Look! There, up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a TARDIS?
Actually yes, it is. Much missed from our screens this year, the big blue box is back, and bringing with it Steven Moffat’s homage to the superhero movies of old.
And as an homage it hits all the right notes. It looks good. Good and comic-booky, even vaguely cartoonish, with its CMYK mix of intense shadow and bright colours. There’s even a scene whose editing directly references comic book panelling, much like was seen in Ang Lee’s Hulk. From the first
panel scene one we know exactly the tone this episode is taking, and it’s one unlike any other before in the show.
It may seem like an odd fusion at first but Doctor Who and superhero comics have a lot in common.
Decades of stories, ridiculous plots, mind-shatteringly complicated continuity peppered with the odd retcon, fans and critics complaining that things aren’t as good as they used to be…
So here we are, in the capes n’ tights capital, New York city (which looks terrific considering there’s not a single brick of the real city on screen) where, in between trying to fix some of the damage from ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’, The Doctor accidentally gives little boy Grant superpowers in an origin story no more bonkers than that of any other superhero origin story.
Twenty-odd years later Grant Gordon (Justin Chatwin) ably straddles the hunky and the geeky as he Supermans as The Ghost and Clark Kents as a nanny.
Turns out the baby who keeps him in full employ belongs to his longtime crush, the plucky reporter Lucy Lombard (Charity Wakefield) who follows in the tradition of Superman’s alliteratively-monikered paramours, Lois Lane, Lana Lang, and Lori Lemaris (Wikipedia it: Superman once dated a mermaid. I hear Lori now dates Jim the Fish).
Other superheroes are referenced, but this is first and foremost a Superman pastiche, from the handsome guy in the glasses right down to a cheeky ‘cough-and-you’ll-miss-it’ reference to Superman’s creator’s Joe Shuster & Jerry Siegel. Moffat isn’t shy about stealing outright from several of the movies either.
There’s the rooftop interview/date that calls to mind Lois’s interview with Superman in the original 1979 movie, comic quick-changes between civilian clothes and disguise, and the catching of the spaceship that’s a BBC budget recreation of the Big Blue Boy Scout saving the plane in Superman Returns. Thankfully he doesn’t do a Man of Steel and snap anyone’s neck.
The thing about ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’ is that it’s so caught up with being a Superman photocopy that it almost forgets to be a Doctor Who story. There’s far too much time spent in Lucy’s flat, faffing around with quick-changes and one of the most irritating interrogations ever screened, and not enough of a celebration of The Doctor’s return to TV. He’s been away a year and the first time he returns he’s almost overshadowed by The Ghost and his sky-high-jinks.
Fortunately Capaldi is given plenty of quips and dry one-liners to enjoy, and despite a remarkable lack of stuff for the Doctor to do this is an incredibly funny episode. Perhaps the most chucklesome yet.
None of that’s down to his interactions with his ‘valet’ Nardole, however, although the two have a decent chemistry between them. It doesn’t put off, although neither does it instantly grab you in that Ten/Donna sort of way.
The best you can say is that Matt Lucas’ Nardole isn’t as annoying as some have feared. His bumbling character seems to have been toned down since last year (well, being decapitated will do that), but the distracting thing about him is that there’s also no real reason for him to be there. He’s vestigial to proceedings.
It’s going to be interesting to see how he’s folded into Season 10, especially when we’ll have the new energy of Pearl Mackie’s Bill (who, from that exciting trailer, looks to be the breath of fresh air the show needs).
Given the super heroics you expect a super enemy, but the Harmony Shoal are one-concept creatures with, no matter what The Doctor says, a terrible plan. You’ll remember them from the 2015’s Christmas special, ‘The Husbands of River Song’, where they were just a gory little novelty in among the high-speed cranially-based camp.
But Christmas is a time for novelties, so they’re back, and looking to get ahead. Several billion heads, actually. Ha. Hahaha. And you thought the worst joke today would be in your cracker.
Despite the potential horror of having your head sliced open, your brain yanked out, and an alien plonked inside your cadaver, Harmony Shoal aren’t an intimidating presence. They’re blokes in suits. Their plan is a bore of a corporate pitch that’s part ‘Aliens of London’, part ‘Voyage of the Damned’, part ‘Dark Water’. Perhaps the most frightening thing about them is that there’s nothing new here.
After a year away you expect an episode with a villainous plot that isn’t foiled by simply mashing some buttons.
It’s a Silver Age Comics era ending to an episode that embraces the camp and nonsense of a comics era when Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen could be turned into a giant turtle man, or Supes watched emotion-sucking alien slugs have sex (now there’s two great ideas for next year). In short, a time when anything, however nonsensical, could happen. And that’s very Doctor Who.
Like many of those comics, ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’ is entirely insubstantial; a thing to enjoy and then throw back down on the pile rather than bag and grade. In many ways it’s even more comic-booky than the actual Doctor Who comic books out there.
It is joyous and action-packed, it adheres to its style well, and at Christmas that’s pretty much all you expect from Doctor Who. It’s just that, after a year away, something a bit more substantial would have been nice. Something to remind us why Doctor Who is still a fixture. Something that makes each episode as special as Christmas.
Mind you, based on that Season 10 trailer it looks like Christmas is coming early next year.
Doctor Who in 2017? Up, up, and away…
Aired at 5.45pm on Sunday 25 December on BBC One.
What did you think of this year’s Christmas special? Let us know below…