The Return of Doctor Mysterio Review
Clint Hassell gives his verdict on this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special.
Note: this review contains full spoilers for the 2016 Christmas special.
Compared to previous years’ Christmas specials, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” is not very “Christmassy.” The teaser, where the Doctor is “expected” because Grant and his mother think that “the old guy at the window” is Santa Claus, is adorable, but also the only connection to the Christmas holiday. The episode doesn’t feel very “special” either, missing the spectacle of, say, “The Voyage of the Damned” or “A Christmas Carol,” something a great deal of colored lights and tinsel may have contributed. The alien invasion storyline – – brains invade first, quietly, then orchestrate a fake “invasion” meant to scare people of high-political standing into the “protection” of the already-present brains – – is novel enough to not feel derivative, but not complex enough to take up a full 60 minutes of screen time.
Rather, what showrunner Steven Moffat presents this year is less a Doctor Who Christmas special and more a love letter to comic books, and the character of Superman, in particular. The episode opens with graphic art laid out in panels, akin to a comic book. During the phone conversation between Lucy and Grant-as-the-Ghost, the frames begin to overlap, resembling a page from a comic book. While the effect doesn’t demonstrate anything that the standard editing technique of cutting between shots wouldn’t, it is a nice live-action representation of the episode’s inspiration. Further, Spider-Man’s peculiar origin gets mocked, the Bat-signal is referenced, and several pieces of Marvel and DC Comics art are prominently placed in young Grant’s bedroom.
Most of the episode’s other comic book in-jokes reference Superman specifically. “Shuster and Siegel,” the creators of Superman, get name-dropped, and the Harmony Shoal headquarters looks identical to the famed Daily Planet building, with its spinning globe atop. “Mild-mannered” Grant even rips open his shirt front to reveal the Ghost costume underneath, complete with a large, capital “G” emblazoned on his chest.
Moffat also laces his loving tribute of an episode with some clever, hard-to-spot Easter eggs, noticeable only to die-hard Superman fans. The gemstone that gives Grant superpowers “draws power from the nearest star,” meaning that, like Superman, the Ghost is powered by the energy of a yellow sun. Lucy Fletcher, girl reporter, is named for Lois Lane’s younger sister. Further, the episode pointedly states that Fletcher’s married name is Lucy Lombard, making her initials “L. L.,” a recurring gag for several characters within the Superman mythology, including the aforementioned Lois and Lucy Lane; Lex and Lena Luthor (not to mention their parents, Lionel and Letitia); Clark’s teen girlfriend, Lana Lang; Clark’s mermaid girlfriend, Lori Lemaris (don’t ask); Supergirl’s secret identity, Linda Lee; and Legion of Super-Hero members Lightning Lad and Light Lass.
“The Return of Doctor Mysterio” even references Lois’ continued ignorance of Superman’s true identity in a scene perfectly timed to not reveal the Ghost’s identity to Lucy, despite his best intentions. The scene pays great homage to comic book lore, and demonstrates Lucy as a woman of character, willing to standup for her friend, Grant, who she feels has been disparaged. Hilariously, the scene reveals that Lucy is not a great interviewer. As Lucy decries “Grant” as “the perfect name [for] the man I take for granted,” she demonstrates that she has lost focus on interviewing the Ghost – – ostensibly the greatest interview of her career – – to pine over a man for whom she just then realizes she may have feelings. The irony is, both the Ghost’s identity and Grant, are right in front of her face.
Most impressive, however, is the particular comic book the Doctor reads during the episode’s teaser. The issue is from John Byrne’s 1986-1988 revamp of Superman, which redefined the Superman mythos as Clark being the “real” person, and Superman being the persona, a move that placed greater emphasis on the role that the “love triangle built for two” played within the character’s narrative. A defining feature of the Superman mythology is this love triangle – – Clark is in love with Lois, Lois is in love with Superman, and Superman loves his time as Clark – – which is why Lois Lane, an otherwise capable investigative journalist, never guesses Superman’s real identity until 1990, 52 years after the characters’ original 1938 debut, and why new iterations of the mythology continue to revert the triangle back to its starting state, even at the cost of the Lois and Clark marriage. For those familiar with comic book lore, this particular issue of Superman resonates as particularly chosen to set the stage for an episode of Doctor Who more concerned with Grant, the man, over the Ghost, the superman. This dictum is most pointedly stated during Lucy’s aforementioned interview with the Ghost:
Lucy Fletcher: “You spend half your life as a regular person- -”
The Ghost: “I spend all of my life that way.”
