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The elves, Clara, the Doctor and Santa in "Last Christmas"

As the Band Aid song nearly said: “It’s Christmas time, and there’s a need to be afraid…”

In a house with a Christmas tree and a stairlift, Clara is in bed. She’s awoken by voices up on the roof, and discovers Santa Claus bickering with two elves: Ian and Wolf. Wolf has his name on the back of his jerkin. Ian does not. And nor does Santa. There’s a tense exchange, and a second magical figure arrives:

There’s no emotional reunion once the Doctor and Clara are back aboard the TARDIS, however, despite the way things were left the last time they saw each other. They just whizz off to with Clara debating whether Santa really exists.

Meanwhile, on a remote base at the North Pole, Shona, one of a team of scientists, has a scary task. She has to make her way into their infirmary, past four sleepers. She’s not allowed to think about them or look at them, otherwise something scary will happen. So she starts to dance instead. Quite a lot, as it happens.

Her moves are interrupted by the arrival of a skeleton man and a girl in her nightie: the Doctor and Clara. But this wakes the sleepers, who look a little like people with black brussels sprouts for heads. Except the sprouts are actually telepathic parasites called the Cantrafari, or Dream Crabs, who eat brains.

Trying to distract Clara from thinking about the crabs, the Doctor mentions Danny Pink, who he believes is alive and well, and receives a slap in the face for his troubles.

And then, the cavalry arrives:

Santa sends the sleepers back to their beds, and delivers a dormant Dream Crab for examination. The Doctor discusses how the Dream Crabs feed, by latching onto the skulls of their victims, then anesthetizing them with dreams as they burrow into their brains and commence feeding, like a milkshake straw into the skull. This makes it hard to figure out exactly what to do next, as everything could a dream.

Oh, and the Dream Crab in the jar has awoken and escaped, and has latched onto Clara. Just as it does, she awakes in the house with the stairlift, to the sight of Danny Pink in a Santa outfit. It’s Christmas morning, and she’s guessed what all of his presents are. Definitely no dreaming happening here. Except there are blackboards on the landing, and they’re talking to her. They say “Clara!” and “Dreaming!!” and then, distressingly, “Dying!” over and over again.

Back at the North Pole, the Doctor struggles to communicate with Clara, and resolves to join her in her dream. He arrives just as Clara and Danny are snuggled up on the couch, and explains that her festive glow is as a result of the Dream Crab’s attack. The only way she can tell it’s a dream is the soft pain in her temple. At first she doesn’t want to go, but Danny manages to convince her, telling her to get on with her life (apart from a daily five-minute break to mourn). And reluctantly, she agrees, emerging in the base next to the Doctor and the dusty remains of two Dream Crabs.

Oh, and everyone in the base also has the soft pain in their temples, including Clara and the Doctor. This suggests that they’re still in a dream, the Dream Crabs that attacked them in the infirmary got them, and the proof might just be the fact that they were rescued by Father Christmas. There’s only one way to be totally sure though, taking the Helman-Ziegler test. This involves each crew member reading a randomly-chosen word from four identical texts. These cannot be the same if it’s a dream, and sure enough, they are not. In fact, on the second go they even start making unpleasant sense: “We.” “Are.” “All.” “Dead.”

Santa comes in to confirm their diagnosis, and that he’s only there as a representative of the collective subconscious. He also insists that everyone holds hands in a circle (the Doctor, it is fair to say, is not keen) and focus on the pain in their heads.

And it works! They awake in the infirmary, their Dream Crabs fall off and die and it’s time for the Doctor to leave without so much as a fond farewell. Except…

…if they really are back in reality now, what are they doing in a base at the North Pole, and why is the base configured for four people, when there are eight people there? Time for the Helman-Ziegler again, and this time the message is stark: “Very.” “Very.” “Very.” “Dead.”

All six of them are still dreaming, spread out in time and space, and linked only by their common nightmare, one that can suck people through monitor screens and generally multiply their attackers until they’re stood outside in the snow, surrounded by sleepers with no one to come and rescue them…

…except Santa! Because it’s still a dream! So he pops back with the sleigh and drives them off into the sky. He even lets the Doctor drive for a bit, around Big Ben. As they fly, the individual scientists start to remember who they really are, and as they do, they return to their real (and this time their really, really real) lives, leaving the Doctor and Clara and Santa hurtling through the night sky.

Then the Doctor awakes next to the TARDIS, and hurries to find Clara. Except it’s been 62 years since they last met. That stairlift in her house, that house she keeps waking up in, is her stairlift. She’s considerably older, and hers was a solitary life of traveling and exploration and teaching (and flying planes). She just kept on doing what she had been doing with the Doctor, but without him, and just as he realizes that he should have come back to get her earlier, Santa arrives.

And why? Because he’s still dreaming! Clara isn’t old! And once the Doctor hoicks that final Dream Crab off her face he can offer her a unique Christmas present: the rest of her life. She can still travel, still explore, but it won’t be on her own and the Doctor won’t have to train up a new companion either. And it’s all thanks to Sweet Papa Crimbo.

See more:
‘Doctor Who’ Recap: ‘Death In Heaven’
‘Doctor Who’ Recap: ‘Dark Water’
‘Doctor Who’ Recap: ‘In The Forest of the Night’
‘Doctor Who’ Recap: ‘Flatline’

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By Fraser McAlpine