The Return of Doctor Mysterio Review
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.
- Multiple sources are pointing out the similarity between Harmony Shoals’s plan and Veidt’s plan in Watchmen which is fair enough, but surely there’s a more obvious precedent for aliens that open up their heads launching a fake invasion of Earth in Doctor Who. You know – something Moffat has probably actually seen.
- This was certainly an episode with lots to feed both sides of the Moffat/sexism debate. Those inclined to dislike him will find the tiredly heteronormative love triangle and the focus on Lucy being unable to identify Grant in a mask frustrating. Those inclined to like him will like Lucy’s status as a career woman and the alternative vision of masculinity implicit in positioning “male nanny” as an ideal.
- Liked the use of split screen for the phone farce. Obvious debts to comic books in terms of the visual use of the screen, but one also suspects someone’s been watching Fargo.
- I will, however, push back on the “Grant is a stalker” narrative, which seems to involve treating any male who is romantically rejected as a stalker. But there’s really nowhere in which Grant does anything stalkerish. He appears to be a good person who accepts Lucy’s apparent lack of interest with dignity and is perfectly willing to accept being her kid’s nanny if that’s what she wants. That’s not stalking, that’s what you’re supposed to do.
- The use of John Byrne comics is entertaining, as it’s difficult to think of anyone who’s view of narratology is more utterly opposed to Moffat’s, or, for that matter, utterly stupid. I know it’s period appropriate for Grant’s childhood, and that hardly anyone but me is going to feel like it should have been some old school Curt Swan art. I mean, hell, Byrne even did that story where Lex Luthor builds a computer to figure out the connection between Clark Kent and Superman, then disregards the answer. And better to deface Byrne than Swan, I suppose. OK, I’ve talked myself around. Carry on.
- I saw at least one review suggesting that there’s been a general lightening of Capaldi’s Doctor. This seems to me almost entirely a function of it being a Christmas episode – after all he was extremely dark in spots towards the end of Series 9. But I do think it’s worth noting the degree to which Capaldi’s Doctor is at his best when the comedy (which he’s marvelous at) is mixed with a bit of edge. Surely a product of it being Christmas, but with comedy being fairly foregrounded in the presentation of Bill, I do find myself fretting slightly.
- Glad I don’t have to do rankings, because Christmas specials are always a pain to rank in amidst other episodes. They’re fundamentally not working to the same aesthetic goals, and with the exception of Time of the Doctor, aka the one everyone but me hates, they’re generally not as appealing as standard Doctor Who. Many gripes in this review aside, I liked this one more than most.
December 28, 2016 @ 4:23 am
I still believe there might be more to the Harmony Shoals storyline this series when it was brought up in Husbands, they do seem to be the same head-splitting beings who tried to purchase the diamond from River, there’s the Ghost of Love and Wishes gemstone in this episode, and of course there’s that UNIT soldier who might spread more Harmony Shoals around. I don’t think it’s completely over, especially if Moffat was looking for a direction to take his final series in and an arc word might be a callback to Bad Wolf and such. Just a guess or speculation.
December 28, 2016 @ 4:30 am
Just to point out that reference in Husbands–
DOCTOR: So, who is this buyer?
RIVER: No idea, he just responded to the advert.
(A shadow falls across their table. It is a bald man with a diagonal scar running around his face from the back of his skull, round across the right temple to below his left cheek bone. His voice is very hoarse.)
SCRATCH: Which of you is Song?
DOCTOR: Who wants to know?
SCRATCH: I am Scratch.
RIVER: Don’t need your name. Are you empowered to purchase?
SCRATCH: I represent the Shoal of the Winter Harmony.
RIVER: Don’t care. Don’t want to know. I’ll need immediate payment. Can you do that?
(Just stuck out to me when I was watching Husbands again after I spotted Harmony Shoals was the name of the company in previews.)
December 28, 2016 @ 5:03 am
Oh, yeah, they’re clearly the same villains as Husbands. But I just took that as another part of the “jeez, really, a direct follow-up?”
Although yes, they could turn out to be the S10 arc. Though if so… that’s kinda… meh. I mean, two hours and two episodes in and they’ve yet to reveal a propensity for being interesting villains. They’re Slitheen that don’t fart.
December 29, 2016 @ 7:10 pm
Oddly, no one has picked up on the most provocative thing about Harmony Shoals, the name.
