Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Recent Doctor Who Christmas specials have had something of a festivity overdose, with frankly implausible quantities of snow for Matt Smith’s Doctor to frolic through as he spilled Christmas miracles all over sparkly kittens. Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely bloody love A Christmas Carol, the less said about the Narnia one the better, and The Snowmen is alright – but it’s difficult to see how Steven Moffat could follow up an episode in which the Doctor spends nine hundred years in a snowy village called Christmas with something more Christmassy. Surely with the less cheery Twelfth Doctor will come a less stylised, less ludicrously twee Christmas episode? Oh never mind, Santa’s in it.

The addition of Santa had me admittedly worried. Not only because there's only so much faux-sentimentality I can take after all that champagne without wanting to throttle the nearest reindeer, but I was unsure how he could fit into the universe of Doctor Who. Sure, this series has had werewolves, Robin Hood, and Angels that send you back in time, but Santa? Most mythological figures that show up in Who are explained away as robots or giant fish aliens in disguise, but that kind of twist would ruin Christmas for kids across the nation, whereas the only other obvious option – having him actually really real – worked for Robin Hood but would be a step too far for a man of Santa’s present-delivering abilities (sorry, kids). 

To my relief, Last Christmas dealt with this pretty damn well, incorporating Nick Frost’s ‘Big Papa Chrimbo’ into an oneiric plot (I can tick that off my words-to-use list) that makes a tense thriller out of the question: “Do you believe this is real?” The Doctor and Clara arrive at a polar base, where they find themselves joining forces with Santa and his elves to rescue its scientist crew from nasty little Dream Crabs. But all is not what it seems, and ‘Santa’ turns out to be a construct dreamed up by the gang.

What we had here was no Christmas fairytale but a refreshingly grimy horror story, with distinct parallels to The Thing, Aliens and Inception. And with Santa in it. As with this year’s Listen, showrunner Moffat proved that he hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to the spooky, with the manuals scene a particularly twisted highlight and with the kind of plants for twists that are really hard to write – the kind that totally pass you by at first, but seem so obvious on second watch. Did you notice the repetition of “It’s a long story”? Or Clara’s stairlift in the opening scene? If so, well done, you’re much more observant than me. If not, go and watch again. 

The crabs themselves are a very Steven Moffat villain – defined by the effect they have on the heroes and the mental trick required to beat them, albeit lacking their own motivation and backstory. I do also have to question why exactly it is the group were so scared of the crabs that had already attached themselves to people – as we were never shown what these lumbering crabheads do when they get you.

Now content in the fact that he’s an idiot, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor was on fine form in this episode; it was great to see him being clever and solving the mystery while having rival hero Santa, himself less amiable than the traditional Father C, to riff off. The “bantering” (ugh) between these two very funny actors was by far one of the episode’s highlights, particularly Mr Frost’s “dreamy-weamy” impression of Capaldi. And yet their tetchy relationship was paid off with the touchingly cheery climax of the Doctor getting to drive Santa’s sleigh – though I was expecting him to fly it from Dream London to Dream Gallifrey and a little disappointed that I was wrong.

The real emotional heart of the episode, of course, was how the relationship between Clara and the Doctor would develop from Death in Heaven’s downbeat cliffhanger. After a touching scene in which they both admit having lied to each other, the Doctor spends this episode helping Clara move on from the ghost of Danny Pink past and so it’s fitting that it ends with them running off to adventures new, even if the double ending is a little have-your-cake-and-eat-it. It seems Moffat is determined to repeatedly pretend to write Clara out of the show before revealing that she's not gone quite yet, just as he pretended to introduce her a couple of times. My biggest complaint, though – how shit was that Old Clara make-up? This show's had some pretty dodgy old-age make-up in its time, but this was by far the least convincing. They didn't even change her voice in the slightest!

Perhaps one shortfall from focusing on the Doctor/Clara relationship is that some supporting characters felt underwritten. While Faye Marsay’s Shona had some nice characterisation, the introduction of Michael Troughton’s Professor as a pervy bugger who’d been feeling Shona up and had unpleasant nasal hair didn't go anywhere. As in, this whole element of his character from his introductory scene was never mentioned again. And thus when he dies, it feels entirely arbitrary. Death just to establish danger, rather than the loss of an actual character. Perhaps this would have worked better if his sexism had been played up throughout the episode and directly led to his death – a female character warns him of the danger but he doesn’t believe her so pushes her aside, for example. Similarly, there was a nice bittersweet moment for that woman who wakes up and she’s in a wheelchair, but this could have been more effective had she been particularly active in the polar base – had it been her rather than the Doctor who’d saved Clara from the grasp of the crabhead, for example.

But that’s a minor quibble about what is the best Doctor Who Christmas special since A Christmas Carol. Which will never be beaten. While Last Christmas retained some of the OTT stylings of its predecessors – how many fairy lights does one living room need, Clara? – it was an effectively creepy, intelligently plotted horror story that in true Doctor Who fashion was entirely unashamed to rip off classic horror films, and had some fine comic relief and emotional heft to boot. Let’s hope the Doctor can stay this cheery throughout whatever 2015 brings for him…

Saturday, 20 December 2014

On 20.12.14 by KieronMoore in ,    No comments

Issue 408 of the fantastic Starburst Magazine is out now - as usual, you can pick it up from WH Smiths, independent comics stores, or online.

This is the 2015 preview issue, with a massive feature by myself and the rest of the Starburst team telling you what to look forward to in the world of sci-fi, horror and fantasy in the next year. Particularly Star Wars. It's less than a year until new Star Wars, and I'm already practising my lightsaber swinging in anticipation.

Also in the magazine are Starburst's countdown of the top 40 genre films of 2014 (I disagree with how The LEGO Movie didn't win, but it's a good read nonetheless), a look back at Hammer Horror's back catalogue, and loads of reviews (one of which is my Spione review...).