Doctor Who – 2016 Christmas Special
“The Return of Doctor Mysterio”
I’m writing this on Christmas Day which means that the annual Doctor Who Christmas Special is there to be talked about. For this episode, Doctor Who jumps on the superhero bandwagon when a young child swallows a gem that grants him his deepest wish. That wish is to have superpowers and he grows up to become a superhero who goes by the Ghost.
In previous years I’ve mentioned that the Christmas Special should be a broadly disposable experience that focuses on the fun adventuring aspect of the show and leave out any heavy duty drama. This episode does exactly that and it’s definitely the better for it. It probably won’t have any lasting effects and it really shouldn’t as I think that should be left for the main body of the story.
The superhero story was a lot of fun if a little on the nose at parts. It was basically one big excuse to take jabs at the cheesier side of these characters so there was no shortage of references to the tropes that we have all got used to with these characters. This tone is set really early in a hilarious scene where the Doctor thinks he’s really clever for figuring out that Superman and Clark Kent are one in the same when Lois Lane doesn’t. I like when the Doctor is characterised as being an alien who doesn’t quite understand humanity and this is a great example of that. The way he misses the appeal of Superman because he doesn’t understand why people read these stories is very typical of this side of the Doctor but dresses it up in an entertaining way.
Other references are entertaining as well such as the many jokes about the difficulties associated with the dual identity and even the rotating globe shown at the top of a building is a clear reference to the Daily Planet from Superman lore. At times the references were really on the nose and there were definitely far too many of them for a single episode but I was drawn in enough by what I was watching that I didn’t find it too problematic.
Interestingly, the Doctor takes something of a back seat in this story which doesn’t always work but it actually does here. This is broadly the story of Grant Gordon (Justin Chatwin) and Lucy Fletcher (Charity Wakefield), a will they/won’t they pair with the added complication of a superhero between them. Tonally this is very much a romcom and the superhero side of it makes this work really well. If you’ve seen some early episodes of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman then this will probably seem very familiar since the shtick is nearly identical. The scene where Grant tries to reveal his identity to Lucy but she never looks at him while his mask is off was hilarious and exactly the kind of thing you would see in that show. That show was popular because that sort of thing works in the right circumstances and these circumstances definitely qualify.
Lucy is the Lois Lane of the story who pines after the very theatrical and confident superhero while not noticing his mild mannered alter ego who is madly in love with her. He has been pining after her for years and this is shown as quiet frustration in Chatwin’s performance. Grant is an essential part of her life since she relies on him to babysit the child she had with his former best friend. There’s a subtle hint of tragedy in there but it thankfully isn’t overblown. Grant is simply a decent guy who can’t stop himself from helping when Lucy is in need. This extends to his heroics where he has a self imposed obligation to help anyone who happens to need it.
Justin Chatwin is really likeable and fully commits to the exaggerated mild mannered characteristics as well as the contrasting over the top superhero. He’s not an especially deep character but he works really well within the context of this episode. There’s enough in there to make the audience root for him and the chemistry he has with Charity Wakefield is endearing enough.
Charity Wakefield seems to get a lot more to do than her co-star which makes sense as his defining characteristic is that he is pining after her. There is so much more to her such as the fact that she’s a single mother as well as a career woman. Wakefield plays the character as being somewhat frantic which makes her busy life all the more believable and it offers some justification for not noticing Grant’s obvious attraction to him as well as his many admirable qualities. Amusingly it takes her talking to him in costume to start to realise this and when she finds out the truth it turns out that she is more interested in the man rather than the costume. Maybe that’s an overly sentimental ending but it’s Christmas so these sorts of things are to be expected.
There is a particularly strong scene where Lucy interrogates the Doctor with an incredibly annoying children’s toy and quickly susses out his dishonesty. I love how she was able to read him in a really insightful way. In particular her comment about him obviously never having to answer to anyone because of the way he speaks to people was impressive. There was a sense that the Doctor had almost met his match in this instance though that might have been the irritating noise the toy was making. It was certainly an impressive scene and added an amusing contrast to Lucy being so insightful here yet so clueless when it comes to noticing the obvious about Grant.
