Doctor Who Christmas specials are like a present stuffed into a Christmas stocking; you’re never exactly sure what you’ll get, and under the reign of Stephen Moffat, there’s only been one or two truly great specials. Which makes me glad to say that 2016’s The Return of Doctor Mysterio isn’t a stinker, although it isn’t a classic, but it is a solidly enjoyable episode which also serves as an entry point for viewers who may have drifted off in the last few years. It also shows off just how good Peter Capaldi is as the Doctor, though I still have the fear he’ll finish his time with barely a handful of classic stories.
Christmas specials are lightweight affairs normally, and this is no different. We start with the Doctor and Grant, a young boy in New York obsessed with superhero comics (sharp-eyed comic readers will notice only comics from the 1980’s in this scene as a nice bit of subtle dating) who, thanks to something typically Doctor Who, ends up gaining super powers. Fast forward to the present day, Grant (Justin Chatwin) has grown up to be a nanny for childhood sweetheart Lucy Fletcher (Charity Wakefield) who struggles with her job as a reporter and bringing up the child (after the father walked out on her, making Grant selfless like a superhero) and as The Ghost, a rubber-clad Superman analogue.
There’s a peripheral alien threat who hark back to 1950’s monster films, especially Fiend Without A Face, but they’re pretty inconsequential and are really there to drive the plot on with their Watchmen-esque plan to take over the world by staging an alien attack on New York and use that to take over the Earth’s leaders. The story is really about the Doctor getting his arse back in gear after spending years moping over River Song’s death, as he reboots himself to fighting baddies with the aid of Nardole, a potentially annoying Matt Lucas who ends up being a useful sidekick for Moffat to throw the comic relief on which makes Capaldi’s Doctor a tad more intense, though not totally humourless.
The Return of Doctor Mysterio is really though a love letter to classic superhero comics, especially the Mort Weisinger era of Superman, and although it very nearly touches on the post-modern era work done by the likes of Alan Moore, this really is about Christopher Reeve than Henry Cavill in terms of Superman. It isn’t one of the very best specials as said; the alien menace are initially weird but Moffat fails to develop them beyond ‘weird’ and are dispatched far, far too easily – and although the superhero stuff is fun, the scope of the story is held back by the episode’s budget which is at times, annoyingly cheap.
However seeing Capaldi very firmly in manic mode placed in the centre of the programme is a welcome sight. We do have another new companion in the next series which may well make the TARDIS a tad crowded with Matt Lucas occupying the companion slot already, and with Lucas being The Big Name, there’s a risk the new companion won’t get the chance she deserves. We’ll see. That’s for the spring. Until then we’ve got a charming, often witty, Christmas episode that is going to go down as one of the better ones.