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The central conceit of this year's Christmas special was that Doctor Who is just as real, and just as unreal, as Santa Claus. In and of itself, I loved this. It was very meta, perfectly true, and extremely productive for bouncing the two mythic traditions off against one another. As the Doctor himself put it, "D'you know what the big problem is in telling fantasy and reality apart? They're both ridiculous." Maybe it was a slightly repetitive line to take, after having done much the same thing with Robin Hood earlier this year, but that's less of a problem for a Christmas episode than it would be a regular one, given that Christmas episodes tend to pull in a higher proportion of casual viewers who may not have seen Robot of Sherwood anyway. And there were lots of cool moments to enjoy, like the snarky Elves, Santa rearing up on Rudolph like a heroic knight, Nick Frost generally being completely brilliant, and everything about Shona.

But a week, much musing, and some re-watching of key scenes later, and I'm still both puzzled and bothered by the question of whose dream(s) we are seeing at any given stage in the episode, and where the dreams end and 'reality' begins. I realise that worrying about this at all is at odds with that central conceit, according to which it doesn't matter, since everything you're seeing is a story anyway. But the difference between Doctor Who and the mythos of Santa Claus is that Doctor Who is an ongoing, unfolding story presented by an identifiable single source (the BBC TV series), which purports to offer internal consistency of plot and character development. So while Santa Claus can merrily get away with being and doing many different and contradictory things, depending on who is telling him, Doctor Who cannot - or at least not if it wants to keep hold of viewers who care about what has and hasn't actually 'happened' to the characters they are following.

As far as I understand it, the official line on this episode is that everything we see is a dream (often within one or more other dreams), except for the final scene when the Doctor arrives at the large house in which a twenty-something Clara is now sleeping, rescues her from the last dream-crab, and they leave together in the TARDIS. This, at least, is what Moffat himself has stated. The problem is that this scene comes at the end of a whole story in which the Doctor has repeatedly insisted on applying critical thinking to determine the difference between dreaming and reality. "Trust nothing, interrogate everything", he says. But the 'waking-up' scene which Moffat insists is 'real' comes directly after the Doctor has voiced the wish to older-dream-Clara that he had returned to her sooner, so it is a wish-fulfilment scenario for him (the second chance he doesn't normally get, as he says), while the tangerine on the windowsill is a heavy hint that this is meant to have been set up for him by Santa. So everything that has gone before this scene should have trained us to spot the big red flags here, and recognise this as another dream. And yet Moffat is insisting outside the text that it is real, without having given us anything within the text to support that.

This feels lazy to me, as well as like Moffat is trying to have it both ways. Within the story he's saying that the distinction between dreams and reality doesn't matter, yet from outside the story he is still leaning in over our shoulders anyway to tell us which bits are dreams and which 'real'. If that distinction matters to him after all, couldn't he have put the effort into making it clear from within the story itself? Like a lot of Moffat stories in recent years, what this all feels like is that he had a promising idea for what could have been a really great episode, but in practice it didn't go through enough rewriting drafts, so that we have something nearly-brilliant, but which kind of flakes out at the last hurdle. And what really bothers me about all this as a viewer is not so much not knowing which scenes are dreams and which 'real' per se, but the fact that a knock-on consequence of this is that we don't really know whose dreams we are seeing at any given time either, and thus whose subconscious we are being granted an insight into. These are the various different possibilities which could apply, as far as I can figure them out:

1. As per Moffat's Diktat, "Everything except the very last scene is a dream". This means that dream-crabs really exist, since we see the Doctor removing one from Clara's face, and I think we're meant to understand that both were attacked by them (the Doctor in a mysterious cave and Clara in her equally-mysterious house), and were somehow experiencing a shared dream from their different locations. Under this scenario, then, the Doctor and Clara have both effectively told each other that they were lying about Gallifrey and Danny respectively at the end of season 8, because they did this in a dream which both were experiencing. Both have also effectively admitted to each other that they really just want to keep on travelling together. But, as I've said above, there are pretty hefty in-story reasons to view Moffat's Diktat as bollocks and read the last scene as just as much of a dream as everything else. In which case, they possibly haven't shared these emotional breakthroughs after all.

2. Even if we accept Moffat's Diktat, the roles of Shona, Albert, Fiona and Ashley remain unclear. By "the very last scene", does he literally mean the last scene with the Doctor and Clara, or does he extend that to mean each of the other characters' last scenes as well? (Well, except for Albert, who doesn't get one 'cos 'e snuffed it.) I.e. is it a shared crab-induced dream with input from all of them, which began for each character in the various different real-life locations where we see them waking up towards the end of the story? Or not? Do the other characters even exist, or are they dream-inventions of the Doctor's and / or Clara's? After he rescues her from her dream-crab, the Doctor tells older Clara that "The dream crabs must have got to me first and then found you in my memory. The others were collateral damage." But this doesn't really clear things up. Does it mean they were in his memory too? Or hers? And are they present in the dream as the Doctor and / or Clara's subconscious memories, right down to dreaming happy endings for them where they awake back into reality, or are they there as real people who are dreaming too, and really do wake up back in their own realities? When Albert, who put his hand on Shona's knee during the briefing process, is sucked into a security monitor and never seen again, is that Shona's sub-conscious wish-fulfilment? Or Clara's? Or the Doctor's? Or what?

