[The Following Doctor Who Review Contains SPOILERS!]
Our story begins on Christmas Eve in New York City. It is here that The Doctor enlists the help of eight-year-old Grant Gordon in setting up a device that will fix the various paradoxes The Doctor caused every other time he visited The Big Apple. Due to a hilarious misunderstanding involving a reality-altering gemstone, Grant is accidentally given all of the powers of his favorite superheroes. For once, The Doctor has no solution other than to beg Grant never to use his powers for any reason.
Flash-forward 24 years later. The Doctor and his current companion, Nardole, stumble across ace reporter Lucy Fletcher as she’s in the midst of uncovering the scoop of the century! Alien invaders are plotting to conquer Earth from behind the scenes of the Harmony Shoals Corporation. The trio are quickly caught and things are looking bleak… until the sudden arrival of a masked man!
Suddenly Lucy Fletcher has another big story – that the mysterious vigilante known as The Ghost is real AND he has honest-to-goodness super-powers! Of course The Doctor is quick to realize what Lucy can’t or won’t – that her mild-mannered nanny is The Ghost! And The Ghost is The Doctor’s old friend, Grant Gordon, all grown up!
Doctor Who has paid tribute to nearly every genre and sub-genre of science-fiction, fantasy and horror over the course of its fifty-year history. Arthurian Legend? Battlefield. Lovecraft? The Web Planet. Body Horror? Every last Cyberman story ever. Indeed, there’s only one sub-genre I can think of that has never been approached by the Doctor Who television series… superheroes.
Granted, that may be redundant as The Doctor himself could be considered something of a superhero. He may not leap tall buildings in a single bound but he is a strange visitor from another world armed with some fantastic technology. Even if he doesn’t wear tights with his underwear on the outside. Well, not usually.
Regardless, that image from classic Americana – the caped and cowled defender of Truth and Justice – lies at the heart of The Return of Doctor Mysterio. Written by show-runner Steven Moffat, the entire episode is a tribute to the glory days of superheroes. No Dark Age drudgery here, True Believers! This is a bright, hopeful tale that plays out like a lost collaboration between Terrence Dicks and John Broome.
The production team, overseen by director Ed Bazalgette, do a fantastic job of bringing Moffat’s script to life. Every aspect of this episode – the lighting, the set-design, the costumes – evoke the idea of a comic book coming to life. The music is bold and powerful, as befits the epic tale before us, and the special-effects will leave you reasonably satisfied that a man might possibly appear to be flying.
As is often the case in a Moffat-penned episode, the humor brings about many of the episode’s high-points. There’s a wide variety of comedy on-hand, from the farcical lengths Grant goes to maintain his secret identity to the absurdity of Nardole’s off-screen side-trip to rule 12th Constantinople while parking The TARDIS. Naturally there’s also a number of in-jokes, referring to various classic comic books and superhero movies. An enterprising person could make a drinking game out of all the nods to Superman: The Movie alone.
While some of the genre trope gags here may be old hat for superhero fans, the tone is light and friendly without a hint of being at all mean-spirited. The only weak spot in all of this is the flatness of Lucy Fletcher’s character and The Lois Lane Paradox – she’s supposed to be a genius investigator yet overlooks all the obvious evidence that Grant Gordon is The Ghost. While Moffat has had his fun mocking genre conventions before, Lucy is given no chance to redeem herself and isn’t the least bit upset that “the most honest man she knows” has been lying to her all this time.
Thankfully, Charity Wakefield delivers a better performance than the material deserves, playing Lucy as an obsessive who can’t see the forest for the trees rather than a shallow fangirl. It further helps that Justin Chatwin has a sympathetic presence as The Ghost and Grant, making it clear that he’s aware that he’s treating Lucy badly but is unsure how to get out of this mess and spare her pride. Peter Capaldi’s eye-rolling and declarations that at least one person in the universe has a worse romantic life than him further take the curse off of it all.
While not having much to do with Christmas after the opening scene, The Return of Doctor Mysterio proves a welcome holiday treat. This episode could serve as an entry point to those superhero enthusiasts who have yet to be exposed to the wonders of Doctor Who and will easily satisfy those fans who have been anxiously awaiting the start of Series Ten. Excelsior!
Miss The Return of Doctor Mysterio? See it on the big screen December 27 & 29!