We have been bereft of new Doctor Who for an entire year (“The Power of the Daleks” doesn’t count), since the last Christmas special, “The Husbands of River Song,” a madcap and bittersweet conclusion to the River Song saga. To trump that adventure, showrunner Steven Moffat pulls a new rabbit from his hat – Doctor Who does superheroes. Meet me after the jump for my thoughts on “The Return of Doctor Mysterio.”
The Doctor and Superheroes
Few other iconic giants exist as solidly in geek culture as Doctor Who and superheroes, but rarely have the two ever met. The Doctor has appeared in numerous comics over the years but never existing in the same universe as the main inhabitants of comics, the superheroes. Now that changes, while maintaining that continuity.
In this Christmas special, which has become a yearly tradition not just in the UK, but around the world, we see a universe where superhero comics exist, but superheroes do not – just like the real world. In fact, in this story, it is The Doctor who creates this first superhero, through creatively comic book circumstances, and completely The Doctor’s fault.
Christmas Eve Comics
I loved the comic book opening, using panels and art to enter the story. We flashback on the eighties or nineties, based on the Marvel and DC Comics posters that adorn the young boy’s bedroom walls. We begin with The Doctor hanging upside from a rope/wire sixty stories up outside the boy’s window, waking young Grant Gordon up. Thinking he’s Santa – an old man knocking on his window Christmas Eve night – he lets him in. Taking advantage of someone to chat with, and the free milk and cookies, The Doctor comes in and chats with the boy.
Reading a John Byrne Superman comic with Grant, The Doctor discovers that Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. Upon pointing it out to the boy, Grant says everyone knows that, but The Doctor counters that Lois Lane doesn’t, and she’s a reporter. Thus begins the homage parade to the Superman mythos in this episode. I also loved the part where Grant tells The Doctor about Spider-Man being bitten by a radioactive spider, and he says he should have radiation poisoning. Brilliant.
The Doctor likes the boy so much he invites him up to the roof to help with his experiment. The Doctor tells him that he is the original Doctor, and all other Doctors are based on him. Grant says he would be called Doctor Mysterio if he were in comic books. It is during this wonder-filled conversation that the mistake that grants Grant super powers occurs. The Doctor had produced a glass of water for the boy, told him he was a doctor, and handed him a gemstone to hold while he worked on his experiment.
Grant takes the gemstone like a pill, thinking him a doctor wanting to cure his nagging cough. But it wasn’t a pill, it was the power source for the experiment. Called the Hazandra and the Ghost of Love and Wishes, it takes energy from the nearest star and gives you what it thinks you want. In this case, it thinks Grant wants to be a superhero. The Doctor thinks it will pass, literally, but it never does, becoming part of the boy’s DNA, as The Doctor learns on visits throughout Grant’s life.
Harmony Shoal, Nardole, and the Evil Brains from Outer Space
Next we check in with your typical evil corporation, Harmony Shoal, whose only redeeming value seems to be that their icon on top of their hundred-plus story headquarters is a rip-off of the old Daily Planet. They want to help mankind with sexy science, without revealing where their numerous benefactors keep disappearing to. At their press conference we meet Lucy Fletcher of the Daily Chronicle and Nardole. You might remember Nardole as Riversong’s henchman in the last Christmas special. Since then, The Doctor repaired him from his dismemberment by King Hydroflax and made him his traveling companion.
Lucy is very curious about these benefactors, and sneaks back later to find out what’s up. Nardole and The Doctor (eating sushi, but it’s no fish fingers and custard to be sure, and introducing himself as Dan Dangerous of Scotland Yard) show up as well. Together they eavesdrop on a vault full of brains – evil brains from outer space – who travel from planet to planet taking over inhabitants’ bodies in order to rule over them. Their endgame toward world domination is an orbiting space bomb they’re going to drop on New York City. You don’t need to ask, yes, it’s a Moffat script.
The discussion our heroes are listening in on gets them caught by Dr. Sims, or rather the evil brain who took over Dr. Sims, and he is apt to kill them as intruders. As The Doctor negotiates by turning around, as you can’t shoot an intruder in the back, there is a knock at the window, one hundred floors up. Interesting side note – there are only ten buildings in the world that have more than one hundred floors. The knocker is our hero – the Ghost.
The Ghost make his entrance with great spectacularity, like a true superhero, talking like the Christopher Reeve Superman and kicking Sims’ butt with flair. The costume however is not the greatest, definitely not a Paul Gambi design from over on The Flash. As a matter of fact, the Ghost’s costume is so bad, it conjures memories of the rubber nightmare worn by the title superhero of the terrible TV adaptation of Night Man. The Doctor recognizes the Ghost as Grant almost immediately.
The Ghost Family Album
The Ghost is Grant Gordon grown up, and he’s also Lucy’s nanny, and he’s also got the hots for her, secretly pining after her, even though she only has eyes for the Ghost. Sound familiar? Yeah, because that’s where this is steering. In flashback throughout the special, we see The Doctor checking in on Grant as he grows up, deals with his powers, etc. It reminds me of a sort of Whovian version of the “Superman Family Album” segments from the old Ruby-Spears Superman animated series. I love when it’s revealed that these visits all occur in one of The Doctor’s evenings.
On the bad side, the flashbacks also bring to mind the similar storytelling device in Arrow. Also on the bad side is that same taste I got from other Who episodes, like “A Town Called Mercy” for instance, as if it’s only a back door pilot for a new series – in this case, The Ghost – as opposed to a traditional Doctor Who adventure. I’m not against this sort of thing, as I loved Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, but this shouldn’t be in the Christmas special. That’s not saying I wouldn’t be against a Ghost series, let’s just say I hope it’s more Torchwood and less K-9, nuff said.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
I love the bit where Lucy puts The Doctor on the spot in a faux interrogation, and figures him out pretty quickly. I have to give Moffat his props, he gives Lucy all the fun and flaws of Lois Lane – terrific journalist who cannot see what’s right in front of her. There are some fun secret identity hijinks with comic panel formatting when Lucy interviews the Ghost but needs Grant as a nanny. This is a brilliant homage and satire of everything that made the seventies Reeve Superman movies great, especially the interview.
When the Doctor confronts the evil brains from outer space, he gives The Speech (even ripped off by the Justice League), you know, the “Run” Speech, and it fails, badly. I’m not sure if it was the delivery, or the lack of music, but it does not work, and it saddened me.
I was also upset that it wasn’t The Doctor who stopped the evil brains from outer space (don’t they have a clever name?), but the Ghost, making me suspect a back door pilot even more. I was a bit angry that Lucy wasn’t livid about the shoddy care her baby was getting, more of a no-no than simple secret identity lying. And is there really no better place to hide a gun than in your head?
There is that bit at the end that worries me. I loved River Song, but I don’t want her (pardon the pun) ghost staining The Doctor for too long. Moffat beat Clara into the ground so that some fans like me hated her by the end and wanted nothing more than for her to end. Let’s not drag this out, and if we are, use the magic that made River so much fun to begin with – time travel. Who says she won’t encounter The Doctor again? I loved the Osgood, and Siegel and Shuster, shout outs, although U.N.I.T. showing up was a bit too convenient. And I loved Mr. Huffle, glad to see he’ll be around for a bit, I’m still not so sure about Nardole.
Doctor Who returns in April of 2017.