‘Doctor Who’ Discussion: Is ‘The Return Of Doctor Mysterio’ Actually A Christmas Special?

The first new episode of Doctor Who in a year aired on Christmas, finally giving fans a glimpse into the grieving Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) travels following his final date with wife River Song. Whether or not the superhero story promised by “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” lives up to the hype, however, remains to be seen. Below, Jill Pantozzi and Andrew Husband chime in with there thoughts.

This Was a Christmas Special, Right?

Andrew Husband: Ever since “The Christmas Invasion” introduced fans to David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor in 2005, Doctor Who hasn’t missed the chance to make a Christmas special. The 11 entries preceding “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” have, for the most part, largely centered around the holiday season and everything that comes with it — spending time with friends and family members, giving one another gifts, winter weather, and Santa Claus (sometimes literally). Yet 2015’s “The Husbands of River Song” downplayed the “Christmas” in “Christmas special,” relegating it to the background. “Doctor Mysterio” is no different, albeit to a much more obvious degree as Christmas isn’t really a prominent feature of the episode. Yes, the story takes place during the Christmas season and Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor mentions that it’s Christmas when he first meets Grant (Justin Chatwin), but that’s it.

To be honest I didn’t really mind the absence of Christmas at first, as I was focused more on the superhero origin story (which we’ll cover next). Yet the more I think about it, the more I feel like I was cheated out of something by Steven Moffat and his team. If you’re going to sell me and other Doctor Who fans a special seasonal episode by dubbing it a “Christmas special,” then shouldn’t it involve more than a few passing references to Christmas?

Jill Pantozzi: Yeah, I have to admit I was a bit bummed we didn’t actually experience any Christmas here except in passing. I felt like Jurassic Park‘s Dr. Ian Malcolm: “Ah, now eventually you do plan to have Christmas in your, in your Christmas special, right? Hello?” As you said, it wasn’t a big deal but it was disappointing because I expected something else. I have a feeling most families sitting around their televisions on Christmas night did as well. I almost feel like they could have saved this story to tell with new companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) next season instead, so as to keep the Christmas special on topic. Also, considering the type of Christmas events that take place in New York every year, it seems like another missed opportunity. Rockefeller Center’s Christmas tree, holiday window displays, and ice skating in Bryant Park? I mean, The Rockettes are definitely aliens, right? Ah well. Maybe next year.

Explaining Superman to an Alien Time Traveler

Jill: When the news first broke that this Christmas special would feature a superhero character, it sounded a lot like Batman to me. Moffat later clarified it was actually Superman he was taking inspiration from, and what we got was sort of a combination of both. I suppose they couldn’t legally go too far in either direction, but the episode was like two of my favorite worlds colliding — comic books and Doctor Who. I was pleasantly surprised to see real comics referenced in the beginning of the episode rather than made up ones, and thrilled they hat-tipped Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. But what I loved most was the cheesier aspect of “Doctor Mysterio.” Doctor Who can be delightfully silly at times, and so can comics. Considering how dark some of the more recent movie and television adaptations have been of late, I was happy to see them take this in a lighthearted and heartwarming direction.

Andrew: Right? My inner cynic wonders what kind of ludicrous royalties deal the BBC had to sign with Warner Bros., DC Comics or both to get those actual Superman comics and references. Speculation notwithstanding, it was fantastic to see an entirely different bit of fantasy plucked straight out of the real world — Shuster and Siegel namedrops and all. That, and as you said, it was great to realize just how interchangeable the sillier aspects of this British science fiction tentpole and an American comic book superhero icon could be.

Though I was pleasantly surprised by one of the more serious undercurrents of the narrative fueling “Doctor Mysterio.” That is, the Doctor’s hand in creating Grant’s superhero alter ego (and the powers that went with it), his attempts to curb the frightened child’s aspirations, and what this meant for the role the Doctor ultimately played in the Ghost’s story. Maybe it’s because I watched Unbreakable recently, but wouldn’t this suggest the Doctor is to the Ghost what “Mr. Glass” (Samuel L. Jackson) was to David Dunn (Bruce Willis)? I mean, we’re literally watching the Doctor — a self-described “mad man with a box” — create, then fail to temper, a superhero. Who knows? Maybe in another life, “Doctor Mysterio” is another name for The Valeyard.

