Ho ho howdy folkses! Welcome to the Second Day of Shitmas for 2023! For our first article this year we dove straight into the daffy deep end with a kooky Christian concoction of unlikable characters, bad acting and questionable theology. Today we bring you something no less wonky but far more enjoyable. As long-time readers will know, Shitmas and Canada go together like MiraLAX and colonoscopies, so each and every year we reserve a slot for our affable neighbors in the Great White North. With their merry Martians, crusty coots, talented tinkerers and salty salvagers, those crazy Canucks have provided all manner of holiday merriment during the past four years of our Shitmas celebrations. This year we continue our cheerful holiday detente with one of the most unique specials we've ever reviewed. Though it fails to fully capitalize on a promising and original premise, it's still a fun, quirky ride, and well worth the price of admission...which in this case was a pound of back bacon and a ten-pack of Timbits. Oh, Canada...constant as the North Star, glorious and free! We'll never, ever quit you!

A bountiful bladder of Shitmas cheer.

We're posting a brand-new review of a Christmas special every other day beginning December 3rd, culminating with what we consider the worst of the bunch on Christmas morning. "Worst" is, as always, a relative term, of course. After all, one man's shit is another man's fertilizer. "Weird," too is a valuation relative to personal experience, and what's weird for one may be banal and workaday to another. Who's to say? I once invented a turd-shaped candy called "Feces Pieces." They tried to stop me...they called me mad! But is it mad to want what goes in one end to look the same as what comes out the other? What they call "mad" I call "digestive continuity!" Tragically, the haters and beraters won, and my alimentary labor of love saw neither the light of day nor the darkness of consumers' colons. Oh, but I'll show them! Just wait until they taste my latest creation...a salty-sweet, amber-hued soft drink called "Urine Luck!" That'll teach them to call me mad!

Nilus the Sandman: The Boy Who Dreamed Christmas was developed and produced as a one-off special and originally aired on the CTV network in Canada on December 1st, 1991, and on The Disney Channel in the United States on December 10th of the same year. It was generally well-received and became popular enough in Canada to spawn two subsequent specials, Nilus the Sandman: Monsters in the Closet (1994) and Nilus the Sandman: The First Day (1995). Two full seasons of a regular series followed, featuring a total of 26 episodes which aired from October 5th, 1996 to November 23rd, 1998, after which the program faded from memory and descended into obscurity.

The programs all feature the titular sandman visiting children in their sleep and enhancing their dreams, hoping to help them solve various problems they're experiencing in their waking lives. It's an auspicious, sui generis conceit, bursting with narrative possibilities, that somehow never blossoms to its full potential. Still, there were some twists and turns and enough quirky idiosyncrasies to keep it interesting. I was, at the very least, never bored by it, which is my baseline threshold for personal entertainment.

The program opens at a typical suburban Canadian home on Christmas Eve, where a typical suburban Canadian kid sets out Santa's milk and cookies and muses in breathless voiceover whether Santa will bring him all the toys and other disposable consumer goods he asked for this year or if, like the previous year, he'll only get the first few items from his list and get stiffed on the rest. This budding young capitalist will be our protagonist for the evening, and if my instincts are correct--and they usually are--he'll be learning an important lesson about supply, demand and personal sacrifice by the end of the program.

His name is Peter, which is appropriate because he's a greedy little prick.

Peter gets ready for bed and his parents come in to tuck him in. Dad warns him he may not get everything on his list because it's probably like seven pages long, single spaced, and there's only so much one mythical holiday icon can fit inside a flying sleigh. Peter claims to understand and settles into bed, but as soon as he thinks his parents are asleep, he gets up, slaps on some headphones, starts playing air guitar and dancing around his room like a precocious 90's "cool kid" on a Disney Channel series. Then he plops down at his desk and turns on his computer to review his massive list. It's both extensive and expensive, and as he reviews each item, he just can't bring himself to remove anything from it. Most of all he covets a particular bicycle, painstakingly rendered at the very highest resolution a 1991 Gateway 2000 can provide.

