Fluff, but in a generally “good Christmas fun” way. Those looking for any sorts of tea leaves regarding Series 10 are essentially out of luck save for the trailer, but those interested in having an entertaining hour of television watching on Christmas were well served, and are surely the more important audience.
Obviously the tagline is “Doctor Who does superheroes,” which is an enticing approach that the series really hadn’t tackled before. And yet there’s something strangely out of sync about it. You’d expect something in which the show riffs on the Marvel movie formula. Instead we get Superman. And (unsurprisingly, really) not the cynical Snyder Superman, but an utterly unreconstructed Superman rooted in old-fashioned sentiments like “the real hero is Clark Kent” that would never pass muster at today’s DC.
In hindsight, strange as this ends up coming off, it’s hardly unexpected. Of course Moffat, who hasn’t exactly done anything that signals him as a big comics guy, was going to go for a straight-up Clark Kent-Lois Lane-Superman love triangle. And all things being equal, he does a pretty good job with it. This isn’t exactly a surprise, given how squarely up his alley it is, and he doesn’t do a particularly surprising or innovative job with it, but again, the goals for a Christmas episode are different, and an entertaining and amusing formula well-executed is what the job calls for. And it’s not as though there aren’t small pleasures. Grant’s status as a nanny and Lucy’s interrogation are enough to give this its own distinct flavor, and are charming touches in their own right. On the whole, it’s sweet - a take on superheroes that’s not particularly fresh, but is still out of pace with the rest of the badly oversignified genre that it’s still refreshing.
The biggest problem is simply lack of space. Everything goes fairly well until the Doctor and Grant’s storylines diverge, and even the dinner scene is good farcy fun, but once the story starts working its way towards resolution it becomes obvious how poorly it fits into its hour-long container. It’s safe to say the plot isn’t really the focus here, and that’s fine, but equally, everything after the Doctor makes it to the spaceship hits that weird note where so much is happening that it feels like nothing is.
It’s also a structure that ends up reducing the Doctor to something of a bystander in his own show. This is firmly an episode about Grant and Lucy. The Doctor gets some fun larking about in the cold open, and there are some decent lines scattered throughout (the Pokemon one, most notably), but this is Doctor Who in its “excuse to do something else” mode, which when the show’s been off the air for a year, is more than slightly frustrating.
Which makes it, in the end, all the more puzzling that the episode opts to end on the note of “the Doctor’s been gone for a long time being with River Song and now he’s very sad.” It feels like a very strange misreading of both 2015 and 2016 in terms of Doctor Who. Sure, yes, the Doctor can’t be mourning Clara because of the circumstances of their parting, but it’s still that, not River, that feels like the operative loss in the series. To have him mourning one of Matt Smith’s supporting characters is as strange as, well, having him apparently trying to repair time so he can visit Amy and Rory. (Although it’s an open question when in the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure the cold open is actually set.) But perhaps more to the point, it just feels off to have the Doctor in grumpy mourning mode at all after a year off the air. Surely nobody actually felt as though The Husbands of River Song was a source of unfinished business in dire need of resolution a year later. Surely “Doctor Who does superheroes” could have sustained an episode entirely on its own merits, without the need to establish the show’s relationship to its immediately prior status quo. Yeah, this’ll work great when people marathon the Capaldi era, but as a Christmas day return it’s just… why?
Which I suppose brings us to Nardole. Who basically works. He hasn’t had a Donna-like transformation into an actual character yet, but he’s at least been rejigged to have settings other than obnoxiously thick, and actually works pretty well as a slightly scolding presence trying to get the Doctor back on track. Equally, it’s not clear why he’s needed in this episode beyond giving the Doctor someone to explain the plot to once things get rushed in the last fifteen minutes. And it’s even less clear why he’s needed going forward when the trailer suggests that we’ve got the perfectly lovely Bill coming. He’s not bad, but much like the overall connection to The Husbands of River Song, you really have to ask why he’s there.
The worrisome answer, and the one that hopefully won’t end up hanging awkwardly over Season Ten, is that The Husbands of River Song wasn’t crying out for a follow-up for the very simple reason that Moffat really would have preferred to leave after it, and this entire final season is just going to be marking time. I doubt that, and suspect that once Bill shows up things will get going a bit. And looking at how the season is structured, I’m sure that when we get to the end-of-season rush of three Moffat episodes followed by a final Christmas special he’ll kick into having something to say mode. But the fact of the matter is that going out with Heaven Sent/Hell Bent and The Husbands of River Song would have been a perfect ending, and based on the evidence of this, it’s far from clear that there’s an equally good ending past that.
But that’s a discussion for the end of 2017. For now, we had an entertaining hour of television that will still watch well any time of the year. Sometimes you get more than that for Christmas, but you’d be mad to expect it.