Gorgeous. That’s the word that I think everyone is going to use for the Christmas episodes. The production design for the festive season is always suitably lavish, and Last Christmas is no exception. From fully-digital (and infrared-locking) reindeer to the excellent creature effects on the dreamcrabs, this is an episode that wears its budget on its lapel like an outsize Armistice poppy.
And it’s a good job that Last Christmas is such a feast for the eyes, because it gives the viewer something to take his mind off the plot. Capaldi’s reign as the Doctor to date has been sadly marred by a tendency on the writers’ part to give stories that make absolutely no sense on any level – magic anti-meteor trees, the evolution of sleep dust and the moon being an egg which hatches into a dragon which lays an egg of equal size and mass to the egg it came from being the most obvious and egregious examples. Last Christmas isn’t in that league, but suffers from Stephen Moffat’s often-noted tendency to write too much plot for an hour’s episode. I daresay that there are plenty of times when a fast-paced mashup of Inception and Existenz would be welcome, but seven o’clock on Christmas Day when the kids are being sugar-sick and granny is on her fourth sweet sherry is probably not the best time to choose. In earlier years Moffat offered older family members a crutch to lean on (“oh, it’s just Scrooge, isn’t it?”) but annual visitors to Gallifrey probably stood no chance with this one.
Still, if there’s one thing that has been consistently excellent in Capaldi’s era, it’s Capaldi himself. Last Christmas certainly made the most of its lead actor’s considerable chops, giving him a much broader emotional palate than he gets to enjoy in the average episode. It’s not often, for instance, that we get a look at the childlike glee that Matt Smith or David Tennant’s Doctors would serve up as a matter of course, but at the climax of the episode when he takes the reins of Father Christmas’s sleigh, there’s a real joy (“Clara, look at me!”) that he rarely gets to express.
Father Christmas himself is perfect. I think by this stage we can all agree that Nick Frost is not merely a funny guy who does a bit of acting but a fully-paid-up member of the Ronnie Barker School for Properly Good Actors Who Are Also Very Funny. His quickfire banter with Capaldi is a joy to behold, as is the wonderfully deadpan way he disposes of the questions about his flying sleigh; but when Santa needs to get serious, Frost is capable of projecting enough gravitas through the red suit that you aren’t taken out of the action for a moment.
Even Clara gets a decent bite of the cherry in Last Christmas, showing some real emotional depth and getting to have a bloody good scream instead of smugging about the place with her nose in the air. Jenna Coleman gets stretched a bit and the viewer suddenly remembers why she was cast in the first place, and how much promise Clara showed before it became easier just to write the character as an insufferable smart-alec.
In fact, the acting throughout is nearly as enjoyable as the presentation. The reliable Dan Starkey seems a little less sure-footed than usual in this rare appearance unprotected by layers of Sontaran make-up, but it’s still a pleasure to watch his wonderful, bickering relationship with Nathan McMullan (a thoroughly nice chap who went to my school, incidentally). It’s like a sibling relationship, complete with both competition and fierce loyalty, and it’s both a triumph of character writing from Moffat and a super bit of portrayal by the actors. Faye Marsay instantly wins your love when she tries to defeat the facehugger/headcrabs’ telepathic field through the power of amateur dance, and the moment when Maureen Beattie has to readjust to being wheelchair-bound on waking is a superbly underplayed moment of real pathos instead of dipping into maudlin sentimentality.
For the long-term fans, Michael Troughton appears as the ineffectual Professor Albert. Nepotistic casting is always a risk but Troughton resists the urge to play to the balcony, instead giving a nicely restrained and ego-free turn as the useless pedagogue. As a reward he gets to be the only fatality in the episode, always a treat for the character actor.
All in all, Last Christmas does so many things right that it’s a shame it doesn’t have a clearer plot to hold it together. A treat to look at and performed with real vigour, but not an ideal Christmas watch, Last Christmas earns itself six out of ten lords a-leaping in my book.