Netflix UK TV review: Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio
Sense of humour7
James R | On 27, Dec 2016
Warning: This contains mild spoilers.
“Everything ends and it’s always sad. But everything begins again and it’s always happy.” That’s the kind of message we’ve come to expect from Doctor Who’s Christmas specials, but it’s one that’s especially poignant at the end of 2016, following the announcement that Steven Moffat would be stepping down next year as showrunner of the BBC sci-fi. It’s with both a heavy heart and a relieved smile, then, that this final festive outing from the head writer is a marvellously sweet farewell.
And yet it’s also, in a way, a reunion, as we haven’t seen the Doctor since last year’s seasonal special, which saw him part ways with River Song. “I’ve been away for a while,” confesses Peter Capaldi’s Time Lord, early on. “But now I’m back.” The modern incarnation of the series has always been notable for focusing on the impact that The Doctor has upon other people, particularly in terms of his absence, and so it is with The Return of Doctor Mysterio, which parallels his time away from the world with the arrival of another iconic hero: The Ghost, a masked vigilante with the power to fly and stop bullets.
Doctor Who does comic books? It’s the kind of premise that sounds like it’s destined to fail, but Moffat’s witty script makes the smart decision not just to play around with convention – an early joke about Spider-Man and radiation poisoning is an oldie but a goodie – but also to respect it. And so we’re first introduced to the idea of The Ghost by an encounter with young boy Grant, who wakes to find an old man hanging from his Manhattan rooftop asking to come in. And, no, he’s not Santa Claus.
Capaldi is in his element here, shooting down superhero cliches with a weary, withering sarcasm, but still playing the loveable curmudgeon to his naive companion. In fact, he gets two of them, when he returns years later to New York: Grant (Justin Chatwin), who is juggling daring night-time escapades with a job as the manny for Lucy (Charity Wakefield), and Nardole (Matt Lucas), back after last year’s Christmas outing.
It might sound like a recipe for disaster, but Lucas brings a touch more depth to his simpleton, playing the fool to Capaldi’s Lord, complete with an ability to cut through the gruff exterior and pick up on the anguish beneath. And so what we get is not just a costumed, caped escapade, but a study in grief to boot. “Time passes for everyone, even me,” observes The Doctor, while Nardole is unafraid to mention River Song’s passing more explicitly.
That’s not to say that this is a morbid affair. Far from it. Moffat whips up a conspiracy, some crime-fighting, a few babies saved from burning buildings and a handful of creepy aliens at an entertaining pace, all the while keeping the tone light enough for family viewing – not bad going for an hour that features a sinister German scientist and a plan for world destruction. While yes, there’s humour aplenty, including a Pokémon Go gag, the real charm comes from the unexpected romantic subplot, as Grant and Lucy tiptoe around the age-old will-they-won’t-they question. For Grant, it’s a double life in more ways than one, as Lucy (a reporter, of course) falls for The Ghost, leading to a laugh-out-loud, and quietly cute, date atop a building (hello to Richard Donner).
Wakefield is superb, managing to swoon, sigh and scarily interrogate subjects in equal measure, while Chatwin not only has the Christian Bale dual-voice down cold, but boasts all the everyman innocence of a young Tobey Maguire. He can even fire cheesy puns out when needed. “You’re kinda wet,” says Lucy at one point. “I prefer mild-mannered,” he retorts, without missing a beat. Their chemistry is enough to overshadow the script’s slightly creepier undertones of Grant’s long-time infatuation, which is to the actors’ credit.
The superhero premise, meanwhile, extends beyond the plot (think too much about the bad guys’ plan and the logic holes will swallow you whole) and into the episode’s style – taking a leaf from Ang Lee’s underrated Hulk, the editing deftly cuts between scenes as if they’re panels of a graphic novel. Underneath it all beats the sincere heart that makes Doctor Who’s good Christmas specials so special (out of an uneven bunch, this festive edition isn’t one of the duds). Indeed, Moffat has an understanding of the enduring appeal of superheroes, and their importance to non-super people; when one disappears for two decades, it’s no surprise that another should step into their shoes. After all, what is Doctor Who but a superhero himself? His title in Mexico, “Doctor Mysterio”, even sounds enough like one for Moffat to use it for the episode’s title.
The Ghost, as with so many on-screen heroes, is torn between being the pained normal person and a city’s flawless saviour. Reconciling the two is never the answer – a happy ending is found by putting down the superhero mask to become the real man; the hero inside. The Doctor, by comparison, can never can put his mask down. He’s both human and alien at the same time. He’s driven by myriad urges, from wanting to do good or wreak revenge to simply having fun. Most of all, though, could it be to distract him from the tragedy of loss? “Saving a city is what you do every time the conversation gets serious,” quips Nardole, as The Doctor changes the subject to worldwide peril once again.
The result is a fun family adventure and, 12 months on from our last dose of Capaldi, a reminder of how entertaining Doctor Who can be. Absence, perhaps, makes the heart grow fonder. But as The Return of Doctor Mysterio suggests, it also allows the heart to mend. The result is a bittersweet letter of farewell. Moffat’s time on the series is almost over, with 12 final episodes due in 2017, before Broadchurch’s Chris Chibnall takes over the showrunner reins. Yes, things end. But there’s a new season beginning in only a matter of weeks. And that’s a reason to be happy.
Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.