The Doctor and Clara head up to the North Pole for an old-fashioned yuletide mystery. Is this the end of their journey together? Also: Santa Claus?

By Darren Franich
Updated December 26, 2014 at 03:00 AM EST
Adrian Rogers/BBC

Doctor Who

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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

So the Doctor takes drastic action: Facehugging himself into Clara’s shared dream. (Right about now is when the engineering around the Dream Crabs starts getting a bit five-dimensional: Apparently, the second you get Dream-Crabbed, you can join someone else’s perfect crab dream.) The Doctor tells it to Clara straight: This is a dream. It’s killing you.

Fortunately, even in death, even in a dream, Danny Pink is still a solid fella. First he gets the line of the night: “I didn’t die saving the world. I died saving Clara. The rest of you just got lucky.” Then he tells Clara to leave him behind, to return to the real world. He gives her a nice little speech that becomes the motto of the episode: “Every Christmas is last Christmas, and this is ours.”

So Danny Pink gets another farewell from Doctor Who—perhaps not quite as cathartic as that time he came back to life as a robot who defeated his circuitry with love and then sacrificed himself to save humanity, but still, a nice touch. Then things go bananas. Because the Doctor and Clara wake up… and then the Doctor convinces everyone that they’re still dreaming. They’ve been dreaming ever since those facehuggers attacked them—the moment right before Santa Claus appeared.

Santa confirms that the Doctor’s telling the truth: “How much more obvious do you want me to make it?” he says. But Santa also says that his appearance here is important for everyone. Someone tells him that he’s not real, to which he retorts: “And yet, that never stopped me!” He explicitly links himself to the Doctor—and so you could look at “Last Christmas” as a kind of meditation on the power of fantasy, how the fantasy of Santa Claus (and the Doctor) is more “real” than most real things.

They all wake up: The Doctor, Clara, the scientist-types. The Doctor announces that he’s leaving; sure, Dream Crabs are attacking humanity, but when isn’t something attacking humanity? Right as he arrives at the TARDIS, Clara asks a good question: If Santa was only in the dream, why was he on her roof?

“Do you know what I hate about the obvious? Missing it!” declares the Doctor, who runs back inside for another exposi-speech. He asks Clara: Why did we come to the North Pole exactly? “It’s a long story,” says Clara… the same explanation the scientists had earlier for whatever work they were doing, the same kind of non-logic explanation that always pops up in the storylines of your dreams. Dreams are “funny, disjointed, and silly” says the Doctor—which also sums up everything we’ve seen so far on “Last Christmas.”

So now it turns out that the North Pole is a dream, too. The scientist-types aren’t scientists at all; they’re probably asleep, all over the world, even scattered across time. The Doctor’s in his TARDIS; Clara’s in her bed at home. “We’re all being networked into the same nightmare!” the Doctor says.

Time’s running out; one of the non-scientists disappears, probably waking up dead in the real world somewhere. The Dream Crabbers in the coma appear—first four of them, then many more. They can’t escape on the TARDIS, so the Doctor tells his companions to dream themselves home. “It’s Christmas! The North Pole! Who you gonna call!”

Sure enough, Santa picks them up on his sleigh, promising to carry them home. It’s a nice moment, which reaches its climax when Clara tells the Doctor: “I’ve always believed in Santa Claus, but he looks a little different to me.” Then the Doctor takes the reins of Santa’s sleigh, and all is right with the world.

The people disappear. Too bad: I kind of liked Shona, even though this special might be setting her up as the Doctor’s next companion. I mean, check out her Christmas itinerary:

1. DVD (Alien)

2. DVD (The Thing From Another World)

3. Dad comes round

4. DVD (Miracle on 34th Street)

5. Thrones marathon

6. Forgive Dave???

(ASIDE: The DVDs listed on Shona’s itinerary were all clearly inspirations for this episode—Alien was openly name-checked earlier, and the setting of the North Pole is clearly inspired by The Thing, and also Santa Claus. END OF ASIDE.)

The Doctor wakes up on some remote lava planet and zips off to find Clara. He pulls the Dream Crab off of her… revealing a much older Clara, waking up. It’s been 62 years, she says. “I have missed you very much, you stupid old man.” Yes, once again, the Doctor has skipped forward in his Companion’s life, and once again, I’m crying watching Doctor Who.

The Doctor pulls out some Christmas hats. He celebrates the season with Clara. He swears that she doesn’t look different at all. He asks her what happened in those 62 years. No, she never married. But she traveled. She taught in every country in Europe. She learned to fly a plane! Any regrets? “Hundreds,” she says. “I just wish there were time for a few more.”

“No one ever matched up to Danny, eh?” asks the Doctor. “There was one other man,” says Clara. “but that would never have worked out.” “Why not?” “He was impossible.”

That’s a good line—a callback to Clara the Impossible Girl, the Companion who died twice before she became a Companion. It also feels like a nice way of closing one of the stranger Companion-Doctor relationships in modern history; there was always the hint of romance in Clara’s relationship with the Eleventh Doctor (insofar as there’s always a hint of romance when the Doctor looks young), but the Twelfth Doctor tried to reposition himself as a kind of mischievous uncle. So this last line is a happy nexus: Perhaps there was something there, but nothing Clara ever wanted to explore.

The Doctor feels sorry. “I was stupid,” he says. “I should’ve come back earlier. I wish that I had.” It’s a desperately sad moment—the kind of thing I was thinking about when I declared Doctor Who the saddest show on television. But look! It’s Santa! “How much do you wish that?” asks Jolly Old Saint Nick.

SMASH CUT TO: The Doctor, waking up again on that volcano planet. The Doctor, waking up Clara again—except now she’s her young self again! The Doctor extends his hand: “All of time and all of space are sitting out there in a big blue box! Please!”

Clara scarcely even thinks about it. They wish each other Merry Christmas and race outside. “I never get a second chance,” says the Doctor. “What happened this time? I don’t even know who to thank.” As they ran into the TARDIS, the camera revealed a possible hint: a tangerine on the windowsill. Santa Claus is real, everyone! (Or—THEORY ALERT—Santa Claus is actually a future version of the Doctor, who decides to spend a regeneration delivering presents to children every year everywhere for all eternity.)

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What did you think of the Doctor Who Christmas Special? Email me at darren_franich@ew.com, and I’ll respond in a future edition of the Entertainment Geekly mailbag. Or just tweet me @DarrenFranich.

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