Doctor Who “The Return Of Doctor Mysterio” REVIEW
Essential Plot Points:
- The Doctor accidentally creates a superhero when a small boy called Grant encounters him one Christmas Day in Manhattan. The Doctor gives Grant a powerful wish-granting, dwarf-star gemstone for him to install into a machine the Doctor’s building, but Grant mistakes it for medicine (well, he has a cold and this guy is called the Doctor, it’s an easy mistake…) and swallows it. Because Grant is a comic book geek the gem grants his wish to become a superhero.
- The Doctor keeps an eye on Grant as he grows into adulthood but gets him to promise never to use his powers because these powers don’t belong on Earth.
- A couple of decades later, the Doctor is back in Manhattan trying to foil a plan by some aliens, the Harmony Shoal (see Random) to take over Earth by replacing the brains of world leaders. For some reason this involves becoming benefactors to a huge scientific research business. The Doctor wants to know why. But he may as well snack on sushi while he’s at it.
- He’s being helped by Nardole, whose head the Doctor has reattached to his body after Nardole became a spare bonce for King Hydroflax’s robotic body (in “The Husbands Of River Song”). The Doctor apparently wanted a companion to stop him going off the rails after the whole River Song thing (and he chose Nardole?).
- In the process, the Doctor meets intrepid reporter Lucy Fletcher who’s also investigating Harmony Shoal.
- When Nardole, the Doctor and Lucy all run foul of Harmony Shaol’s gun-toting Dr Sim (who’s already had his brain replaced) a superhero comes to their rescue – the Ghost.
- The Doctor immediately recognises him as Grant. Lucy immediately recognises him as her chance at a Pulitzer prize.
- The Doctor tracks down Grant and finds him working as a nanny… for Lucy’s baby!
- Grant has fancied Lucy ever since school but she copped off with his best mate, who has since left, leaving Lucy with a baby. But Grant is still too shy to admit his feelings to her so acts as her nanny instead.
- The Doctor is not happy with Grant moonlighting as the Ghost but the guy is off saving lives at the drop of a hat – well, not a hat, but he does leave piles of other clothes when flies off – so there’s little the Doctor can do.
- Lucy realises the Doctor knows the Ghost’s identity and tries to use him as a lead.
- Grant, to try to throw her off the scent, agrees for the Ghost to give her an interview/join her for a rooftop meal, if she promises not to ask questions about his identity. She agrees.
- Meanwhile, back at the alien invasion plot (we’d almost forgotten there was one) the Doctor and Nardole discover a spaceship that’s been re-equipped as a massive bomb in low orbit above Earth.
- Turns out Harmony Shoal plans to crash the spaceship into New York. Their HQ has been prepped for the explosion and will be the only building left standing. This will act as a beacon for world leaders, who will flock to the place believing it to be a safe house during an alien attack… and then Harmony Shoal will replace all their brains.
- Except the Doctor gets the Ghost to stop the spaceship from exploding… then tips off UNIT to swoop in to Harmony Shoal’s HQ and deal with the aliens…
- (…Except one secretly swaps brains with a UNIT grunt.)
- In saving the planet, Grant was forced to reveal his true identity to Lucy, but by that point the interview with the Ghost was going so badly she’d come to realise she loved Grant anyway. Aw, sweet.
For about 20 minutes, “The Return Of Doctor Mysterio” is shaping up to be one of the finest Doctor Who Christmas specials yet. The opening scenes with the Twelfth Doctor and young Grant are funny, touching, sweet, geeky, utterly utterly charming and Christmassy without being cheesily Christmassy. Later in the episode there are some similarly effective and amusing character moments, as the story, unlikely as it may seem, morphs into a love story… and not even one involving River Song – shocker! (Well, it does, in a way, but only very, very obliquely.) In fact, there’s an awful lot to enjoy about this gloriously nerdy festive confection…
If not for one major, irritating central flaw. No not Nardole, he’s actually surprisingly low-key and inoffensive.
The real problem here is the Ghost: he’s a shockingly naff superhero; embarrassingly twee and poorly realised, from the dodgy costume to poor effects to cod heroic poses.
In this day and age, when the Arrowverse is placing great superhero spectacle on screen week-in, week-out, and cinema has raised comic strip action to a whole new level, if Doctor Who wants to do a superhero tale then it needs to make that superhero something special; there’s no real point otherwise. But the Ghost feels more like a hangover from the ’70s superhero screen invasion; he’s woefully old-fashioned. And pastiche is not an excuse, because he’s not even a particularly intelligent or effective pastiche; the voice, the hair, the stance and the dialogue feels exactly like the kind of superhero piss-takes that ’70s variety shows like Little & Large would attempt. And let’s be honest, the Ghost isn’t too far removed from Karkus in the 1968 Doctor Who story “The Mind Robber” (see below) and surely nearly five decades on, superhero satire has moved on?
It’s not like he even performs any truly stunning heroics until that climactic shot of him holding the spaceship, which, admittedly, is great. But until then, the superhero action has been suspiciously bargain basement stuff. Surely if you’re going to commit to a superhero themed Christmas special you should at least commit to one early act of superheroics to wow the audience?
