Divisive as the Moffat era seems to be, one point seems to be as close to universal agreement as you’re likely to get in online discussions: the Christmas specials are on the weaker end of the programme’s output. Usually little more than glorified fluff that only tangentially tie into anything, middling rehashes of popular tales like The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe, misguided homages like Last Christmas and The Snowmen, or continuity knot-tiers like The Husbands of River Song leave much to be desired and seem to only get a pass because ‘Christmas, goodwill and all that’.
This time around, The Return of Doctor Mysterio gives us Who’s take on superheroes, as a little boy is given superhuman powers by the Doctor (accidentally, following a misunderstanding about a gem). 24 years later, New York is watched over by a masked crimefighter called The Ghost aka Grant Gordon, mild-mannered nanny for reporter Lucy Fletcher, who is investigating the sinister Harmony Shoal corporation, as is the Doctor. The two cross paths, and before long, an alien invasion must be foiled.
Mysterio is the strongest special since Christmas Carol, possessing enough giddy charm and jabs at superheroes to carry it over its rather lax plotting and structure. It’s the most energetic a Moffat special has felt in some time, lined with rapid-fire gags and one-liners while mixed in with a lot of the visual horror that is one of his calling cards (opened heads, brains in jars, evil surgeons) that land more often than they don’t. There’s something amusing about seeing the Doctor react off of superhero tropes and lore, absurd even by his own standards as he points out, and the tone is just about right to pull it off without anything feeling off.
The performances are all-around solid, with Capaldi in fine form as always, playing a hybrid of Santa, Uncle Ben and a wearied hero over the course of the story, though Matt Lucas still feels a little underdeveloped and underused as Nardole, the new ‘aide’ to the Doctor. He’s little more than a vehicle for weird gags and doesn’t feel that well rounded, though Lucas gives him amiability. Justin Chadwick capably handles Superman Pastiche as Grant/The Ghost, going from awkward nanny to confident masked avenger with good plomp, and Charity Wakefield fills the bills of Lois Lane well, though her material is more limited. Aleksandar Jovanovic and Adetomiwa Edun have fun as the ruthless villains, though they are given little to do beyond rant or threaten.
The production values are as good as always, creating an air reminiscent of the Richard Donner and Fleischer Superman films with a slightly stylized New York right out of a 40s comic, several scenes paying homage to that iconography (including a flight across the city, a rooftop interview between Fletcher and the Ghost, and even the famous bullets bouncing off bit). Murray Gold’s music is not among his best, but he does throw in some fun nods to John Williams’ iconic theme in his take on a bombastic superhero score whenever the Ghost is onscreen.
The problem, however, is that for all its goodwill, Mysterio feels a bit insubstantial. The relationship between Grant and Fletcher doesn’t feel as well rounded as it could, even with the domestic element taking a greater focus, and the villain scheme, while decent, feels rehashed from the Slitheen two-parter in Series 1 and doesn’t feel as well woven in as it could into the main narrative. It felt like Moffat had a really solid satire of superheroes, toying with the idea of Grant’s social weaknesses and wish fulfillment, but then got a little lost in focus and just wrote another token alien invasion plot that doesn’t really tie that much into Grant’s own arc about maturity in a more thematic fashion.
The Return of Doctor Mysterio makes for a decent romp, with enough humour and references to make it a pleasant experience, but it does little to cast off the popular image of Christmas specials as little more than fluff, and it won’t win back cynics of Capaldi’s era.
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