With a full year having passed between tonight’s special and last year’s “The Husbands Of River Song,” this is the longest audiences have waited for a new Doctor Who episode since the revived series began in 2005. Yet it’s somehow hard to put much pressure on “The Return Of Doctor Mysterio,” as this has got to be the lowest-stakes Christmas special the show has yet done. We’re not catching a TARDIS team in the middle of the run, as did the superlative “A Christmas Carol” and “Last Christmas.” The show isn’t dealing with a regeneration like “The Christmas Invasion,” “The End Of Time,” or “The Time Of The Doctor,” nor is it picking up the pieces after companions’ departures like “The Runaway Bride,” “Voyage Of The Damned,” or “The Snowman,” and you might even throw “The Next Doctor” and “The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe” in there as well, even if the latter ends with a reunion. Indeed, this has got to be the least Christmas-y episode of the bunch, with only the mistaken identities between the Doctor and Santa in the early going to provide a concrete yuletide link.
“The Return Of Doctor Mysterio” feels like a Doctor Who Christmas special then not because much of import happens nor because the Doctor becomes suffused with holiday spirit, but rather because the story and its emotions are so broadly played. This is, after all, a story in which the Doctor teams up with the star-crossed pair of a superhero and a journalist to fight sentient brains that want to snatch the bodies of Earth’s leaders. Even by Doctor Who standards, that is a deeply silly premise, complete with Aleksandar Jovanovic doing his best Udo Kier as the villainous Dr. Sim. The Doctor himself comes off as largely unconcerned with what’s happening, bringing sushi and a burger along as snacks and treating Harmony Shoal as, at best, a marginally clever nuisance. In theory, an alien spaceship set to crash into New York City with the blast of multiple nuclear bombs is a serious threat, but “The Return Of Doctor Mysterio” invites us to treat the whole thing as a high-spirited romp.
The real focus here is on the Ghost, alias Grant Gordon, and both alter egos’ complicated relationship with intrepid reporter Lucy Fletcher. The twist that the baby Grant is nannying for is Lucy’s child is a vintage Steven Moffat twist, with both the good and the bad that implies. It’s a clever, even more domestic spin on the iconic love triangle between Superman, Clark Kent, and Lois Lane, but there are bits here that strain logic past its breaking point. Chief among them is Grant’s insistence on referring to Lucy by her married name when on the job, even though they have known each other since high school and the father of Lucy’s daughter is Grant’s presumably now former best friend. Surely they would be on a universally first-name basis by now? There’s only really two good explanations for this. The first is that Moffat is so intent on preserving his—admittedly pretty good and clever!—twist that he’s prepared to cheat a bit, even though it probably wouldn’t have been so difficult a misdirect to just not have Grant refer to the mother by any name until she showed up.
The second, rather trickier possibility is that this is part of the general effort to make Grant the most pathetic person on the planet, someone the Doctor recognizes as far behind even him in matters of the heart. Which, well, okay. Calling Lucy by her married name is probably still a step too far, but when rolled up with the first explanation, I can roll with that. The problem I run into with the romance storyline is much like the one I have with most such romances centered on a sad-sack man: What, exactly, is Lucy supposed to see in Grant? Not that the Ghost, who comes off at dinner as, well, a sad-sack man’s misguided idea of cool, comes off much better. I’m not trying to be obtuse here: Of course Grant works selflessly as a nanny and cares for baby Jessica, and of course the Ghost does indisputably heroic acts with no obvious requirement for an award. As either Grant or the Ghost, he is a good guy. But Grant lacks the self-esteem or confidence he needs to believe that in himself and, by extension, give Lucy any opportunity to see those things in him. I get why Grant would be attracted to Lucy—she’s a teenaged crush he’s never given up on, which itself doesn’t necessarily reflect all that well on him considering they are now in their early 30s—but the episode takes shortcuts in explaining why Lucy would reciprocate those feelings.
This is reminiscent of similar issues with 2011’s—goodness, how was that five years ago?—“The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe,” which has been criticized for its apparent reduction of Madge Arwell’s value as a person to her role as a mother. On balance, I would argue there’s a bit more nuance in that earlier special than it’s typically given credit for, but it falls prey to Moffat’s stated preference for the Christmas specials to be as big and broad and silly as possible, the better to suit the slightly drunk family audiences settling in for them. So his specials run into trouble when they treat topics that cry out for even a little complexity as big sentimental moments or, in the case of tonight’s episode, a setup for farce with the occasional big sentimental moment mixed in for good measure. Neither Grant nor Lucy is as well-drawn as they ought to be, particularly in the context of their nascent romance, and that can make the whole subplot play out at times like just more wish fulfillment for Grant.