3. Another approach is to ignore Moffat's blethering, and rewind back to the end of the last episode of season 8, where we saw the Doctor nodding off at the console of his TARDIS, before being rudely awakened by a knocking at the TARDIS door and Santa coming in declaring that he couldn't leave things with Clara like that. Everything Last Christmas has shown us should signal this, too, was a dream, and one which we never see the Doctor waking up from throughout the entirety of the Christmas special. Under this scenario, we can actually forget about the dream-crabs, and read the whole of Last Christmas as a perfectly normal non-crab-induced dream of the Doctor's, and his alone, within which he has presumably invented (or subconsciously remembered) a character, Shona, whom he imagined in turn inventing both the crabs and Santa Claus out of a combination of her favourite movies. This is actually what I think is the most plausible reading of everything we've seen on screen - but it does matter quite a lot for ongoing character development purposes whether or not it's correct, because under this theory, the Doctor and Clara haven't admitted to each other that they've lied, or that they want to keep on travelling together. In fact, they still haven't even seen or had any other kind of contact with one another since parting in the café.

I don't really know why I'm worrying or puzzling over any of this, because I am 99.9% sure that at the beginning of the next season, Moffat will carry on regardless. We'll never really know whether any of what we saw 'happened', and thus what the Doctor and Clara have or haven't said or revealed to each other, and it will all just become yet another unresolved plot string to trouble us vaguely in the background even while we're being asked to follow another. But the fact is that the weight of those loose strings is bothering me, and making me more and more jaded about each new one that follows. I wish we could find some way to cut free of them all, so that I can get on with enjoying what are otherwise still a lot of awesome stories and great characters.

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Comments

( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
andrewducker
Jan. 2nd, 2015 11:25 pm (UTC)
It depends.

If Dr Who is entirely open to interpretation, then whatever any individual viewer wishes to believe is true, for that viewer.

On the other hand, if Dr Who is to be interpreted according to the people who write the stories, then Moffat is the universal source of truth on the episode.

Unless he retcons it in a future episode. In which case _that_ becomes the universal source of truth, until someone retcons _that_.
strange_complex
Jan. 2nd, 2015 11:33 pm (UTC)
Well, yes, obviously. That's true of any work of fiction. But usually what the author says is the 'correct' interpretation of the story at least seems like one plausible reading of it to other people, even if it's not their preferred one. My complaint here is that what Moffat is telling us about this story from outside it in the real world is actually at odds with what I think is the most plausible reading of what we saw on screen (scenario 3). Then he seems to have resorted to out-of-story proclamations to solve the problem, and 'steer' us back to the (counter-intuitive) reading he wants us to take away. That's just lazy, and worse throws up all sorts of confusions which he could have avoided, and which I'm pretty certain he's never going to resolve.
andrewducker
Jan. 2nd, 2015 11:38 pm (UTC)
Aaah. I disagree with your (3):
"Everything Last Christmas has shown us should signal this, too, was a dream, and one which we never see the Doctor waking up from throughout the entirety of the Christmas special."

I'd say that the bit where he sees Santa at the end of the last seasons is a dream, from which he wakes at the end of the Christmas Episode. How he got from the inside of The TARDIS to the cave he wakes up in is a very good question, to which we do not have an answer, of course. Possibly Santa carried him there, shortly before placing the tangerine in place for the last camera-shot :-)
strange_complex
Jan. 2nd, 2015 11:42 pm (UTC)
I guess the unexplained move from TARDIS to cave troubles me more than you, then. I'm not prepared to accept that he wakes up in the cave from a dream which started with him nodding off in the TARDIS without some in-story reason for doing so. Which Moffat could, of course, have provided, but didn't. :-/
whatifoundthere
Jan. 3rd, 2015 02:08 am (UTC)
"The author has the final say and we must obey him in all respects" and "TOTAL ANARCHY! EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF!! I HAVE PERSONALLY DECIDED THIS EPISODE IS ABOUT MY CAT!" are not the only two options, you know. The process of interpretation is about figuring out which readings a given text can support: the my-cat reading is not a very strong reading since it doesn't have much evidence to speak in its favour (or so I assume; I haven't seen the episode in question); Moffat's interpretation is probably somewhat stronger and is arguably bolstered by some inside knowledge; but strange_complex is saying that even Moffat's readings still has weaknesses, which often happens because authors are often not the best interpreters of their own texts. That's how hermeneutics works.
strange_complex
Jan. 3rd, 2015 01:59 pm (UTC)
Yep, this is about the long and short of it. Moffat's 'interpretation' just isn't in accord with what we see on screen, and indeed arguably isn't even an interpretation in the normal sense at all, so much as an edict about what everyone else should think (regardless of the evidence). He can feck orff if he thinks I'm falling in line with that!
ClassicalJG
Jan. 2nd, 2015 11:41 pm (UTC)
I read it as a collective dream, as seen in Star Trek Voyagers's Waking Moments - do both the Doctor and Clara experienced it, as did the others (who I read as real, and when they woke up, that was real).

