When the classic Doctor Who was first sold to Mexico in the 1960s, the show was retitled, with a stentorian voice declaiming “El doctor misterio!” at the opening of each Spanish-dubbed episode. According to Steven Moffat, showrunner of the present-day Doctor Who, this title—which the series still uses in Mexico—was the spark that served as the initial inspiration for this Christmas special, in which he creates a very enjoyable mashup of Doctor Who and the superhero genre.
Moffat-era Doctor Who has often focused on the Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) ability to forge a direct connection with children, and in the Christmas special’s long pretitle sequence he establishes a lovely avuncular rapport with eight-year-old Grant (Logan Hoffman), who discovers the Doctor setting up a high-tech device on the roof of his New York apartment building. The Doctor is delighted when the boy tells him that, in a comic book, he’d be named “Doctor Mysterio” but then is soon dismayed when a misunderstanding results in Grant swallowing an alien gemstone which bonds with him and imbues him with powers like the superheroes he’s read so much about. Despite a promise to the Doctor never to use his powers, the grown-up Grant (Justin Chatwin) leads a double life, fighting crime and saving lives as the masked vigilante The Ghost, while also being a mild-mannered nanny taking care of the baby of reporter Lucy Lombard (Charity Wakefield).
There’s some skillful writing from Moffat to divert attention from the fact that this is a rather oddly structured episode. It splits into two separate stories, which only intersect at the beginning and the end. One is a straightforward Doctor Who alien-invasion plot, in which the Doctor investigates the sinister multinational corporation Harmony Shoal and discovers a group of bizarre creatures that look like disembodied brains with embedded eyes and can implant themselves in the bodies of humans. They’re planning to drop a spaceship converted into a flying bomb onto New York as part of a scheme to take over the leadership of the world. It’s a witty reflection by Moffat of the 2005 Doctor Who episode “Aliens of London,” with an alien attack created to mask the fact that the aliens are already here, and the line that after tomorrow every world leader will “have a zip in his head.”
In the course of his investigations, the Doctor encounters Lucy, and then Grant in his superhero persona coming to rescue her when she and the Doctor are trapped by one of the aliens. Moffat skates quickly over the fact that there’s no apparent justification for Grant turning up at this point, though it’s necessary to launch the second strand of the episode.
The Doctor has previously encountered a superhero in 1968’s “The Mind Robber,” but that was in the course of an adventure set in an explicitly fantastical “Land of Fiction.” Normally, Doctor Who‘s commitment to plausibility—sometimes only loosely adhered to, admittedly—rules out such characters, unless (like in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”) their abilities are gained through sufficiently advanced alien technology. Hence the amusing image of the Doctor having dropped into a different universe when he’s confronted with the conventions of the genre, such as superpowers resulting from the bite of a radioactive spider, or that a pair of glasses or a small face mask is totally effective at concealing a superhero’s secret identity.
Some skillful writing diverts attention from the fact that this is a rather oddly structured episode.
There’s a hilarious scene where Lucy extracts information about Harmony Shoal from the Doctor by torturing a squeeze toy, but after that she and Grant are left to their own sweetly played romantic farce as they replicate the classic Clark Kent/Lois Lane/Superman love triangle, with the Doctor as a baffled observer until he eventually leaves them to go and deal with the aliens. Moffat has sprinkled in numerous Easter eggs for fans of the genre, from the early name-dropping of Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, to the line “With great power comes great responsibility,” and the shot of Grant finally stopping the flying bomb in a homage to the plane rescue in Superman Returns. Appropriately, this scene marks the convergence and climax of both stories, as the truth about The Ghost is finally revealed to Lucy.
Apart from a brief two-minute scene shown back in April to introduce next season’s new companion, and a more substantial guest appearance to help launch Class, the not entirely successful spinoff series aimed at a young-adult audience, Capaldi’s Doctor has not been seen since “The Husbands of River Song” exactly 12 months ago. That episode casts a surprisingly large shadow over this one, with the appearance of the aliens’ human hosts (a diagonal scar across the face becoming a seam along which the entire head opens) harking back to the followers of King Hydroflax.
More importantly, Nardole (Matt Lucas), River’s comic assistant who met a gruesome fate at the hands of Hydroflax, is now accompanying the Doctor on his travels—and is set to become at least a semi-regular presence next year as well. There’s a quick explanation in passing that the Doctor apparently “reassembled” him in order to provide himself with companionship in the wake of the final 24-year “night” he spent with River before her death.
As happened with Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble, who made a one-off appearance in the 2006 Christmas special, “The Runaway Bride,” before becoming the companion for the whole of the 2008 series, this revised Nardole is already far more nuanced than the one-joke buffoon of his previous outing. He can now fly the TARDIS by himself, and serves as a competent helper at the Doctor’s side. Lucas’s comic timing remains impeccable, but Moffat also gives him an entirely serious final speech that echoes the “Her name was Rose” moment from “The Runaway Bride,” with Nardole telling Grant and Lucy about the Doctor’s time with River. As the Doctor reassures them that “I’ve been away for a while, but now I’m back,” it’s an unexpectedly moving ending to an otherwise frothy romp, which draws a final line under the past and confidently looks forward to new adventures.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: Surprisingly, disembodied brains with eyes are not new to Doctor Who: a whole cavalcade of such sci-fi B-movie clichés can be found in 1964’s “The Keys of Marinus,” starring the original TARDIS team of William Hartnell, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, and Carole Ann Ford.
For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.