It’s been exactly a year since Doctor Who‘s most recent new adventure, and so the anticipation ahead of the 2016 Christmas special was sky high. When “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” finally arrived on Christmas Day, it quickly turned out that – not for the first time – the show has wrong-footed us and that it isn’t the episode we might have thought that we had been expecting and in some cases dreading: Doctor Who has moved on. And that’s a good thing.
In the past, showrunner Steven Moffat has delivered some of the most Christmassy of Christmas specials imaginable, from 2010’s “A Christmas Carol” to 2011’s “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe”, 2012’s “The Snowmen” and 2014’s “Last Christmas”. By comparison, last year’s “The Husbands of River Song” was somewhat light on the Christmas trappings, and this year’s story goes even further with only a brief prologue at the start being set on Christmas Eve. Even then it’s only so that eight-year-old Grant Gordon (Logan Huffman) can understandably mistake the ‘old guy’ hanging upside down outside his New York apartment block window 60 floors up in the air for Santa Claus. After that however you’ll look in vain for any festive feels.
Moffat’s even better known for his wild imagination and inventiveness when it comes to plotting, but any sense of his usual twisty-turny, timey-wimey shenanigans are something else largely lacking in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”. In fact this is a remarkably linear and straightforward story with just a couple of flashbacks at the very start to get things rolling, and thereafter as simply and clearly laid out as anyone could hope for on Christmas Day when their faculties are somewhat dimmed by massive injections of food and drink.
It doesn’t even have the sort of continuity callbacks that Moffat has made something of a fetish of over his years in charge of the show. Although there are references to repairing the damage he’s caused to the time-space continuum in New York (“The Angels of Manhattan”) and how he’s spent the time since we last saw him with River Song, plus a throw-away reference to UNIT’s Osgood, an expanded role for a monster that a passing appearance in the 2015 special and the return of Matt Lucas’ character of Nardole, there’s really very little here that would give an occasional viewer any pause for thought, unlike “The Time of the Doctor” or “The Husbands of River Song” which practically pivoted on continuity and which was almost incomprehensible without detailed knowledge of the show.
The other signature feel of a Moffat-produced story is that it tends to be principally to do with something about the Doctor himself, or at the very least his companion, rather than the adventures he has and the people and monsters he meets. I’ve complained before about this growing myopia in the modern series, and so it’s a breath of fresh air to finally have a story that is actually about something other than the titular Time Lord. Instead, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” spends most of its time with grown-up Grant (Justin Chatwin) and newspaper reporter Lucy Fletcher née Lombard (Charity Wakefield), the girl he’s loved since he was a kid and for whom he now works as a live-in nanny looking after her young baby. Grant’s life is further complicated by what happened in 24 years ago when he first met the Doctor and accidentally swallowed a precious gemstone that over the years has given him superpowers resulting in his donning a cape and mask by night to save people and fight crime as The Ghost.
I confess I had worries about the prospect of mashing Doctor Who with the superhero genre – it’s the sort of cute idea that could easily go excruciatingly wrong very quickly. But right from the explanation of The Ghost’s powers that manages to make him a perfectly compatible part of the Doctor Who universe, to the Doctor’s delight in working out that Clark Kent is the same person as Superman in the comics only with glasses, and the breezy deconstruction of the Spider-Man origin story (the Doctor details how being bitten by a radioactive spider should have meant Peter Parker died an agonising and slow death) and a lovely audio reference to Siegel and Shuster, it’s clear that this episode is in safe hands and is actually working a treat.
One important reason for the success is that the show isn’t trying to ride on the coattails of the modern line-up superheroes on film and television, but is instead looking back to the Christopher Reeve Superman movies of the 1970s and 80s. That was a time when superhero films could be light and cheerful and exciting, without the dark edged angst and violence of today. Clearly these were favourite films of Moffat as a teenager, because the love for them is evident in every scene: while you might be expecting some sort of startlingly original and head-scrambling reinvention of the Superman mythos, instead what you get is a virtual remake of iconic scenes from Superman the Movie with only the lightest of updates and the addition of some clearly recognisable Moffatesque dialogue. Overall though it’s impossible for those of us watching who are of a certain age not to be overcome by our nostalgia for those first big blockbuster comic book films of our youth, and entirely bewitched and won over by “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” as a result.
