TV Bit late. Sorry. Just after the episode was published on the evening of the 25th December, the Christmas flu which decimated half the country including its monarch descended and I was in bed for nearly a fortnight due to this, that and the other. This is the first night my thought processes have become legible enough to knock out the usual six to eight paragraphs, the day after we took the decorations down. Having rewatched The Return of Doctor Mysterio tonight, I'll admit to enjoying it more than at Christmas, when I was disappointed enough that I quickly messaged a friend with the words "boring and obvious" in the face of many reports after the preview screening that this was the best Christmas special ever. In a word, no.
On second viewing, I could see more of the virtues. The two hander between the Doctor and Charity Wakefield's Lucy Fletcher (a rare occasion when an actor's own name feels more like something from Doctor Who than whatever their character is called) with the screaming rubber gonk, is perfectly pitched, the Time Lord wrong footed by a human who is just as capable of unflappably asking difficult questions as he is and feels like one of the "lost" companions which wander through this franchise, all shiny and entirely overlooked due to circumstance. Plus the opening flashback, the Ghost's origin story has Capaldi's full charm offensive and its a joy to see his Doctor in neutral benevolent alien mode, even if he's not entirely paying as much attention as he should to the situation.
Everything else? Eesh. Actually, eesh isn't quite fair. It's fine. It's ok. But it's not more than that. It's an hour of something with a Doctor Who title sequence, that does all of the things you'd expect a Doctor Who story to do. There's just no real spark, no moment which sets it above the more average spin-off material, doesn't, ironically soar in the same way as previous Christmas episodes with their huge iconic moments, like a third of the population of the Earth standing on the edge of buildings or the Doctor in a sleigh pulled through the sky by a shark. As the only Doctor Who episode of this year it had the obligation to be something special or unique, even on Christmas Day, if not because it's Christmas Day and instead its just yeah, fine, I can see what you're doing there. Ok.
As a cross genre experiment, having the Doctor meet a superhero isn't an awful idea even if its about five years on from really catching the zeitgeist. Paul Magrs was right on the button back in 2010 when he ran through many of the similar story beats in Demon Quest's Starfall instalment and with a character whose fate was more directly linked to the main story rather than simply being an alternative saviour. Plus there's the more experimental wing of MARVEL UK back in the 90s when the Seventh Doctor pitched up on the actual Baxter Building to deliver Death's Head onto Earth-616 after having shrunk him down to human sized after the character's original appearances as part of Transformers G-1 continuity. 'Head's next story had him fighting the Fantastic Four. God, MARVEL UK in the 90s was weird.
But this is just bland. Having decided to attempt a homage to the Richard Donner Superman films (despite Bryan Singer having done a perfectly decent job already), Moffat offers up a kind of essential Waitrose version of the Kryptonian who barely registers as a character and simply as a series of cliches. Justin Chatwin's performance just about holds things together, but I'm not sure what's supposed to be gained from running through these old superhero tropes at a time when it's one of the dominant screen genres without bolting much of anything else on, a dated parody of the CW DC series in much the same way as David Tennant's appearance in that episode of Extras with all of its jokes about rubber aliens and the like.
At a surface level, the production team do offer some deference to the source material. Referencing Siegal and Shuster in the post-credits press conference and Grant's room offers and orgy of evidence to his love of comics even if he doesn't seem to reach the stage of wanting to buy long boxes, or plastic bags and cards. Plus the choice of the post-Crisis Man of Steel comics with the seminal John Byrne writing and artwork shows that someone has thought through the time scales involved in the story rather than simply thrown any old Superman comics in there. I did wonder why Grant doesn't seem to have retained any of his collection for later in life. His room seems to be empty. Perhaps they're in storage or he's migrated to Comixology.
Otherwise there's no gravity or depth here. Although RTD has listed Lois & Clark as a tonal influence on the revival and notably his era, the notion of a lonely God making Earth his home after his own planet is destroyed can't be ignored either. The Ghost could and should have been a strong enough figure for them to be able to share notes about protecting humanity and the implications of that, the question of why they do it, what gives them the responsibility. But we have none of that, mostly because the Doctor's in full on omnipotent mode, pretty much in control of the situation from the off, a jeopardy free zone. Having probably remembered what happened in Aliens of London and realising this alien invasion plan is pretty much the same, there's nothing to do than much the same and firing a rocket at it.
You can see why. Moffat's written himself into a corner. Having had the Doctor accidentally create a superhero at a very young age, he then realises that he can't have said youngster actually practising the arts while he's growing up because it creates so many narrative issues. Where's the Ghost during all the Earth's other invasions and major disasters? So he has the Doctor ask him not to use his powers. Which is frankly unbelievable. If a strange, old man gave you the ability to fly, dodge bullets and x-ray vision, would you then do nothing when the stars disappear or the Master is taking over the Earth with his cosmic baubles? Nevertheless, there's Grant sitting on his hands, having relationship issues and only deciding to use his powers just before the Doctor shows up. Apparently.
The final scene is equally gob-smacking. Grant says he's going to stop using his powers because the Doctor's back and going to take care of everything. What? Including the random house fires and fairground tragedies? Next time there's a train derailment or a mine collapse, Grant's just going to stand looking at the sky knowing the Doctor, who's probably having a nap on the Eye of Orion, will turn up eventually and ...? What about future invasions of which the franchise demands there'll be at least a couple in Grant's lifetime. Never mind Captain Jack, Rex Matheson and the kids the attic, there's now also a gorram superhero on the planet. Who can fly. Who's appeared on television so everyone knows exists.
Not that The Ghost's has much of any great significance to do with this story anyway, other than saving Lucy's skin on a couple of occasions, providing a target for the aliens and catching the rocket. Structurally, much like earlier stories without a regular companion, you'd expect this figure to team up with the Doctor to save the planet. But the Doctor has Nardole to talk to and Lucy does a fair amount of investigating before she's relegated to the standard love interest / damsel role. Perhaps this is were many of my frustrations lie. This is an example of one of those superhero team-ups were the writer can't find enough for both characters to actually do so one of them exists purely so that one of them can appear on the cover in what the reader assumes is going to be a much more exciting adventure.
Frankly, Nardole's the least of our worries. Not having rewatched The Husbands of River Song since broadcast for various reasons, I'd frankly forgotten most of anything about the character. A bundle of whimsy and eccentricity, he's mainly appropriated some of the Eleventh Doctor's random glee over children's toys and curious fashion fetishes. The friendship and ease between he and the Doctor is a welcome new tone in the show's core relationship, at least for this one episode, partly because the humour isn't over played and helped by Capaldi and Matt Lucas's ease. I'm not sure how much he actually contributes to the episode other than his Silent Bob explanatory speech at the end over the Doctor undoing the top button of his shirt. He's more of a distraction from that central relationship.
It's fair to say that my expectations of more depth and inability to look past the conceptual anomalies put me in the minority. The reviews have been otherwise very positive with the likes of The Guardian enjoying the foregrounding of the romcom elements, however run of the mill they seem to me. The Telegraph gave it five stars for the much the same reason. I sit offering a human recreation of the shrug emoji and wondering if these people have seen Supergirl which is consistently, on a weekly basis, superior to this even in its weakest moments when there's a generic villain of the week and Cat Grant is awol. Ultimately The Return of Doctor Mysterio is a piss weak version which happens to also be a Doctor Who Christmas special with Capaldi cracking a few decent jokes in the middle and that is simply not good enough. Boo.