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Hatchet Job: Last Christmas

Worst. Episode. Ever.

I am speaking of the 2014 Christmas Episode of Doctor Who which made me so angry that I actually wrote a blog post about it. And then had to find the blog in order to post it. I’m that upset.

To begin with: OK, it’s a Christmas episode. Fine. I get that. They’ve started a tradition of Christmas episodes, and it’s good for ratings, and fine. Fine! Fine.

Chronologically, within the story timeline the first thing that happens is that the Doctor, who is alone and in some sort of red-rock deserty sort of place, gets a Dream Crab in the face. We don’t see this, by the way, it’s before the beginning of the episode, but we find out about it later. What is a Dream Crab? Dream Crabs lull people into a happy dream while they suck their brains out. Er, they, the Dream Crabs, suck out the brains of the people. Or at least people, we aren’t told whether Dream Crabs can eat Dalek brains or the invisible gaseous brains of the Nestene Consciousness or whatever. But we do know that it’s about keeping the victim happy. “The Dream Crab induces a dream state. Keeps you happy and relaxed, in a perfectly realised dream world, as you dissolve. Merciful, I suppose.”

So how do you fight a Dream Crab? You have to (a) figure out that you’re dreaming, and then (2) somehow reject the happy dream. Then the Dream Crab falls off and turns to dust. So: we have our alien villain, and it’s not a bad one, if not terribly original. The challenge will be for the Doctor to realize that he is in a happy dream, and wake up from it. One more thing about the Dream Crabs and their dreams—because they are (of course) telepathic, with some sort of gestalt identity, if multiple people are being eaten at once, they will be in the same dream. That is: If I am being eaten by a Dream Crab, you may or may not appear in my happy-being-eaten dream; if we are both being simultaneously devoured, we will both be in the same dream. This makes it a little more interesting, in my opinion, because it must be more difficult to create a shared relax-and-be-slowly-killed dream for three strangers.

I know, I’m taking Dream Crabs seriously. But I’m watching Doctor Who. And that’s the fun of the thing, innit? To take this week’s preposterous premise seriously and see where it leads us? And that shared-dream business leads to an entertaining scene with the “Helman-Ziegler test” to see if it’s a dream by having the various dreamers all open different copies of a book to the same page to see if they match. I liked that.

But I was telling the story chronologically. Evidently, the next thing that happens is that Clara (do you know about Clara? She’s the Companion these days, but at the end of the season she has chosen to stay home while the Doctor goes on travelling) gets a Dream Catcher in the face, too. This is later explained (or “explained”) as The Dream Crabs must have got to me first then found you in my memory. Does this make sense at all? It does not. Am I bothered? Yeah, a little bit, but so far I can live with this. The Dream Crabs then hit four other humans, nearly simultaneously, so that the shared dream with the Doctor and Clara now has to make room for six. Got it? What’s that? Do we know how those four were found? No. They aren’t found in Clara’s memory, or the Doctor’s, and they’re pretty random (they could be from anywhere in time or space, but in fact they all share a billion cultural referents so, you know, they could be from anywhere in time and space that is familiar with My Little Pony and the Alien movies, and they all have British accents, and please, Mary, they’re about as random as the Giants starting rotation) but somehow (as collateral damage, we are told) they get the Dream Catcher in the face. Boom! Now we have six people who are dying or will die if they don’t figure out that they’re in a dream and then reject the lull-you-into-happy-death dream premise. OK?

All right, so I have problems with the episode already, if you haven’t figured that out, but now we come to the actual show itself. The bit before the titles is presumably the moments in between Clara’s blammo and the Random Four. The dream state is funny with time, of course, so we will ignore how long things may actually take in the actual world: let’s just keep in mind what is happening in the actual world while we’re watching the dreams that we don’t (yet) know are dreams. At the moment, then, we have two people caught in the dream: the Doctor and Clara. And it’s easy enough to keep them happy, one would think… get them together. So there’s Clara and the Doctor arrives. Only first, Clara comes across Santa Claus. This is later explained as being a subconscious resistance to the dream state, and that’s actually kinda-sorta cool: the brain is being forced to be happy so comes up with an obviously false happiness, which can alert the dreamer that it’s a dream. It’s kinda-sorta annoying, too, but it’s the Christmas episode so fine, fine, fine, we have achieved a reason to have Santa Claus in a Doctor Who episode. OK. Fine. I’m fine with that. Really. It’s cool. Santa. Father Christmas. Fine. This falls well within the parameters of taking the preposterous premise seriously.

