The Doctor while setting up a device to reverse paradoxes atop a roof in New York City comes across a small child called Grant Gordon who under the impression the Doctor is Santa (it being Christmas) comes up to help him. But he accidentally swallows an alien gemstone believing it to be medicine. A couple decades later, he works a job as a nanny while moonlighting as a superhero called the Ghost and comes into contact with the Doctor again when they investigate sinister plots at a research company called Harmony Shoals.
It was only a matter of time before we saw superheroes in Doctor Who; the Doctor’s practically a superhero already. Seriously, his origin story could exist alongside any in the Marvel universe. And this episode is clearly paying homage to the superhero genre in all forms. It’s clear Steven Moffat’s principal experience is with the basic, campy elements of something like the Adam West Batman series and especially the original Superman movie, with a touch of awkward Tobey Maguire Spider-Man in there. But that’s still a wide-range of influences, and adding in the snappy comedy of something like the current MCU and you have a loving if tongue-in-cheek tribute to the superhero genre in its entirety. The super-powered gem stone is certainly an homage to Marvel’s Infinity Stones, and even the goofy brain aliens feel like something out of an early pulp superhero comic or even an episode of The Super Friends.
Though his character may be a little too pathetic, Justin Chatwin plays Grant Gordon (they even got the stylized name) fairly well. He’s never playing it too straight and always with a good sense of humour. His superhero voice which is somehow less ridiculous than Christian Bale’s is enjoyable too. Charity Wakefield plays his love interest but she’s not terribly interesting. Apart from a goofy stress toy she has that is kind of a lie detector -I didn’t really get that bit -she doesn’t have any unique qualities to make her more than the girl the hero has to save. Even her investigating is just kind of standard. At least the Doctor brings snacks. The Doctor is of course great, and it’s wonderful to have him back. It’s been a year for us, and apparently it’s been a couple decades for him too, still reeling from the loss of both Clara and River. But he’s still as clever, funny, and as he himself will point out, insane as ever (I love how he’ll still resort to just pressing every button in an alien lab and hope for the best); and even though the superhero stuff is often entertaining, it’s when he’s on screen that the episode’s at its’ best. Also surprising is Matt Lucas as Nardole reprising his role from the last Christmas special, and as the Doctor’s de facto companion, is given a lot more to do and more opportunities to be genuinely funny. It feels like Lucas is creating a new character here, rather than just a Little Britain one-off. He actually manages to get a number of decent laughs.
The humour is pretty on form for most of the hour too. Again, the superhero stuff makes up a lot of this, the fun this episode has subtly mocking the genre, but there are some other decent jokes, a few great one-liners from the Doctor and Nardole. There’s a pretty great parody of split screen devices as well as secret identities (the Ghost has a distinctly Peter Parker logic for protecting his identity, likely due to having read so many comic books as a kid). The best joke though is at the end when one of the villains, after the Ghost has taken the alien bomb up out of the atmosphere in a sappy happy ending, says “Doctor, do you think this is over?” only for the Doctor to reply “yes” and disrupt his gun with his sonic screwdriver. The timing and delivery of that joke is near perfect.
But are there weaknesses to this episode? Of course. First off, Moffat really likes the story of the Doctor periodically visiting someone as they grow up and we see it once again here. It’s a really tired device that I hope he doesn’t use when introducing the next companion. Secondly, the main storyline isn’t technically good. You’ve seen it in a dozen superhero movies and Doctor Who episodes alike. Essentially it’s the evil aliens seeking to invade Earth and assimilate its people. They have a more needlessly convoluted plan than usual but it’s still pretty boring. And the villains aren’t very exciting either. Aleksander Jovanovic plays the one-dimensional Russian scientist. Adetomiwa Edun from Merlin is actually pretty good until he gets assimilated. And I wish we got to see more of the brains themselves, with their creepy eyes. The effects work is okay but I feel like we’ve seen aliens with half-heads in Doctor Who a few times already. In addition to this, the scenes between the Ghost and Lucy on their date are in moments too awkward, and it’s definitely too convenient that she just happens to be developing feelings for Grant. I know it’s paying tribute to Superman, but there was just better chemistry between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, and arguably better writing. And I could have done without the angst over River at the end.
“The Return of Doctor Mysterio” isn’t one of the best Christmas specials but it is one of the more fun. And it’s a good reintroduction to the title character and series. It’s both Doctor Who as we know it, and something new, hopefully a trend that will continue into the coming series. Peter Capaldi is still terrific and I look forward to seeing him in the next series beginning in April. Speaking of which, we got a teaser and I’m surprisingly glad to see Nardole sticking around, which may make up for the fact that the next companion Bill looks like she’ll be just another young girl from modern-day Earth. He at least could make for a refreshing TARDIS dynamic. But I’m optimistic and curious about Bill, seemingly being set up as maybe the next Donna Noble. Also, this episode left a cliffhanger in terms of its villains; I wonder if that’s going to lead to anything, or if it’s just another knock at superhero tropes. In any case, there’s more of the Doctor, more Daleks, and more insanity awaiting. See you in April!