“The Return of Doctor Mysterio” is, as Steven Moffat has acknowledged, an homage to the superhero comics of his youth, and particularly to the Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve Superman movies of the late 1970s. It’s no surprise that Moffat is again adapting established genres and narratives for this year’s Christmas Special as he has previously ‘borrowed’ from Dickens for 2010’s “A Christmas Carol”, and C.S. Lewis for the following year’s “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe.” They reference, nostalgically, the films and books he enjoyed as a young man, and they operate within the television traditions of the classic ‘heritage’ adaptation. Superman was, appropriately, the Christmas release of 1978, when Moffat was in his teens, and “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” reflects its importance as the film that kicked off the cycle of comic-book adaptations in the pre-internet, pre-multichannel era.
The episode’s homage begins with a slow tracking shot into a comic strip and a pan down from a moonlit sky to the streets of New York, mimicking the opening of Superman, where it flicks through an issue of Action Comics before zooming past the Daily Planet building and into space. Rather than journeying to an alien planet to essay his superhero’s origins, Moffat takes a humbler route. An adult Grant Gordon (Justin Chatwin) dreams of his first encounter with The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) when he was an 8-year-old boy. Once again, we see The Doctor as the imaginary friend of childhood literature. He crashed into Amy Pond’s garden back in 2010, and here he’s hanging 60 floors up outside Grant’s window after an accident installing a device to reverse the paradoxes created by his last visit to New York in “The Angels Take Manhattan.”
Moffat focuses on the important tropes of disguise and identity in the superhero origin story, offering a witty parallel to the corny conceit that audiences knew Clark Kent’s true identity when Lois Lane couldn’t fathom the blatantly obvious. The Doctor is equally slow on the uptake that Clark and Superman are one and the same, and realisation only dawns when he draws specs on Clark in a comic. The Doctor’s cultural understanding of comic book heroes is further found wanting when he assumes the super-powers acquired by the irradiated Spider-man are “vomiting, hair loss and death.” These are themes Moffat returns to throughout the episode, exploring the superhero as a shifting performance between the ego and alter-ego, the human and the superhuman and, most importantly, the loved and the unloved.
It’s a nice touch that not only is The Doctor equated with other cape-wearing heroes clinging to buildings, but also that Grant’s mum thinks he is Santa and should be invited in for his milk and cookies. The Doctor is shown to be as culturally important as Santa and Spider-Man in one fell swoop, as he intones “ho-ho-ho” and gazes around the bedroom, bedecked in Christmas trimmings and panels and posters featuring comic book icons. However, at no point does the episode make The Doctor act typically as a costumed superhero, and thankfully Moffat understands that The Doctor doesn’t have super powers and doesn’t really fit into this mold even if he shares the same “sole survivor of doomed planet” origins as Superman. Doctor Mysterio as the name of a comic book character is about as far as you can push that idea.
The Doctor’s really the catalyst, as he is on many occasions, to enable humans to become the heroes they need to be with or without a superhero identity and costume. With Grant, it’s completely accidental when the boy swallows the Hazandra gemstone–the Ghost of Love and Wishes–in the belief it was medicine given to him by a doctor rather than the Doctor. As is frequently observed, The Doctor makes people better, and Grant now “has a cough with a slight case of levitation.” Levitation turns to flying when Grant panics and the crystal’s intuitive powers latch on to the boy’s obsession with comic books. It’s like those moments of wishful fantasies when you were young and thought, by wearing a bed sheet and leaping off the garden shed, you could fly like Superman.
It’s a good set up for the first episode transmitted since the last Christmas special, “The Husbands of River Song”, but it soon becomes something more run-of-the-mill. Even though we’ve had a bit of a wait to see Peter Capaldi back in action as The Doctor, and it feels good to see him on screen again, he then takes a brief respite as further Superman nods–the spinning globe atop the skyscraper akin to the Daily Planet and the name drop of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster–take us to a New York press conference held by science innovators the Harmony Shoal Institute. They plan to “open your minds” and this takes on a sinister edge when it is revealed they are the zipper-headed, brain-swapping aliens The Doctor first met last Christmas.
The press conference also introduces us to reporter Lucy Fletcher (Charity Wakefield as the Daily Chronicle’s Lois Lane substitute), and to CEO Mr. Brock (Adetomiwa Edun). His associate Dr. Sim (a woefully underused Aleksandar Jovanovic) is rather concerned about the number of brains the institute keeps in storage and confronts Brock with this conundrum later that night.
True to form, The Doctor shows up, with Matt Lucas’s Nardole (another element from last year’s special) in tow, just as Lucy is casing the joint to confirm her suspicions about the company. In a very spooky scene, Dr. Sim reveals that the brains only have eyes for their next container, he himself has already been possessed, and now it is Brock’s turn.
The Doctor, equally quick to assume identities, poses as Dan Dangerous of Scotland Yard, and suggests Lucy has stumbled on a great story about the mysterious institute where its brains have minds of their own. The Doctor’s cheeky dig “no one will believe that, this is America” is certainly topical given the strange days we’re living in. When they’re caught by Sim and held at gunpoint, it is superhero the Ghost who affects their escape. Moffat also establishes the ‘Lois-Clark-Superman’ love triangle that we are familiar with from this genre when Lucy first meets the Ghost. Although the Ghost reads her column, like many of us coming to terms with post-truth politics, he does “find the political bias in your paper’s editorial not entirely to my taste.”
The Doctor immediately recognises Grant beneath the spandex and the mask when the Ghost whisks Lucy away. The episode explores superhero mythology further with the themes of the hero who has powers thrust upon him or her and the choice of whether to use these powers for good or evil. This is connected with the narrative’s view of how villains always seek change and their superhero opponents struggle to maintain the status quo.
