The twelfth – twelfth! – Doctor Who Christmas special goes easy on the festive decoration. No flesh-eating snowflakes, no sentient alien tinsel, no Weeping Angel plonked on top of the tree. The Return Of Doctor Mysterio riffs on an altogether more recent tradition: the comic book blockbuster, those shiny, mega-budget Marvel and DC movies that prop up the holiday TV schedules or arrive gift-wrapped on Christmas morning.
It’s a weird proposition, isn’t it? Somehow Doctor Who and superheroes feel fundamentally ill-matched, two worlds that could never collide. They’re both on the side of truth and justice but tonally and aesthetically they’re a universe apart. Doctor Who’s never done all that hands-on-hips, fluttering-cape stuff. It’s less about the tight spandex, more about the scarf and tank-top; it favours crazy eyebrows over the noble jaw. Maybe, at heart, it’s simply too British to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
So it makes sense that this story decamps to New York, traditional home of the superhero. The opening shots cram in as much pure, distilled New Yorkiness as municipal zoning laws allow: yellow cabs, pizza joints, fire escapes, steaming manhole covers. You expect Woody Allen to crawl out of the screen and cram a pretzel in your mouth at any moment. It’s a sleight of hand – this Manhattan is actually a mock-up in Bulgaria – but it’s a convincing enough bit of fakery to help sell this unlikely mash-up.
The pre-titles sequence is a charmer, establishing the wry, buoyant tone. Logan Hoffman’s winning as the young, comic-crazed Grant Gordon while the Doctor’s sniffy take on superheroes is good value, particularly the sly line where he wonders if Spider-Man’s radiation-imbued superpowers are “vomiting, hair loss, [and] death”. That’s dark for Christmas.
Steven Moffat’s script teases the superhero myth rather than outright skewering it. He’s affectionately playing with comic book cliches, from the modern (cosmic gemstones) to the classic (Grant rips open his shirt, Clark Kent-style). The Superman movie is an acknowledged influence: Lucy Fletcher invites the city’s mysterious protector for a rooftop rendezvous, just like Lois Lane did, and the Ghost’s line: “I certainly hope this unpleasant experience hasn’t put you off a career in journalism” is a spin on Superman’s famous advice regarding the statistical safety of flying. With an old sitcom writer’s eye Moffat sharpens the eternal love triangle by cramming these characters into a single apartment.
It’s a shame all the superhero stuff feels quite so familiar. Justin Chatwin gives the Ghost a Batman growl, but the G on his chest could just as easily stand for Generic Man. He’s a clear Superman surrogate, just as Lucy’s a stand-in for Lois, but the risk of playing with such stock archetypes is that they never quite convince as characters in their own right, for all that Chatwin and Charity Wakefield bring charm and spark to their roles. Sometimes it feels like the TARDIS has materialised in a sketch show take on superheroes rather than a genuine comic book world.
The alien invasion plot feels equally routine, but it’s redeemed by that glorious visual of the roomful of brains in jars. When those eyes open it’s spooky and funny and has a delicious ‘50s B-movie shudder. The Shoal themselves are an unexpected choice of foe for a rematch. We met them in last year’s Christmas special, The Husbands of River Song, and the ending of this one teases another encounter in the future. Maybe a truly successful superhero story demands a proper supervillain – a Lex Luthor, a Joker, a Professor Yin to Captain Yang.
But then there are so many colourful characters in the Doctor’s orbit now. Once he strode into a story as the lone figure of weirdness. These days he’s surrounded by eccentrics. Take Matt Lucas, back as Nardole, almost a duffel-coated mini-Doctor here. He comes perilously close to feeling like a novelty tie made flesh (“Elephant!”) but the idea of the Doctor’s valet is a decent one – and, in the show’s sixth decade, a commendably new one. Lucas brings the broad, back-of-the-stalls laughs but his final moments give us a glimpse of a deeper character, one who takes his responsibility to the Doctor’s well-being very seriously indeed.
And as the Time Lord himself, Peter Capaldi is as magnetic as ever. The character’s evolving: the brusque dick of series eight is history now. He used to need flash cards to deal with human feelings. Now he’s doling out relationship advice. Those 24 years with River have clearly had an effect. Capaldi sells it all with that charismatically cadaverous face and laser-pointer gaze: the humour, the heroism, the melancholy.
So does it work, this gene-splice of Doctor Who and comic book blockbusters? It’s certainly extraordinarily ballsy for the BBC to go up against Marvel’s million dollar FX blow-outs, but for every so-so flying sequence there’s a moment that delivers genuine wow: the Doctor and young Grant on a skyscraper spire, Manhattan falling away behind them; the climactic shot of Grant holding up a spaceship with a single hand and a shrug of a smile. But with Doctor Who, spectacle’s an incidental pleasure. It’s never been about the budget. Charm, imagination, and wit: these are the show’s superpowers.