Were you fooled? I certainly was. Steven Moffat, erstwhile trickster and Doctor Who showrunner, led us to believe we were in for our schmaltziest, least-believable Doctor Who Christmas special yet. Instead, we were treated to a ghost story, to Inception meets Alien — full of genuine chills and perfectly-timed emotional beats. It had something unique to say, both about the show and about the holiday season itself.
That was hardly to be expected. After a decade of killer Christmas trees, several Christmas-themed invasions, Christmas Cybermen and Christmas-themed time-traveling takes on A Christmas Carol and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, not to mention the 300-year long defense of the town of Christmas that ended the 11th Doctor’s reign, it seemed Doctor Who’s yuletide obsession — an obsession dictated by the BBC’s need to put its best shows on the December 25 schedule — had finally reached the bottom of the silly barrel. The show had finally enlisted Santa Claus.
At the end of Death in Heaven nearly two months ago, Santa walked into the TARDIS after the Doctor and Clara had just parted ways, a giant red blot of bathos after the high drama of Danny Pink’s death. “It can’t end like that,” he said, apparently referring to the fact that the Doctor and Clara had let each other go by telling a lie. “She’s not alright, you know, and neither are you … tell me, what do you want for Christmas?”
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What fans wanted for Christmas and what Moffat wanted seemed at odds like never before. Fans wanted no more of the Robot of Sherwood-style storyline. Widely judged one of the least successful of season 8, that well-intentioned episode saw the Doctor meeting Robin Hood, spending the better part of an hour trying to disprove his existence, before finally conceding they were as real as each other. It wasn’t bad; it was just a too-clever meta-commentary on myth that never quite gelled.
Moffat had long assured an anxious nation of parents that he would not leave them having to re-explain the existence of Santa to their kids on Christmas night. So was Last Christmas to be Robot of Sherwood all over again, then, just with a less cool, more ahistorical character in a Coca Cola-colored costume? Sure, Nick Frost was worth seeing in the role, especially opposite the intensity of Peter Capaldi. But c’mon, Moff, Santa? What is this, a modern-day Santa Claus Conquers the Martians?
The showrunner and writer appeared to be enthralled by his worst tendency, which is his perceived need to sacrifice his smarts on the altar of sound and fury. In pre-show interviews, he emphasized how drunk or sugared-up his viewers were likely to be. “You have to sort of cut through an even louder living room than normal with your story,” he said. And so, according to the trailers, we’d get heroic Santa! Wisecracking elves! Rudolph with a car-alarm nose! Dumb jokes about the Easter bunny and tangerines!
In short, pretty colors, forgettable fluff, with the old standby storyline — Arctic base under siege by a scary monster — as a half-hearted gesture to classic Doctor Who.