Features Reviews TV

REVIEW: Doctor Who 2016 Christmas Special, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”

This has certainly been a long year for Doctor Who fans. With the BBC moving Series 10’s broadcast back to next Spring to prepare us for Steven Moffat‘s final run of episodes we have been absent of new content. The only thing that has kept us going is Big Finish and their unique range of stories. I can’t really say Class, the all over the place spin-off, was a great way to fill the void. So Christmas this year was a blessing, seeing as how we finally got to have Doctor Who back on our screens after an entire year.

But of course the problem with such a long absence is expectation. “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” had to deliver because we as fans deserved something special. And one can say that this year’s Christmas Special was certainly that (just not in the way you initially expect).

With Marvel Studios dominating the movies and DC Comics dominating the television, it’s fair to say we are in an age of Superhero abundance. Superheroes are everywhere now and are making a lot of money. So perhaps in Moffat’s latest attempts to jump on the gimmick bandwagon he thought to himself, “Superheroes are very popular at the moment, so if we add them to Doctor Who you get a combination of super-humans and a time traveller. I’m a genius!” Sorry, DC Comics already beat you to that idea with DCs Legends of Tomorrow.

I didn’t really have much of a problem with the idea of superheroes being incorporated into Doctor Who. In fact I thought it was a great idea, but I can clearly see the flaws. “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” had The Doctor bump into Grant, a young boy in New York who loves comic-books. In the process of being mistaken for Santa, The Doctor ultimately (through amusing misunderstanding) gives Grant superpowers.

Despite the entertainment factor this beginning seemed rather cringe-worthy to me and didn’t suit Peter Capaldi‘s Doctor at all. This was a scene that I would’ve expected from Matt Smith, having already seen his Doctor climb down a chimney on Christmas Eve. It seemed forced to get some laughs out of the seasonal holiday. Plus it is a big reminder to me that Capaldi’s incarnation has become a bit lost in translation. It’s as if Moffat literally doesn’t know what to do with his character anymore and is just playing to his old recycled tricks.

Speaking of Christmas, this is the first Christmas Special that doesn’t feature Christmas. Apart from when The Doctor meets Grant as a boy there is no reference to Christmas. I’m not fully against this but it did make the episode stand out in a bad way because it felt out of place with the season. Instead the entire episode is basically a homage to superhero comics, particularly Superman.

This special is literally filled with nods, references and even Easter-Eggs for the die-hard comic book fans to spot. The production team even decided to have the narrative feel like an old fashioned superhero tale, right down to the silly clichés. We had the Ghost being a very heroic and symbolic lead role, who is torn between his job as a protector and being an ordinary guy with an ordinary life. And then there’s the female journalist who falls in love with the Ghost and wants to discover his identity.

Honestly, this is the heart of the narrative. Forget about the perils. The Doctor. Time travel. Alien invasions. That’s all irrelevant really. The special is about Grant and Lucy coming together via some rather amusing, and cleverly shot conversations. Lucy pays homage to the infamous Louis Lane and her inability to figure out that Clark Kent, the man she works with at the Daily Planet, is in fact Superman. In Lucy’s case Grant is her nanny and doesn’t realise that he keeps popping back and fourth rescuing the city whilst he watches over her child.

There are so many clever scenes were it’s so obvious what is going on but she is completely oblivious. There’s a moment when the Ghost is seen on television, whilst being watched by Lucy, responding to the monitor and nothing is said. The best moment came when Lucy is interviewing the Ghost, realising in the process that she may actually have feelings for Grant, and she misses every key moment when the Ghost tries revealing himself to her. Meanwhile The Doctor is caught in the middle, trying to prevent an alien invasion, whilst trying to help out Grant, whilst also getting his head around the drama.

It’s a massive shame we didn’t get a traditional superhero villain as that would’ve sealed the deal. Instead we have a rehash from last year’s Christmas Special, “The Husbands of River Song”. The very alien race that River Song was trying to make a deal with aboard the Harmony and Redemption. This time they take the full mantle of villain but come up rather short. This isn’t to say they were bad villains but rather the script doesn’t give them a lot to do. They are simply there when required to help move the plot along.

Plus there plans for invasion appear rather over-thought. They want to colonise Earth by attracting those that are compatible and so decide to create a complex plan of setting up a corporation around the world. Then have New York destroyed by crashing a spaceship, thus creating mass panic via a fake invasion so that they can acquire the necessary humans. Then they are defeated within a very rushed ending and brushed off like they were no threat at all.

Despite “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” being very enjoyable and filled with great characters, the special falls flat. The focus was too much on the superhero aspect and everything else got shoved to one side, including The Doctor. In the end the special felt like a generic superhero plot and not at all Doctor Who related. It’s true what a lot of fans have been saying of late, Doctor Who is losing its identity within the modern world. I’m beginning to find it hard to actually describe it against all the over shows out there.

