called "dad" in this episode? Yes, the Doctor when he comes a-knocking at Clara's dream house door. The Doctor and Santa are really the same thing: universal constructs--Father, Savior, Warrior, Sage--come to save us all! I think that's why Santa initially rubs the Doctor the wrong way; he sees the jolly elf and is reminded of his own rather curmudgeonly "bedside manner" as Santa put it. Santa has a sled that is bigger on the inside, plucky assistants, and can travel anywhere in the world in what sometimes feels like time travel. Not subtle, Moffat (but I'm totally okay with it). And of course, while Santa brings literal presents, the Doctor (who actually came down a chimney several Christmas specials ago) gives the gift of adventure and transcendence into the mythical world of adventure. The Doctor and Santa do eventually reconcile in a really ear-to-ear grin splitting moment when the Doctor takes the reigns (symbolism!) and flies the sled (and more symbolism!) right after Clara tearfully declares that her version of Santa looks just a wee bit different. So what's the point of all this? Second chances. The Doctor, through all these Christmas dreams of things that go bump in the night and Santa, is really about him and Clara getting a second chance. More on Clara in a moment.

Side note but did anyone else get a lot of flashes to "Listen' from this episode? The dreams, the nightmare monsters, the chalk boards? Anyway, it's hard to talk about plot for this episode because like all the dream worlds, it's intractably layered. I will say this, as a first criticism. Moffat doesn't know when to ease off the throttle. Maybe Moffat heard all the complaints about doing too many time jumps and decided that instead of time jumps he'd give us all dream realities, one on top of one another. It's a bit of a way to thumb your nose at the audience. No time jumps but instead you never know what is real and what is part of the dream world. There was a line the Doctor gave early on in which he said, "You know the problem with telling fantasy and reality apart...they are both ridiculous." I can't help but wonder if that is more significant than we know. The Doctor is both real and fantasy--and always ridiculous. And I think that's what made this episode so enjoyable. It didn't try to be blockbuster; it was just campy, pulpy, fantasy meets reality and it worked. It was all a bit mad, let's be honest. But there was some good heart, something that I felt has been missing from Doctor Who a little bit lately. Sometimes the heart works, and sometimes it doesn't. Let's go in reverse and I'll lay out my biggest criticism of the episode (and of Moffat) and then something I'm hesitant about.

Oh look. Danny Pink is back (she said unenthusiastically). Look, it's not that I hate Danny. I don't. He's a nice bloke. But I am so over Moffat's obsession with the whole "true love saves the day" trope. He did it countless times with Amy and Rory; he did it with some aliens both in season 7 and in season 8 and of course he does it with Danny and Clara at the end of eight and here. Yes, on some level the trope really works with the understanding that at the end of the day, Doctor Who is itself a fairy tale and operates under certain fairy tale parameters. But I don't need it shoved down my throat with every couple, every season. The fact is, this part of the episode became deadly dull. Yes, Clara is heartbroken and sad and wants to stay in her perfect fantasy life with Dream-Danny where this is their last Christmas, but see, I as an audience member, am already totally over Danny's death if I was ever affected at all. Maybe I'm being unfair seeing as how I often criticize Moffat and his tenure for cutting off the pivotal emotional scenes at the knees but this isn't really progressing the emotional storyline for Clara or for The Doctor. It's rehashing what we already know: Clara is sad over losing Danny and wishes he could come back. Isn't that almost exactly the same emotion she demonstrated when she stole the TARDIS keys from the Doctor and then later they went into 'heaven" together to find Danny? Nothing between the Doctor and Clara is dealt with. They both acknowledge that they lied at the end of season eight, but they never talk about it again. Clara's increasing addiction to the TARDIS and that way of life isn't addressed. Which brings me to something I am very hesitant about.

Clara Oswald is going back into the TARDIS. I really don't know how I feel about this. On the one hand, Jenna does good work and she's a much better Clara in season 8 and here than in season 7, her first. But at the same time, I thought this should have been her goodbye. The final dream between Doctor and Old! Clara is quite moving. It's sad and full of regret, which is something that has always defined the Doctor. But lo and behold, it's a dream. The Doctor gets one more chance to travel with Clara now that the Doctor has sorted himself out after 12 episodes. He's an idiot with a box, traveling, helping and learning. And he wants to do all that with Clara, properly. My issue are a few, so let's go through them. First, this isn't the Clara Oswald show and almost every episode last season felt Clara heavy or Clara centric. If Clara is coming back aboard, then I hope that the Doctor takes control again. Second, what about Clara's addiction? That was very clearly something Moffat was trying to articulate last season but now it's not dealt with? Does the Doctor--this newish, second chance, more joyful Doctor--does he not realize that mental consequences Clara is undergoing because she travels? Look at all her lying; look at the life she was going to have in the dream sequence--she traveled, she learned to fly. Old! Clara was basically recreating her TARDIS life sans TARDIS! I feel like Moffat just took his addiction thesis for Clara and threw it out the window because Jenna Coleman changed her mind, which makes season 8 look very disjointed and structurally unsound in terms of Clara's narrative arc. This second chance idea is being celebrated but the second chance is really falling off that proverbial wagon back into the thing that caused her so much heartache in the end! I really hope that Moffat knows what he is doing with this one. I know that sounds like I just negated a lot of my enjoyment, but honestly I was smiling through most of this episode and that always counts for something.

See everyone next year!

Miscellaneous Notes on Last Christmas

--"Because you're a fairy tale; I grew out of fairy tales."

--I really need Santa and Shona to be the Doctor's new companions. "I will mark you, Santa!" I laughed for five minutes solid. Also, the North Pole is stripy so you can see it spin. It's actually basic physics.

--While I get the whole "every Christmas is last Christmas" motif running throughout, I'm sorry to say I didn't think it was executed very well. No one knows it's their last Christmas when they have their last Christmas.

--I feel like I would understand the tangerine joke more if I was British. 

--The Doctor driving the sleigh was full of joyous wonder.

--"I've known you your whole lives, watched over you from Christmas to Christmas." "But you're not real!" "And yet that never stopped me." Santa or the Doctor. You tell me. ;-)

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