Sad Doctor

Andrew: I distinctly remember pausing “Doctor Mysterio,” rewinding it, then playing it back when Nardole (Matt Lucas) mentioned the Doctor’s being sad and alone. I couldn’t believe it at first, especially when Nardole claimed the only reason the Time Lord rescued him from the Hydroflax villain in “The Husbands of River Song” was to avoid being alone. Not because I was shocked by the sudden “Sad Doctor” subplot, per se, but because I couldn’t believe Moffat was still resorting to the larger series arc that he (and predecessor Russell T. Davies) have so often used: that the Doctor is alone in the universe, and this makes him profoundly sad.

This was my gut reaction, and after watching the episode again and reviewing the main story that drove the Doctor’s previous outing, it actually makes sense. “Husbands” concluded with the Doctor and River’s final date on the planet Darillium (which lasted 24 years, the planet’s equivalent to a single night). Not only did that moment wrap up the entire episode, but it also concluded the Doctor/River storyline that began with the fourth series two-parter “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.” (A time-traveling love story that started seven years prior.) This doesn’t justify the nature of Nardole’s revelations, per se, as it felt like they were tacked onto the superhero story at the last minute. Though it did help explain why the Doctor was rambling on as he was in “Doctor Mysterio.” Kind of.

Jill: Right. The Doctor gets left a lot (whether through companions choosing to leave him or other pals dying along the way), but he’s not often depicted “alone.” He does crave, ahem, “companionship” but he’s sad right now. And he has every right to be sad. He’s recently had to say goodbye not just to River but to Clara as well, though I’m not sure we needed to be reminded of it several times in “Doctor Mysterio.” One reference by Nardole should have been sufficient, or maybe one conversation between them at the very beginning or end, perhaps. It would have been one thing if the Doctor’s feelings had been directly in response to the love story unfolding in front of him, but it didn’t play that way for me. The reminders of how sad he was, and why, only served to halt an otherwise smooth superhero storyline.

Final Observations

Jill: Considering the heavy-Superman influence, I wish we’d gotten a bit more Lois Lane out of Lucy Fletcher (Charity Wakefield). Her investigation didn’t actually get that far before she was derailed by a love interest. That rooftop meeting was a straight 1978 Superman homage though, which was a nice touch. Considering the subject matter, I kind of wish they’d gone with Rachel Talalay to direct this one — considering her recent work on The CW’s superhero shows. Though that was just an afterthought when I realized another returning Doctor Who director, Edward Bazalgette, did this one.

Because I didn’t have a chance to bring it up elsewhere, but feel it should be addressed: that joke about what the Ghost’s “G” symbol might stand for should have been left on the cutting room floor. It was entirely unnecessary. It’s another case of Moffat ruining a perfectly fine bit of dialogue that showed inclusivity (by asking if he preferred men or women) and taking it too far. Otherwise, the return of Nardole did nothing for me. I’ve enjoyed Matt Lucas’ work elsewhere, but I wasn’t particularly fond of the character the last time we saw him and he didn’t add much to the plot this time around (besides reminding the audience about the Doctor’s particular emotional state.) I did love the interaction between the younger Grant and the Doctor, though. I wish we’d gotten even more of those two opposite each other, as I think Capaldi really shines when he’s acting with kids. This special didn’t capture me like I thought it would with the superhero storyline, though it wasn’t a bad episode of Doctor Who — I just didn’t love it. I was very excited by our preview of Mackie’s arrival as Bill, though!

Andrew: Agreed. The Series 10 preview tacked onto the very end was not only very Bill-heavy, but it also gave us a taste of what kind of a relationship Mackie’s new companion will have with the Doctor. Judging by what we’ve seen so far, Bill reminds me a lot of Rose Tyler’s (Billie Piper) early days with the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), and I’m not mad about that at all. As for “Doctor Mysterio” itself, I couldn’t agree more regarding your points here. This felt like an extended episode rather than a Christmas special, and had it been reworked into a regular series episode instead of a one-off, I think it would’ve fit more snugly into the wider Doctor Who universe.

As for Steven Moffat, I’m going to try and take the high road with his continued involvement. Not to defend the tasteless “G” symbol joke, mind you, but to highlight the better parts of “Doctor Mysterio” that surely owe their existence to his writing. Specifically the episode’s emphasis on its superhero storyline, and the budding mentor-mentee (turned villain-hero?) relationship between the Doctor and Grant — especially during the latter’s younger years. As Moffat has emphasized elsewhere, he grew up reading comics like Superman, so with the past decade’s emphasis on telling cinematic superhero stories in film and television, he finally had the excuse to craft his own with Doctor Who. The result is a great, though subtle twist on the origin story mythos — though all the other fluff packed into the special unfortunately crowds it out.