As we move into 2017, comic book inspired movies and TV shows are the most popular and lucrative genre going. Just this year, we’ve had six super hero films (Deadpool, Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Suicide Squad, X-Men: Apocalypse and Doctor Strange) as well as 6 television shows (Arrow, the Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Gotham and Agents of SHIELD), not to mention the Marvel Netflix shows. Therefore, it’s not too surprising to see other shows acknowledge the massive popularity of super heroes with a yuletide homage. That’s what Doctor Who did last night.
It’s not unusual for the yearly Doctor Who Christmas Special to put out an episode based on a popular film. They’ve used Titanic and The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe as the basis for previous specials. This year, the BBC dipped their toe into comic book waters and gave us a meeting between the popular Time Lord hero and a super hero from New York. It’s one step away from a fan-fic story about the Doctor meeting Superman.
Peter Capaldi returns as the 12th Doctor. The episode picks up after the events of last year’s Christmas special, “The Husbands of River Song”. We learn that the Doctor has spent the last 24 years with River Song, before her inevitable death (seen in “Silence of the Library”/ “Forest of the Dead”). The story has the Doctor accidently giving super powers to a comic book addicted kid named Grant Gordon. Grant grows up to become the super hero known as the Ghost and helps the Doctor save the world from an alien invasion. The Ghost is clearly a Superman satire. The adult version of the Ghost is played by Justin Chatwin, who has some experience playing a superhero, after having portrayed Goku in Dragonball: Evolution. (Interestingly, he made his acting debut in an episode of Smallville.)
The episode is full of comic book references and Easter Eggs, most notably the Doctor reading a Superman comic. At the very beginning of the episode we get a reference to Siegel and Shuster, the creators of Superman. The alliterative double-letter names of the characters here (Grant Gordon, Lucy Lombardi) is a common comic book trope. (Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, etc.) The whole rooftop dinner scene is a direct homage to a similar scene in Superman: the Movie. We even see a building that looks like the Daily Planet. There are also some Spider-Man nods, including the titular reference to Spidey’s enemy Mysterio, and the moment when the Doctor tells Grant “With great power comes great responsibility”.
Charity Wakefield plays investigative reporter Lucy Lombardi as a clear Lois Lane parody. Like Lois, she is the love interest for the hero, oblivious to his duel nature. “The Return of Dr. Mysterio” also takes some jabs at established comic book tropes, such as a pair of eyeglasses masking the hero’s identity, and the way a clever reporter is unable to see through this ruse.
The alien villains of the episode are just OK. The way their heads open up is visually fun, and their brain-replacement plan is a bit reminiscent of the DC villain Ultra-Humanite. Overall, however, they are fairly generic, so-so bad guys. Matt Lucas, who reprises his role from “the Husbands of River Song”, doesn’t get too much to do as the doctor’s new sidekick Nardole.
As for Capaldi himself, he continues to give spirited performances as the latest Doctor. He is the most retro Doctor of the new show (a throwback to the original series) and it’ll be a shame if the rumors that he’s leaving after 2017 turn out to be true. The episode has the Doctor off-screen for extended periods, and these Doctorless scenes are when the story starts to turn more into a super-hero homage than a Doctor Who episode. Since this series has a habit of bringing characters back, don’t be surprised if we see the Ghost again sometime down the road, especially if Super Hero films continue to be so popular.
Written by showrunner Steven Moffat (who is also leaving the show after 2017), “The Return of Dr. Mysterio” tries to make a link with “The Husbands of River Song” near the end but the connection doesn’t quite come across as strongly as it could have, and seems shoehorned in. This year’s Christmas special is nothing special if you’re not a comic book fan. If you are—and you get all the little inside jokes and references—this is a fun episode. If you’re not, you may not enjoy it so much. Overall, it’s a rather mediocre episode that both jumps on the super hero bandwagon while simultaneously lampooning it.