Super, Man: Who’s X-Mas special is an antidote to a grim 2016…

Up, up and away... the BBC bring back the Time-Lord just in time to see out the old year in style...
Doctor Who

The following review contains spoilers. proceed with caution…

On top of a New York apartment block, many years ago… a mysterious visitor is trying to put right what once went wrong with a device that’s definitely not a Christmas Tree and a gem that’s definitely not candy, but as usual things don’t go quite according to plan. A few levels below a young boy named Grant has been dreaming about overcoming his health problems and being the kind of hero others can look up to. It seems their worlds are destined to collide, though the consequences of that encounter might not be felt for years to come.

Over two decades later the Doctor begins an investigation into the ‘business plans’ of Harmony Shoal, a company with branches in all major country capitals (and New York!). It’s a company that considers itself a brains-trust, but might well be decidedly untrustworthy. It’s also being investigated by reporter Lucy Fletcher (Charity Wakefield) but both intruders come to the attention of Doctor Sim (Aleksandar Jovanovic) who doesn’t take kindly to his work being interrupted. But no-one expects the intervention of New York’s own superhero, the Ghost (Justin Chadwick).

Across town, a nanny bravely balances his day-job and night-time activities, but the Doctor has some urgent words of wisdom for him…

Discounting  comics, books and a cameo appearance in spin-off Class, Doctor Who has largely been missing in action since last year’s Christmas special, The Husbands of River Song. Despite initial assurances that it would be business-as-usual, the show stayed off the air throughout 2016, though filming is well underway for a spring 2017 return. As a show that has to please an age-range from 9 to 90, Doctor Who has the delicate and sometimes impossible task of trying to please everyone all the time and its efforts to do both sometimes see the show meander through its season as it delights or disappoints depending on your view of what it should be. While Steven Moffat gets both brickbats and bouquets for his efforts – sometimes both deserved – his role as show-runner is one that many people might desire but not be able to handle.  However the now traditional Christmas Day special, a date circled in the cosmic calendar since the show was revived in 2005, is generally considered to be easier to pitch to the masses. Yes, there will be moments of drama and a few scary moments to have those proverbial kids hiding behind that  proverbial sofa, but it will also have a feel-good factor – something entirely appropriate to the feelings of the season. A soupcon of sugary sentiment helps the medicine go down in the most delightful way.

And after a 2016 that thoroughly deserves to find coal in its stocking, The Return of Doctor Mysterio comes along to give us an hour of just the right amount of wibbly-wobbly whimsy.

Through as always a little bit of handwavery in its logic, it’s actually amazing how well the Doctor fits into a world with a genuine superhero in it – but he does so by equally playing to the touchstones of the genre while subverting and gently mocking it. However it IS an unapologetic love-letter to comics with a ton of obvious and more subtle easter-eggs planted into its DNA. While many shows might pay lip-service to the generic art-form, Doctor Who isn’t afraid to get specific and reciprocate the love the medium has shown him in recent years. Pages of John Byrne’s run on Superman are specifically scrutinised as the Doctor makes an astonishing discovery, Batman, Hulk and Defenders posters are plastered to a wall and the consequences of being bitten by a radioactive spider are considered (something with which the Doctor’s third incarnation could probably sympathise). Indeed, by the time we reach its climax it’s also clear that Moffat knows his Watchmen concepts.

What’s also quite obvious is just how much Moffat loves the Christopher Reeve era of Superman. Several scenes take their visual cues and even dialogue from the Reeve/Kidder moments, giving them an extra spin and showing why they remain timeless – especially when viewed from an perspective where we unfortunately expect our ‘heroes ‘ to default to  dark knights and grim alt-vigilantes. There is a sense of innocence and farce to proceedings that is pitched just right – delighting youngsters in its sense of fun but also tickling the nostalgia of the parents as well.

As always there’s a boo-hiss element to the alien antagonists with the Doctor not having to push too many boundaries to beat them. Capaldi effortlessly bestrides the humour, wackiness and yet delivers hints of sadness and resigned cleverness that have made him one of the all-time great incarnations of the Time Lord.

Matt Lucas is often something of a lightning rod for differing views on his comedy contributions. Though Little Britain was a notable hit in the Noughties, I have to admit he’s an acquired taste I never really acquired and the idea that his appearance in The Husbands of River Song, as River’s foil Nardole, would be expanded (despite his head originally being transplanted into a giant robot last time – don’t you hate it when that happens?) into this special and episodes of the new season didn’t exactly make my heart grow two sizes.  There’s something of a throwaway explanation for his presence and of how he’s been reattached to his body, but the stunt-casting does show moments where Nardole (now acting as a de-facto companion hired by the Doctor to keep him on the straight-and-narrow / boredom prevention), may prove an interesting addition if the reins are used to take off some of the more blatant slapstick.

Justin Chadwick has fun with both the Ghost and Grant, playing both the superhero and ‘average Joe’ with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek spirit that’s needed. This isn’t a Hollywood blockbuster and the BBC budget doesn’t let him soar too far, but the fact that this New York-based story barely left the confines of Cardiff shows that a great deal of effort has been made to proceedings and supplying a background that never gets in the way of the foreground fun. Though the time-restrictions hasten proceedings along at a merry pace, Wakefield’s Lucy Fletcher is also pitched well – a Lois Lane-esque figure with a heart of gold under her prickly, go-getter exterior. Her way of achieving honesty from the Doctor is refreshingly hilarious as it is abstract.

With the broadcast now done, the attention will turn to speculation about the future. Tabloids are hinting Capaldi will leave within the next year  – when aren’t they conjuring up such tales – as Steven Moffat’s show-running duties come to their confirmed end in 2017 , but Capaldi leaving the role as well would be a HUGE pity if remotely true. A selection of scenes from the spring’s forthcoming run show we haven’t seen the last of some of the genuine scares and darkness, but The Return of Doctor Mysterio – and indeed, the return of Doctor Who itself after its absence – shows just how much the Time Lord’s particular way of handling life and strife has been missed…

'Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio' review
'Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio' review
  • Story
  • Acting
  • Seasonal cheer