Harmony => Melody => Song
Shoals => Pond => River
January 2, 2017 @ 1:40 am
Harmonies play under melodies. Shoals are sandbars that lie immediately under the surface of bodies of water.
December 28, 2016 @ 9:39 am
Well spotted! I must admit it passed me by. It’s clearly stated on the BBC website that they’re same. In fact, they mention it twice. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/4C3q2NLDY2GrXLNXHv5S850/the-return-of-doctor-mysterio-the-fact-file
I’m kind of hoping they don’t appear in S10, but instead turn up next xmas… and they’re the universe’s slowest invaders.
December 29, 2016 @ 6:52 am
Not the first time, either. We had the Great Intelligence show up in The Snowman, and then popped up in the remainder of Series 7.
December 28, 2016 @ 4:34 am
That Lucy was unaware of Grant’s lifelong crush, while she entrusted him with her child and while he could see her naked without her consent or knowledge the whole time they’ve known each other? I dunno, seems creepy to me. I think I’d be on board with your reading if Lucy were at least aware Grant was crushing on her and still let him be her nanny with that knowledge, but… she didn’t, so it feels weird to me.
December 28, 2016 @ 9:40 am
I don’t think the “can see her naked” part is really relevant. I could see anyone who invited me into their house naked without their knowledge or consent if I wanted, I think it’s pretty easy to hide cameras nowadays. Admittedly with a risk of getting caught, but it’s not that risk which means I don’t do it, it’s because I just don’t do that sort of thing. And neither does he. (Provided he can reliably control that now.)
Perhaps the uncomfortableness here is rooted in the way that, while there’s nothing stalkerish about Grant, (providing we assume he became the babysitter by Lucy going “I want someone I know and trust. Are you available?” rather than going “you’ve got a baby. Want me to babysit sometimes?” himself,) he’s rather close to previous Moffat characters who have been stalkerish, so it’s reasonable to think the writer is still thinking along the same uncomfortable lines.
Particularly since he included the X-ray vision thing in the first place, which I don’t remember being necessary for the plot, makes less sense than the other powers when you think about it since it means he gets any light around him to do weird things rather than just affecting what his body can do, and feeds into the “men can’t help themselves” thing. Wouldn’t the story be better if that was just left out entirely? I know Superman has it, but like I don’t think “homages” to other stories are a good reason for bad storytelling decisions.
December 28, 2016 @ 3:03 pm
That’s sort of my problem with it, yeah – that the X-ray vision thing is there only for the puberty gag with young Grant. I think the story would make me less uncomfortable if it weren’t included.
December 31, 2016 @ 11:02 pm
I don’t disagree, but I will say that I appreciated that the x-ray vision gag was the exact opposite of the expected one.
Far too often, “realistic” crypto-Kryptonians get their x-ray vision as a teenager and immediately think “Hey I can be a peeping tom and no-one will know”. Even if they don’t actually do it, it’s presented as the first thing they think of.
Grant reacted the way I would have – namely “Oh, god, this is the most embarrassing thing ever, how do I make it stop?”
December 29, 2016 @ 5:51 am
I tried as hard as I could, but I just couldn’t escape the creepy dimensions of the Grant-Lucy relationship. I mean, I still thought it was an excellent story as a cracking Xmas week adventure. Not nearly as chaotic near the end as Phil described – the story wasn’t nearly as complex for its ending speed to be a problem. So I’ll always enjoy watching “Doctor Mysterio.” But it’ll always have this uncomfortable shade to it, at best.
December 28, 2016 @ 4:42 am
The River follow-up’s necessary to establish that “I’ve been away”, flagging the show’s absence and the point of the title. Otherwise, a casual viewer might assume they’ve missed a series.
It’s slightly mishandled, though, especially with the jarring mid-episode callback to 24 years.
December 28, 2016 @ 5:58 am
I… I mean, yeah. This is pretty much also my exact take on the episode. A perfectly passable hour, some fun bits and bobs, everything’s charming, Nardole’s fine and not annoying. But I share as well that nagging feeling – actually stretching back to “Husbands” – that Moffat found a perfect endpoint to his exploration into Doctor Who with those wonderful last 3 episodes, and this one didn’t reassure me that he has more to say. But I will be delighted to be wrong.
