I have to be up front about this. I’m not a big fan of the superhero genre. It has always struck me as being something that tries to keep one foot in sci-fi and one foot in fantasy and ends up doing neither very well. I realise it is a huge thing with a massive following but I’m sorry, I can’t help finding it all a bit silly. I remember watching Superman as a child and the sight of a man flying through the air with no visible means of achieving flight and his underpants on the outside of his trousers was lacking even the slim veil of realism that a seven-year old needed from a film. Several attempts to watch things like the modern versions of Spiderman, for example, have invariably ended with me asleep in the cinema, but I realise I am in danger of spending Christmas alienating an entire fanbase so let’s just say each to their own. It’s not my cup of tea.
The two genres actually fit quite well together. The Doctor in many ways shares a lot of traits with a superhero himself. He has two hearts, can die and come back to life, put himself into voluntary suspended animation, and a whole host of other stuff that has been convenient inventions for writers at one stage or another due to the demands of various scripts. Where it doesn’t succeed, at least for a non-comics fan like myself, is that the superhero genre requires a greater suspension of disbelief than Doctor Who (ok, not always, I grant you, but let’s gloss over planet piloting shenanigans and the like). This is most evidence in the resolution to the plot, where we have to accept the sight of somebody holding a spaceship in his hand and then throwing it into the sun. At which point rational people switch off, probably quite literally.
A much better fit for Doctor Who is the secret identity and resultant love triangle stuff, which is lifted wholesale from Superman. In fact, The Return of Doctor Mysterio owes little to modern superhero films. This is the superhero genre of my childhood and before that being riffed upon. This is done in a suitably Doctor Who-ish way. The best idea of the lot is making Grant a nanny, which is as endearing as you might expect. It also follows in the tradition of Doctor Who showing us good male role models.
Doctor Who at Christmas tends to have a different set of goals because it is playing to a broader audience. It is generally concerned with telling a cracking good story without much need to engage the brain, and generally it does that well. It doesn’t need to be about Christmas to be a good fit for Christmas Day, and this episode is a good example of that. I just wonder about the thought process behind mashing up Doctor Who with comic books, in comparison with something like Dickens or CS Lewis. The fanbase is clearly much narrower than something like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is a story that has a fanbase numbering… well, everyone. At a time when Doctor Who is supposed to be playing to its widest demographic it’s a strangely alienating approach. Coming up with a title that looks like a sequel to a previous story when it’s not compounds the problem. I would rather see my Christmas-flavoured Who a bit more accessible to everyone. But it’s Christmas. Let’s be forgiving about it. A Merry Christmas to all of you at home! RP
The view from across the pond:
“Everything ends and it’s always sad…”
The only way to really review the 2016 Christmas special is to provide some background of season 9. Season 9 was, at least to this reviewer, the weakest season of Doctor Who ever, ending on an abysmally bad story that almost killed the show for myself and many of my friends. It really made me wonder if it could ever recover. The season was broadcast in 2015 and left many of us disappointed. Was this the end? Then came the 2015 Christmas Special, The Husbands of River Song, which boosted things… a little. Then began the year without a Santa … I mean, a new Who episode. That is, until 2016’s The Return of Doctor Mysterio. That was a long time to wait, and one could not help but wonder which direction the story would go. Death knell or resurgence?
If the Christmas references were anything to go by, the almost complete lack of them might not have instilled much hope. However since everything that happens throughout the episode is both hilarious and, most importantly, fun, I think we can forgive it!
The Doctor himself is often considered a superhero, but Moffat asks what happens when the Doctor meets one. Complete with comic book panels, the Doctor, Nardole, the Ghost and Lucy engage in an adventure that could eventually have some creepy implications for the Doctor and UNIT. While we haven’t seen the fallout from this, the creepy brains in jars will hopefully come back at some point. Until then, this is a marvelous prequel.
Classic Star Trek was always known for offering commentaries on the world in which we lived, but Doctor Who may have hit much closer to home repeatedly throughout this one story, and kudos to Moffat for some great ones. “No man worthy of the title leaves a baby alone!” All by itself, this is a fantastic statement and really makes a point about parenting. But Moffat one-ups himself later when Lucy tells Grant that she prefers him in his superhero outfit and proceeds to put his glasses back on, thus illustrating the fact that being a father is a bit like being a superhero, and that’s so Doctor Who. In fact, all the dialog between Capaldi and young Grant about superheroes doesn’t strike me that the Doctor didn’t know these things, but that he’s making a child feel like an expert in something he loves. He knows full well who Clark Kent is, but he lets Grant think otherwise and Grant feel brilliant for it. It’s so essentially Doctor Who, and I can’t help but smile through it. The fact that the dialog is so brilliant doesn’t hurt either.
