What is that?
Well, in terms you would understand…
… sorry, there aren’t any.
The Return of Doctor Mysterio feels very much like a return to the aesthetic of the Doctor Who Christmas Specials of the Russell T. Davies era.
Russell T. Davies tended to build his Christmas Specials as blockbuster events, stories featuring gigantic invasions and the end of the world. In some ways, the perfect fodder for a family sitting down after Christmas dinner, half paying attention to the television and very much in need of a plot that was packed with spectacle while moving a mile-a-minute. As a rule, the Russell T. Davies specials did not demand the complete and devoted attention of the best episode, instead feeling more like a lavish desert than a hearty main course.
For Davies, Christmas entertainment itself seemed to be the genre to which he wrote, with his specials very consciously intended to evoke a general mood or feeling of Christmas television. Indeed, Davies would even extend the tone of his specials beyond stereotypical Christmas concerns as in The Christmas Invasion or The Runaway Bride. Voyage of the Damned is the most obvious example, a riff on The Poseidon Adventure and other maritime disaster films that have little directly to do with Christmas but air in constant rotation during the season.
Steven Moffat has tended to use his Christmas Specials as part of larger emotional and story arcs. A Christmas Carol involved some light “timey wimey” stuff. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe built to a big emotional reunion with the Pond family. The Snowmen was all about the Doctor’s angst over the loss of River and the Ponds. The Time of the Doctor was a subversion of the “thirteenth regeneration” story. Last Christmas was very much about Clara. The Husbands of River Song was about saying farewell to River.
In contrast, the big emotional beats of the Davies Christmas Specials tended to be drawn in broader terms. The departure of Christopher Eccleston meant that The Christmas Invasion had to deal rather directly with the arrival of David Tennant, but the Tenth Doctor’s heartbreak over the loss of Rose played out in the background of The Runaway Bride paying off in one big moment where he repeated her name. The continuity elements in The End of Time, Part I were largely superfluous to the broad storytelling.
The Return of Doctor Mysterio very much evokes to the storytelling sensibilities of the earlier Davies era. Even the story beats harken back to Christmases past. Nardole’s brief closing acknowledgement of River Song evokes the Tenth Doctor’s brief closing acknowledgement of Rose in The Christmas Invasion. The action climax of the Doctor on the bridge of a crashing alien ship hurdling towards a major metropolis feels lifted from Voyage of the Damned. However, there is also the fact that The Return of Doctor Mysterio is a broadly-drawn superhero film.
In some ways, this harkens back to Voyage of the Damned. As with disaster films, there is no direct link between superhero films and Christmas; Batman Returns and Iron Man III notwithstanding. The connection is more indirect, through simple association. Voyage of the Damned was an affectionate riff upon those disaster films that tend to populate British television at Christmas, while The Return of Doctor Mysterio makes similar nods towards the superhero films that have become a staple of modern Christmas viewing.
Indeed, this could arguable be seen as a subtle demonstration of how Doctor Who is adapting with the times. When the show first returned, the superhero boom was only warming up. More than a decade later, the superhero genre is a feature of the cultural landscape. There are enough films now that terrestrial channels can afford to air marathons and that it is possible to flick between a variety of digital stations and never catch the same superhero movie twice. Whatever about discussions of superhero saturation, they are now a part of festive media consumption.
Just look at the movies screening on British television over Christmas 2016. Deadpool on Sky Movies, The Amazing Spider-Man II on ITV, Captain America: Civil War on Sky Movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier on BBC One, Iron Man II on Film4, Thor on Film4, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice on Sky Movies. This is to say nothing of the summer blockbusters that arrive on home media in time for Christmas, or the glut of movies available on streaming services.
Superheroes are arguably part of the broader “Christmas” genre in the same way that Raiders of the Lost Ark could be said to be part of the holiday tradition, aside from any textual link. So it makes sense that Doctor Who would use its Christmas Special to construct a superhero story, to the point that a large part of the final couple of acts of The Return of Doctor Mysterio are borrowed wholesale from Richard Donner’s adaptation of Superman, right down to the semi-romantic rooftop interview.
Indeed, The Return of Doctor Mysterio even has a little fun with the notion that it is not really a Christmas Special. The most “Christmas” part of the episode comes in the teaser, when the Doctor is mistaken for Santa Claus by virtue of arriving on the roof of a young boy’s apartment building on Christmas Eve. Outside of that great shot of the Doctor swinging like a pendulum past Grant’s window, there is little about the episode that screams “Christmas.” In fact, the bulk of the episode may not even unfold at or around Christmas. There is no snow. There are no lights.
