Just a Sprinkle of Humbug

Review of The Return of Doctor Mysterio
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

Ah, the annual Christmas Special... That sixty-minute episode that tries to be all things to all people, but most especially to those who never watch Doctor Who except this once a year. No wonder Moffat chooses Christmas as the time to trot out his most gimmicky ideas.

Having already exploited Santa Claus/Father Christmas two years ago (and included a nod to Sherlock Holmes (and thus his own work on Sherlock) in 2012), Moffat needed a new cultural icon to shoehorn into his annual holiday offering. Since there would undoubtedly be copyright issues with something like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, it seems he decided it was instead time to cash in on the recent resurgent popularity of superheroes—thus we end up with "Doctor Who Does Superman" this year.

Not that a fluffy superhero "romp" is entirely unsuited to the situation. The trope is easily relatable to a casual viewer, who thereby doesn't have to know anything about the show at all to understand the premise of the episode. I'm not a huge fan of this type of genre crossover, but I thought the conceit by which young Grant gained his superpowers was sufficiently Doctor-y and believable in-universe. ("Take this," the Doctor tells 8-year-old Grant, handing him a gemstone to hold with what, in retrospect, turns out to have been a particularly unfortunate choice of words.)

This episode continues Moffat's obsession with having the Doctor visit young children and then creep back into their lives one or more decades later. In fact, the Doctor tracks down Grant some five-ish years after their first encounter, learning that the gemstone—one that the Apocalypse Monks of the Andorax call the Hazandra, the Ghost of Love and Wishes—has never made its way through Grant's digestive system but instead bonded with his DNA. For once, though, it seems accidental (on his part, if not the TARDIS's) that the Doctor has come across the same person during adulthood. (One is left to wonder, then, if the Doctor's big retcon-the-temporal-nastiness-around-NYC machine ever achieved working order...)

Since there had to be some sort of Big Bad for both the Doctor and the Ghost (Grant's superhero persona) to battle, Moffat sprinkled in some body horror with aliens that look like big brains with eyes and use human bodies as "vehicles." Again, this alien (a kind of hive mind, network consciousness) worked well enough in this context, though I didn't find it particularly compelling. (A brief Google search informs me that they're a returning baddie from last year's special. Tells you how much of an impression they made that I never picked up on it myself.)

So the three threads of this story—the superhero, the aliens, and the Doctor—were braided together well enough for it to hold up to the kind of casual viewing most of its Christmas Day audience signed up for. However, as someone for whom this episode is primarily filler, whose main draw to the show is either the Doctor or his Companion(s), I found his strand distinctly lacking.

Grant/the Ghost and his personal life were the main focus, which is fine; after all, the superhero angle got top billing. The brain-shaped aliens served as the impetus for driving Grant's relationship with Lucy (the main plot line) forward, and as the nominal reason for the Doctor to be there at all. But any time the script veered toward the Doctor himself—which is the part I usually love—I cringed.

First there was Nardole, irritating enough when I had to sit through his antics last year (though I admit he annoyed me less this time around), ridiculously reconstructed after his decapitation and integration into King Hydroflax's robotic body, and somehow now Companion to the Doctor. Yet the Doctor has seemingly just come off of his last (24-year-long) night with River Song on Darillium, and is still mourning her loss. At what point did he reassemble Nardole (who hasn't aged in twenty-four years any more than the Doctor himself)? If, as Nardole claims, he only did so because "[he was] worried [he]'d be lonely," wouldn't nearly a quarter century of Earth time have passed since Nardole merged with Hydroflax before the Doctor felt the need to turn to him? What sort of body did the Doctor find for him? It's all a bit macabre, if you ask me.

Then there was the harping on the loss of River. Of course it had been twenty-four years between the Doctor's visits to Grant—he'd been off on Darillium. Of course he's okay; he's always okay. Of course he's "avoiding the subject" when Nardole (why can Nardole pilot the TARDIS all by himself?) brings it up. And of course there's got to be a big, dramatic "her name was" moment at the end—just like in The Runaway Bride, except it's Nardole that spills the beans (so he can wax poetic about his perceptions of the Doctor's state of mind).

I got awfully sick of it. We don't need all that mopey shit about River! Not only have we already overdone The Mopey Doctor (throughout the entirety of Series Three), but we'd had a lovely tying up of loose ends in last year's Special. There was absolutely no reason—to my mind—to drag this maudlin stuff back out. It added a sprinkle of "humbug" to the whole experience, leaving an unpleasant bitter aftertaste to the otherwise fluffy sweetness of a standard Christmas episode.

At least next year's Christmas Special will be Moffat's last.

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Comments

Well, Doctor Who had never done superheros before so there was a certain novelty about that. Grant and Lucy were appealing enough (though a trifle predictable and therefore a touch dull). I liked Nardole and his relationship to the Doctor. There was nothing stating that the Doctor didn't spend 24 years with River and then time travel back to 10 minutes after they left Nardole so it's possible that this is why he didn't age.

I get the feeling that the brain aliens will be back. It will be nice for the Doctor to have a new reoccurring enemy. Daleks and Cybermen have gotten tiresome. The Weeping Angels and The Silence never thrilled me. The Sontorans are so stupid they don't make a good enemy for The Doctor. Missy is spactacular but you don't want to over use her.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I agree with your assessment of most of the recurring enemies we've had these last several years, but I rather hope we don't see the Shoal again. To me, they fall somewhere between comical and ish-tastic, with very little space for being threatening.

You also seem more willing to overlook timey-wimey plot holes (e.g., Nardole) than I. ;)

By mrfranklin

It's been a year since our last Doctor Who so I was probably more charitable than I would otherwise have been because I was so thrilled it was back. Also, I really liked Nardole in the show. I find him very entertaining.

Yeah, the brains in jars were kind of hokey and cheesy. I can't say I'm enthusiastic about their return. But The Doctor really needs SOMETHING, some returning enemy. And his old ones are boring me.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I don't mind non-recurring antagonists, as long as whoever's going up against the Doctor is not (a) ridiculous, (b) stupid, or (c) both. ;)

By mrfranklin

I rewatched this again this evening and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the episode.

On the downside the recurring villain was not that impressive and if they appeared in The Husbands of River Song, I had erased that from my memory.

On the plus side, Nardole was not as annoying as I was expecting and I find myself looking forward to his return in the new season - not something I was expecting!

One question though, unless I missed it, was there an explanation for the truth field in the vicinity of the Tardis when the Doctor questioned Lucy?

By Wholahoop
mrfranklin's picture

No, I think that bit was just supposed to be another instance of people instinctually trusting the Doctor and thereby immediately taking him into their confidences. My read was that it was a clue about how clever Lucy is—she noticed how odd it was, unlike everyone else...

By mrfranklin
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