December 28, 2016 @ 6:52 am
Curt Swan Superman is always the best choice, Phil. You’re not the only one.
December 28, 2016 @ 12:15 pm
The Curt Swan Superman for me says childhood comics more than Byrne does and of course that’s a generational thing like Hartnell is my Doctor (Goddamn I’m getting old!) but there’s also something innocent and childlike about Swan’s clean lines illustrating exactly the kind of Lois and Clark rom-com shenanigans that Moffat is essaying here that would have been a better fit.
I’m glad Phil didn’t over critique this episode though. It would be like kicking a puppy that you got for Xmas. It did poop on my carpet though.
December 28, 2016 @ 7:37 am
Superman: The Movie if Superman was Watchmen and Richard Donner was Joel Shumacre.
I liked it. Though, not to get too Lawrence Miles-y, but I suspect the reason it wasn’t Doctor Who lands in a Marvel-style superhero story is because that would be about as creative and refreshing as doing a Series 8 throwback at this point.
December 28, 2016 @ 10:57 am
Matt Lucas wasn’t as awful as I feared he’d be. He actually wasn’t awful at all.
“What are you doing here?”
“We could ask you the same question, but it’s your apartment, so we probably won’t.”
December 28, 2016 @ 11:16 am
Rankings (slightly revised from last year):
December 28, 2016 @ 11:19 am
Actually, no. Put “Husbands” between “Mysterio” and “Runaway Bride.”
December 28, 2016 @ 12:10 pm
Didn’t Moffst do split-screen phone farce way back in ‘Coupling’? The comics influence is obvious here, but I couldn’t help thinking too of I think it was “The Other End of The Line.”
December 28, 2016 @ 10:59 pm
Yes, he did. And marvellously.
(Probably more cleverly than here).
December 28, 2016 @ 2:52 pm
On the stalker thing, I don’t think “what you’re supposed to do” quite covers taking a job in the household of the person in question (as opposed to, well, absolutely anything at all anywhere else), particularly a job amounting to quasi-parenting their child, and all in all effectively putting yourself in a position as close as possible to being shacked up with them without having an actual romantic relationship, all without letting on that you’re interested in them. It’s hard not to find that scenario a weensy bit unsettling.
The whole lovelorn set-up also undercuts any point being made by the male nanny thing – this isn’t a vocational choice or “just a job”, it’s all about the object of his affections. And as with Rory, Moffat’s alternative-masculinity treatment seems to be locked in conflict between virtuous intentions and an instinctive inclination to disdain and ridicule – “Nothing to worry your pretty little head about” is pretty savage.
December 28, 2016 @ 3:14 pm
There we go – this is what I’ve been trying (and failing) to get at. Thank you for putting it in better words than I!
December 28, 2016 @ 3:18 pm
Oh, and while we’re expectation-managing for season 10, I’ve just seen that poster image and apparently there’s going to be more Gallifrey. Hurrah.
December 28, 2016 @ 10:57 pm
Ooh, what poster image is that?
December 28, 2016 @ 11:57 pm
It’s on the IMDB page for the series, and features characters including Bill, but also the general from Hell Bent. I assumed it was season 10 publicity material, but now the thought occurs that it might not be. Which would be nice.
December 29, 2016 @ 2:55 am
I’m pretty sure that’a fanmade – there’s a signature for ‘Dominic Lea’ in one corner. No idea what it’s doing on IMDb…
December 29, 2016 @ 10:41 pm
Aye, it looks fanmade to me.
December 28, 2016 @ 3:40 pm
This episode is harder to rate than usual because it has two distinct halves and I only like one. Brain snatchers were cool. Grant was terrible. I wish it was just a regular episode about Harmony Shoal.
The unironic walk through every superhero cliche I couldn’t stand. Maybe it was supposed to be so straight it’s ironic, but what we got is, in my opinion, just crap.
December 28, 2016 @ 10:52 pm
“Those looking for any sorts of tea leaves regarding Series 10”
I suspect we’ll get those in January with Sherlock, given that whatever preoccupies Moff as he works on “The Lying Detective” and “The Final Problem” might segue into his Series 10 stuff.
December 29, 2016 @ 12:05 am
Can I point out how the Shoal don’t make sense?
And they are in fact inside human skulls, because at the end there’s a body with empty space inside the eye sockets.
I do like the ridiculousness of them dramatically opening up their heads to reveal small items they could have easily have stowed elsewhere.