There is something quite nice in the episode’s brief suggestion that the Doctor made a point to occasionally check in on Grant after he swallowed the stone. Although never developed (and leading to a twenty-four year absence), this faintly-suggested theme of recurring visitation is a semi-constant theme of the Moffat era Christmas Specials. After all, A Christmas Carol was the story of a group of people who came together to form a make-shift family every Christmas Eve while The Time of the Doctor turned the title character into “the man who stayed for Christmas.”
In some ways, this is just a reflection of the broader theme of time in the Moffat era as a whole, with the show more willing to explore the implications of the Doctor owning a time machine. However, it also feels like a recurring nod to Paul Cornell’s delightful Doctor Who Christmas Story The Hopes and Fears of All the Years. Sadly, the odds of seeing a direct adaptation of this story are increasingly tiny, but it is somewhat affirming to see that its core themes have been absorbed into Doctor Who.
Then again, it is a nice nod to the character development that the Doctor has undergone during the Moffat era as a whole. The Davies era repeatedly presented the Doctor as feckless and indifferent to the long-term consequences of his actions with the toppling of Harriet Jones in The Christmas Invasion leading to the election of Harrold Saxon in The Sound of Drums, among other missteps. In the Moffat era, the Doctor has tried to compensate for this tendency. “I thought I’d check in on you,” he assures Grant in high school, although he does let that slip as well.
In fact, one of the smaller and nicer continuity touches in The Return of Doctor Mysterio is the implication that the Doctor is attempting to fix all of the temporal paradoxes that built up around New York in The Angels Take Manhattan. It is never explicitly stated that the Doctor is trying to reunite with Amy and Rory or to make up for his own missteps, but it is heavily implied. This is a very nice and very subtle character beat, perhaps the nicest and most subtle beat in the episode.
The Return of Doctor Mysterio is very light and fluffy television, which is not the worst thing that can be said about a Doctor Who Christmas Special. Indeed, it is probably the lightest and fluffiest Christmas Special of the Steven Moffat era, feeling much more of a piece with Voyage of the Damned and The Runaway Bride than A Christmas Carol or Runaway Bride. There is certainly a lot less self-reflection and continuity than viewers have come to expect from a Moffat era Christmas Special. This may not be a bad thing, given criticisms of the era.
At the same time, there is something slightly disappointing in this. After all, The Return of Doctor Mysterio is the only episode of Doctor Who to broadcast in the past twelve months. More than that, it is tonally quite similar to The Husbands of River Song, in that it is basically a fast-paced identity-themed caper rom-com with science-fiction elements thrown in. Steven Moffat writes great banter, but the appeal of his work on Doctor Who has always been the juxtaposition of that lighter touch with heavier themes. There is little of that here.
This is particularly true when it comes to the handling of the episode’s superhero elements. The superhero genre is a part of contemporary pop culture, in that it is almost impossible for any consumer of media to remain oblivious to the workings and mechanics of the genre. It has grown ubiquitous over the past two decades. It is one of those rare elements of popular culture where audience familiarity can be assumed. As with the western, even the most casual viewer understands the logic and expectations underpinning a superhero story.
And so there is something mildly disappointing in the lightness with which The Return of Doctor Mysterio explores the genre. The Return of Doctor Mysterio is a very broad pastiche of superhero conventions and cinema, rather than anything particularly playful or subversive. The Return of Doctor Mysterio is an episode that plays the classic Superman/Lois Lane/Clark Kent love triangle remarkably straight without a hint of deconstruction or interrogation. In some respects, this feels like a disappointment.
The episode often feels like a laundry list of in-jokes and references. There are almost too many to catch. Grant’s glasses; the Ghost’s Christian Bale Batman voice; the Ghost holding a rocket overhead like Superman would hold a plane of a car; the plan to “stage-manage an alien attack” on New York as a nod to the ending of Watchmen; Louise Lombard as a nod to long-standing Superman recurring characters Lois Lane and Steve Lombard; “Miss Siegel and Miss Shuster”; the rotating globe; the strange importance of New York, despite the fact that it is not a capitol city.