I wonder if the biggest problem was, as seems to be rumoured, that it was written as Clara's exit episode and the Coleman changed her mind. It would be rather brilliant as an exit episode, and the ambiguity would be its strength. But as part of an on going story, it's more problematic (and not nearly as emotionally effective).
strange_complex
Jan. 2nd, 2015 11:48 pm (UTC)
Yes, your aborted exit-episode theory would make total sense of pretty much the entire thing - well, at least in out-of-story terms, though still not in-story. I also think it probably was meant to be a story about a collective dream, but that too many plot-holes were left unplugged for that to really make sense (like, why those particular people, and how exactly did the crabs get to them all?), while even if you could look past that, in the end the dream-like qualities in the supposedly-real ending killed that reading off for good at the final hurdle.
andrewducker
Jan. 3rd, 2015 12:10 am (UTC)
I really liked that they'd put out rumours six-months in advance, which meant that I was more emotionally affected by it than I would otherwise have been.

I have no idea if she ever intended to leave or not - I'd believe either way.

But looking at the actual comments they made:
"The truth is … I don’t want to tell you the truth because I quite like these rumours. I think it’s really interesting because, suddenly, people don’t know what’s going to happen in the series, people don’t have any idea, so this speculation is quite good. People can now watch the show not knowing if I am or not, and that is quite exciting."
I suspect that the whole thing was started by the production staff/Moffat in order to get more people discussing it and tuning in!

http://screenrant.com/doctor-who-season-8-clara-leaving-jenna-coleman/
malicehaughton
Jan. 4th, 2015 05:33 am (UTC)
Yes, just...yes.

Personally, I believe that Shona and the others were real, and probably just people the Doctor has either met or will prety soon already in the show. And that this is all a part of his subconscious wanting Clara there and to go on wild adventures with her.

The thing I questioned the most about this episode though is the dream crabs themselves. These things are eating brains while the victim sleeps. How come there isn't one single hint of any form of brain damamge to 'them' once 'they' wake up?
strange_complex
Jan. 4th, 2015 12:29 pm (UTC)
Yes, your last comment about the crabs is another thing which makes me lean towards thinking the final scene isn't 'real' either. We see Clara being rescued from a crab by the Doctor, but there's no wound on her forehead, and as you say no sign of brain damage. Whereas if we imagine the whole thing is a normal dream of the Doctor's had while sitting in the TARDIS, and that the crabs themselves are merely a dream-monster he's invented, then it solves that problem.
malicehaughton
Jan. 4th, 2015 07:15 pm (UTC)
Lovely, lovely dream mentality. Especially in a shared dream. It's times like these that I think most of the population of the audienece forget that the Doctor is telepathic. Imagine what a lonely telepath could do in dreams? Maybe bring other people in so he has an audience to play to? He always works better when others are there to judge him on his performance.
strange_complex
Jan. 4th, 2015 08:00 pm (UTC)
Good point about the telepathy! And yes, the Doctor would definitely want an audience in his dreams (for all that I'm sure he'd deny any such thing).
malicehaughton
Jan. 4th, 2015 08:06 pm (UTC)
He'd deny it to his dying day that he needs an audience, but we know beter :P

As to what I think about the Very Last Scene mentality, I just posted my own views on that in my lj.
danieldwilliam
Jan. 5th, 2015 12:26 pm (UTC)
I think the key words here are “purports to offer internal consistency of plot and character development”

I favour option 3 but, like you, what I think will actually happen is your implied option 4, that Moffat will just not resolve this, in the same way he’s not resolved lots and lots of other stuff.

And that makes Doctor Who more like a tableau vivant or an art installation than a story.
strange_complex
Jan. 5th, 2015 02:03 pm (UTC)
And that makes Doctor Who more like a tableau vivant or an art installation than a story.

Yes, a very good way of putting it. Sadly, to me at least, it makes for unsatisfying drama.
danieldwilliam
Jan. 6th, 2015 09:16 am (UTC)
For me also.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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