“You have your necessary illusions as well. But in your case they involve science. You don’t believe in magic but you believe in machines. So when he explained himself to you, he used your terms of reference. That’s the way a sorcerer behaves.”

Cat’s Cradle: Warhead by Andrew Cartmel

Opinions differ wildly about how much the current series of Doctor Who should be viewed as a continuation of what was started by Verity Lambert, William Hartnell et al in 1963 and how much it should be viewed as an entirely new series, like the Ron Moore version of Battlestar Galactica. Clearly this last point of view can only be taken so far, but it can’t be denied that structurally, tonally and in terms of its cultural impact, twenty-first century Doctor Who is a rather different beast than, say, the episodes produced at the end of the 1980s.

One way in which this difference is felt is at Christmas. While Christmas specials were a regular feature of UK TV, the nearest “old” (sorry “classic”) Doctor Who ever got was the misbegotten episode The Feast of Steven in 1965, sitting awkwardly in the middle of the lavishly bloody Daleks Masterplan. From 2005 onwards, however, Doctor Who has been the centrepiece of BBC1’s Christmas Day schedule, and these episodes are particularly tricky for whomever happens to be the show-runner.

Consider the constraints. First, it seems necessary to include Christmassy material. Second, it seems necessary to throw the tone lever away from “dark” and towards “romp”. Lastly, because the episode will have a wider and more diverse audience than usual, there can’t be too much mythology stuff – even when the episode has to introduce a new Doctor (The Christmas Invasion), write out an old one (The End of Time, The Time of the Doctor) or just tease us with the possibility (The Next Doctor).

Russell T Davies generally just threw the kitchen sink at the screen, an approach which sometimes paid off (Voyage of the Damned) and sometimes didn’t (The End of Time) but there’s no doubt that we allow greater leeway at Christmas. Steven Moffat has come at the problem from every conceivable angle. A Christmas Carol literally and avowedly glossed a festive classic, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe tried to do the same with Narnia and then fatally bottle it, The Snowmen attempted to reintroduce a new companion and an old adversary and of course The Time of the Doctor had to write out Matt Smith, and pretty much abandoned all the tinselly trappings after the first ten minutes and the name of the planet.

Now, with the whole series rejuvenated, a new leading man with an appealingly anti-Christmas demeanor, it was with some excitement, but also a little anxiety that I settled down to watch Doctor Who Meets Santa Claus.

What we actually got is on the one hand a mash-up of quite a lot of familiar ideas. Not just the Troughton-esque based-under-siege stuff, also referencing Alien, but also lots of Inception, a fair bit of Total Recall and quite a lot of previous Moffat scripts including Silence in the Library, The Empty Child and Asylum of the Daleks. But on the other hand, the most assured, sleek, uncluttered Christmas episode in years. Maybe since The Christmas Invasion.

The opening with Nick Frost’s genial Santa Claus is charming and funny, with great supporting work from Dan Starkey and Nathan McMullen – but entirely baffling and confounding. The sudden post-titles cut to the Arctic base doesn’t clear up very much, but quickly it becomes obvious what kind of game is being played here.

When the words “dream state” are uttered in a Steven Moffat script, it surely can’t be very long before some serious narrative rug-pulling begins, and its entirely to the credit of this excellent piece of storytelling, that the rug is pulled from under us again and again and yet we are never in any doubt about what the threat actually is. All that’s missing (and I wonder if it was ever considered) is a Back to Reality style episode in which Clara is made to believe that her entire adventure with the Doctor was all an absurd dream. The Doctor’s comparison of his own ludicrous mode of transportation with Santa’s magic reindeer is the nearest we get. Danny Pink returns, still adding very little and that bizarre, pointless double-lie at the end of Death in Heaven is written-out in a quick exchange, rendering it even more unnecessary.

The four members of Arctic Base Nameless are sketched in briefly but are well-differentiated (in the way that, say, the inhabitants of the acid mine in The Rebel Flesh weren’t) with only Michael Troughton not quite registering (why is he the only one not to make it “home”?). And the trick of having not to think of or look at the Mind Crabs is another in Moffat’s line of childhood games made horrific (bringing to mind not only “I’ll give you a pound if you don’t think of pink rats,” but also Douglas Adams’ Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal “A mind-bogglingly stupid creature which assumes that if you can’t see it, then it can’t see you”).

The whole thing clips along very merrily indeed with Shona’s attempts to undermine Santa’s reality (“I got a second sled”) a particular highlight. Moffat also proves himself again to be a master of the show’s meta-narrative with the elderly Clara a perfectly plausible exit for the character, even if neither the make-up department not the actor could quite pull off the transformation.

So, after the derivative A Christmas Carol, the half-baked The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, the impossibly saccharine The Snowmen and the flimsy nonsense of The Time of the Doctor, this is easily my favourite of the Moffat Christmas episodes. It’s easily worth four stars, but I’ll give it four-and-a-half because, well, it is Christmas after all.

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