There are even some nice subtle allusions. The presentation of the antagonistic alien invaders as dispossessed brains feels like a nice nod to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original conception of Superman as a supervillain with mental powers from The Reign of the Superman. The decision to cast the “scary German fellow” as the primary antagonist of the piece is a nice nod to the history of superhero genre as an American response to European fascism in the thirties and forties. Even the American accents from the guest cast have a very thirties cadence.
To be fair, the Christmas Special might not be the best time for criticism or examination. Audiences at Christmas want the familiar and the safe, to enjoy celebration and affection. Christmas on BBC One is a cultural institution, and the Doctor Who Christmas Special is part of a familiar routine. It is entirely understandable that The Return of Doctor Mysterio is drawn in the broadest possible terms as an love letter to the superhero genre, even if that sort of homage is difficult to carry off on a BBC production budget.
“That looks… cheap,” Grant remarks of the Doctor’s improvised device at the start of the episode, and there is just a slight hint of self-awareness to the comment. The Return of Doctor Mysterio very much strains against the limitations of its budget, both in its New York setting and in its special effects. Given the political football that is being played with the BBC, it seems quite likely that the Doctor Who production staff are being forced to make do with a smaller budget than they really need. Still, that is not the worst problem for a Doctor Who episode.
Even allowing for the more relaxed standards of a Christmas Special, there is very little substance to The Return of Doctor Mysterio. There are undoubtedly interesting things to be said about the superhero genre, especially given Moffat’s willingness to play with stock narratives of masculine empowerment in episodes like A Good Man Goes to War. Given the recurring criticisms of the Doctor across the Moffat era, it seems like the writer would have more to say about superheroes as a male power fantasy.
There are elements of that here, particularly with the reveal that Grant is being powered by a stone that acts to fulfil his every wish. (In a nice nod to the Superman mythos, the Doctor acknowledges, “It draws energy from the nearest star to make it happen.”) It makes perfect sense that a young boy would want to become a superhero, and that something like “x-ray vision” would seem like the perfect superpower for a hormonal teenage boy. However, the episode never really explores any of that. It never even acknowledges the ridiculousness of the Ghost as concept.
There are any number of missed opportunities. After all, under Davies and Moffat, Doctor Who has been more than willing to call out the title character on his casual indifference to the emotional well-being of his companions even as he acts in what he believes to be their best interests. With that in mind, The Return of Doctor Mysterio feels like it might have something to say about the “hero desperately fights to keep his identity from the woman he loves to protect her” trope. Instead, it never questions or challenges the awkwardness of Grant’s relationship to Louise.
Of course, Moffat has a great deal of fun playing with that tried-and-tested cliché. After all, Moffat is a veteran sitcom writer, and there is a lot of classic comedy gold to be mined from that set-up. In particular, the sequence in which Grant tries to reveal his identity to Louise while she remains oblivious is populated with lots of nice small gags. Similarly, the Doctor’s self-satisfaction when he figures out Superman’s identity is a clever joke that plays well with his frustration as Louise and Grant dance past one another.
Similarly, there are a number of very soft and very broad jokes made about the politics and economics of the superhero genre. When the Ghost finally meets Louise, he softly chastises her for the “political bias” of her paper, perhaps an acknowledgement of how a conservative superhero might react to a journalist from a liberal East Coast newspaper. The “H” and the “S” in the logo of “Harmony Shoals” even intercept to form a subtle “$” and the brains are arranged in a shape to for a “c”, suggesting superheroes are all about dollars and cents.
Still, these are very quick background jokes rather than clever criticism. The Doctor seems surprisingly comfortable interacting with the Ghost, despite the fact that his more anarchistic tendencies should bristle against the Ghost’s more conservative sensibilities. The Return of Doctor Mysterio plays more like a soft intersection of Doctor Who and the superhero genre than a full-on crossover. Given how interesting it would be to blend those two genres together, given their high profiles and their contrasting aesthetic, it feels like something of a missed opportunity.
In spite of this, there is a certain charm to the episode, and a lightness that makes sense given the time of year. Moffat writes charming comedy featuring socially awkward people in unlikely situations, and the script is packed with banter. The Return of Doctor Mysterio is a heavy desert, rich and creamy, but not entirely satisfying as meal of itself. Given that the show has spent a year away from television, there is a hunger for something more substantive. There are suggestions of this in the script itself.
“I’ve been away for a while, but now I’m back,” the Doctor promises. Perhaps The Return of Doctor Mysterio might play better as the prelude to the coming season of television than as the only new episode of Doctor Who to air in 2016.