The Doctor (Finally) Returns to TV in the Serviceable "Doctor Mysterio"

Craig Owen Jones
Justin Chatwin as superhero "The Ghost"

The referencing that we've come to expect falls strangely flat: a mishmash of tropes, symbols, and callbacks that ultimately don’t lead anywhere.

Doctor Who

Airtime: Saturdays, 7PM
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Matt Lucas, Charity Wakefield, Justin Chatwin
Subtitle: Christmas special - "The Return of Doctor Mysterio"
Network: BBC
Air date: 2016-12-25

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) isn't a superhero. There, I've said it.

Granted, he gets mistaken for such on a regular basis these days. These tendencies started to show themselves about ten years ago, when a certain David Tennant set foot in the TARDIS for the first time, and the storylines were filled with messianic references. Add in a sonic screwdriver that's able to do, well, whatever the storyline requires of it, and you have a superhero, or so the reasoning goes.

Look a little closer, however, and the idea falls to pieces. Superheroes usually aren't so shambling, the Rorschachs of the world notwithstanding. Nor are the Bruce Waynes, Peter Parkers, and Clark Kents of the metropolis likely to self-identify as idiots, or have a predilection for jelly babies and rice pudding (unlimited, naturally), or have a variety of British accents.

To call the Doctor a superhero is to invest the character with an ineffable humanity that it never asked for. The Doctor is a being thousands of years old who travels across the universe. His rule is never to be cruel or cowardly; by his own admission, he helps where he can -- but won't fight. Doctor Who isn't Batman. In the final analysis, it's not about good versus evil, no matter how frequently that particular contest crops up. The Doctor is less like Christian Bale in The Dark Knight or Brandon Routh in Superman Returns. He's more like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day: a passerby stopping to fix an old lady's flat tyre.

Your mileage may vary, of course, which is why the superhero treatment was probably overdue for an airing. What will almost certainly be Steven Moffat's final Christmas special, "The Return of Doctor Mysterio", is the vehicle. Probably it had to be a special; there's too much that is tongue-in-cheek about it to make its way into the regular series. The action takes place in New York, where Justin Chatwin plays Grant Gordon, a nanny by day and a superhero named "The Ghost" by night in the Superman mould. Lucy Fletcher (Charity Wakefield) is the Lois Lane character, an investigative reporter trying to get to the bottom of The Ghost's identity. The Doctor is in there too, busy foiling the plot of some brain-swapping aliens bent on taking over the world in ridiculous fashion yet again.

The referencing that we've come to expect falls strangely flat, a mishmash of tropes, symbols, and callbacks that ultimately don’t lead anywhere. Director Ed Bazalgette kicks things off by channeling Martin Scorsese, recreating the opening shot of Taxi Driver in the first scene, but aside from the fact that both stories happen to be set in New York, there's no obvious reason to reference a film that has an insomniac cabbie with violent tendencies on the edge of a nervous breakdown as its lead character.

Likewise, Moffat's fetish for heads that do macabre things is almost on a par with George Lucas' penchant for chopping off limbs in the Star Wars films. It's also an idea that's been done on the show many times before; most recently, in fact, in "The Husbands of River Song", last year's Christmas special (also written by Moffat), in which we have the same bunch of antagonists cultivating the habit of being able to open their own heads. When writers start referencing the work of the previous episode, one starts to wonder if the well is beginning to run dry.

At the centre of it all is a decent love story, nicely plotted and with an adorable couple at its heart in the guise of Chatwin and Wakefield. The Doctor, however, is strangely peripheral to the action, only coming into play to unwittingly provide the young Grant with his superhero powers and to foil head-swapper-in-chief Mr Brock (Adetomiwa Edun) at the dénouement. The character of Nardole (Matt Lucas) is even more of an add-on. First seen in "The Husbands of River Song", and serving no purpose here except to quake with fear every so often when things get scary, it's commendable that Lucas, so able when playing fools, makes the character as likable as he does in the two-handers with Capaldi's Doctor. That being said, his role in the TARDIS is yet to be defined, and the exact nature of the dynamic between the two characters will need work.

Ultimately a shop window for the show’s new season, premiering in April 2017, just a few weeks before Star Trek: Discovery reaches our screens, "The Return of Doctor Mysterio" does what it says on the tin; it brings Doctor Who back to television after a one-year hiatus ("Doctor Mysterio" was the name given to the show by several overseas broadcasters in the ‘60s). Perhaps it's time to acknowledge that a change is as good as a rest; hopefully, the addition to the TARDIS of Bill, a companion played by newcomer Pearl Mackie, in the spring will provide a welcome injection of fresh blood.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.