Essay: Doctor Who and The Last 2 Feet Problem

I used to play rugby. I’m 6’2 and built large with it so it was one of those things I never really had a choice about. Most of the time I accepted it with the sort of resignation that you learn fast in the UK School Physical Education system. Big kid? Shot put, maybe discus and Rugby. Rest of the year you’ll be doing weight and circuit training (Which were good) and volleyball, tennis, hockey and cross country running. Which were the Hunger Games with none of the violence and all of the scarring.

I lost a pair of shoes on a cross country run once. I think they might still be out there, stalking the windswept hills of the Isle of Man. Staying close to the meat…

I was never that fast in Rugby but I was quite hard to put down and that mean every now and then I was the last guy in the play. Hand the ball to me it’d get at least 15 feet, maybe more and when you’re 15 feet off the touch line, that’s all you need.

But every now and then, I’d get the ball, focus on the line and…slow down. I could feel I was doing it too, but I couldn’t do anything about it. Two feet off the line I’d, mentally, be five feet over the line. Then, physically, I’d be about six inches under the rain slicked mud of the Manx coast as everyone who wasn’t on my team put me on the ground.

It was frustrating. And weird. And annoying. And the last five minutes of this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special reminded me of it.

I’ve enjoyed the first year with Peter Capaldi in the role more than the last two of Matt Smith’s run combined. There was a feel, for me, of those two years starting to play like a very ambitious, over enthusiastic GM throwing ever more plot strands into a game then realizing he’d gone far too far. The last couple of Smith episodes in particular felt like the plot was less wrapped up and more Yosemite Sam’ed into semi consciousness. I still enjoyed them and Who at its absolute worst is still some of the most competent and usually ambitious British TV there is. But I’ve founbd the last couple of years hard to love. The Capaldi run marked a seismic change in every element of the show and ‘Last Christmas’, for almost its entire running time, embodies that.

First off, Who has never been more cheerfully brazen about its influences. Here, facehuggers and Alien are expressly mentioned in an episode about aliens that…hug…faces and it doesn’t feel remotely smug. Instead, it plays like a series unusually aware of both its longevity and its genre using both to do something very new. Self-awareness without self-deprecation is insanely difficult to pull off, and for a show with so much cultural baggage, basically impossible.

They did it anyway, really well for the most part and a huge amount of that was baked into how the show approached its setting. At times, the Who Christmas episode has seemed to lean on the trappings of the season rather than build them into the story itself. Here that couldn’t be further from the case; Frost is Father Christmas, we have elves and flying reindeer in the first few seconds of the episode and every associated trope comes with them. Millions of counts of breaking and entering, tangerines galore and an omniscient knowledge of everyone in the world.

But he’s also ridiculous. And knows he’s ridiculous. And the characters don’t, not straight away. By the time they do, Santa has been repositioned into something way more complex and interesting and, for want of a better word, spiritual than the show has done with previous Christmas episodes. Frost’s Santa is revealed to be both real in the context of the episode and a construct, the last desperate grasp of the other’s characters’ dying brains at a chance for survival. Like the Doctor says ‘Who you gonna call?’ a question that might as well be ‘Who else COULD you call?’  Six people, in the final minutes of their life, reach out for an ideal they were taught as children didn’t exist and find out not only that it does but that it’s better than they dared to imagine. That’s really powerful stuff; the embodiment of compassion sweeping down on the worst day of these people’s lives and holding a hand out for as long as they need to grab it. ‘A dream that wants to save us’ really is the best summation of Father Christmas I’ve ever heard and it also takes the show into rare, and delightfully subversive territory. This is Doctor Who as written by Grant Morrison on his best day, a show that instead of relying on its influences turns them into a lens to break down the story and the characters down and, appropriately, make both better.

That’s reflected even more strongly in the guest appearance by Danny Pink. Danny was one of the most interesting companions the show’s ever had; a character with nothing to prove, a dark past he’d made his peace with and a boundless, polite compassion. His cameo here, as a creation of Clara’s brain, is one of the characters’ best appearances and says really sweet, honest things about the relationship he and Clara had. She loves him so much that the memory retrieved of him is too good. Danny does what he always does; stands between the people he loves and harm. The very memory that was supposed to euthanize her instead helps save her life.

This is all really smart, weird, ambitious stuff that, for me, lands infinitely more effectively than the smart, weird ambitious stuff that the Smith era often tried for. The Doctor is aware he’s in a story, that story is in turn an active participant in itself and the whole thing balances self-awareness, unsettling monsters and all the Christmas trimmings without ever seeming self-indulgent.

Right up until the last five minutes.

Doctor Who is a show defined by change and it’s no surprise than that its most sluggish moments are all about the status quo. The last couple of Christmas specials seem to be almost exactly five minutes too long, unable to resist one last twist and this one was no exception. Having spent the entire episode setting up the idea of ‘last Christmas’ the show revealed that Clara had been attacked sixty years after the Doctor. She was an old woman, with a storied life and, it was subtly implied, not very long left. This was a really brave sign off for the character, giving her one last hurrah with the Doctor and giving us a new perspective on him. It even harked back to the description of the Doctor as being unable to cope with seeing his companions age and, rarely if ever returning to visit them in later life.

The entire episode felt like it was designed to be Clara’s send off; the return of Danny, the transitory relationships of the lead characters and even Santa all seemed designed to launch her off into her own, very much earned, happy ending.

Instead, the clock’s been reset to zero and that’s a real shame. Clara was the most broken part of the 11th Doctor’s run and also the part fixed most successfully by the show’s new direction. She became a character instead of plot architecture and her relationship with Danny was eccentric, big hearted and honest. She was even written out at the end of the last season. Having her return here, and then return permanently, feels indulgent. It’s narrative as that one last chocolate you know you really shouldn’t have but can’t quite resist. The rest of the episode is so good that the choice doesn’t rob it of any agency but it is exasperatingly familiar after ‘Time of the Doctor’. Of all the bad habits the show could have carried across to its new incarnation, this isn’t one of the worst but it’s certainly one of the most tiresome. Maybe next year it won’t slow down two feet from the touchline. Until then though, at least we’ll always have Sweet Papa Chrimbo.

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