Doctor Who Christmas specials are…a mixed bag, to put it diplomatically. “The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe” and “A Christmas Carol” are holiday staples on Christmas for my family, and we added “Last Christmas” this year, having deemed our seven-year-old brave enough to face the Dream Crabs in the service of watching Nick Frost’s Santa Claus team up with The Doctor. On the other hand, so many of the Christmas specials are just depressing, especially considering how they have become de facto regeneration points. It’s really hard to look forward to next Christmas knowing that it will likely mark the end of Peter Capaldi in the Tardis.
But here we are with “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” and while I’m not ready to add it to the regular set in my house, it’s decidedly not bad. Basic plot: The Doctor, in the midst of some regular shenanigans, befriends a young boy on a rooftop and accidentally gives him superpowers. Said boy, Grant, grows up to be The Ghost, a Superman-esque hero by night and nanny for his unrequited reporter crush by day. Meanwhile, a brain-stealing race called Harmony Shoals attempts to take over the Earth.
Let’s get some criticisms out of the way. Harmony Shoals are a rather transparent Lovecraft rip-off given the Steven Moffat Spoonhead treatment to make them nice and corporate. Their plan for world domination is lifted straight out of the end of Watchmen, though considering how well director Ed Bazalgette homages comic book framing in the way the episode is shot, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s also the first episode in a while that sort of makes you feel like you’re expected to have just seen the last one, “The Husbands of River Song,” which would be fine if that weren’t an entire bloody calendar year ago. Still, have fun, y’all watching this on a binge on streaming two years from now.
I could also get annoyed that aside from “The End of Time,” no Christmas special has ever had less to do with Christmas. What little holiday magic or commentary is involved is tacked on and ancillary.
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Still, I liked it. I liked it even though nearly every time The Doctor lands in New York, it’s terrible. He even makes a joke early on in this episode that he’s trying to undo some of his previous damage. At least this time he didn’t turn the Statue of Liberty into a weeping angel. Small comforts.
A lot of the episode’s best bits come from Justin Chatwin as Grant and Matt Lucas as Nardole. The latter has become a companion following the presumed death of River Song when last we saw him, and if his not-just-being-a-decapitated-head feels lazy, it's a small price to pay for Lucas as an amazing companion who looks from the previews to be continuing into the next season. Nardole is something we honestly haven’t seen since the ’60s, a male companion with a personal relationship with The Doctor that exists outside typical love-triangle trappings (yes, you may throw Adric at me if you like, but Nardole is way more likable than Adric on his best day). He’s literally the perfect second banana, and a great foil to Twelve no matter the mood. The Doctor turns dour; Nardole livens up. The Doctor goes into a manic madness; Nardole is the appropriate terrified onlooker along for the ride.
Chatwin was the spoke of the wheel, though. He played his superhero rather uniquely, not an easy feat in this day and age. He’s part Christopher Reeves’s Superman, part Michael Keaton’s Batman, part parody of the gravel-voiced modern hero, and part Melissa Benoist’s Supergirl, just to round off the package. He takes a very silly concept, keeps it exactly as silly as it is, and yet imparts a warmth and humanity to it all the same. Both he and Capaldi seem aware of the more outlandish comic book-y moments in the episode, and they simply could not care less. If you’ve ever seen Raul Julia play M. Bison in Street Fighter, eating every inch of scenery as he goes, you can understand the corny brilliance that is The Ghost and The Doctor.
As Christmas specials go, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” is at best in the middle of the pack. As a harbinger of the next season? It looks like a winner.