WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT.
That is, I think, the only logical response to the 2014 Doctor Who Christmas Special, an episode which took place in 12 Inceptions‘ worth of dreamtime, and also an episode that was a lovely send-off for Clara… until it turned into a five-hankie every-teardrop-is-a-waterfall send-off for Clara… until it suddenly reverse zig-zagged and declared that, actually, Clara’s not going anywhere! WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT, indeed!
The episode begins with Clara awoken on a chilly Christmas Eve. Someone’s on the rooftop—someone with a bright red outfit, a long white beard, and a penchant for tangerines. (ASIDE: I’m guessing that tangerines are a super popular Christmas thing in the UK. Or maybe they’re popular with everyone, and my parents just never brought tangerines into our holiday tradition. Thanks for nothing, Mom and/or Dad! END OF ASIDE.) Yes, it’s Santa Claus, a.k.a. Father Christmas, a.k.a. Jolly Old Saint Nick. He’s played by Nick Frost, the actor who’s co-headlined alongside Simon Pegg in Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy. Santa can’t understand how Clara recognizes him. “You know how you grew a beard as a bit of a disguise?” says one of his helper elves. “People have picked up on it.”
Right about then is when things get relatively normal, and a blue police box apparates out of the time-space continuum. The Doctor appears, demanding that Clara get inside the TARDIS immediately. She follows him, and the Doctor has a tense standoff with Father Christmas. “I know what this is,” he says. “I know what’s happening, and I know what’s at stake.” For a moment, you might almost think that Doctor Who was steering toward the revelation that Santa Claus was a Time Lord, or anyhow some sort of Time Lord-adjacent being. Mark this down as the Big Mystery of the Christmas Special: Who is Santa Claus?
The Doctor and Clara are together again. Clara admits that she missed the TARDIS and says that she thought she’d never see the Doctor again. The Doctor gets serious quickly: “There’s something you have to ask yourself, and it’s important. Your life may depend on it. Everybody’s life. Do you really believe in Santa Claus?“
SMASH CUT TO: The North Pole. A few scientist-looking people are anxiously planning… something. A sassy young woman named Shona has been designated for a dangerous mission: Walking into an infirmary filled with four comatose people and doing her very best to not think about the curious creatures currently taking up space on the sleepers’ face. “Don’t think about them,” a tough commander-looking scientist named Ashley says. “Don’t look at them.”
Shona’s method for avoiding the nasties: Playing “Merry Christmas Everybody” as loud as possible while dancing. But suddenly, at the door, emerges a skeleton man and a girl in a nightie: The Doctor and Clara. The Time Lord recognizes these villains, calls them Dream Crabs. “They hone in on their own images in someone else’s brain,” he explains. This is mind piracy: “We’re being hacked.” He tells Clara to stop looking at them. Turn your back! Look away! Do blink! But not looking isn’t enough; she needs to stop thinking about them. So the Doctor brings up Clara’s love, Danny Pink: “He’s probably flirting with your neighbor or texting women of low moral character!”
Clara slaps him and tells him the truth: Danny Pink is dead. The Doctor is confused. A fleet of facegrabbers descend from the ceiling; it’s looking bad for everyone. Right then is when the wall explodes, and some toys attack, and there’s Santa Claus riding Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. “This is the North Pole,” he says. “We don’t want any trouble here.”
The scientists have some question for their savior. Like: Santa Claus? And: Really? Santa and his elves insist that it’s no act. They’ve seen the North Pole; they have selfies to prove it. The Doctor is frustrated. After all, he’s a regenerating time-traveler from another planet. “You know the big problem in telling fantasy and reality apart?” he asks. “They’re both ridiculous.” (When the Doctor asks Santa how he gets all those presents on the sleigh, you can see Santa’s delight when he responds: “Bigger on the inside.”)
The Doctor and Clara finally get a moment to discuss the mutual lies that made the season 8 finale such a downer. Yes, Clara lied about Danny Pink’s resurrection: “So you’d go home to Gallifrey, instead of fussing about me.” Yes, The Doctor lied about finding Gallifrey: “I lied, so you’d stay with Danny.”
We learn how the Dream Crabs operate. They attach themselves to the host, and then put the host into a perfectly realized dream world: a happy place, where they peacefully reside while the crabs dissolve their brains into nothingness. We get an immediate demonstration when Clara gets facehugged into a dreamscape where Danny is still alive, and they’re celebrating a happy Christmas indeed. The Doctor tries communicating with Clara, with his trademark subtlety: “CLARA!! DREAMING!! DYING!!” Clara ignores him—maybe on purpose?
NEXT: Things get really weird