Doctor Who #974: The Return of Doctor Mysterio

"I always get a cold at Christmas." "Me too. Or an invasion."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Dec.25 2016.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor meets a real-life superhero.

REVIEW: Doctor Who has always poached from whatever was popular at the time and integrated those ideas into the show. In the 60s, the Beatles somewhat guest-starred. In the 70s, the show became a subsidiary of Hammer Horror. And so on. Superheroes, however, aside from a sort-of character in The Mind Robber (which might have been a better Easter Egg than The Mind of Evil, try to catch a glimpse of the title on a theater marquee), have always seemed impossible to fold into Who. And yet, superhero comics are a patchwork of influences and steals, just like Doctor Who. Well, in this age of superhero movies and TV shows, Moffat finds a way to appropriate the tropes for our favorite Time Lord's adventures. This is the Moffat of "Curse of the Fatal Death" (minus the sex comedy) who uses available tropes mockingly, but lovingly. The story of the Ghost (alliterative Grant Gordon) is largely taken from Donner's Superman film, but all comics and superhero movies are up for grabs. A double-L journalist (Lucy and Lombard are both pulled from Superman's supporting cast), the "interview" on the roof top, secret identity shenanigans of the first order, a rotating planet on top of a building, the Doctor's jacket looks like a red cap as he hangs outside a window, young Grant reads Byrne's Superman and defends Spider-Man's origin from the Doctor's mockery, as an adult he wears a crab-like (Kyle Rayner) mask and uses a Batman-like voice and persona despite his Superman powers, Grant's powers are caused by an Infinity Stone, the Doctor calls him Tiger (the Mary Jane shtick), split screens looking like comic book panels, etc. It's all a lot of fun, and the Ghost is extremely sincere. This isn't one of those superhero tales that drip with cynicism. It embraces the silliness of the tropes, because Doctor Who is often silly too. And let's be frank here, the episode (whose title must confound Mexican audiences who already call the show "Doctor Mysterio") also borrows from Doctor Who itself, as aside from the superhero element, the plot is borrowed from Aliens of London and 70s Auton stories.

We haven't had a new Doctor Who story in a full year at this point, and this one comes right off the last one. It really is a "Return", and the pause has allowed us to feel the 24 years he spent with River on Darillium. He's been away from the universe, so to speak, and away from our prying eyes. Melancholy isn't the only thing he's brought back with him. Now Nardole (Matt Lucas) is an amusing Companion, interesting if only because we haven't gotten a male one in years, his head returned to a human body. From the trailer for the next season, it looks like he'll stick around for at least one more story; I don't mind even if he's strictly comic relief. And then there's the matter of the Harmony Shoal being the villains of the piece, the same aliens who can split their heads open and were featured in The Husbands of River Song. Grosser, less silly Slitheen, their importance is more thematic than actual. It's all in the name. These two last episodes are about (the) River coming to an end at the Shoal, where river meets ocean. In Husbands, they were foreshadowing; here, they're background to the Doctor coming out at the end of one story and into another, a changed man. A reversed Heart of Darkness?

24 years is a split second on the Time Lord clock, but these were spent with River Song who taught him things he would not ordinarily have learned. Look at the chronology of the story. If it's been 24 years (coincidentally) since he first met the Ghost, and Nardole is absent, his visits to the boy (in two time frames) must occur before Husbands. At that time, he has his usual facial recognition problems and can't tell the boy's age. In the main of the story, he's able to tell Lucy is jealous of whatever date Grant is on, no flashcards required. He's more comfortable with humans and with himself. That's River's doing. "Everything ends and that's sad," he says, but everything begins anew as well. It's not a sad time, just one that had to happen, and something Doctor Who fans know all too well. So he has great zingers, fun quirky moments, essentially gets interrogated by a squeaky toy (he can't stand even fake pain), sonics Pokemon into existence (Lance Parkin will one day use that to date the story within a month of the correct date in AHistory), and he's a total badass once the situation is resolved and it's time to disarm the baddies. We're ready for the next fun chapter.