All of this is a crying shame, because it detracts from some really great stuff going on elsewhere. The Ghost may grate but alter ego Grant (both young and older) is great; his interactions with the Doctor are sparky and fun, while his love story with Lucy is a heartwarming tale of the geek done good. Lucy’s interrogation of the Doctor with Mr Huffle is an extraordinary scene full of intriguing undercurrents. Matt Lucas, when he’s not mugging, has a couple of quietly effective scenes with the Doctor that auger well for his continued presence in the series. Plus – BRAINS WITH EYES!CREEPY SURGEONS! FLIP TOP HEADS! All great fun pulpy sci-fi.
Sure, the villains are underdeveloped and the alien invasion plot is monumentally silly, though maybe that’s a homage to the Arrowverse where the villains-of-the-week are invariably little more than a gimmick and a grudge. But probably not. More likely there was just so much going on on the superhero plot that the villains were forced into the corners. Which is a little odd, considering that Moffat clearly has ongoing plans for Harmony Shoal. But you have to love the dismissive way the Doctor deals with Mr Brock after Grant has saved New York: “So Doctor, you think this is over?” “Yep.”
And through it all Capaldi is once again magnificent. You may not believe a Ghost can fly but you sure as damn believe that his Doctor believes he can.
- The one truly spectacular “hero image” is worth the wait.
- The entire opening sequence with the Doctor and young Grant is really, really sweet.
- Especially Grant mistaking the Doctor for Santa – “Mum says you can come in. You’re expected.”
- Justin Chatwin may make a terrible superhero but he’s brilliant as alter ego Grant.
- Matt Lucas’s Nardole is kept in reign.
- Mr Huffle – irritating, sure, but in a dramatically satisfying way.
- Lucy telling Grant that she prefers him in his superhero costume, but meaning his glasses is a lovely, lovely moment.
- Brains with eyes!
- All the bad “mind” puns (“I had a change of mind”, “Good to keep an open mind”, etc). We love a bad pun and there were loads of them. Were they a deliberate ’60s Batman homage?
- The alien head-opening effects are still damned impressive.
- “Why do they call him Spider-Man? Don’t they like him?”
“He was bitten by a radioactive spider, and guess what happens?”
“Radiation poisoning, I should think.”
“No, he got special powers.”
“What? Vomiting? Hair-loss? And death? Fat lot of use.” The Twelfth Doctor at his surly best.
- “I always get a cold at Christmas.”
“So do I. Or an invasion.” Let’s get meta, shall we?
- “Now everybody who wants to sound clever calls themselves Doctor. Bandwagon.”
- “It’s not your job to ask questions. Stick to science.” Mr Brock proves why letting businessmen run the world is a bad idea.
- “He’s actually left-handed.” This could be a reference to Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride, who wasn’t a superhero but he did wear a mask. Whatever – great gag.
- The split screen shenanigans are give a comic book feel especially when the characters break out of the “frames”.
- The Ghost – a rubbish superhero, with a rubbish costume and an even more rubbish haircut. And he doesn’t get enough super-stuff to do.
- The alien invasion plot is all a bit half-baked. There’s never a real sense of peril for the world.
- The villains are a bland bunch and get little to do.
- Why does Dr Sim give a massive great infodump to Mr Brock about the brains? Just lure him into the vault and kill him! What’s the point in Dr Sim acting all coy and innocent?
- Why does Lucy – so cool and intelligent when dealing with the Doctor – become a simpering fool when dealing with the Ghost (at first, at least)? It’s like she’s two totally different characters. And no, being in love with the Ghost is not an excuse; Lois Lane remained a cool-headed journo when she dated/interviewed Superman in Superman The Movie.
- The exact reason why the Doctor doesn’t want Grant to use his superpowers is never fully explored or explained.
And The Random:
- Doctor Misterio is what Doctor Who is called in Mexico. Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi learned about Doctor Misterio when they were on a promotional world tour. When Capaldi saw a William Hartnell episode dubbed in Spanish for the Mexican audience he was amused that even even the title of the show was given a verbal narration. Subsequently, Capaldi started repeating “Doctor Misterio” in the style of the Mexican narrator, adding his own dramatic hand gestures which inspired Moffat to use the name for the Christmas special. That’s why Capaldi says, “Doctor Mysterio [in a sill accent]… I’ll ’ave that!” in this episode.
- On their way up to the roof in the opening sequence the Doctor and young Grant pass a sign saying floor 61, but in exterior shots of the building where Grant lives, it looks like it only had five storeys at most.
- “There’s been a lot of localised disruption here in New York. So, er… my fault actually.” Presumably the Doctor’s talking about what happened in the episode “Angels In Manhattan”.
- “The apocalypse monster the Andurax…” – bet he looks like Thanos; he does seem to have an interest in cosmic gems of mighty power, after all. Now that’s comic book.
- The Harmony Shoals building is clearly an homage to the Daily Planet building from Superman mythos.
- The Shoal of the Winter Harmony first appeared in the previous Doctor Who Christmas special, “The Husbands Of River Song.” They were a race conquered by King Hydroflax, whom they revered fanatically.
- Grant spinning to change from his Ghost costume to his civvies is a clear call out to the ’70s Wonder Woman TV series.
- “With great power comes great responsibility,” says the Doctor, quoting the famous tenet from Spider-Man.
- “24 years? Yeah of course it would be that.” That’s the length of the Doctor and River’s last night together on Darillium (a planet where the night lasts 24 years).
- Lucy may say the Grant is well-named because she takes him for granted, but he’s also well-named because the gem stone “grants” his wish to be a superhero.
Review by Dave Golder