Many of the Doctor Who Christmas specials make me cry. It doesn’t take much–give me a triumphant speech and swelling music after a day of presents, food, and wine, and of course the tears will come. But only one Doctor Who special made me ugly cry and continues to make me sob every damn time I watch it.
“Last Christmas” is a mashup riff on Alien and Inception filtered through Doctor Who with a dash of Santa Claus and elves, but it’s also a contemplative study of the power of dreams and their dual nature. Sure, there’s a base under siege, face-hugging aliens, and Nick Frost playing Santa but all of those elements are ornaments on the tree that is the story of the Doctor and Clara.
Just before the beginning of “Last Christmas,” the Doctor and Clara have stopped travelling together, each believing that the other would rather move on (the Doctor believes Clara wants to stay on Earth with Danny and Clara thinks the Doctor would rather return to Gallifrey). They soon find out, however, that they were lying to each other, sacrificing their own desires for the sake of the other. But before they can process the truth and where that leaves them, they need to fight the aliens that are hijacking their dreams.
It turns out that 98% of what we see in “Last Christmas” is a dream. From the moment Santa lands on Clara’s roof until she wakes up in the final scene, everything is a shared dream state between the Doctor and Clara. How did the dream crabs come to attack them when they’re galaxies apart and in different time zones? Steven Moffat, the writer of this episode, doesn’t much care because what’s more important is the emotional truths they both face during the story. They will literally die if they don’t escape their dream and face reality, and this is the message that Moffat is screaming throughout the entire episode. It’s also one of the reasons I cry every time I watch it.
When you’re dealing with grief and loss, it’s easy to retreat from the real world. Maybe we’re not living in a pleasant dream state filled with idealized versions of our lost loved ones like Clara, but maybe we cease to try; maybe we stop living each day to the fullest.
I was just beginning to pull myself out of that fog when I saw “Last Christmas” for the first time. It was only a few months since my marriage to my ex-husband fell apart. We had been together for a decade, but by December I was finally starting to feel like life could be good and full without him. Something I couldn’t shake, and still have trouble with to this day, is that even though I don’t miss my ex anymore, I still have a pang for the life we used to have and the life that could’ve been, because that was a loss too. So when dream Danny (who’s really just Clara’s subconscious ::sob::) implores her to wake up and that she’s only allowed to miss him for 5 minutes a day, I become a puddle. That first time I watched, it was like Doctor Who was speaking directly TO ME, and on that Christmas day it was a sorely needed message. I had spent the entire day feeling very sorry for myself, missing my best friend, and feeling intensely alone. “Last Christmas” told me it was okay to be sad but in manageable doses. Clara showed me that you can mourn a lost loved one and still live a full life, appreciating every Christmas as the last Christmas.
In true Moffat fashion though, “Last Christmas” is not straightforward with its “carpe diem” message. Dreams that trap you in the past or keep you from living are bad. But fantasies and fairy tales–Santa Claus coming to the rescue and the Doctor showing up in his TARDIS–those are worth holding on to, at least a little bit. After all, it’s the crew’s belief in Santa as a symbol of hope that convinces them that they’re dying and that they need to wake up. Moffat seems to be saying, don’t live in a fantasyland, but do hold on to hope. Keep some of your childlike wonder because it might save your life. When it looks like our heroes are doomed and there’s nowhere else to run, Santa, the very symbol of childhood dreams, rescues the crew and carries them home in his sleigh. Shona, our gobby pseudo-companion, goes one step further and takes the experience from the dream and decides to reconcile with a loved one. Your dreams will save you if you let them. Cue more of my sobs.
Of course, this theme is underlined and highlighted in bright neon in the last scenes between the Doctor and Clara. The top level dreams-within-dreams scenario shows Clara as an old woman, having lived a life of travel, romance, and adventure without the Doctor. She’s content and among her regrets is a wish that there was time for more. She LIVED and was happy. But, and this is crucial, she abandoned all hope of the life she could’ve had with the Doctor because she deemed him “impossible.” This Clara lived her best life but giving up on that dream of travelling through space and time meant that she missed something more extraordinary.
Even though she’s underneath pounds of prosthetic, Jenna Coleman’s eyes express so much when she says, “there was one other man, but that would never have worked out.” She’s looking right at the Doctor and telling him that “he was impossible” and it is heartbreaking. (It’s also pretty strong proof of romantic tension because who has these kinds of conversations with platonic friends? Especially when she’s basically saying he was second to Danny, who was supposed to be the love of her life.) Of course, it’s THIS moment that prompts the Doctor to tell Clara he should’ve come back to her sooner. Moffat gives them a second chance and here again I start to weep. Santa comes in to wake them up, so that like Shona, they can be inspired to make changes to their real life based on their dreams.
As someone who’s been alone for five Christmases after a painful divorce, this episode resonates with me more and more every year. I still mourn my old life and my marriage (in small doses just as dream Danny recommends), and Christmas is always a big flashing sign of a reminder of everything I’ve lost. Every year there are more regrets; failed relationships, opportunities not taken, risks avoided. “Last Christmas” reminds me not to dwell on the past or idealize what might’ve been. I need to LIVE and even more than that, I need to DREAM and keep wanting the impossible. In a story that starts with alien crabs who eat your brains while your dream, you’d think the equation would be dreams equal death, but I love that what it actually ends up saying is beautifully nuanced and simple: it’s good to dream, as long as those dreams keep you moving forward in your real life.
Every time I watch “Last Christmas” and I see the Doctor and Clara decide to run away together in the TARDIS I get goosebumps and have my final good cry of the episode. I cry because the story’s over, I cry with relief because they are officially reconciled, and I cry because of all the possibility and hope in their faces as they run to the TARDIS. I think, THIS is my dream. I can and will live like Clara Oswald. I will squeeze every last bit out of life and treat every Christmas as the last… but I’ll never stop dreaming about the life that’s just a little bit impossible.