But when the Doctor arrives in Clara’s dream, the two travel to a research station at the North Pole to join the four randomly-selected middle class British dreamers who are dreaming they are scientists. The audience, by the way—this is a television show made for an audience, I don’t think that’s a spoiler—doesn’t know that we’re in a dream at this point, has no reason to, hasn’t seen a Dream Crab or heard of them. So what are our scientists doing at the North Pole to lull them into happyhappyhappiness whilst the Dream Crabs suck out their brains through a straw? Are they snogging supermodels, cheering on a victorious England footy team in the World Cup and winning Nobel Prizes in Cleverness? Are they unlocking the secrets of the universe and simultaneously inventing hover-egg-nog? Are they dreaming a little dreamy scientist dream of happiness and happiness and calm serene euphoric happiness, such as we are told is the Dream Crab weapon?

No. They are dreaming of terror, and bewilderment, and death. They are dreaming of Dream Crabs. They don’t know what those are until the Doctor explains them, of course, but that’s even scarier. They are dreaming of a nameless alien terror, they are dreaming of a fear you can’t even look at, they are dreaming of their own animated corpses. Good work, Dream Crabs! That’s the stuff! I know nothing would lull me into tranquil beatitude faster than being menaced by a faceless goo-dripping parasite wearing my own body. Natch!

But then we, the audience, don’t know this is a dream, because we are fucking idiots, so that’s all right. But there’s a plot twist! Clara, in the dream that we the audience don’t know is a dream, is captured by a Dream Crab (well done with that placid elation stuff, you alien life form, you, that’ll lull the rest of them into shitting themselves sideways halcyon receptivity) and sent into a dream of her own. Which we are explicitly told is a happy dream. Which features her dead boyfriend. I’m just going to let the whole contents of this dream pass, because (a) evidently lots of people wanted one more scene with the dead boyfriend and I can’t argue with fanservice, and (2) I just can’t. I really just cannot even can. Not even a little bit can I. Although—and this totally is just occurring to me as I am writing this—this is the bit where we find out that two people whose gooey bits are being simultaneously ingested by Dream Crabs are in the same dream, because the Doctor heroically plants a Dream Crab on his mush for just that purpose, to get into Clara’s dream and invade it to warn her that it’s a dream and she’s dying and all. But the Random Four aren’t in this dream at all and the dream has no place for them, despite the later-revealed fact that they are all still being dream-devoured all through this bit, so gestalt geschmalt.

Well, anyway, Clara and the Doctor wake up, only as I say they’re all still dreaming and Clara and the Doctor are just dreaming that they woke up, and then everybody wakes up, only they’re actually still in a dream, yadda yadda yadda, long past the point where we can care at all about any of it, because it’s being shoved in our face that it isn’t actually happening. And then everybody really is saved, and everybody really does wake up, right? And the Doctor is back in the deserty place, wakey wakey, Dream Crab turns to dust, and back to the TARDIS and to Clara, who is still asleep with the Dream Crab on her face, because something something something, and he stuns the Dream Crab with his sonic screwdriver, which is something you can do, evidently, if you’re awake, and it turns out that—gasp!—she’s eighty-three years old! The Doctor has been away for decades! Gasp! Clara and the Doctor are saying goodbye one last time before she leaves the show forever!

OK, a moment please, please just give me a moment, just give me one fucking moment before the big reveal that this too is a dream. The end of the previous episode was the good-bye where Clara stopped travelling with the Doctor. This whole episode, then, is setting up a second good-bye scene.

