27 December 2014

TV: Last Christmas

"This is her last one, isn't it? That's why it's called Last Christmas."

These were the words that graced my ears over Jenna Coleman's opening scene in this year's festive special. Larry, who long-term readers may remember, has got it into his head that they announced that Coleman was leaving long before Series 8 finished filming. Despite my attempts to assure him that that was just the tabloids stirring it, he remained resolute. Come the end of the sixty-minute episode, there was much confusion. I once again tried to explain, but with little success.

Unfortunately, I don't have many positive things to say about Last Christmas' actual story. Like many of writer Steven Moffat's other episodes this year, I think many of the ideas had been used better before, even within his own era of Doctor Who - sometimes in his episodes. However, I thought every aspect of the production apart from the script was superb, firing on all cylinders. Paul Wilmshurst's helming of this episode is to be commended: the direction, casting and visual effects all impressed.

The idea of creating dreams within dreams within dreams isn't an especially original one, but it is nice to return to a dream world. I'm not a big fan of all the fairytale/fantasy stuff at all, so I don't mean in that way, I mean as an alternative way of telling the narrative. It's usually good to see them trying to mix things up and keep it interesting. You can count on one hand the number of times Doctor Who has played with this before: Forest of the Dead and Amy's Choice are the only examples I can think of. One was written by Moffat, and the other helmed by him. So it's no real surprise that he would return to the concept once again before his time was up. And, credit where it's due, if you're going to include Santa, masking his credibility with layers of dreams and ambiguity is exactly the right way to do it.

As a quick aside, Moffat said in one of the press releases for this episode that as soon as he thought of the Doctor and Santa meeting, he knew it had to be done straight away. This man is older than the show itself, and so for it to only occur to him now seems a bit strange to me. In the run-up to The Christmas Invasion I, aged nine, was almost convinced Santa would appear. It's not a startlingly outrageous connection to make is it?

Just to clarify, the only bits of this episode that really did happen were those in the last minute or so? Where the Doctor wakes up, dashes into the TARDIS and goes to Clara's house to pick her up? Right. I'm fine with not everything being answered, and the questions posed here weren't plot holes, but I would have liked some explanation. I'm not keen on Doctor Who existing in some airy-fairy world where things just happen - like kids' books. Why these six (nine if you include Santa and his elves, even more if you count the reindeer) people? Why a science research base? Why are the Kantrofarri in the dream in the dream in the dream in the dream? How is it a shared dream?

Casting all this to one side, I didn't find the narrative particularly satisfying in itself anyway. It felt like a character piece without characters to be honest. The people in this story were once again ciphers for archetypes. The closest to a real character (and I really did like the writer showing that he could do normal characters as well as big outer-spacy zaney villains) we got was Shona, but even she - as pointed out by a friend - was essentially Lucie Miller lite. The only scene that really made me want to see more of her in any way was her last.

Keeping on this topic for a minute, Michael Troughton was criminally underused. He stood on the sidelines, ate for a bit and was killed. Killing characters is obviously acceptable but it really came across to me that the Professor - if he even was a professor - was included simply to die, because the consequences of his death on anyone at all weren't even mentioned. Another strong actor squandered on a bit part. Natalie Gumede is quite an average actress in my book, but she filled the slight role she was given well here. The same could be said for Maureen Beattie.

The direction was in a league of its own. The Kantrofarri (I refuse to use that bloody awful Dream Crabs name. Oh. Bugger.) became suitably nightmarish (hoho) under Wilmshurst's guidance and 2014 has really shown that he's one to watch for the future. I only hope BBC Wales have the good sense to keep him on, unlike similarly skilled contemporaries Saul Metzstein and Toby Haynes. There's no doubting that the scene where the creature escaped its glass case was reminiscent of The Seeds of Doom in both the writing and direction (although probably only wittingly in the former case).

An idea that the current executive producer keeps returning to is throwing together all different number of scenarios and characters, and seeing how it all turns out. It's certainly a great way to try and keep the series interesting, but I'm afraid for this viewer it misses more than it hits, and Last Christmas was another thumbs down. The meshing of genres, the juxtaposition of cultures, ideals and peoples, was a particular strength of Russell T Davies' (see all his 'Year Five Billion' stories for some great examples) and I really don't feel that Moffat has the same kind of skill in this area. Everything just blends into one narrative slush of plot-driving/driven walking one-liners. That said, I was grateful to see the return of the Doctor's gentle nudging of Clara ("they all turned you down?") from the earlier part of Series 8.

Sadly, this was the first ever episode where the idea that the series isn't being made for me any more popped into my head. It's quite a pretentious way of putting it - obviously it's not made for me - but it's the way this idea is presented most within fandom at the moment. I just got the distinct impression that this wasn't my kind of thing at all. Thinking back, Series 8 may have leant this way, but it was definitely the Moffat-penned episodes which make me feel this way the strongest. Larry absolutely loved this episode, despite sleeping through 35 minutes in the middle, and he loved Deep Breath, Listen, Dark Water and Death in Heaven too. For me, these were some of the weakest episodes of the series (in fact, only In the Forest of the Night came as low as any of them) and it makes me a bit sad to think that the main creative force behind the show is trying to push it in a direction away from what I want.

It's like when you have to watch your dad's favourite show - you find bits of it you like, but overall you'd much rather be watching or doing something else, or be somewhere else. I will of course still watch Series 9 - I'm too invested not too - but I really hope this trend doesn't continue. I'm really glad for people like Larry and our very own Tom Newsom who are loving this new direction, but it's not my bag at all. I'm beginning to understand Trev from the (excellent) Doctor Who Podcast's points about Series 8 now...

The content of this story was really oddly paced too. For the (what felt like) three-hour pre-titles sequence, I was just willing the plot to start. But that never really happened. The following fifteen minutes were decently paced, but then everything ground to a halt again as we passed into Clara's dream in a dream in a dream. Oh, I was just willing something to happen for about 90% of this. Staying on the opening, I don't have a problem with skipping chunks of the narrative within the characters' lives (something that was explored much better in Forest of the Dead) but I agree with Mr Newsom that it makes for unsatisfying viewing.

Quick note: Peter Capaldi and Nick Frost were really good, but I thought Jenna Coleman was unusually off here, especially in her scenes with Sam Anderson.

Quick note two: "It's a long story." 2014's "I'll explain later."? (see The Curse of Fatal Death)

Quick note three: Please can we dispense of the "shut up"s and the "thing"s. Like Cameron K McEwan, I've never liked them and really don't get why they keep cropping up.

I think that should more or less sum up my own thoughts about 2014's Last Christmas. There was a lot I didn't like, but that was mainly in the script. However, as Ray Frensham says in a fantastic book about screenwriting I bought myself for Christmas, the script is 90% of the final product. There's merit in the ideas, but not the execution, something I seem to be saying a lot this year. It occurred to me the other day that I've only seen The Time of the Doctor once. I don't have it on DVD - I didn't buy the single release or the September boxset this year - and frankly have no problem with that. It's the first story that I've missed from my collection and I'm not really bothered. Along with 2011's The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe and this episode, I wouldn't be that distraught if I never saw them again. Not actively not wanting to, though, just ambivalence. I can appreciate quality even if it's not to my tastes, hence the extra few marks I gave Last Christmas' rating.

Sorry for being so negative at this time of year, and I hope you all have a brilliant Christmas and New Year. May 2015 bring you exactly what you deserve.

In a Nutshell: I'll pass on this one but Paul Wilmshurst can stay.

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