Speaking of dialog, there’s a fair share of humor in this story. “Brains with minds of their own? No one will believe that. This is America.” Recent events have made me wonder if Harmony Shoal is actually behind some of the decisions being made in this country which made this line a stand-out. (Net Neutrality, anyone? The cancellation of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency? I can go on!) There’s a lot of eating too, but I’m glad for that, as it’s clearly the mark of a pro. And Mr. Huffle is the source of a lot of laughter without being able to say or do anything. This is clearly our show even after everything that happened with season 9!
Where we were, except not!
Only one line really stood out as being inappropriate but it happens quickly so it probably slips by. Lucy says to Grant, “Nothing for you to worry your pretty little head about.” Lines like this are best avoided because if the gender roles were reversed, it would be frowned upon. At least there is a little reversal later when Lucy comments to The Ghost that he probably gets a lot of stares dressed “like that”, to which he simply replies, “right back at you!”
After a particularly weak season 9 and a fair Christmas Special the year before, Doctor Who is back and getting ready to launch into season 10. And, to quote the 10th Doctor, it is gonna be… fantastic! This truly was the return of Doctor Mysterio…
…But everything begins again too, and that’s always happy.
Read next in the Junkyard… The Pilot
Although my regards for the superhero genre have changed considerably over time, this was one Christmas story that earns fair recognition for being the last kind of story you’d expect for Dr. Who even today. But that’s a testament to how endlessly flexible Dr. Who can still be.
After all the difficulties of Series 9, even with particularly rewarding stories thanks to very dramatic returns for Davros and the Zygons, Dr. Who’s best strategy is have a sufficient departure. We can historically tolerate enough repetition for SF series seasons like the classic Dr. Who’s S22 and the classic Star Trek’s last season. Because they can still have good episodes with pivotal points like the first interracial kiss on television thanks to Star Trek or excellently new Dr. Who villains like Sil for Vengeance On Varos. The more rare such pivotal points might be, the more recognizable. So the thirst from Whovians in that regard can be satisfied by a Dr. Who crossover story with a genre that may otherwise work better in a fan-film mashup. I recall Reverse The Polarity Productions in that regard having a mashup between Dr. Who (with Tennant) and The Dark Knight, coupled with crossover artwork by Andy Lambert and varied artists on DeviantArt. So this Dr. Who Christmas story can also a testament to how appreciable Dr. Who is of its fan base.
It’s not among my favorite Dr. Who stories. But as a prelude to all the newness for Series 10, it’s reflectively Dr. Who’s honorable tradition to survive against the odds as with other SF legends. I have quite often given otherwise lacking SF stories enough points for that much. Thank you for your Dr. Who Christmas story reviews and have a Whoniversally Merry Christmas.
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I’ve said this before, but I’ll back Roger with it again now. Titles in Doctor Who usually stink. They often spoil any hope of a surprise (“Revenge of the Cybermen… Death to the Daleks… I mean, any hope of a surprise cliffhanger is lost. “You mean this one has Cybermen?? No way…!?”).
But what makes this one weak is also what makes this one strong in another way. Weak: yes it sounds like you have to have some background knowledge and that’s a mistake.
Strong: Dr. Mysterio is Doctor Who, and after an absence of about a year, it is a return. After an awful season over a year ago, it’s a triumphant return at that. The weakness is that non-fans might not be aware of that. The strength is that it told fans “we’re back!” As I said, “where we were… but not!”
I found this episode incredibly enjoyable!
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I agree with your assessment of the meaning behind the title, but that’s still an exclusion of new viewers, and Christmas is a bad time to be doing that. The word “return” doesn’t belong in the Christmas title of anything, ever, unless it’s the return of something or somebody 100% of potential viewers have experience of. So Return of the Jedi is just about fine. Return of Doctor Mysterio – not so much.
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The word ‘return’ may have actually worked as part of a spinoff title for Shakedown: The Return Of The Sontarans. It was the first alien-villainy spinoff in the Wilderness Years. I can accept that as a justification without caring if it felt derivative as a title and of course, starting the title with ‘Shakedown’ clearly helped in that regard. For River’s returns, with words like ‘Weddings’, ‘Husbands’ and ‘Diary’, the courage to try different title words may run the risk of making past Dr. Who titles seem even more pitiful. Thankfully we as loyal Whovians still appreciate the classic stories themselves more as we certainly could with Planet Of Evil and City Of Death.
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