Last night, Christmas night, the Doctor Who Christmas Special aired, as it always does. And I’ll be totally honest: I’ve never been a big fan of the Christmas specials, and so didn’t have high expectations this time around. Christmas Specials always seem to be written like they have an obligation to make everything happy at the end–as if the fact that it was Christmas outlawed any sort of pain, or ache, or sadness.
To summarize, in “Last Christmas,” the Doctor and Clara stumble upon an arctic base where a race of aliens known as “dream crabs” attach to the faces of their victims (a la Alien), and cause them to plunge into dream states of dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams.
Take a guess as to the twist at the end.
I will say this, before I jump into the criticisms. Although I don’t think the episode was good, I did enjoy it, by and large. How is this? Well, the writer W.H. Auden divided stories up into several categories: Good stories you don’t like, Good stories you do like, stories you neither like nor dislike, bad stories you like, and bad stories you don’t like. This Christmas Special falls firmly into the last category, for me. I enjoyed it, but didn’t find it to be a good story.
The primary flaw, in my opinion, was actually the greatest strength of the episode. The episode was enjoyable for me because the plot was enjoyable, but the plot was, sadly, not the production of Doctor Who. Last Christmas felt like it grabbed the plot of Inception and added Santa to it, and called it “Doctor Who.”
From the dreams-within-dreams, to the shared dreams, to the weaponized subconscious, to the Doctor Who stand-in for a totem (the book test), this episode, written by Christopher Nol–, er, I mean, Steven Moffat, piggybacked off Inception. And at it’s core, this is a problem. While I do agree with Willa Cather, in O Pioneers!, that “”There are only two or three stories, and they go on repeating themselves,” that doesn’t mean that a writer should feel free to ignore originality entirely.
And sure, we can debate about how originality is possible if there are only two or three stories in the world, but it cannot be ignored that taking the plot of another story and using it as your own isn’t good storytelling. I won’t call “Last Christmas” plagiarism, because that’s a hard charge to defend, and honestly not one I’m interested in defending, but I will say “Last Christmas” uses another stories’ plot.
Why was it enjoyable, then? To me, it was enjoyable because Inception was enjoyable. “Last Christmas” takes the work another story teller did–coming up with a good premise and figuring out how to make it fun–and used it as its own. Beyond the fact there’s something that doesn’t seem right about that, fun doesn’t excuse bad storytelling, which “Last Christmas” has, in my opinion, in abundance.
Add in, on top of the ripped-off plot, some quite cheesy moments with Santa, sleigh-riding, people getting sucked into a TV, and a weird theme (“every Christmas is Last Christmas?” Can someone please explain this to me?) and the episode seems to have very little to stand on.
So, at the end of the day, the Doctor’s run as Leonardo Dicaprio was enjoyable, but not a good story. And maybe that’s all Doctor Who was trying to do–make a fun and enjoyable episode for Christmas night. If that was the extent of their intentions, they certainly accomplished it. But as we all know, it doesn’t have to be a bad story in order to be fun.
That’s why Auden had a category for “good stories we liked.”