Note that it is Grant, specifically – – and not the Ghost – – who makes the heroic entrance, bursting through the roof access door, baby monitor in hand, and that it is Grant who catches the falling spacecraft, saving New York. Lucy then reiterates the message of the episode, referring to Grant’s eyeglasses as his “superhero costume.”
Still, despite its infatuation with comic books, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” fits within Who’s continuity. A perfect example of this comes as the Doctor offers clemency to the brain-possessed Dr. Sim and Mr. Brock, the scene recalling the best of David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, who always offered the villains one chance at redemption before he destroyed them completely. Due to his age, wardrobe, and dashing portrayal, Peter Capaldi is often compared to Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor; seeing Twelve’s characterization skew so closely to another Doctor ties the series mythology together as a whole, without resorting to pulling Ten’s trainers out of the TARDIS wardrobe.
Further, the episode continues the theme that the Doctor often negatively affects people around him, as Grant’s teen years are wrought with complications of his superpowers. In this way, the episode also reflects the current DC Comics films, or much of the Bronze Age Marvel oeuvre, all of which seem to forget how joyous having superpowers would be. While the Doctor trying to temper Grant’s desire to use his unique abilities for good seems out of character – – truly, the concept of the modern companion is based largely upon the Doctor choosing to travel with remarkable individuals, with Rose, Adam, Martha, Amy, and Clara all being prime examples – – once one recalls how the Doctor feared companion-cum-time-anomaly Jack, seeing the Doctor not trusting an eight-year-old with powers “far beyond those of mortal men” seems preordained.
Not only does the episode fit within Who’s canon, it continues Moffat’s trend of using the yearly Christmas special to tie up loose ends within the series’ narrative, in order to pave the way for future stories. Just as the loss of Rose guided the Doctor’s actions in “The Runaway Bride,” and the absence of Amy Pond was crucial to tone of “The Snowmen,” the repeated mentions of River Song in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” not only explains the presence of new companion Nardole – – more than the Doctor being “lonely,” Nardole is the Doctor’s closest connection to River – – but also help to set the stage from the upcoming Series 10.
The scene where Lucy “tortures” a squealing, plastic squeeze toy, named Mr. Huffle, is audacious and uncomfortably hilarious, and serves to distance Lucy’s character from the unfortunate “damsel in distress” trope from the Silver Age of comics. She deduces that, since the Doctor so quickly states that Harmony Shoal and the Ghost are not related, he must know the Ghost’s identity, revealing her to be a capable investigative journalist. Additionally, her realization that the Doctor is unaccustomed to being sternly interrogated, and therefore acts of his own accord, demonstrates a strong grasp of psychology and intuition, further layering her humanity. More important, however, is how Moffat, in perhaps his most sublime tease to date, uses the scene to establish Mr. Huffle as a thinly-veiled stand-in for next companion, Bill.
Note that, at the precise moment that the Doctor realizes that “time passes,” and that he must move on from 24 years with River to a new companion, the shot pointedly cuts to Mr. Huffle. The comparison is more directly stated in the episode’s final scenes as Lucy again places Mr. Huffle in front of the Doctor, and questions him as to the name of the woman he has just lost. “Everything ends, and it’s always sad . . . but everything begins again, too, and that’s always happy,” the Doctor states. “Hey, Doctor, keep it real,” Lucy says, throwing the squeeze toy to him. The episode ends with the Doctor contemplating the toy sitting before him on the TARDIS console, a wild-haired totem of things to come, beckoning him onward towards new adventures with new a companion. Surely, it is no coincidence that Mr. Huffle and Bill bare such a strong resemblance.