Wait, did I say a second good-bye scene? Because this is Clara, who has already died twice, legit died, totally died, with death scenes and everything. And then the Doctor died, oh yes died, last regeneration, no possible future, end of the road, with a long and incredibly sentimental good-bye scene. And then in the first episode of this season, the dead Eleventh Doctor calls her on the telephone to have another good-bye scene. So there have been [makes David Tennant teeth] five previous good-bye scenes between the Doctor and Clara, and that is so totally not counting the one where she tells him to go away and never come back when she’s all mad at him at the end of an episode and then forgives him at the beginning of the next, which doesn’t count because I had forgotten all about it before I looked in the wiki to see if I had lost count of how many times she had died. So this one, with the terrible old-age makeup, is the sixth good-bye scene for Clara, who I am now calling the Goodbye Girl by the way, because that is all she ever fucking does is have death scenes and say good-bye, and I am fucking hooting at the screen at this point because it is so stupidly obviously another fake-out.

And yes! It’s another dream! Because the happy dream that the Dream Crabs have decided on for the Doctor and Clara, the dreamy happy happy dreamy dream happy happy dream that is going to make them so happy they won’t mind having their brains slowly liquefied and sipped by goo-dripping killer-spiders, and believe me at this point in the episode I know from brain-liquefaction, the final lullaby of dreamland is that Clara is old and dying, abandoned and alone. It’s hard to decide who would be made happier by this, Clara or the Doctor. What do you think? Is Clara’s happy dream to be old and lonely, but to see her dearest and last friend one more time when she is too aged and weak to travel with him? Or is it the Doctor, who can bask in the warm glow of knowing that he absent-mindedly condemned his companion to sixty-years of slowly maddening isolation? Either way, what a sure bet that neither would want to wake up from that banquet of joyous delight.

Oh, yeah. They do wake up. And she’s young and goes into the TARDIS with him. The end! We are assured that she will be back next season! Hurrah!

So why am I so pissed off? There have been bad episodes of Doctor Who before. I mean, Stones of Blood, innit? I think my ire is earned specifically by fact that every single thing we know about the Dream Crabs is demonstrably false. Literally, actually, really everything. They don’t give happy dreams, and they don’t do that gestalt thing that is the only reason why the Random Four exist in the plot line at all. Even the bit them hanging from the ceilings doesn’t make sense with the Doctor in the deserty bit (which other sharper viewers recognized as the set from a dream sequence in an earlier episode, by the way) where there wasn’t anything above from which they could swoop. They invent a baddie, an at least moderately interesting baddie, and then thoroughly obliterate that invention. It’s not, perhaps, as offensive as when it turns out that everyone who was ever made into a cyberman over the fifty years of the show just didn’t love anyone enough to resist the way Dead Boyfriend did, but this a new baddie and everything about them is violated in the space of an hour. It’s… contemptible. It’s shoddy, and it’s cheap, and it’s lazy, and it’s contemptible.

And this is in the service of… what? Another fake goodbye scene for the Goodbye Girl. The writers of Doctor Who these days, it seems, simply have no way of getting the audience involved in the story without a tearful good-bye scene. (The Dead Boyfriend? Has died in each of the last three episodes. I am not making this up.) Stephen Moffat and his stable have one tool in their box, and it’s a cheap, unearned jerk at the heartstrings and I have gone from bored with it to angry. And to completely and thoroughly destroy the episode’s own premise for manipulative melodrama felt, to me, like a monumental betrayal. Not just a crappy episode, where they fall short of their aim, or aim in the wrong place entirely, but an act of destruction. And not one I will find easy to forgive.

Now, about that Christmas episode of Downton Abbey

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

Perhaps they really don't want to be told to write a Christmas episode next year?


Too long, but I read it anyway, because it was pretty funny. :^) So, kudos to you for turning your rage into something positive.


Belatedly:

An entertaining review; thanks for writing and posting it!

...but I disagree with some aspects of it.

For example, your opening line: "Worst. Episode. Ever." I didn't think it was *good*, certainly, but I thought it by far the best episode of the past several, possibly the best of the whole season. Which is damning with faint praise, because I've found much of this season excruciating to watch.

My impression of this season has been:

* They hired a science advisor to tell them how scientific things like gravity work, so that they could do the opposite of whatever the advisor recommended.

* They read a bunch of angry anti-Moffat fan posts, then rubbed their hands and chuckled in glee at the ways in which they could give the fans something vaguely resembling what they were asking for but with kind of the opposite effect. Like: due to complaints about Bechdel-test issues, let's put two women in a room together, have one of them say "Surely we must have something other than men we could talk about!", and then have them talk about the Doctor! Because that would be funny and would tweak those annoying feminists *and* would let us talk about the Doctor, which is after all the only important thing! Or: due to complaints about the Doctor not being a woman, let's make someone else female! And then make her annoying! That would be really funny!

