The central conceit of this year's Christmas special was that Doctor Who is just as real, and just as unreal, as Santa Claus. In and of itself, I loved this. It was very meta, perfectly true, and extremely productive for bouncing the two mythic traditions off against one another. As the Doctor himself put it, "D'you know what the big problem is in telling fantasy and reality apart? They're both ridiculous." Maybe it was a slightly repetitive line to take, after having done much the same thing with Robin Hood earlier this year, but that's less of a problem for a Christmas episode than it would be a regular one, given that Christmas episodes tend to pull in a higher proportion of casual viewers who may not have seen Robot of Sherwood
anyway. And there were lots of cool moments to enjoy, like the snarky Elves, Santa rearing up on Rudolph like a heroic knight, Nick Frost generally being completely brilliant, and everything about Shona.
But a week, much musing, and some re-watching of key scenes later, and I'm still both puzzled and bothered by the question of whose dream(s) we are seeing at any given stage in the episode, and where the dreams end and 'reality' begins. I realise that worrying about this at all is at odds with that central conceit, according to which it doesn't matter, since everything you're seeing is a story anyway. But the difference between Doctor Who
and the mythos of Santa Claus is that Doctor Who
is an ongoing, unfolding story presented by an identifiable single source (the BBC TV series), which purports to offer internal consistency of plot and character development. So while Santa Claus can merrily get away with being and doing many different and contradictory things, depending on who is telling him, Doctor Who
cannot - or at least not if it wants to keep hold of viewers who care about what has and hasn't actually 'happened' to the characters they are following.
As far as I understand it, the official line on this episode is that everything we see is a dream (often within one or more other dreams), except for the final scene when the Doctor arrives at the large house in which a twenty-something Clara is now sleeping, rescues her from the last dream-crab, and they leave together in the TARDIS. This, at least, is what Moffat himself has stated
. The problem is that this scene comes at the end of a whole story in which the Doctor has repeatedly insisted on applying critical thinking to determine the difference between dreaming and reality. "Trust nothing, interrogate everything", he says. But the 'waking-up' scene which Moffat insists is 'real' comes directly after the Doctor has voiced the wish to older-dream-Clara that he had returned to her sooner, so it is a wish-fulfilment scenario for him (the second chance he doesn't normally get, as he says), while the tangerine on the windowsill is a heavy hint that this is meant to have been set up for him by Santa. So everything that has gone before this scene should have trained us to spot the big red flags here, and recognise this as another dream. And yet Moffat is insisting outside the text that it is real, without having given us anything within the text to support that.
This feels lazy to me, as well as like Moffat is trying to have it both ways. Within the story he's saying that the distinction between dreams and reality doesn't matter, yet from outside the story he is still leaning in over our shoulders anyway to tell us which bits are
dreams and which 'real'. If that distinction matters to him after all, couldn't he have put the effort into making it clear from within the story itself? Like a lot of Moffat stories in recent years, what this all feels like is that he had a promising idea for what could have been a really great episode, but in practice it didn't go through enough rewriting drafts, so that we have something nearly-brilliant, but which kind of flakes out at the last hurdle. And what really bothers me about all this as a viewer is not so much not knowing which scenes are dreams and which 'real' per se
, but the fact that a knock-on consequence of this is that we don't really know whose
dreams we are seeing at any given time either, and thus whose subconscious we are being granted an insight into. These are the various different possibilities which could apply, as far as I can figure them out:1.
As per Moffat's Diktat, "Everything except the very last scene is a dream"
. This means that dream-crabs really exist, since we see the Doctor removing one from Clara's face, and I think we're meant to understand that both were attacked by them (the Doctor in a mysterious cave and Clara in her equally-mysterious house), and were somehow experiencing a shared dream from their different locations. Under this scenario, then, the Doctor and Clara have both effectively told each other that they were lying about Gallifrey and Danny respectively at the end of season 8, because they did this in a dream which both were experiencing. Both have also effectively admitted to each other that they really just want to keep on travelling together. But, as I've said above, there are pretty hefty in-story reasons to view Moffat's Diktat as bollocks and read the last scene as just as much of a dream as everything else. In which case, they possibly haven't shared these emotional breakthroughs after all.2.
Even if we accept Moffat's Diktat, the roles of Shona, Albert, Fiona and Ashley remain unclear. By "the very last scene", does he literally mean the last scene with the Doctor and Clara, or does he extend that to mean each of the other characters' last scenes as well? (Well, except for Albert, who doesn't get one 'cos 'e snuffed it.) I.e. is it a shared crab-induced dream with input from all of them
, which began for each character in the various different real-life locations where we see them waking up towards the end of the story? Or not? Do the other characters even exist, or are they dream-inventions of the Doctor's and / or Clara's? After he rescues her from her dream-crab, the Doctor tells older Clara that "The dream crabs must have got to me first and then found you in my memory. The others were collateral damage." But this doesn't really clear things up. Does it mean they were in his memory too? Or hers? And are they present in the dream as the Doctor and / or Clara's subconscious memories, right down to dreaming happy endings for them where they awake back into reality, or are they there as real people who are dreaming too, and really do wake up back in their own realities? When Albert, who put his hand on Shona's knee during the briefing process, is sucked into a security monitor and never seen again, is that Shona's sub-conscious wish-fulfilment? Or Clara's? Or the Doctor's? Or what?3.
Another approach is to ignore Moffat's blethering, and rewind back to the end of the last episode of season 8, where we saw the Doctor nodding off at the console of his TARDIS, before being rudely awakened by a knocking at the TARDIS door and Santa coming in declaring that he couldn't leave things with Clara like that. Everything Last Christmas
has shown us should signal this, too, was a dream, and one which we never see the Doctor waking up from throughout the entirety of the Christmas special. Under this scenario, we can actually forget about the dream-crabs, and read the whole of Last Christmas
as a perfectly normal non-crab-induced dream of the Doctor's, and his alone
, within which he has presumably invented (or subconsciously remembered) a character, Shona, whom he imagined in turn inventing both the crabs and Santa Claus out of a combination of her favourite movies. This is actually what I think is the most plausible reading of everything we've seen on screen - but it does matter quite a lot for ongoing character development purposes whether or not it's correct, because under this theory, the Doctor and Clara haven't
admitted to each other that they've lied, or that they want to keep on travelling together. In fact, they still haven't even seen or had any other kind of contact with one another since parting in the café.
I don't really know why I'm worrying or puzzling over any of this, because I am 99.9% sure that at the beginning of the next season, Moffat will carry on regardless. We'll never really know whether any of what we saw 'happened', and thus what the Doctor and Clara have or haven't said or revealed to each other, and it will all just become yet another unresolved plot string to trouble us vaguely in the background even while we're being asked to follow another. But the fact is that the weight of those loose strings is
bothering me, and making me more and more jaded about each new one that follows. I wish we could find some way to cut free of them all, so that I can get on with enjoying what are otherwise still a lot of awesome stories and great characters.Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.