December 29, 2016 @ 3:39 pm
The problem I had with him being the nanny is that it presents the whole Nice Guy thing as working.
If you like a woman, don’t tell her, but insinuate yourself as far into her life as possible, and she’ll suddenly realize you’re awesome and essential and fall for you.
The non-creepy options were to either tell her how he felt, and let her make an informed decision as to what she wanted of him, or to get a job elsewhere, and stay out of her life.
Her response might have been to ask him to leave, as she wasn’t comfortable, Or, she might have taken a second look and liked what she saw, now that she realized he was interested. Either way, she would have been dealing with him as he was, not him lying to her.
As it was, Grant was clearly using Lucy to fill emotional needs (particularly the need for family) without her knowledge or consent.
For things to be non-creepy, there needs to be informed consent. Grant did not inform Lucy of his feelings, so she could not consent to the terms of their relationship.
Plus, the nanny-as-superhero basically gives a man superhero credit for doing work – on a work schedule and for pay – that women are routinely expected to do 24/7 and unpaid.
The x-ray vision didn’t bother me as much, as Grant clearly realized it was inappropriate to gawk at people, and learned to behave with dignity, and treat others with dignity, even when they were naked to his eyes.
January 2, 2017 @ 8:21 am
The nanny-as-superhero point would make more sense to me if the episode passed judgment on Lucy for not being a full-time parent, but it doesn’t seem to be doing so – and the Doctor’s admiration for Lucy’s investigative skill is more substantial than any praise he gives Grant.
December 31, 2016 @ 3:38 pm
I basically found it fun and an enjoyable piece of fluff. I needed a bit of Christmas fun and I got that. It felt pretty good to be watching a bit of fresh Doctor Who with no strings attached to it and this was the only Who I had watched since Husbands last year, so it felt quite fresh in that way.
Nothing deep to say. Really dug Nardole.
January 1, 2017 @ 1:01 am
But the Doctor is never away. There’s no need for the Doctor to disappear just because he spent 24 years with River. We don’t even know when these 24 years took place. But he could simply show up later, with the TARDIS, to a different place at the same time as those 24 years. Unless he thinks those years are sacred somehow so that he won’t never travel to that time.
January 2, 2017 @ 9:40 am
Something just felt deeply off about this episode to me. Grant’s supposed to be a riff on old-school Superman, but he wears this grimdark fetish body armor and only seems to operate at night, as though he’s Batman. He even does the Christian Bale growl!
That, plus there’s not much sense of how Grant’s character fits together with his Ghost persona. The Christopher Reeve movies were quite clear that the Clark persona was a disguise for Superman. But it’s not clear if Grant is more like the Ghost or more like Grant, and he’s not an interesting enough character to make that an interesting question.
Doctor Who riffing on a story or genre is fine, good even, but the end product still needs to exist on its own terms and this really did feel like bits of stuff stapled together. The superhero elements and the alien elements are completely separate and never combine into anything greater.
Say the Doctor had stolen the gem from the Harmony Shoals people and they were coming to reclaim it, and Grant had to choose between fighting the aliens as a superhero and giving the gem to some people who needed it, losing his powers in the process. Kind of like Clark giving up his powers in Superman II.
And it would have effectively captured the bit where Superman best intersects with Doctor Who – namely, the fact that Superman is someone who looks human but draws power from his alienness, and remains a good person in spite of what that power or alienness might do to him.
(Side note: given that the episode is theoretically about the heroism of ordinary people doing ordinary things, I’m surprised that Grant simply promises not to use his powers rather than losing or choosing to lose them…he didn’t keep that promise before, and honestly how did this episode change him to the point that he’d actually consider living as a normal person?)
I’m fine with the idea of Christmas fluff, but that generally just means “light in tone”, it doesn’t mean you get free license to write incoherent messes…as a non-drinker I couldn’t catch half of what was going on in the climactic crash scene, so God help the people who were slightly rat-arsed on Guinness.
January 2, 2017 @ 12:59 pm
January 5, 2017 @ 5:32 pm
Am I the only one who found the tea sipping sequence in the TARDIS kinda funny?
Here we have Nardole decked out as an ancient Chinese noble from an offscreen adventure he had while using the TARDIS on his own. He brought back what was probably really really good tea. Good enough for the tough but fair emperor!