* They decided that the best way to create an interesting character is to redeem them. And the only way to redeem them is to make them as awful as possible. So let's make the Doctor viciously unpleasant to be around! Let's see, how can we do that and also tweak the feminists? I know, let's have him make nasty comments about Clara's weight and appearance every single time he interacts with her! Surely the audience will understand that underneath it all he really has a heart of gold!

So an episode in which the Doctor wasn't viciously nasty to Clara, an episode in which they didn't "cleverly" subvert what the fans want (unless you count putting in Father Christmas but making him not quite real--but I interpreted that as being simply a way to shoehorn Santa Claus into a Dr Who episode), and an episode in which there weren't any gigantic obvious holes of the form "Let's shine a spotlight on our totally false explanation of how physics works", and an episode that didn't say very much particularly obnoxious to feminists (except for the part where women can't actually be scientists for reals, of course)--that, to my mind, is a significant step up from most of this past season.

Not that I'm bitter about what Moffat's been doing to a show, and an actor, that I used to adore.

...And although I do agree with you about much of what you said, the repeated goodbyes don't particularly bother me. (Well, I mean, they don't bother me any more than the total throwing-away of Clara's entire backstory--which was a horrible backstory anyway, but having it just vanish without any substitute has left me wondering for a long time who she is and where she came from and so on now that she's not who she used to be.) I've always liked her a lot--she's probably my favorite thing about the show at this point--and I was sad about what they did to Danny so I did find it nice to get one more chance to see him. I kind of feel like this episode, even more than others, was mostly meta; it seemed to me to primarily be Moffat saying "(a) We need to get Clara and the Doctor back together; (b) we need to give fans one more look at Danny; (c) we need to show Santa Claus; (d) we need to be sweet and a little bit maudlin, in keeping with Christmas Episode tradition; and (e) I just saw Inception, and wouldn't it be fun to do that in the show?" and so it didn't really bother me that various aspects didn't make much sense in-universe, even though often that kind of ignoring in-universe stuff for the sake of meta stuff does annoy me.

...One more thing: I imagine that they explicitly said in the episode that dream crabs do their best to make you calm and happy--I don't remember what exactly the line was--but what if we pretend that they didn't say that? What if we pretend that dream crabs just suck your brain out and by the way a side effect of that is to give you dreams as you die? Does that fix most of your issues with the way they work? There's still the "why these random four people?" question, and a good many other questions besides, but I think in my headcanon I pretty much ignored the "make you happy" part. (I mean, in my headcanon most of this season and much of the Matt Smith run doesn't exist, but anyway.)


Jed,

The thing is... the whole season stunk on ice. The one really good thing about it was that Peter Capaldi did a terrific job of doing whatever the hell the show-runners where thinking they wanted the Doctor to do while still being enjoyable to watch.

Which cannot have been easy.

The season was chock full of irritating bits and bobs, and didn't have much in the way great bits to balance them, but there were some at least very good bits that were mostly Peter Capaldi being Doctor-like, in a way that was distinct from the others but still recognizable. A bit like a coked-up Third Doctor in a distinctly 21st-Century way. It was my least favorite season of New Who. So I'm with you, there. And I could probably make an argument for the moon-is-a-harsh-mother-wait-what-that-makes-no-sense episode being the worst ever—I am happy to say that the Christmas one is also the worst episode ever. But this one got deeper up my nose, earlier in the episode, and stayed there longer.

As for what happens if you ignore the "Keeps you happy and relaxed, in a perfectly realised dream world, as you dissolve" line… I don't know. The problem for me is that you then know exactly nothing about the Dream Crabs at all. Maybe that would have been less irritating. It's possible I am angrier about it because they are potentially a moderately interesting baddie (or, as my Perfect Reader calls it in two and a half syllables, a hoovilun) before Mr. Moffatt decided not to bother. Maybe I care less about consistent physics and more about consistent baddies; dunno.

But the really irritating part about the whole season-long fiasco, for me, was realizing that I once again care enough about the show to be angry about it.

Thanks,
-V.


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