Nightmares before Christmas

It’s the season for goodwill and joy but no one told Charlie Brooker and Steven Moffat. Black Mirror and Dr Who were all the better for it.

 

Black Mirror: White Christmas

The late Christopher Hitchens told a story about visiting Prague while it was still part of Communist Czechoslovakia. He resolved that he would avoid the clichéd temptation to reference Kafka when discussing the city. Then shortly after his arrival he was arrested by the Secret Police. He demanded that his captors tell him why he was being detained. They replied that he had no need to know. Leaving Hitchens maddened not just at the injustice of the situation but also that it made it impossible for him to keep his pledge to himself!

A similar sense that one simply must mention Kafka applies to discussing Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. The scenarios Brooker constructs have a nightmarish quality that can only be described as Kafkaesque. Ordinary people are suddenly pulled into situations so utterly fiendish and remorselessly bleak that despair is the only option.

What makes them really alarming (and this is also very Kafkaesque) is the mundanity of it all. Yes, it’s science fiction and furthermore the kind of science fiction that focuses on engaging ideas rather than serious predictions for the future. Nonetheless, it feels very close to our own world. The innovations it depicts like ‘blocking’ feel so intimately connected with currently existing technology and it leans so heavily on familiar discomforts like hearing ‘I wish it could be Christmas’ over and over again that it all feels uncomfortably close to our current world.

I would be remiss, if I finished this review without mentioning the acting. Convincing performances are of course an important part of maintaining this unlikely sense of realism, and the impressive cast certainly delivered. John Hamm demonstrated once again that he is the master of taking charm and congealing it into something unpleasant.

 

Doctor Who: Last Christmas

In the past I’ve criticised Dr Who Christmas specials for being treacly. They’ve often neglected good storytelling for supposedly sweet moments amongst plentiful fluffy snow while Murray Gold breaks out the violins, flutes and triangles. Very often these attempts at feel good moments left me feeling grouchy.

Last Christmas was rather different. Sure it had plenty of scenes with people hugging in the snow while Murray Gold broke out the violins, flutes and triangles. But its main influences seemed to be the decidedly unfestive trio of Alien, the Thing and Inception. And it worked.

The story had the kind of menace and tension that previous seasonal outings had lacked. A monster that grabs your face and lulls you into a dream while it eats your brain is way scarier (and therefore more interesting) than trees or Dervla Kirwan hamming it up.

Serving a main course of darkness followed by some sugary moments, makes the final round of sweetness seem a lot more appealing than if you’ve been being force fed sickly sentimental scenes for an hour.

Plus the show had earned those moments. The whole of the last series had been building towards its emotional cliffhanger, so the audience could be expected to be invested in its resolution. It also helped that for once whether or not a key actor would depart had not been announced in advance.

That said, I did have a few gripes. There turned out to be a good reason that the early scenes felt disjointed and incoherent. Nonetheless, on first viewing those qualities were still jarring. More seriously, Nick Frost’s character was repeatedly referred to as Santa, which is an unacceptable lapse into Americanese for a British institution!

But these complaints aside, this was solid entertaining telly and a fitting coda to Who’s strongest season yet.

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