December 26, 2016

Doctor Who: "The Return of Dr Mysterio"

While attempting to repair damage to the time continuum around New York City, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) accidentally feeds a rare and exceedingly powerful alien gemstone to a young boy named Grant. Two decades later the gemstone has given Grant (Justin Chatwin) super powers straight out a comic book, which he uses to join the Doctor and the Doctor's new companion Nardole (Matt Lucas) fight against an alien invasion.

One of the signature elements of Doctor Who is its use of pastiche: it takes classic films and novels, remixes and re-arranges them and plays them back through a uniquely Doctor Who lens. "The Seeds of Doom" copied The Thing, "The Curse of Fenric" lifted liberally from The Fog, and in more recent times the Doctor's entire relationship with his wife River draws from the popular novel The Time Traveller's Wife. With "The Return of Dr Mysterio" the series attempts to lift elements and tropes from superhero comics - and specifically Richard Donner's feature film Superman: The Movie - and once again replay them from Doctor Who's perspective.

It doesn't work.

There is a strange belief among the producers of Doctor Who - notably Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat - that Christmas specials need to be sillier and more light-hearted than a typical episode. I am not sure why they ever felt this was the case, as the few Christmas episodes I have fully enjoyed have typically been the more serious ones. "The Return of Dr Mysterio" seems sillier than most: it is less interested in finding ways for superhero tropes to fit into the Doctor Who universe, and more concerned with poking fun at cliches that got mostly poked to death 20 years ago. In a world where Marvel Studios produce multiple blockbuster releases a year, Doctor Who's treatment of the genre seems oddly stilted and quaint. It is rather like an old person telling a kid they hate modern pop music because the Bay City Rollers were rubbish.

The stilted vibe of the piece extends to the guest cast, who seem to all deliberately deliver one-dimensional and quite awful performances. There is little depth. It not only bores, but it grates. The BBC skipped producing a season of Doctor Who this year, so this is our only chance to revisit the character between Christmas 2015 and Easter 2017. There was a lot riding on this episode to entertain, and for me it simply didn't come close.

There are highlights. Capaldi is in excellent form. New companion Nardole, who guest starred in last year's Christmas episode, turns out to be a pretty great character with a hint of mystery behind why he is travelling alongside the Doctor now. Matt Lucas and Peter Capaldi appear to work together very well. Around them, however, there are a bucket load of tired cliches and an alien invasion storyline stolen from Season 1's "Aliens of London". It all feels so inconsequential and silly, and most egregious of all it feels rather boring.

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