It's like it's right in front of me.

Peter drools over the lovingly detailed image for a moment or two (and who wouldn't? Amirite?) then prints out the list on his sleek, state-of-the-art dot matrix printer. He rolls it up into a scroll, shoves it inside his pajama shirt and crawls back into bed.

One thing that struck me here is the juvenile quality of his bedroom decor. He looks like a boy of about twelve or Thirteen, but his bedroom has a seven year old "Li'l Opie" kind of vibe to it. There's a lamp that looks like a football with colorful cartoon football players on the shade, blue sheets with fluffy cartoon clouds and cartoon-colored posters and drapes. There's a narrative justification for all of this, being as the dream-related parts of the special are presented as a cartoon, but it would have worked much better if they'd used a younger and perhaps better actor to play the kid. I should probably also mention that there's one of those inflatable creepy clown punching bags next to his bed that gets multiple close-ups, which is a sure sign it's going to have some later significance to the plot.

It kind of looks like Binky from Garfield and Friends.

Eventually Peter falls asleep, still muttering to himself about how he can't possibly strike a single item from his massive list...and that's when Sandman Nilus steps in, hopping from star to star and eventually landing on Peter's windowsill. He flitters from one place to another in the bedroom, taking note of the creepy clown, a red sneaker, the piles of toys and the various other objects and decorations he'll be using to build the dream world inside Peter's mind, all the while singing a soothing berceuse called "The Sandman's Here." He alights at last on the pillow next to Peter's head, ready to slip into his subconscious and get this slumber party started.

Nosy motherfucker, ain't he?

Nilus is voiced by British blues-rock singer Long John Baldry, best known for having discovered both Rod Stewart and Elton John, who played in separate bands he formed during the 1960's. In 1968 Baldry and Lyricist Bernie Taupin prevented Elton John from committing suicide over a troubled relationship with a woman he'd planned to marry, with Baldry, a gay man, convincing Elton to embrace his own homosexuality and end the relationship. Taupin and John would later immortalize the experience in the song "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" (1974). Baldry's own career path was marred by ill-health, substance abuse and a later suicide attempt of his own, but he eventually got sober, settled in Canada and achieved moderate success touring, recording and providing voiceover work in films, television and cartoons. Baldry died from pneumonia and MRSA complications on July 21st, 2005 at the age of 64.

Baldry in his younger days.

So, Nilus grabs a handful of his dream sand from a little pouch and throws it over Peter's face, and suddenly we're inside an animated dreamscape of cross-hatched clouds. Peter is confused at first and can't seem to wrap his head around what he's experiencing, but Nilus eases him into it by explaining who he is and where they are, speaking simple riddles in rhymed couplets as he fades in and out of his visible form. 

Remember that red sneaker Nilus was checking out back in the bedroom? Well, it's now sitting on one of the clouds and grown to enormous size. In fact it's so big they both hop inside it and use it as a flying car.

Chassis by Converse, power train by Dr. Scholls.

Nilus explains that the shoe-car-plane can take them anywhere Peter wants to go, being as it's his dream and all. Since it's Christmas Eve Peter says they should go to the North Pole to visit Santa Claus. Nilus is plainly delighted at the notion, dropping the knowledge that Santa is his cousin whom he hasn't seen for over three hundred years, so off they fly through a trippy vortex of candy canes, presents, holly, stockings, snowmen and colorful ornaments and straight on to Santa's village.

When they arrive, everything seems oddly dark, quiet and deserted, but Nilus confidently leads Peter to the door of Santa's workshop and assures him that once they open it they'll be utterly overwhelmed by "a madhouse of activity."

Or underwhelmed by a whole lot of nothin'.

