Two years ago with The Snowmen, I thought that Moffat finally understood how to do the holiday special. Then came The Time of the Doctor, dashing all my hopes. With Last Christmas, the needle has swung somewhere back to the middle, assuming I ignore the final moment. What Davies did absolutely right during his 4 year tenure, what he understood, was that the holiday special took place on Christmas, and perhaps riffed on the universalities of that holiday, but it was not about Christmas. It was simply a Doctor Who episode that incorporated that holiday celebrated by a portion of the planet (not even a majority of the planet, let alone the universe).
Perhaps I’m still smarting from the failures of Series 8, or the fact that when I picked up the series on disc (because I am a complete-ist) I realized they are no longer including the previous holiday special in the set, even though it was a pivotal episode (a regeneration fer cryin’ out loud). I’ve actually returned the set in protest to the BBC’s decision. Eight was a weak series to begin with… I can wait for it to drop to next to nothing to own it (if ever).
Enough belly-aching. What Moffat did right this year was to try and make it not about Christmas directly. In fact, minus that final moment he just couldn’t resist, it actually could have made some bit of sense. That it was written like the worst of the Star Trek time-travel episodes is besides the point. He also managed to get some real humor in. Casting Frost (The World’s End) as Father Christmas with a couple of smart-talking elves McMullen (Misfits) and Starkey (best known as Strax in the Who-verse) was a coup. He even pulled in a smart-mouthed scientist with attitude, Marsay (Pride) to round out the combo. Amusingly, Marsay really steals the show from them all with smart comments and riffing on Guardians of the Galaxy beautifully.
Though written by Moffat, this episode was directed by Wilmshurst, who, oddly, had directed both the best and worst of Series 8 (Mummy on the Orient Express and Kill the Moon respectively). The result he achieved, however, was a very uneven hand with the story. While most of the issue was the slap-dash, surface-level of the script from a character point of view, the direction just never allowed it to gel; it simply ran from one moment to the next.
I’m not full of hope for series 9. In fact, I dread it given what has transpired over the last year. Perhaps it will come together again. I will give it a chance. This installment at least points to some modicum of hope… it was, at least, science fictiony. But I can’t say I’ll watch it again any time soon. I continue to rewatch the Davies years often. They not only demand it (there are all sorts of clues and references scattered about) but they are that well written and directed. I will continue my dogged adherence to the series for a bit longer before giving up, but my patience is wearing rather thin.