The Ghost is a really cheesy superhero and that’s exactly the point. He has most of Superman’s powers but wears a mask and puts on a gravelly voice like the Christian Bale Batman. It produces a lot of laughs but also allows the ridiculousness of Lucy not noticing they are the same person to shine through. The Doctor says it best when he says that “there are some situations which are too stupid to be allowed to continue”. He can’t quite believe what is going on because it’s ridiculous even by his standards yet there’s something endearing enough about it that he can’t help but be invested.
As the audience member that’s exactly how I felt and having the Doctor be an observer to this will they/won’t they situation allows him to be the avatar for the audience which stands out because it’s a rare position for him to be in. Normally the audience follows onlookers who see the Doctor in different ways but we get to view the ridiculousness of the non starter of a relationship through his eyes and it lets the humans seem almost alien for once. It was a subtle and clever way to do it but worked gangbusters.
With this being a superhero story there weren’t really any memorable visual effects driven sequences. The Ghost doesn’t have a villain to fight which limits this somewhat and the majority of the effects shots involve him flying from place to place. I thought the flying effects did the job but they were nothing spectacular and the suit does look a little too rubbery. I get that the episode is going for the cheese factor but the suit looks cheap rather than intentionally ridiculous.
The conclusion where Grant and Lucy get together is entirely expected but the resolution to the superhero story was pretty weak. Given everything we know about Grant it doesn’t make sense that he would decide to simply give up being a superhero now that he has the girl. One thing that did come through strongly was his moral code and it doesn’t fit for me that he would be willing to walk away from this. The best way to resolve it would have been the loss of his powers so I wonder why that didn’t happen. It does leave the door open for Grant to return and I wouldn’t necessarily be against that.
Grant’s double identity isn’t really connected to the reason the Doctor is there. as the Ghost he stumbles into the situation and becomes a part of it that way but the Doctor isn’t actually there to deal with him. As such, the alien plot takes something of a back seat while still being a looming threat that hangs over the episode. It acts as something of a direct sequel to “The Husbands of River Song” but it almost doesn’t matter as the episode is barely about this. Amusingly the plot is hugely convoluted like many comic book plots tend to be so the tongue in cheek jabs at superhero stories extend to every part of the episode. It all hangs together fairly well as long as you don’t expect an excellent villain story. It fits the bill as a disposable Christmas story very well.
Unfortunately there is a trade-off here as there was enough in this plot to make me think that with some fleshing out it could have been interesting but it’s wasted by filling the background of this episode. Alien invasions are a dime a dozen in this show and I was more than a little reminded of the Slitheen from way back in the Christopher Eccleston era. Of course the villains here were far less ridiculous but the similarities were there. The loss of self is something that comes up a lot in science fiction and Doctor Who is no stranger to that so with some tweaking this could have been left to a far more unsettling episode in the next season.
The Doctor brings a companion in the form of Matt Lucas’ Nardone, who also appeared in “The Husbands of River Song”. He’s a really good character and Matt Lucas bounces off Peter Capaldi really well. There is the right amount of their interactions and Lucas plays his character with a certain amount of naivety which fits his robotic origins well.
His deeper role in the story is as a bit of a coping mechanism for the Doctor who has recently -from his perspective- sent River Song off to her death and is having trouble dealing with that. He says that he took a leave of absence of sorts which obviously references the fact that there wasn’t a new series of Doctor Who in 2016 but also references the fact that sometimes things get a little too much for him and endings aren’t something that he deals with very well. Basically he’s a man in pain and needed a fun adventure to remind him of why he does this. The Doctor clearly states that he’s back and is happy about this new beginning that he feels is coming. Of course that lines us up for a new companion and new adventures in 2017. Based on the strength of last season I’m interested to see what comes next.
A fun and disposable Christmas story that takes some well intentioned jabs at superhero stories. Most of the episode plays out like a romcom with a superhero twist and this works really well. Grant and Lucy are good characters with Lucy coming across as the better developed of the two. The episode lacks memorable superhero sequences but makes up for that with the endearing love story that plays out in a predictable yet charming way. The Doctor takes something of a back seat which is a shame as the alien threat could have been interesting if left to an episode on its own. Having the Doctor act as a bystander lets the audience see the situation from his perspective for a change which is rare and definitely works here.