It’s been exactly one year since we last had any new Doctor Who. That’s the longest period of time the series has been off the air with no new material since it was resurrected in 2005. Given the awful year that was, perhaps it’s entirely appropriate that the Doctor’s heroics have been absent. Maybe 2016 just wasn’t designed for taking fanciful trips in the TARDIS. And what of 2017? Next year, we may need the weekly diversion of the Doctor more than ever. Somebody has to bestow hope and show us that corners of light still exist in the universe. Such a train of thought makes this year’s holiday offering all the more prescient, as a warmer, kinder hour of Who.
Since the very first moments of Moffat’s tenure as head honcho of Who, he’s been unveiling stories about the Doctor making lifelong impressions on the minds of children. (Even further back than that, actually, as “The Girl in the Fireplace” was his first real foray into the idea.) Some of these stories last an episode; others lead to ongoing story arcs. It’s an idea he’s returned to over and over again, and the most sensible explanation for this obsession is that he’s working through and commenting on his own childhood memories and feelings of the series as it formed and shaped the young Steven Moffat.
Young Grant: “In a comic book, do you know what you’d be called? Doctor Mysterio!”
This year’s holiday installment begins with a familiar scenario: A young boy is awakened by a strange man dangling outside his bedroom window, 60 floors up in a New York high-rise. It’s Christmas, and he invites the old man dressed in red velvet in for milk and cookies, because, well, he’s expected. Young Grant’s bedroom is plastered with comic-book imagery and memorabilia. He introduces the Doctor to his world of imagination (the Superman gag, which sets up the entire episode, is a hoot), and the Doctor introduces Grant to his world, which currently involves an elaborate mishmash of technology installed on the roof of the boy’s building. A misunderstanding leads to Grant swallowing a gemstone forged in a distant star, and suddenly, he gains all of the superpowers every young boy who ever picked up a comic book dreams of having. It is an exhilarating sequence that ends atop the highest point in the city before that familiar jam fills the soundtrack.
The Doctor: Why do they call him Spider-Man? Don’t they like him?
Young Grant: He was bitten by a radioactive spider and guess what happened?
The Doctor: Radiation poisoning, I should think.
Young Grant: No, he got special powers.
The Doctor: What? Vomiting, hair loss, and death. Fat lot of use.
What I didn’t mention is how the entire sequence is a flashback in the mind of the much older Grant (Justin Chatwin), who, as an adult, works as a nanny taking care of a baby named Jennifer … when he’s not out saving the city as a superhero known as the Ghost. Before the episode ends, we’ll flash back a couple more times to the Doctor peeking in on Grant periodically through his life. Moffat’s wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey has been both hailed and reviled over the years, but it isn’t often he settles on a simple flashback layered with no other tricks as a means of telling his story. It feels damn near revolutionary, and in a Moffat script it might just be.
But it isn’t the only wise move Moffat makes right off the bat. After the opening sequence, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” abandons the traditional Christmas-special trappings and tells its story in a non-holiday setting, and it’s all the better for it. Just because an episode airs on Christmas does not mean its writer is obligated to shape the entire story line around the holiday. (If only he’d adopted this strategy for “The Time of the Doctor.”) That said, the Ghost does look vaguely like a giant Christmas ornament, which must surely have been intentional.
The Ghost: Please understand it’s against my personal code to cause lasting harm to any individual. However, light-to-moderate injury is fine.
After the opening credits, “Mysterio” delves into the villainous elements of the story, and it turns out our baddies are returning from last year’s Christmas special. A year ago, they were called the Shoal of the Winter Harmony, but here it’s been shortened to the less cumbersome Harmony Shoal. They make serviceable, grotesque villains but are nowhere near the level of Moffat’s best creations, the Weeping Angels or the Silence or even the Whisper Men, who were so memorable a few years ago.
Perhaps the Shoal were chosen so the story could serve as a sequel of sorts to “The Husbands of River Song,” what with the return of Matt Lucas’s comedic cherub Nardole — and the frequent references to River, whose love and friendship the Doctor still bemoans the loss of. The Shoal have a fairly routine “let’s take over the world” plan, which serves as little more than something for the Doctor and the Ghost to team up and battle against. Further, their brain-swapping plan makes an ideal backdrop for their plot to go after the Ghost — that old comic-book chestnut of the villains attempting to harness the powers of the superhero they’re battling.
Lucy: What are you doing here?!
Nardole: We could ask you the same question … but since it’s your apartment, we probably won’t.