Series 5 was a fairy tale. Series 6 was an American television show. Series 7 was a collection of short movies. Series 8 went all supernatural. And Series 9 didn’t know what it wanted to be. It’s as if Moffat is trying so hard to be like everything else that he’s forgetting that Doctor Who was its own thing. A unique show unlike any other. Now it’s nothing special. The “Who” in the title has lost all its mystery and become a massive gimmick for the amusement of the showrunner.

I seriously do believe that the show needs to find its roots again. Reinvent itself in a way that it can start over, whilst rekindling with its core meaning. I think with “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” it made me want everything but Doctor Who. I really enjoyed Grant’s character. His torn life being a nanny and the Ghost. His funny love triangle with Lucy. All these elements were fantastic to watch but it wasn’t Doctor Who. I was watching a superhero story, something I’ve got enough of. There isn’t another Doctor Who.

It just got really terrible when I wanted to see more of these elements in future episodes, or maybe a spin-off, but at the end of the day I should be wanting more of my favourite Time Lord. Luckily the teaser trailer for Series 10 looked promising. It reassured me that maybe Moffat’s last season may be decent. Stripped back. More alien. Back to traditional Doctor Who where the Time Lord travels to distant worlds and fights all kinds of unique monsters.

Talking of the small Doctor Who bits within “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”. Nardole. When it was announced last year that Matt Lucas would be involved I got a bit excited. I loved him in Little Britain. But I did feel that his talents were extremely underused in “The Husbands of River Song”. Nardole also felt rather silly, even for Lucas, and thus lost even more potential entertainment value.

So to see that he was to return as a reoccurring companion throughout Series 10 I was surprised. I didn’t hate Nardole but like many fans wondered of his importance. Out of all the characters Moffat could’ve brought back why him? It’s especially annoying considering John Barrowman has asked countless times to come back and Lucas asks once and Moffat writes a whole series around his minor character.

Needless to say it got rather baffling during the Christmas Special where I asked myself “Why was Lucas given a credit title when he’s barely in it?” “On top of that, what is his function within this Winter’s tale?” I know The Doctor didn’t have much to do but at least his presence was known. Nardole was there, like the villains, when the plot needed him to be there. Pointless.

However, his purpose did become important at the very end no less. Throughout the Christmas Special there was a reference to The Doctor’s sadness due to the absence of a certain person. This became a massive red-herring to me as I assumed it was Clara Oswald, having been the most important person in his life and was tragically erased from his memory. Was the nagging sensation of misunderstood memory playing on his mind? He did ponder after reading Clara’s name in the premier episode of Class.

In a neat twist it turned out he was grieving over River. It actually made the revelation more poetic. It showed how much River meant to The Doctor and smaller his world got now that he knew she was no longer apart of it. Nardole was reassembled for the sole reason that he gave The Doctor something to remember River by. Keep him company and on track during this difficult time.

So in that respect Nardole’s function is useful. If only the rest of the narrative gave him importance as well. It’s rather infuriating because Nardole as a character seems intelligent. He’s not just a comedy relief character, he actually has his own mind and can fly the TARDIS for Christ sake. Though with how many characters under Moffat’s reign that can actually operate the TARDIS it’s become rather apparent that The Doctor isn’t as special anymore.

So to sum up my opinion. I really enjoyed “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”. But at the same I have to question it. Call it a love hate relationship. Yes it was entertaining but not because it was Doctor Who. This Christmas Special summed up everything good and bad about Moffat and why it is definitely, without a doubt, his time to go next year. You have brought so much good to the show (some exceptional things in fact) but the Capaldi era has shown that you have lost your stride. You have caused more harm than good and are tainting everything that us fans adore about the show.

So, yeah, it’s a great watch if you want to just lose your mind in pure entertainment (or watch an amusing superhero flick) but in the grand perspective of things, it was a questionable Doctor Who story.

Final Grade: C

Pros and Cons:

+ Peter Capaldi is fantastic as ever.

+ Grant was a great side character and bounced off The Doctor well.

+ Lucy was a also a great, and fun character (why didn’t they get a Title Credit?)

+ Really enjoyed Grant and Lucy’s love triangle.

+ A poetic send-off to River.

+ Nice homages to comic books.

– Too much focus on the superhero genre!

– Nardole was near enough pointless as a companion (and Lucas shouldn’t have been given a Title Credit)!

– Absence of a real threat!

Doctor Who is back Whovians! But was it the return we deserved? I’ve said my piece, now it’s time to say yours. Please share your thoughts on “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” in the comments below or on Twitter!

About the author

John Hussey