Of course, there’s another plot line running at the same time to keep the Doctor engaged in things – a bunch of disembodied brains led by the sinister, scar-faced Dr Sim (Aleksandar Jovanovic) planning an alien invasion of the Earth, the usual sort of thing – but this feels something of a sideshow compared with the story of Grant/The Ghost and Lucy. The casting is great: as a certified North American film and television star, Justin Chatwin brings a level of authenticity to both of his roles which could easily have been missing if the show had tried to locally source a pseudo-American from the UK. That said, Kent-born Charity Wakefield has no trouble putting on an American accent and is utterly perfect as the highly intelligent Lucy. She is so good at asking questions that even the Doctor admits that he has actually started to listen to what she’s saying when normally he pretty much tunes out everyone in the room except for himself. Her interrogation of the Doctor with the aid of a Mr Huffle squeaky toy is exquisitely original and funny, and a sign that Moffat is really enjoying himself writing this script after a bit of time off to recharge.
Naturally it goes without saying that Peter Capaldi is pitch-perfect as the Doctor, even better in the role now than he ever has been in the past if that’s even possible. The only other major character in the 60-minute special is Nardole, whom we met in “The Husbands of River Song” and that I hated on sight. The news that he was returning not only for this Christmas story but also as a major element of the forthcoming season 10 had made my heart sink, but I tried to keep my spirits up by recalling that I had been similarly disturbed by the prospect of comedian Catherine Tate becoming a regular in season 4 only to end up regarding her as probably my favourite Doctor Who companion of all time (after Sarah Jane Smith, obviously. Let’s be sensible.) The problem was that in his first appearance in the show, Nardole had been a typical Matt Lucas Little Britain creation – one-note, purely comedic, childish, very silly and terribly irritating. That’s fine for a sketch show, but not for Doctor Who. Done wrong, the character had the power to make not only the Christmas special but also the 2017 series completely unwatchable.
Fortunately it was quickly clear that this wasn’t going to happen, and that Moffat has been hard at work retrofitting and repurposing Nardole into quite a different beast from his maiden appearance. He’s been significantly toned down for “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” and is used relatively sparingly; while he still gets almost all of the episode’s laugh-out-loud one-liners and wisecracks, the humour is less silly and childish than it is sharp-edged and knowing, not a million miles away from Rogue One’s acerbic K-2SO in spirit. His quips function as something of a nagging conscience for the Doctor, and as a result Nardole immediately fits into the show far better than he did last year. He also has a genuine use within the plot after gaining the ability to fly the Tardis on his own, and we learn that he’s been off having his own adventures which include a stint accidentally ruling 12th century Constantinople for a spell. Matt Lucas is more than able to adjust his performance to the new requirements and underplays better than I would have imagined him capable of, and with some darker and more dramatic shading to his character to make him more realistic and bearable for deployment on an on-going basis.
It’s perhaps the sheer relief over the success of Nardole 2.0 together with the misty-eyed nostalgia toward the classic Christopher Reeve movies which when combined meant that my heart swelled while watching the Christmas special. I rather adored the whole of “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” from top to bottom – far more than I had been expecting to coming into it. Particular credit also goes to director Ed Bazalgette who succeeds in making Cardiff look believably like a cinematic New York – the production as a whole is incredibly stylish and glossy, which is something of a Christmas miracle given the tight BBC budgets the show has to operate on. At one point he even whips up a comic book panel-style split screen for a telephone conversation that is a sheer retro delight.
While I can’t quite agree with reviews that have rated it five stars and ‘best Christmas special ever’, I’ll go so far as to say that it was perhaps one of the most simply pleasurable and purely enjoyable Doctor Who festive outings in many a year. Crucially it was also one of the most accessible specials the show has put together for a long time, something that the whole family can gather round on Christmas Day and each enjoy in their own special way. The use of superhero genre will help the show reach out beyond its established fan base into the current cinematic mainstream, and there are some nice gags for the non-science fiction adults that include levitation being a stand-in for a particular aspect of puberty, and a gag about a leather costume in New York that could easily have you choking on your drink.
In other words, this might just be Steven Moffat’s best-calibrated Doctor Who Christmas special yet, at least as far as the mainstream audience is concerned. As for myself I still think “The Snowman” was the most magical Moffat-penned festive treat – I caught the start of it on UKTV the week before Christmas and couldn’t pull myself away again until the end, affirming its power to keep me watching even four years down the line. But “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” is unquestionably a fun hour of family entertainment that will be cheerfully watched again and again over the years, and is a fine return to form for Doctor Who after last year’s problematic outing.
And now the countdown begins to Easter, with the start of the new series and a brand new companion Bill played by Pearl Mackie set to join the Doctor and Nardole on their adventures. After the success of “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”, I genuinely can hardly wait to see what happens next.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
“The Return of Doctor Mysterio” is available to UK viewers on iPlayer for a month. The episode will then be released on DVD and Blu-ray on January 23 2017.