After the Ghost flies Lucy to her apartment building, he must rush away because the baby monitor is alerting him to his responsibilities as Grant the nanny. The Doctor’s own warning to the young Grant is reiterated when he arrives to find his young charge missing. The Doctor, now holding the baby, quotes Lee and Ditko’s first Spider-Man story and that cornerstone of superhero mythology: “with great power comes great responsibility.” It also reinforces The Doctor’s own lack of responsibility after the young Grant inadvertently swallowed the gemstone and he simply trusted to luck that nature would take its course, unaware it had changed the boy’s DNA.
When Lucy also turns up at the apartment, it is revealed she is working under the alias of Mrs. Lombard and Grant is actually her nanny. This establishes the love triangle–familiar from the Lois-Clark-Superman story–between Grant, her and the Ghost. This all has a familiarity from the various iterations of Superman but it particularly feels very close in spirit to the Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman television series.
Of course, this being Moffat, it’s Superman with knob gags. Unable to control his x-ray vision, the teenage Grant levitates when he gets an erection after first seeing Lucy who, it is revealed, he has known since high school. Having a social life can be difficult for caped crusaders and TARDIS owners alike. “There’s somebody worse at this than me,” claims The Doctor after Grant relates his and Lucy’s story and how he became the nanny to his unrequited love when her husband left her and her baby daughter.
The Harmony Shoal sub-plot is derailed by all the Lucy and Grant material and it reduces any sense of threat until the final act of the episode. The Doctor ends up being a guidance counselor and exposition-deliverer, explaining about the migrating alien brain creatures attempt to replace figures of authority around the world while setting up a meeting between the Ghost and Lucy.
Conversations, with one using a split-screen section as another reminder of comic book panels and their conventions on screen, between The Doctor and Nardole, Grant and Lucy, fill the middle act before we even get back to the alien invasion sub-plot. It slows the episode down to a crawl before The Doctor finally confronts Sim and Brock and orders them to “pack your bags and get off of this planet”.
For me, it’s Nardole’s backstory that generates more interest. He’s an established member of the TARDIS crew when we meet him here. Capable of flying the TARDIS with an amount of precision, whilst dropping by Constantinople to “rule fairly but wisely”, he reminds The Doctor he reassembled Nardole only out of a sense of loneliness after spending 24-years of his final day with River in “The Husbands of River Song”.
For those of us fearing Lucas would be something of a loose cannon, he delivers a controlled performance and offers some intriguing aspects to Nardole, fleshing him out from being just the annoying comic foil. Building on the notion of power and responsibility, he also points out The Doctor doesn’t always act responsibly himself and his actions run counter to the Time Lord edict never to interfere with other peoples and planets.
The rooftop interview between the Ghost and Lucy is a direct lift from Donner’s first Superman film, even down to some of the lines of dialogue. Moffat, playing to his demographic, throws in some tried and tested gender stereotyping jokes to add a contemporary spin. The penny finally drops for Lucy and she realises that Grant is the man and the nanny for her.
We get to the final act with one bound and The Doctor and Nardole find a ship in orbit that Harmony Shoal plan to use as a bomb to stage manage an alien attack on New York. It’ll create mass panic and force those “rich old men” in power to escape to a place of safety, into Harmony Shoal’s clutches for a bit of brain-swapping. As a denouement, it all feels like an afterthought and it’s a grand scheme pretty much delivered through The Doctor’s conversation with Sim (on a screen), on a small set (“it’s a bit rubbish, innit” as Nardole observes) and 10 minutes from the end of the episode.
There’s nothing epic or grandiose likely to wake you up from your doze on the sofa. Compare this to 2007’s “Voyage of the Damned” and its disaster movie spectacle and you’ll see how scaled down Doctor Who has become over the last few years. Watching the final sequence, it’s noticeable there are very few visual effects sequences of the ship and of its approach to New York. The episode is very dependent on ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ and the climactic scene consists of cuts between closeups of The Doctor, Nardole, Grant, and Lucy, some explosions on set and then one final ‘money shot’ of Grant holding up the fallen ship.
There is an effort to infuse this with double jeopardy. As The Doctor sets the ship on a crash course, Brock holds Grant and Lucy at gunpoint in an attempt to get the Ghost to give himself up and allow Harmony Shoal to take over his body. Only the Ghost can prevent the ship from crashing so, of course, there’s the classic superhero dilemma of saving the city but revealing who you are to the world, or, more specifically, to the woman you love. The moral here is that you can be a superhero wearing your glasses, checked shirt, and jeans and you don’t need to wear a costume to prove it. The nanny gets the girl and always saves the day in the nick of time.
For me, this was all rather inconsequential. Although there is a some very competent playing by the cast and the themes of identity, power and responsibility are wittily explored, this felt like an episode of Lois & Clark where Doctor Who pops in for a brief visit. Director Ed Bazalgette manages to make the New York scenes (many shot in Bulgaria), look authentic and, fortunately, they help open out what’s largely a run of dialogue scenes in rooms, offices, and spaceships. Audiences more familiar with the eye-popping visuals of current superhero cinema couldn’t be blamed for finding this very quaint and rather parochial.
There is a brief moment at the end of the episode that gives The Doctor an opportunity to ponder River’s inevitable death in “Silence in the Library” and to reinforce the mythology at the heart of Doctor Who: “Everything ends. And it’s always sad. But everything begins again too. And that’s always happy.” I look forward to Capaldi’s return with Lucas and Pearl Mackie next Spring in the hope they can inject something fresh into a series clearly ready to begin again.