Thursday, 25 December 2014

Doctor Who - Last Christmas

Contains spoilers.

So it's safe to say that 2014 has been a roller coaster year for Doctor Who. After delivering what I believe to be one of its strongest seasons, with such standout episodes as Listen, Kill the Moon and Dark Water, it succumbed to sheer ridiculousness with its mess of a finale; Death in Heaven. Leaving a horribly sour taste in the mouth of a wonderful season, this year's annual Christmas special, titled Last Christmas, needed to retain that quality brought about in the middle third of this year's season. And, much to my delight, it did.

Doctor Who's Christmas specials have always been hit and miss. Ranging from the amazing A Christmas Carol to the atrocious Voyage of the Damned, quite literally anything can happen in the hour time slot Doctor Who gets on the 25th. After arguably the show's best run of episodes, Steven Moffat (returning to top form, here) has delivered arguably the show's best Christmas episode to date. Going in, everyone was uncertain as to whether Clara Oswald (the superb Jenna Coleman) would be continuing her role next year. Whilst we knew this incarnation of the Doctor (the superber Peter Capaldi) would return, we were left on tenterhooks about the continuation of the much improved Clara. Last Christmas delivers the best Christmas present any Clara fan could ask for: she is staying for Season 9.

And I am overjoyed. Clara is potentially the show's greatest showcase for character development. Doctor Who never really focused on character work for its first seven seasons. There weren't any character catastrophes along the way, but Russell T Davies undeniably put the action and the aliens before the characters, to great results. Moffat then came along with Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, and introduced the heavy plot arc and some deeper character work, but nothing particularly mind blowing. However, 2014's series took that convention and sent it hurtling into outer space, delivering an entire season built on the foundations of strong, smart character development. Throughout Season 7, I disliked Clara. She acted as a mere plot device as opposed to a character, and never really grew across her eight episodes. But, from last year's opener Deep Breath onward, it was clear that this was about to change.

Throughout the eighth season, Clara grew from a plot device to a multi-layered character, with human connections, a life outside the TARDIS and a strong, unusual relationship with the Doctor, unlike any we'd seen before. Episodes such as Kill the Moon and Listen demonstrated this relationship fantastically, which is partially why they ended up at the very top of my episode rankings for this season (which can be found here). Last Christmas may not do much to strengthen or deepen the relationship between our leads, but it brings it back full force in a way that I didn't believe was possible after Death in Heaven. Capaldi and Coleman side by side are a force to be reckoned with, and have confirmed their place as my favourite Doctor-Companion combination of Doctor Who thus far. Clara has come such a long way since her introduction, and I can't wait to see how they develop her further next year.

But, on to Last Christmas, an episode packed with humour, fear, emotion, and, obviously, Christmas spirit. Whilst many other attempts for this formula have failed in the past, Moffat got the balance perfectly right here. Nick Frost was on hand to deliver an unusual but effective turn as Santa Claus, who's arguments and misunderstandings with the Doctor led to many memorable moments; "Why don't you go and write a naughty list!" being a solid example. Frost (so aptly named) played the role with an infectious amount of fun, but never overdoes it, which is highly commendable in a role of this caliber. The supporting cast are also solid, if slightly underdeveloped. Their final moments of the episode are touching though, so clearly the underdevelopment isn't too big a catastrophe. Despite the final 15 minutes being perhaps a tad too silly for some, it worked for me. Doctor Who is at its all time best when it blurs the boundaries between silly and serious (ala Kill the Moon), and this was another great showcase for that effect. The combination of themes from Inception, Alien and Miracle on 34th Street are all welcome, also.

Capaldi and Coleman were terrific too, as ever. Danny Pink returned briefly for a (possibly/hopefully) final farewell in a scene that was more emotional than it had any right to be after his terrible ending back in Death in Heaven, but these three have such terrific on screen chemistry that they could make almost anything work. Paul Wilmshurst returned as director, proving again he has a real talent for crafting frightening scenes in small environments, but also understands how to frame the quieter, more emotional moments just as effectively. Moffat crafted a script that took on a huge number of pop culture references, multiple genres and a healthy combination of action and dialogue without ever allowing the episode to become confusing, and he ultimately delivered his best Christmas work yet. Many people still criticised this episode and compared it to the Davies era, but that's the thing with Doctor Who. The basic formula of this show requires that it switch up and change constantly, and this is one of those examples. Davies and Moffat are very different writers, with very different styles, but this does not make one definitively better than the other. Both have their strengths, and both have their weaknesses. For me, whilst Moffat lost a touch of his creativity through seasons six and seven, he now seems to be back on top form, with Doctor Who's best year since 2010.

All I can say is bring on 2015, when Doctor Who's wonder trio of Moffat, Capaldi and Coleman are set to come back better than ever.

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