What makes “The Return Of Doctor Mysterio” work better in this regard than it otherwise might is Lucy herself. She’s ultimately not given much at all to do, but the couple scenes she gets with the Doctor work nicely. The first impression of her “interrogation” is that she has already decided who the Doctor is and refuses to hear any other explanation, but she proves more perceptive than the Doctor expects, correctly deducing that he really doesn’t work for any agency and is instead a freelance wanderer, like he says. She also correctly picks up on the Doctor’s sense of loss. That’s part of the episode’s occasional gesturing at the fallout from the Doctor’s final, 24-year night with River Song on Darillium, but Moffat’s script appears to work on the assumption that most viewers won’t be that invested in something they half-remember from a year ago. In any event, both Lucy Fletcher and the Doctor’s pain represent elements of this episode that could have been special, if this was the kind of episode where characters are developed in any real detail. But, give or take “Last Christmas” and “A Christmas Carol,” that’s never been the modus operandi for Doctor Who’s Christmas specials.
Similarly, the gemstone that turns Grant into the Ghost is a potentially fascinating plot device, as it makes entirely literal the notion that superhero fiction functions as wish fulfillment for its readers. There are moments in “The Return Of Doctor Mysterio” that considers just what having these wished-for powers would mean for Grant, most notably when the Doctor checks in on him during puberty. Doctor Who is probably the hundredth show to point out the more salacious possibilities of X-ray vision, but credit where it’s due: Moffat’s script and Daniel Lorente as the teenage Grant wring some genuine pathos out of his situation. Which itself is interesting: If the gemstone worked by giving Grant what he wished for, how could these powers ever become so hellish to him? The episode has an answer to this, when the Doctor notes the gemstone has given Grant what it thinks he wants, not necessarily the precise thing he desires at any given moment. That, again, is intriguing concept, and would probably have been worthy of deeper exploration. “The Return Of Doctor Mysterio” lands some glancing blows on its thematic material, but it’s mostly content to leave it all in the subtext and focus on the romp. Is that such a bad thing?
I’m going to suggest that, no, it’s not, even if it leaves me with less to say about this one than pretty much any other Doctor Who story I’ve reviewed. (But then, my general schtick has been “ludicrous over-analysis,” so this at least makes a change.) On balance, “The Return Of Doctor Mysterio” is just about fine. It’s probably a lesser episode than “The Husbands Of River Song,” but it also has a better sense of its overall purpose than that episode did, which careened from cartoonish to tragic with minimal warning. Tonight’s special is mostly just content to remind audiences that Doctor Who exists and it can do anything, especially if that means doing the silliest story imaginable. Having the Doctor traipse into the world of superheroes feels long overdue, and if there’s some narrative clumsiness that comes from the translation between the two genres, then so be it. This isn’t Doctor Who as revolutionary television, which it frequently was in its last full season—I mean, “Heaven Sent” was only three episodes ago, technically speaking!—and “The Return Of Doctor Mysterio” tries far too hard to really be considered effortlessly fun in the way the best Doctor Who romps are. This is minor Doctor Who, but after a full year away, and with the promise of more substantial fare mere months away with the long-awaited season 10, I won’t begrudge minor Doctor Who as much as I might under other circumstances.
- Oh, right, Matt Lucas is back as Nardole! And, by all accounts, he’s set to have a big presence in the coming season. Based on what little we see here, he already comes across as much more rounded a character than he did in “The Husbands Of River Song,” and I could see how his alien wisdom could make a unique foil for a new series Doctor—the only real comparison point I can think of is Captain Jack, amusingly enough. After tonight, I’m more ready for additional Nardole than I was going in.
- We did get a couple great Doctor moments tonight: his gambit to force Dr. Sim to shoot him and his companions in the back and claim self-defense, and his sudden jump from security footage to live and in-person. Not quite enough to consider it a classic outing, but it’s also just good to see that Peter Capaldi is still having a blast in the role and still has a good handle on who his Doctor is.
- There’s a bit of a suggestion at the end that the Ghost was effectively filling in as humanity’s protector during the Doctor’s absence, and now the Doctor is ready to take back over his planet-saving duties. Which, sure, doesn’t make any sense if taken literally, but is another one of those sentiments that could make one feel a bit warm and fuzzy if in the right mood for it, I suppose. Also, I don’t think there’s any reason the Ghost couldn’t return to help the Doctor at a later date. I’m not exactly demanding it, but I could see a Ghost return appearance working better if handled well.
- Look, I didn’t mind “The Return Of Doctor Mysterio.” It was fine, as most things are. But yeah, that trailer for the coming season? That felt like proper Doctor Who is close at hand.