This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
“I drew specs on Superman”
It’s testament to Doctor Who that, even though it’s been 12 months since we’ve had a new episode of the show, it was back in its stride within a minute or two of its latest adventure. With just one of two references throughout linking it back to last year’s Christmas special – The Husband Of River Song – and a few hints at what’s to come (more Osgood, in some guise, for a start), The Return Of Doctor Mysterio turned out to be a pretty standalone episode. What’s more, a standalone Christmas special episode that, save for a gag or two at the start, was happy to leave festivities on the sidelines.
Instead, we got Steven Moffat’s love letter to superhero stories, wrapped up in a Doctor Who story. And whilst we got nods to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spider-Man and Iron Man, amongst others (the link to our nerdy spots article for the episode is just up there), Moffat’s clear affection is for the Superman movies of the Christopher Reeve era. Well, more Superman and Superman II than Superman III and Superman iV: The Quest For Peace. But that’s understandable, really.
We also got the return of Matt Lucas as Nardole, given more work to do and a broadened part following his Who debut in last year’s Christmas special, taking on a valet-style role to the Doctor. Lucas is also set to appear in series 10 for a few episodes at least, and he gives the TARDIS something a little different. Lucas underplays Nardole nicely here, reunited with his body, with his lines quippy and quietly delivered, to great effect. Count us intrigued as to where the character goes next, not least because he’s still not notched up that much screen time. There’s plenty we still don’t know, not least how get got to be so familiar with the workings of the TARDIS in the first place.
“I brought snacks”
The main narrative here, though, is centred around a clear Lois and Clark-style story (not that you needed me to point that out), with Justin Chatwin as Grant/The Ghost, opposite Charity Wakefield as Lois Lane. It’s just she happens to be called Lucy in this episode. But we all know who she’s supposed to be really.
It’s a prolonged pre-credits prologue we get (in true comic book story style), lasting nearly 10 minutes before the titles kick in, and here we get the Doctor accidentally bestowing upon a young Grant superhero powers. It’s thanks to a glowing red thing that’s the apparent crucial part of a contraption the Doctor is putting together (“a time distortion equaliser thingy” – he’s been in New York in recent years, remember), and Grant swallows it, giving him a glowing Iron Man-style source inside him. It’s not being bitten by a spider, but it does the job.
Visually, director Ed Bazalgette is immediately on board with the style of the piece. His comic book-into-real-life opening was quite lovely – anything that opens with comic panels is bound to quickly woo me onside – but also there’s the segment where he splits the screen. This is an old Hitchcock trick, of course, but when the Doctor starts to edge over the line of his split, then the comics aesthetic clearly came to mind too.
The weaknesses here, as with many a comic book movie, came from the plot. There were a few interesting things going on here, but the invade the world plan is the bit all concerned appear the least interested in. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that is never really matters much, nor is there any tension to its resolution. After all, we’ve been down variants of this road lots of times before.
On the flipside, the early sequence where the Doctor finds a room full of brains I thought was genuinely creepy, but the villainous Dr Sim (Aleksander Jovanovic) seemed more of a distraction from the far more interesting Lois and Clark fun that was playing out. Those aforementioned brains were soon substituted for more people ripping their own heads open, which is always impressive – is it just me that can’t help but think of the classic Steve Martin comedy The Man With Two Brains? – but it’s also a familiar trick now in Who-land. Brains with eyes? They felt different, unsettling, a bit del Toro-y. A shame they were done and dusted with so early in the episode.
“I flooded downstairs with Pokemon”
But in his considerable defence, Moffat is clearly having a ball with the secret identity of Clark Kent, and classic Superman stories. Not for nothing are Shuster and Siegel – Superman’s creators – namechecked early on. The early, genesis stuff for The Ghost is a hoot too. An erection/arousal joke in a Doctor Who Christmas special? That’s a new one, but Logan Hoffman’s young version of Grant gets to do the high school X-ray vision moment, and guffaws duly ensue.
Peter Capaldi, of course, is quickly in on the fun as well.
It’s mainly a more comedic episode as far as the mighty Capaldi is concerned here, and not a syllable is wasted by him. As this is written, the rumour mill is in overdrive suggesting that Capaldi’s time as the Doctor is coming to an end. I hope not. I find him mesmerising as The Doctor, never shortchanging you, and diligent with his performance. We’ll look back on his Who with a lot of fondness when his time in the role does come to an end, but for the moment I’m determined – as he clearly is – to enjoy every minute of it.
Look at the skill of the man too, as he turns to sadness come the story’s epilogue. There’s a broad hint here that we’re going to get a few episodes of a Doctor in mourning when series 10 kicks off, having spent over two decades of his own life away from saving the world to be with River. Capaldi’s Doctor has rarely been the most chipper, but an underpinning deep sadness should and is an interesting addition to his particular mix.
Back to this episode though, where around him, much of the lifting was done by Charity Wakefield and Justin Chatwin. Both acquit themselves extremely well. Chatwin too gets the dual role of the nanny, and The Ghost, with the zipping around that entails to protect his secret. He knows his way around a pair of glasses, too. As for Wakefield, I love her Mr Huffle-inspired interrogation of the Doctor. It’s testament to Moffat’s skill and confidence, this. This could have just been a scene where one person interrogates another face to face, but having a squeaky, squealing toy in the middle of it makes it very, very funny. Expect Doctor Who-branded Mr Huffles to be on sale this time next year.
There’s one moment, mind, that’s a good barometer of where everyone stands on modern Doctor Who (although judging by most comments boards, most people have taken their positions). I think those of us who have been round the block once or twice saw the line where Wakefield reveals what she thinks the real superhero costume for Grant is coming – in some form – a little way off. For some, I’d imagine, it clunks a little (with no slight there on Wakefield’s delivery of it). For others, and I’m in this camp, it’s fitting for a festive story, and is the natural endpoint – for now – of the pair’s story. And then for much younger viewers – including my own collection of mini-geeks – it worked. It sticks out, certainly, but it’s down to you whether that’s for better or worse.
“You do fly around New York in blue rubber with a big G on your chest”
The Return Of Doctor Mysterio is now the twelfth modern Doctor Who Christmas special, and a very confident, enjoyable and often very funny one. It’s, simply, a lot of fun, with some added sprinkles on top for comic book nerds. I still regard The Christmas Invasion – the first revived Who Yuletide adventure – as the highpoint of the December 25th episodes, but I like this one a lot too.
Will it stick in the mind? Couldn’t tell you. I’ve already all but forgotten the alien invasion part of it, in truth (even the Doctor resorts to just smacking every button when it comes to trying to solve that at one point). What I can say is I’ve seen it twice now, and both times, it left a rather sizeable grin on my face. Roll on series 10. Roll on more Capaldi…