The schemes of Harmony Shoal and the battle against them, however, are not what “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” is about. Doctor Who can’t afford to deliver the sort of spectacle Marvel movies can, and one particular feat of derring-do, in which the Ghost flies into a burning building, is relegated to a brief flash of imagery the Doctor spies on a TV set. Instead, the episode does what Who can do best: Tell a charming unrequited love story between Grant and reporter Lucy Fletcher Lombard (Charity Wakefield), who is also his employer and the mother of little Jennifer. The narrative exists squarely in 1970s Superman territory. The romance and its trappings riff on the Superman/Lois Lane/Clark Kent love triangle that director Richard Donner gave us all those years ago, back before CGI was the driving force behind bringing such tales to life. Any story like that needs a Metropolis as its backdrop, so setting it in New York was surely a no-brainer, even though they shot it in Cardiff.
Lucy: You’re all wet.
Grant: I prefer mild-mannered.
Grant has been pining for Lucy since grade school, and she’s barely noticed him in all of those years. While he was slowly coming to grips with his extraordinary array of powers, the one thing he was powerless to do was woo this special young lady. Certainly, it was the one area the Doctor was never able to help him. At one point, when he thought there might be a chance, she ended up running off with his best friend. There’s nothing progressive or modern about any of this, of course. It’s one of the oldest stories in existence, and it works because there will always be young men pining away for young ladies who barely acknowledge their existence. (Or vice versa.)
The long-winded setup of the Shoal’s spacecraft crashing into New York City is an elaborate excuse for the punchline reveal to Lucy that Grant is the Ghost. If it weren’t such a perfect climax, the setup might be worthy of some bashing, but since it works so splendidly, let’s give it a pass. The look Grant gives Lucy — that sort of “Yeah … it’s me” — is a quiet exclamation mark on a splendid performance from Chatwin. The bit where she says, “I think I prefer you in your superhero costume,” and places the glasses back on his face? Instant waterworks.
The Doctor: [in Tokyo] I created a distraction. I flooded downstairs with Pokémon.
Chatwin is so at home in this universe, it might be fun to someday see the return of the Ghost, but ultimately this feels like a trick that’s most effective once. Wakefield does equally fine work, and the duo is unquestionably winning. As much as Lucas amuses me in general, and as much as I liked him last year, I was skeptical about bringing him back into the long-term narrative, but his particular brand of non sequitur humor feels so at home in the Whoniverse that there was no need for concern.
And Peter Capaldi? His work here is just another excuse to demand that he’s with us at least through season 11. A departure any sooner than that would be criminal. “Doctor Mysterio” is how the title of the series translates in Mexico, something Capaldi learned and became enamored with on his world tour a couple years ago. The poetic way it rolls off his tongue is reason enough for it to become an established part of Doctor Who canon.
The Doctor: Things end, that’s all. Everything ends, and it’s always sad. But everything begins again, too, and that’s always happy. Be happy. I’ll look after everything else.
Odds and Ends:
- In a nice shout-out to Superman co-creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the opening credits roll in the form of a voice-over. Though, why Miss?
- The Daily Chronicle is such a perfect comic-book newspaper name, it’s surprising it hasn’t been used before.
- Mr. Huffle is clearly the sort of device that was just sitting around, waiting to be written into the script. A writer, even a mad one like Moffat, couldn’t possibly imagine that sort of nonsense and then bring it to life for the screen. It’s far too simplistically brilliant, and it looks like we’ll be seeing more of it.
- Grant has known Lucy for 24 years, which is the same amount of time the Doctor and River spent together on their “last night.”
- When the Ghost first comes face to face with the Doctor, their dialogue cleverly references an exchange Grant had with him so many years ago.
- Ace bits: The sushi; the use of comic-book panels and the split-screen sequence; the brains with eyes; UNIT; the effects of X-ray vision on a teenager; the burger; Nardole’s Constantinopolitan robes; Grant’s Batman voice as the Ghost
- Naff bits: The CGI version of New York left something to be desired. Mostly though, the standout naff bit was the throwaway explanation for Nardole’s return. The Doctor can reattach heads?! What? It reminded me of Whoopi Goldberg’s rant in Soapdish about Kevin Kline’s decapitated character that the producers want to resurrect. And if the Doctor saved Nardole, what about Ramone?
- After I wrote this recap, Capaldi himself gave a fascinating interview about the awfulness of 2016 and Who in the Trump era. He stole all my thunder!