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.