“Last Christmas,” Doctor Who’s first Christmas special with Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor in the lead role, was exactly the kind of episode that has marked the Capaldi/Jenna Louise Coleman run: Darker, completely nonsensical, and ultimately salvaged by the brilliant performances of the leads (in addition to Nick Frost’s smashingly good bad Santa), who once again made Steven Moffat seem a lot more clever than he actually is.
There was no getting around the comparison to Inception, either: Almost the entire Christmas special was a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream, which saw Santa Claus — representing the subconsciouses of the dreamers — trying to warn them to wake up before alien dream crabs robbed them of their lives. The episode — save for the last moments — took place within the imaginations of the protagonists, who were all under the illusion they were scientists working in the North Pole who discovered alien life forms that were only a danger if you thought about them, which made some sense in the context of several layers of the dreams, but when we found out that each of the protagonists were actually at home sleeping in their beds, the logic of the storyline quickly fell in on itself in a typically Steven Moffat fashion.
But no matter: We are long past the point where we expect Moffat’s storylines to make logical sense, but as he so often does well, Moffat nailed all the emotional beats. He highlighted the 12th Doctor’s paternal crankiness, he strengthened the relationship between Clara and The Doctor, he had a great time playing with his Santa Claus character, and he even used the dream state as an excuse to bring Danny Pink back for an encore hurrah. Thanks to Jenna Louise Coleman and especially Samuel Anderson, it was an affecting moment even if it didn’t actually happen anywhere but in the imagination of Clara. It provided us (and Clara) with some closure that allowed Clara (and us) to move on with our lives (*sniff sniff*).
If you could get past the gaping plot holes, it was also a sufficiently enjoyable episode peppered with brilliant lines (“You’re a dream that’s trying to save us,” as Shona described Santa) that preyed on some fairly interesting fears about our inability to tell when we’re dreaming or awake (I could’ve done without the Doctor’s schmaltzy turn at driving the sleigh). Ultimately, however, the episode actually worked best as the bittersweet finale that Clara never actually received.
It’s hard to tell if it was by design or not, but the ending of “Last Christmas” played perfectly into our uncertainties about the future of Clara. There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about Jenna Louise Coleman’s status with the show, and there had been some speculation that the Christmas special would be her final episode. Rumors that she changed her mind in recent weeks fit perfectly within the storyline that saw the Doctor returning to Clara 62 years later and catching up with her as an old spinster who had led a very full life without the Doctor. The Inception-like framing device, however, allowed Moffat to add on yet another dream layer and bring Clara back for another season-long run as the Doctor’s companion.
Frankly, as sweetly, sadly painful as that other ending could’ve been, I’m thrilled that Clara is returning for another season. No one has done a better job of patching over Moffat’s plot holes than Coleman and Capaldi, and as long as Moffat continues to insist on runnin gthe show, I hope those two stick around to obscure his weaknesses as a writer.