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.







Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.


Songwriter Shelly Peiken Revisits "Bitch" for '2.0' Album (premiere)

A monster hit for Meredith Brooks in the late 1990s, "Bitch" gets a new lease on life from its co-creator, Shelly Peiken. "It's a bit moodier than the original but it touts the same universal message," she says.


Leila Sunier Delivers Stunning Preface to New EP via "Sober/Without" (premiere)

With influences ranging from Angel Olsen to Joni Mitchell and Perfume Genius, Leila Sunier demonstrates her compositional prowess on the new single, "Sober/Without".


Speed the Plough Members Team with Mayssa Jallad for "Rush Hour" (premiere)

Caught in a pandemic, Speed the Plough's Baumgartners turned to a faraway musical friend for a collaboration on "Rush Hour" that speaks to the strife and circumstance of our time.


Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."


The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.


Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.