A year to the day since the Doctor last graced our screens, he’s back to save Christmas Day once more.
Christmas specials are curious beasts; Doctor Who Christmas Specials more than most. In many long running series, they’re simply an episode that happens to go out near Christmas and which acknowledge the time of year as the characters scurry around, struggling to find appropriate presents for each other and weather family crises. Sitcoms, in particular, like The Middle or Friends favour this approach while soap operas always ensure huge dramatic storylines climax on Christmas Day – so much so that the Tenth Doctor even makes a crack about EastEnders’ infamously apocalyptic Christmases. Some Christmas specials aren’t particularly Christmassy at all but do something big and different like, well, take the characters on a holiday (most of Downton Abbey’s Christmas episodes are set on their summer holidays).
Doctor Who, with its long tradition of homage and pastiche takes a different route and often looks to the Christmas Days of the writers’ youths for inspirations. Television occupies a different place in British family Christmases than it does in America and, before DVD boxsets and digital movie channels, the jewel in the crown of the Christmas Day schedule was usually the television premiere of some huge blockbuster movie most of the audience hadn’t seen since it was in cinemas. The afternoon schedule is padded with reliable old favourites from years gone by. So, strange as it may seem, for a generation the likes of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Poseidon Adventure and Superman: The Movie define Christmas every bit much as turkey and mince pies.
We’ve already had the classic screwball romantic comedy (without the romance) in The Runaway Bride and a science fiction take on The Poseidon Adventure in Voyage of the Damned. Now it’s finally Superman: The Movie‘s turn.
And it is very specifically that first Christopher Reeve film to which Return of Doctor Mysterio is a love letter. Writer Steven Moffat was very open in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine that he’s not a huge fan of the superhero genre, but “enjoys [it] the way a normal person does. … but I couldn’t give you all the facts and details about them – which is sometimes a useful perspective to have on a thing,” but consider the Reeve films the classic form. So we have a plucky reporter pushing her luck just a little too far, the type of superhero who breaks off from putting out a burning building to deliver a lecture on fire safety down the lens of the news crew’s camera, interviews on rooftop gardens, and a love triangle between two people driven by a secret identity.
Secret identities, or the need to keep some part of yourself hidden from other people, is at the centre of Doctor Mysterio. Grant spends his adult life hiding both his great power and his love for Lucy. In the end he can maintain one but not both and he becomes the Ghost even as he, ever so slightly creepily, moves into Lucy’s apartment to work as her nanny so he can be close to her while keeping his feeling buried deep inside. And the question of whether he’ll be able to open up to Lucy is wrapped up with whether he’ll be able to put his need to be the Ghost to bed.
The Doctor, too, is in unusually stoic humour (even for him), with new companion Nardole along to act as his Jiminy Cricket – dropping dark hints at regular intervals about just how troubled the Doctor’s been lately.
How well this all works for you as a viewer depends largely on your ability to accept the tightrope the story walks between serious drama and light entertainment. It’s a story about grief – either literally for the dead or for the person your childhood self always hoped you’d be. With lines like “Those windows [were] built to withstand a blast equivalent to four nuclear explosions,” and the response “Would you like me to call a glazier?” It’s corny, but with heart.
The real highlight of the episode is the opening sequence between the young Grant and the strange old man he dubs “Doctor Mysterio.” If David Tennant and Matt Smith often seemed at their best teamed with slightly older ladies as guest stars, Peter Capaldi has a real way with child actors. The Twelfth Doctor certainly seems kinder and gentler with children than he is with basically anyone else and the whimsy of these scenes, where Grant and the Doctor compare notes on superhero comics and Santa, is incredibly sweet. It’s somewhat indulgent, in a way, as it gives Steven Moffat the opportunity to let loose on his own pet peeve on Superman’s glasses disguise. Even the name “Dr. Mysterio” was chosen because Peter Capaldi so enjoyed saying it over and over again when he found out that’s what Doctor Who is called in Brazil. But it more than earns that indulgence with its gentle humour, pitched perfectly for a Christmas Day.
There’s fantastic humour in the rest of the episode too. The point when the Doctor creates a distraction by unleashing a horde of Pokemon Go characters on a corporate lobby may horribly date the story in future decades, but it’s a wonderfully witty slice of 2016. Surprisingly, though, new companion Nardole (Matt Lucas) turns out not to be the broad comedy sidekick we might have expected, but a source of sly, dry humour instead (“I ruled firmly but wisely” he explains when he returns from accidentally taking the TARDIS off course dressed in the finest robes ancient Constantinople has to offer). He’s also keeping a beady eye on the Doctor in a way that suggests he believes, like Donna Noble before him, that the Time Lord sometimes needs ‘somebody to stop’ him and it will be intriguing to see where they go with that in Series Ten.
As in minor niggle, Doctor Mysterio does underline just how difficult superheroes are to do on TV, and just what an outstanding job the likes of Supergirl and The Flash do. It’s a slight surprise to find Edward Bazalgette in the director’s chair for this, rather than Rachel Talalay - who splits her time between working on Doctor Who and Sherlock for the BBC and the likes of Supergirl and Arrow for the CW and would surely have had useful experience on how to shoot flying men with a little more believability. (On the other hand, the CW’s Legends of Tomorrow certainly illustrates how hard it is to come up with a new historical location and wardrobe every week, and what a good job Doctor Who does of that). The resolution to the Ghost’s story, meanwhile, makes sense thematically and character-wise, but the ultimate reasoning for why we’ve never seen him before, or will again, does seem a little weak when a demi-god capable of juggling tanks would presumably come in useful during various alien invasions.
But it’s a trade off in delivering a largely self-contained story that pays tribute to a comic book world quite unlike the one Doctor Who usually deals with. And it is entirely worth it for the warmth, melodramatics and fun this Christmas special provides.
There are many different types of Christmas special. Doctor Who Christmas specials bounce around, never the same type two years in a row. But no matter which crazy, unique direction they go in each year, it wouldn’t be Christmas without them.
Four TARDISes out of Five!
By: Peter Nolan