This has been a very long year for Doctor Who fans. A whole 365 days without a new episode, which is a damn shame because Peter Capaldi was nailing it last series and a true delight to watch on screen. The annual Christmas special, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” was a lot of fun, just as it should be, but probably suffered a little from the long wait.
To be fair, I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of the episode. It was simply fun and unashamedly goofy, as Christmas television should be, and came together as a well-time homage to superheroes and the genre as a whole. Lifting mainly from the Superman mythos, some of the most charming parts of the episode came from just throwing the Doctor into the middle of the most common comic book tropes, such as the Lois Lane styled reporter and the ensuing secret identity hijinks.
The whole theme fits more comfortably than expected into the world of Doctor Who than I expected, especially after some underwhelming trailers. After all, what is the Doctor if not a superhero? Fantastical adventures and monologuing villains are a staple of superheroes and Doctor Who. The parallels between the Doctor and Grant/The Ghost isn't overly shoved in our faces by the characters, obvious enough to stand on its own feet, though the episode definitely could have done with a few more minutes to breath.
I really liked that despite being the Christmas special, Christmas wasn't forced in as a plot (I'm looking at you, "Time of the Doctor"). The main plot of the episode itself was pretty decent, with a plan that makes sense as long as you don't think too hard (wouldn't the world leaders still go into their own bunkers, not a corporate skyscraper?), but that's par the course for Doctor Who and superhero stories both and really the plot is just a vehicle for Capaldi to run around enjoying himself.
And I have to say, that whole first scene with the brains in the jar was pretty damn creepy. I thought I was fine with brains on screen, but turns out adding eyes makes it way worse. The moment when you realize that building owner Mr Brock isn't in charge and is actually about to get his brain scooped out is pretty chilling and a good start to the story. Unfortunately the villains lose most of their scare factor the longer the episode goes on, becoming just standard bad guys with guns that really don't pose a threat.
Capaldi is on top form this whole episode and utilized to his comedic best. Capaldi as a dark Doctor worked alright in Series 8, but I much prefer this more charming take on him that Series 9 developed. He still manages to be grumpy and rude, but he manages to make it come off so much more endearing. He slips into the role of the Doctor so comfortably now and when he's on-screen, he makes this episode a joy to watch.
I was surprised to get such a big callback to River Song, mainly since it's been so long since the last episode that I forgot the Doctor was depressed about River and not Clara. We've seen so little of River overall since her introduction, most of their adventures taking place off screen, that it's sadly easy to forget how important she was meant to be to him.It's also not great that the modern Doctor spends to be so consistently motivated by the loss of a companion. The re-insertion of River Song last Christmas, despite having had a proper farewell during Smith's run, seems now that it was just to give the Doctor a reason to be secretly depressed again. I loved River but her overall arc has been quite a mess.
The Doctor's side of the story is arguably the strongest part of the episode, as the charm of the comic book-isms starts to wear off a little during the scenes on the rooftop. The characters begin to act a little too trope-y and it quickly becomes apparent that they'll just say or do whatever is needed to set up specific moments, rather than having them get there naturally.
For example, the show clearly really wanted to have Grant revealing his identity in front of Lucy. But to get there, they had to have the Ghost break free from the henchman, despite nothing having changed since Brock threatened to kill Lucy if he did just that. He also has superspeed, remember, and Brock even didn't have a gun out yet. But then he comes back in as Grant and gets captured instantly instead of doing anything remotely helpful. It's a very jarring way of setting up moments while sacrificing story-telling to do it. (Ironically, very similar to another superhero movie that came out this year.)
And then there's the climax. Damn it, that was so cheap. “Hey, you know this big ship that's gonna explode if it crashes? Let's crash it! Except it doesn't explode because shock absorbers.” What? It's such a lazy way to end the story and again, purely designed to set up that specific shot of Grant posing heroic before Lucy. The easiest explanation is if we say that the gemstone adapted to Grant's need, but then that raises the question of why it didn't make him fast enough to save Lucy earlier. Or why he didn't just fly up and redirect the ship safely, Supergirl/Superman-style.
So the ending was pretty terrible, though not inaccurate as a comic book homage, but at least the episode as a whole was mostly great fun to watch, a love letter to superheroes and comic books. Christmas without Doctor Who just isn't Christmas. It's been a cold, cold year and the “Return of Doctor Mysterio” couldn't come soon enough. Bring on April and more Doctor Who.
The little thoughts:
- The Doctor's joy at his own superhero name, "Doctor Mysterio", is wonderful. Peter Capaldi is a gift.
- The pacing and the structure of the episode was a little weird. The opening scene was specially off, like including that short flash-forward mid-way through the Doctor meeting Grant in the past. It also felt like that spent a really long time in that apartment.
- Nardole's return was better than I expected, though I still have a problem with Moffat being unable to leave one-off characters alone (especially since these one-off characters usually ended their episode dead or similarly unlikely to return). So I'm still not convinced he needs to be in the show long-term next series.