Instead of a busy beehive bustling with workers, Peter and Nilus see only a handful of weary, depressed elves milling around a dejected-looking Santa. Even the family reunion with his long-lost cousin evokes barely a hint of a smile. Peter asks Santa what the deal is and why isn't he getting his sleigh ready for the big night. No worries for you, pal, says Santa. All the world's children will be getting their presents. They just won't be getting them from him

Just then a massive door opens in the floor of the empty workshop. A disembodied voice announces "shift change!" and a group of elves line up on one side of the door. Pete and Nilus peer into the gaping hole to watch a line of zombie-like elves, exhausted to the point of near-collapse, riding an escalator up from a distant archway marked "TM" while the elves from above ride an escalator down to it.

Fritz Lang's "Northpolopolis"

It seems Santa's operation could no longer keep up with the growing demand of an ever-increasing population of budding young capitalists, so he and the elves came up with what they thought would be a foolproof plan: they built a sentient machine to take over day to day operations...and take over it did, programming, databasing and automating the entire process into brutal, soulless efficiency. Patrolled by an army or robot enforcers, the elves now work relentless twelve-hour shifts, and Santa has been reduced to figure-head obsolescence. Now this mechanical monster has become a sort of dictator, demanding to fealty from all of the North Pole's inhabitants and assuming the grandiose title of "Toy Master."

Peter is curious about the toy factory humming below their feet, so Santa heads over to a communication panel and calls down to request a tour. The Toy Master grants his request, after first demanding Santa pass a "voice print verification" by speaking the phrase "The Toy Master is Master of All," a dominant, autocratic designation that if it really means "all," presumably includes unfettered access to the sweet, fluffy busoms of Mrs. Claus.

I guess Santa's been cucked.

Nilus, Peter and the Cuck head down the escalator into a vast cavern of icy stalactites. At the bottom they step onto a path leading to the massive toy factory itself. A pair of robot tin soldiers blow their horns and announce the coming of the Toy Master, and out rolls a tiny white box with the initials TM. Peter timidly introduces himself to it, and suddenly it opens and the robot overlord himself pops out like a giant nightmare Jack-In-The-Box.

Much like Sir Mix-a-Lot, Toy Master gets sprung.

So, yeah. You can see why that punching bag thing in Peter's bedroom got all the fancy close-ups.

The TM sizes up Peter and designates him "a child," which his database defines, in part, as "a general nuisance that must be considered potentially destructive," which is...pretty astute, actually. I know some children and I can't disagree with him. He motions for Peter, Nilus and Santa to follow him inside the factory for their guided tour, which, because this special is from 1991, will involve a culturally appropriated Caucasian simulation of old school rap.

TM drops some sick synth beats and busts some tasty rhymes extolling the cold, inhuman perfection of his toymaking operation. There are manufacturing machines and conveyor belts everywhere, coordinated by huge banks of computers and run and maintained by zombie-like, sleep-deprived elves whose spirits have been broken and whose bodies now serve as flesh-cogs in the Toy Master's frigid wheels.

Peter is awestruck by the sheer breadth of the massive operation, containing as it does a seemingly endless supply of every toy any child could ever imagine. He gets a bit too close to a line of bikes similar to the one he covets, and an alarm goes off, prompting the TM to pause his MC freestylin' and berate the "horrid beast" of a child for touching the merchandise and interrupting the tour.

A Very John Wayne Gacy Christmas.

TM resumes his cringey hip-hopping, and eventually they reach the Command Center, a floating IT hub and automated distribution center full of massive servers and complex user interfaces, with  a central packing machine that simultaneously wraps, addresses and conveys the toys to the semi-sentient robot rocket sled that will deliver them. TM is particularly prideful of this masterpiece of engineering, and as he gloats on about it Peter slips away to see if he can access the master database and make sure his full Christmas list is there. Despite the TM having boasted that his was the most advanced computer system ever created it takes Peter only three tries and about four seconds to figure out the password.

This is back when computer hacking was considered a form of witchcraft.