THEORIES: At the beginning of the episode, the Doctor is building a machine that would untie the temporal knot around New York during the 20th Century. Post-Clara (who he has forgotten), is he trying to get Amy back. She was his last remembered companion, after all. Is he doing what his Matt Smith self would have been doing had he the millennium-plus' worth of experience and know-how his Capaldi self now has? He's prevented from doing so, but could conceivably get one of the three other stones, or travel to the future to get the fourth from the Ghost's remains...

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - In some ways, a fluff piece to cash in and make fun of the popular superhero genre, but it's a lot of fun, perfect for the Holiday season (despite its weak ties to Christmas).


Anonymous said...

I saw some griping about this episode online, holy hell people what do you want? This wasn't "serious" enough for you? Go watch some Zack Snyder; as for myself I prefer to watch a show where the hero saves the city rather than destroying it.

For as much as this was a "superhero" story, it also worked as a Doctor Who adventure, without having to slight either the superhero or Who side of things. I don't think Moffat's going to receive enough credit for that: it would be so easy to have the Doctor not belong in a superhero story, or to have the Ghost not belong in a Doctor Who story, But Moffat found a way for the two parts to work neatly in concert.

I'm still contemplating the Doctor's theory that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person. The big problem there is, Clark Kent needs glasses, and if he took his glasses off to become Superman he wouldn't be able to see. So, I have to go with a "no" on that theory.

Siskoid said...

Contacts maybe?

As for the griping, it's Doctor Who fandom. There's always griping. Some are just unhappy with New Who in general and keep watching so they can grumble about how the classic show was better. Or some other Doctor. Or some other showrunner. Or whatever. That's the thing with Doctor Who, you can't easily rage-quit because another era is just around the corner and maybe that'll be more to your tastes.

I'm not as tribal about this sort of thing. I consider myself a Doctor Who generalist.

Unknown said...

Another factor might just be that it's Moffat writing it. Which isn't to say his work is at all exempt from criticism but a segment of Who fandom has always given him flack for not being Davis.

LondonKdS said...

The thing is that, as you've hinted at above, while Doctor Who is very different to superhero comics, the issues in the fandoms are hilariously similar. You get arguments about whether it should be directed at a mass audience or long-term faithful fans; related arguments about whether it should be child-friendly or full of graphic violence, horror, and moral nihilism; and people who see one particular era of the show under a specific group of creators as the one perfect version and judge all other eras solely by how similar or different they are.

Andrew said...

Okay, I had to do the math. 24 years ago was 1992. December was right in the middle of the hiatus between Death of Superman and Reign of the Supermen. Perhaps some Jurgens or Grummett art would have more appropriate than the Byrne (personally, I would have enjoyed seeing an issue of Man of Steel by Bogdanove and Janke, but that yould probably be a bit too "out there" and not instantly recognizable).

Siskoid said...

Superman #19 would have been about 4 years old. Possible if not right off the stands.

Unknown said...

I can sympathise with people that do not exactly enjoy Moffat's writing style. I have gripes with it myself, being the main reason I've given up on Sherlock. But in all fairness every era has it's low points.

Kaiser The Great said...

It felt like a "spin off introduction" episode ala Assignment: Earth. Still enjoyable though.

Anonymous said...

Okay, so the space gem ("The Ghost of Stuff You Want" or whatever it's called) gives you what it thinks you want. Grant is a fan of Superman and Spider-Man, so okay, it gives him Superman powers.

But the thing I noticed on a repeat viewing is, Grant's life ended up as sort of an amalgam of Clark Kent's and Peter Parker's, even down to him being in love with a reporter with "LL" initials. So I wonder if the space gem gave him the whole package: not only did it set him up with powers but also structured the events in his life? If nothing else, it might explain how the existence of The Ghost doesn't have ongoing ramifications in the "Doctor Who" universe -- the impact of The Ghost doesn't extend much beyond Grant.

Siskoid said...

Yes I agree with that assessment.


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