“Doctor Who does superheroes” is a premise which seems obvious. The show’s greatest asset is its ability to jump from one genre to the next, dabbling in farce one week and tragedy the next, tackling the distant past in one episode before propelling its characters into the far-flung future in the subsequent instalment. Taking on the superhero genre – one of the most popular in Hollywood at the moment – provides this Christmas Special with a wealth of opportunities.
For the large part, The Return of Doctor Mysterio delivers on that promise, offering up a bundle of laughs and a touching romantic plotline amidst the comic book zaniness. Having accidentally imbued New Yorker Grant Gordon with superpowers as a child, the Doctor encounters him again while investigating the mysterious Harmony Shoal. As he attempts to thwart the corporation’s plot to invade Earth, he is drawn into Grant’s double life as the heroic Ghost and nanny to the child of the woman he loves.
Grant is an absolute joy. His exaggerated wholesomeness as the Ghost is comic gold and this depiction of an up-beat superhero stands as a striking repudiation of the brooding, grim-dark iteration of Superman which has featured in DC’s recent cinematic output. Unlike those films, Steven Moffat’s screenplay wisely leans into the cheesiness of the comic books to which the episode is a loving homage, playing it as a big, brash riff on superhero movies. This self-awareness permeates the episode: as a child, Grant is a comic book fanatic, and his acquisition of superpowers is a moment of literal wish fulfilment. Both Moffat and Grant are aware of their inspiration and are willing to play with it. The episode even has some cheeky jokes about the ludicrousness of superheroes, questioning whether being bitten by a radioactive spider would result in powers or “radiation poisoning”.
However, despite the fun and warmth and light-heartedness of this fluffy episode, there is something disappointing about it. Doctor Who has been off of our screens for a year and this episode, while well-made and well-written and well-acted, feels uninspired. The mundanity of the episode is only reinforced by the feeling of déjà vu which accompanies many of its central elements: there are children whose lives are changed by meeting the Doctor, characters who return from the dead with minimal explanation and creatures which open their heads. One cannot help but feel that the show – and Moffat – has done it all before. The villains are themselves perfectly perfunctory, existing only to facilitate the movement of the plot. Fortunately Grant’s relationship with Lucy Fletcher forms the crux of the narrative, and this plotline manages to walk the difficult line of being both entertaining and emotionally engaging.
Perhaps all of this criticism is unfair, placing too great a burden onto an episode which just wants to entertain. Nevertheless, this sense of mere sufficiency pervades other elements of the production: the effects are decidedly mediocre, while the set design never rises above the inoffensive. Despite being the only episode of Who broadcast in 2016, there seems to have been a certain dearth of imagination, a lack of novelty in its every aspect.
There is a lot of fun to be had with The Return of Doctor Mysterio: its comedy lands, Matt Lucas’ Nardole has been transformed from an inconsequential bit-part to a genuinely amusing piece of comic relief and Peter Capaldi is given yet another chance to flex his comedic chops. Nevertheless, it is hard to argue that this super-powered Christmas Special will be remembered in years to come.