Look up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a Tardis? Doctor Who returned, after a full-year absence, with its annual Christmas special, a rollicking superhero-themed romp through the streets of—and skies above—New York. The episode is fun, and is one of the stronger in 12th doctor Peter Capaldi’s run, although it is not quite “super” enough to be considered an all-time classic.
The episode opens with The Doctor hanging outside the window of a young boy who is obsessed with superhero comics. Through the usual Doctor Who hijinks—escalated by the comic book-y idiom of this particular episode—that young boy eventually becomes “The Ghost,” a masked vigilante who protects New York City. Many years later, the two cross paths again, as The Doctor and The Ghost battle brain-swapping aliens intent on taking over the world.
The episode is replete with superhero references, both subtle and overt, and these allusions reflect both the strengths and weaknesses of this particular Christmas special. The story is essentially a Superman parody, and some of the Superman references, both in the dialogue and visually, are extremely clever, but some of the other allusions—especially to Spider-Man and other well-known comics that really have nothing do to with the comic-book source material that directly influenced this particular story—stick out. It’s almost as if writer Steven Moffat doesn’t entirely trust his audience and wants to make sure his viewers know how clever he is.
The episode is strongest when it deals with what Moffat calls the “superhero love triangle for two,” between The Ghost, Grant (his secret identity), and Lucy Fletcher, a reporter for The Daily Chronicle. Justin Chatwin, who plays The Ghost, and Charity Wakefield, who plays Lucy, have excellent chemistry in both halves of their relationships, and the scenes between them crackle with the perfect amount of romantic tension and dramatic irony.
Peter Capaldi’s performance is, predictably, strong. He excels as the “older mentor” and “third wheel” in this episode, and the script is perfect for this version of The Doctor who plays better as the crazy old guy than he does as the brooding old man who has been featured in the majority of his tenure as Doctor. Now freed of the darkness of Clara’s denouement, Capaldi is able to fully embrace The Doctor’s alien nature. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, who, although eccentric, were passable, relatable humans, Capaldi’s Doctor’s maniacal otherness allows for a resolution that none of the other “new Who” doctors would have even considered. The most significant development of this year’s Christmas special may be Capaldi finally finding his Doctor’s true personality.
The extreme alien nature of The Doctor makes the companion’s role even more important than usual, and in this role, a new star has been born. Matt Lucas reprises the role of Nardole, who has, in the year since last year’s Christmas episode, been “reassembled” by The Doctor. Lucas plays the role with the perfect blend of humor and psychological insight into The Doctor’s character. He shines as the humanizing element, and his very presence foreshadows the episode’s resolution. I won’t say anymore because, well, spoilers.
The new monsters, however, are a bit disappointing. While they do possess a certain creepiness, they don’t have the screen presence of either the Tennant era Weeping Angels or the Smith era Silence. While the episode forebodes a role for them in the upcoming season, it is unlikely that they become the 12th Doctor’s signature addition to the program’s rogue gallery.
Similarly, the episode’s resolution is a bit underwhelming. Everything turns out about how it should to tie up the superhero story and prepare the viewers for the next phase of the Doctor’s journey, but this feels predictable for The Ghost and Lucy, and the big reveal for The Doctor relies heavily on prior knowledge from past episodes rather than being contained within the universe of this Christmas special. The necessity to call in UNIT to clean up the mess at the end of the episode reflects some major plot holes beyond those one would except in a typical Doctor Who episode, even one which lampoons the superhero genre.
Overall, this was a strong episode, even if it is not quite super. The excellent performances from the principal actors, along its full embrace of the superhero oeuvre, make it a lot of fun to watch. Fans will likely remember it fondly, and look forward to “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” each year as it re-airs as part of the marathon leading up to the year’s Christmas episode.
Ari Rubin lurks in the shadows. You may have thought you saw him in the back of the bar, or going into the subway station, but when you looked back, he was gone. His fiction has appeared in Pif Magazine, Scrivener’s Pen, and The Hopper Review. His short story “White Collar Blues,” which originally appeared in Skyline, was nominated for The Carve Magazine/Mild Horse Press Online Short Story Anthology Award by the editor. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter as @thesurrealari .