Thursday, December 29, 2016

Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio

One year. One whole year.

That's the longest we've been without a new episode of Doctor Who since the wilderness years, measured from the time that Ace and the Seventh Doctor strolled off into a field at the end of Survival until the time the Ninth Doctor told Rose to "Run for your life!" (with only the terrible story featuring the excellent performance of Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor breaking up the dry spell)

Was it worth the wait? In a word, yes, and much more so than I thought it would be.

From the trailers, I was concerned. The appearance of a super-hero in Doctor Who seems like a failed premise that would hold nothing but failed comedy, but the end product turned out to be anything but. This may be the first Christmas episode that ties directly into a previous one:  the events of the Doctor's personal timeline happen after the 24-year night spent with River in The Husbands of River Song; the return of Nardole, whose head was restored to his body; and the return of head-splitting villains Shoal of the Winter Harmony, now calling themselves the Harmony Shoal Institute.

I don't normally like Matt Lucas, and I still think he looks silly, but his character's been reigned in a bit and I don't think I'll mind him tagging along for a bit longer. He's proving to be a therapeutic influence after the Doctor's loss, knowing when to back off and when to call him out.
Always bring snacks when intruding.
(A fun bit of trivia: when Peter Capaldi was BBC Radio, he said that he'd learned while in Mexico that they call the show "Doctor Mysterio" and people would shout that to him when he'd visited.)

Much like with of Amy Pond and Ashildr, the Doctor seems to be showing duty of care by coming back to look after those whose lives he affected at a young age. It smacks of the guilt he feels in failing in his duty of care towards Clara, despite the superhuman efforts he put forward in so doing. He still can't read human age quite well, first estimating the 8-year-old Grant to be in his 30s, and visiting him at points throughout his life to check in on him and make sure he's behaving responsibly with his powers.

The Ghost didn't quite manage to steal the show from Capaldi -- short of Michelle Gomez, there aren't many who could -- but he was still passable as a proper superhero with the powers of Superman, the brooding of Batman, and the social awkwardness of a very insecure man unable to express his love for a childhood friend.

Lucy, our Lois Lane stand-in (I daresay she's a better Lois Lane than Amy Adams), was very quick. She's smart, determined, and has good instincts. "This is Mister Huffle. He feels pain." wouldn't work on everyone, but it worked on The Doctor.
UNIT shortly afterwards had Mister Huffle banned under the Geneva Conventions.
The villains of last year get some excellent fleshing out, with the very menacing German host Dr. Sim (best German Christmas villain since Hans Gruber?),  and the charismatic CEO Mr. Brock. The splitting head effect is still unnerving, especially when Mr. Brock's eyes move while his head is split open.

On a technical side, the episode holds up very well, packed full of little details both subtle and glaring:
  • Twelve falling into his own trap, setting up the entire story. 
  • Actual real-world comics (from both Marvel *and* DC) appearing in young Grant's bedroom. 
  • Twelve's bafflement over no one realizing Clark Kent is Superman. 
  • Literally quoting Uncle Ben's "great responsibility" speech to Grant. 
  • The Ghost criticizing the political bias of Fletcher's newspaper. 
  • Harmony Shoal being possibly another way of saying "Melody Pond" or "River Song."
  • Grant's attempt to unmask himself referencing the 1989 Batman movie, where Michael Keaton repeatedly attempts to tell Vicki Vale that he's Batman, unsuccessfully. 
  • Mr. Brock's assistants being Shuster and Siegel, the names of the co-creators of Superman.
That's a pretty good-looking super-suit.
The special effects aren't quite MCU-level superheroics, but they're definitely passable for TV drama, at least on par with the CW family of shows. Even the American accents of the characters were passable -- with the exception of the Canadian actor playing Grant, who still sounds Canadian, and Lucy Fletcher and Mister Brock sounded pretty natural.

There's a recurring musical cue as well that's very, VERY old-school: the 80s synth riff that would be at home anywhere between Tom Baker and Sylvester McCoy's era. I remember first hearing hints of it back in Robot of Sherwood, and there's some very memorable heroic themes at work here, which have proven effective in both the Marvel movies and DC shows.

I've missed Peter Capaldi, really I have. This episode provides a vast array of him, from the irreverent moments (eating sushi while intruding in the evil lair), to the manic (absently answering a child's questions while setting a trap for temporal anomalies), to the said, quiet moments ("Things end" and unbuttoning his shirt alone in the console room). But at the end of Hell Bent, he promised to Clara to "Be a Doctor" again, and he's back in full force, velvety coat and new screwdriver, and it feels good to see him again.

As for the preview for the next series... I'm not sold on Bill yet, but if handled properly, she has the potential to be the next Donna. She seems a bit annoying and gobby, asking a lot of dumb questions; but then, so did Donna at the beginning. By the end of Donna's run, though, we had a fleshed-out character who had grown and matured (and what a shame that it was ruined by her departure. I'll never forgive you for that, RTD). Nardole also seems to be sticking around for at least a few more episodes, which will lend an interesting dynamic in the TARDIS, and Capaldi is delivering lines with serious gusto. Despite any reservations, I'm looking forward to the series returning properly and in full after it's year's rest.

All in all, I'd say that this is the best Christmas special yet. Not that this was a particularly high bar to cross, as the Christmas specials tend towards being outrageous and silly, packing in killer Christmas trees, robot Santas, silly giant headless robots, and the like. It's up there with Clara's second appearance, which was a genuinely good episode as well. The Christmas specials appear to be getting progressively better, with 2014 being the exception as an otherwise suspenseful and tear-jerking tale was marred by the jarring appearance of Nick Frost's Santa Claus.

In fact, the only problem I had with this special was the non-appearance of Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody, which I think has popped up in every one so far.

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