TM, meanwhile, has come to his most favorite of all his many creations, namely his "Tetatomic Timepiece," a massive clock that keeps the wheels wheeling, the conveyor belts conveying and the hundreds of machines operating in meticulous synchronicity. As he crows over his own genius, we see a half-dead maintenance elf dragging a wrench behind him. The exhausted menial gets a bit too close to the gesticulating Toy Master, who sweeps his arms a bit too forcefully and smacks the wrench out of the shriveled old fellow's hand. The tool goes flying and lands between the master gears of the clock, setting off alarms and damn near bringing the entire factory to a standstill. TM swoops in and pulls out the wrench and berates the elf, who looks shell-shocked, half-catatonic and half-hopeful the boss might crush him into elf-paste and put him out of his misery.

Crisis averted, the Toy Master declares the tour over and orders Nilus, Peter and Santa to immediate vacate the premises.

Don't forget to visit the gift shop!

One they're back topside Santa explains what led to the creation of the monster below, in the form of a genuinely poignant song called "They All Wanted More," wherein he relates how in each subsequent year the demands of the world's children for ever-increasing numbers of toys outpaced his ability to produce and provide them. Up to this point Santa's voice had been tickling my memory as I tried to figure who voiced him, but when I heard the song it hit me that it was Frank Mackay, a popular Canadian singer, songwriter and bandleader who'd fronted a dance band called The Lincolns in the 1960's and a hard rock-blues band called Soma in the 1970's. I'm honestly not sure why or how I even knew who he was, as his career was almost exclusive to Canada and I was only ever in Canada once when I was three years old. Who knows? A thing will get stuck in head sometimes like a baked bean gets stuck at the bottom of an old tin bowl, and no amount of scrubbing will unstick it.

So, poor beleaguered Santa sings the lament of his people and motions for Peter and Nilus to follow him up to the house, where he reminisces about Christmases past, when children weren't such grasping little hoarders and were content with just a few special toys. He shows Peter some of the classics, like the dancing ballerina, the toy soldier, the barking puppy doll and his personal favorite, the Christmas Star Express, a little wind-up steam train with smoke and a whistle, which for some reason Peter finds completely mesmerizing.

"Choo choo go 'Woo! Woo!'"

Santa finishes his song and says to Peter "It's okay, Peter. I shouldn't have had all the toys out. One or two would do," which is a notably odd, unprovoked bit of dialogue that made me prick up my ears because I knew there had to be a narrative purpose for his having uttered it...and sure enough it gives Peter his "Eureka!" moment where he comes up with the perfect solution to Santa's conundrum. Why not, he suggests, only give each kid the first couple of gifts on their lists instead of every goddamn thing they're asking for.

Santa thinks it's a brilliant idea, but I'm wondering why the hell he didn't think of it himself.

Donner and Blitzen are just happy to be spared the long march to the glue factory.

Unfortunately, they still have the Toy Master and his minions to deal with...but Peter seems to have a solution for that problem, too. He rushes off back to the workshop and sneaks down to the factory with Nilus running after him and trailing sparkly little puffs of his magic sleep sand as he goes. When he catches up to him, Peter explains that when they were down in the command center before he managed to break into the Toy Master's database, and he figures if he can access the Christmas lists of all the world's children and delete all but their top two gifts, Santa will be able to handle the job of delivering the gifts himself and the Toy Master will just...the Toy Master will just...well honestly I'm not sure he has much of an idea of what the Toy Master will do aside from maybe take him outside and fuck him up a little then get back to work using a backup server. I'm not really sure the kid fully thought this through.

Regardless, Peter hacks back into the system, pulls up his own list and starts deleting shit. Sure enough, every time he removes an item part of the factory disappears. Needless to say, when the Toy Master sees bits of his precious operation vanishing before his big, creepy bug-eyes he goes completely apeshit. 

I don't really like clowns...and this sure ain't helping any.

Once Peter deletes items 13, 14 and 15 he realizes he's only got one thing left on his list, and it's his number one most coveted request: the sweet, candy-apple red bike with the headlight and the flag that'd make him the envy of all the other Canadian children. Just then the bike itself comes gliding down the conveyor belt at the center of the command dome, ready to be boxed up and put in the rocket sled for delivery to his home. He sees it and hesitates. This bike is everything he's ever desired, made manifest in metal and rubber before his covetous, yearning eyes. He and Nilus go over and read the tag hanging from it and see that it does, indeed have Peter's name on it. He starts rubbing his hand on its smooth, hard surface...much like he'll be rubbing something else smooth and hard when he hits puberty in a year or two...and Nilus has to remind him that he hasn't actually saved Christmas yet and time's a-wastin'.

"It makes me feel hungry all over!"

Peter heads back over to the console and declares that all he has to do now is hit the override button, which will somehow automatically delete all but the top two presents from every list in the system, which begs the question, why did he just waste all that time doing line-item vetoes on his own list when he could have done it all at once? Sure enough, his hesitation has proven fatal to his plans. When he hits the button, nothing happens, and he looks up to see the Toy Master dangling the command console power plug in his hand and smiling triumphantly.

"Rub one out on this!"

The TM Grabs Peter and Nilus and slaps them down on the bike, shouting "My Tetatomic time clock will initiate the delivery...the bike is yours, but Christmas is mine!" He shoves them out of the control module and begins his final countdown.

As Peter pedals away towards the exit he realizes there's a fork in the catwalk ahead of him, and the left fork leads directly to the all-important clock! He and Nilus jump off the bike, which continues on to the clock and, just as the countdown reaches one, it gets jammed in between the two master gears! Everything grins to a halt and the entire factory collapses and explodes...

So much for punctuality.

Suddenly, Peter finds himself back outside Santa's workshop where time has somehow reset itself to the point when they first arrived at the North Pole. Nilus again prepares Peter for the "madhouse of activity" within, and this time when he opens the door they do indeed find that Santa and the Elves are skittering about everywhere, carrying boxes and bags of gifts and loading up the sleigh for Santa's annual global toy run.

Also there's another song. *Yawn*

Santa, Nilus and Peter all hop aboard the sleigh and fly off into the night. We fade to a final commercial break and when we come back it's Christmas morning. Peter has reverted to his live-action, flesh and blood, three dimensional self. He comes prancing down the stairs to find a bevy of gifts beneath the tree and stares at  them in a maniacal glaze of worshipful anticipation.

"Ia! Ia! Chthulhu Fhtagn!

Peter's parents, who've had a rough year financially, what with the collapse of the coal industry and losing their life savings in the bitcoin bubble burst, remind Peter that Santa might not have been able to bring him everything he asked for this year. Peter says he knows and understands this, having conferred with their accountant and studied their portfolios. He figures at this point he'd be lucky to get a single pair of mismatched socks and some pre-owned underpants, so just imagine his boundless delight when he empties his stocking to find The Christmas Star Express! Also included is a personal note from Santa himself, expressing his regrets at not having been able to give him his candy apple red bike with the headlight and the flag and all, but he hopes that he'll enjoy instead this shitty little Chinese-made, wind-up plastic toy train.

"Fuck you, too, Santa."

Nilus the Sandman: The Boy Who Dreamed Christmas is a fun little special, but it could have been much more. I'm glad the Nilus character and the dream concept got a chance to develop further, but even in the few series episodes I watched while prepping for this review I was disappointed to find the enormous potential behind it was still left largely unexploited. The idea that you can manipulate the waking world through dreams is not entirely unique, but the idea that there's a little man who helps children work through relatable waking-life problems is ripe for exploration. Sadly, the program drops the ballthrough its indecisive tone and cringe-worthy direction. It tries to be both mawkishly sweet like Touched by an Angel (1994-2003) and Halloween-spooky like Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1990-2000) but doesn't quite manage to be either. It smacks of production executives watering down an artful concept in a misguided attempt to broaden its appeal, ignorantly cutting the soul out of it in the process.

Speaking of cutting out souls, I've got ten more specials to write up. Later 'baters!

Merry Christmas, folkses.

Next Installment: December 7th!

As always, Cheers and thanks for reading!

Written by Bradley Lyndon in December, 2023.

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