Doctor Who: “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
An entire year. 365 days. 8760 hours, 525,600 minutes, 31,536,000 seconds. That’s a whole lot of time since the Doctor took River Song to the Singing Towers of Darillium for their final 24-year tango together at the end of The Husbands of River Song. So, with fans starved of the show, and more importantly Peter Capaldi’s glorious eyebrows (unless you count his appearance in spin-off Class) for what certainly felt like 24 years in real time, it’s fair to say there was just a little bit of pressure on The Return of Doctor Mysterio to deliver in our first Who helping since 2015.
The episode’s title surprisingly doesn’t refer to the diminutive masked wrestler Rey Mysterio, or even to Justin Chatwin’s superhero (he’s called The Ghost), but instead to the Doctor himself, as he’s referred to a handful of times. In fact, Doctor Who the show is called Doctor Misterio in Mexico, and Steven Moffat drew inspiration from the title for this episode after Peter Capaldi was adored with thousands of people screaming the name on the World Tour last year.
In The Return of Doctor Mysterio, after transitioning into the story from a comic book panel, the Doctor finds himself in a predicament hanging by his legs from a ledge in New York City, stories high in the air. After a young boy named Grant saves him, the Doctor ends up accidentally giving the boy superpowers. Making Grant promise not to use them, the Doctor then runs into Grant in the present day, now superhero The Ghost, who saves him and the returning Matt Lucas’ Nardole from death by a pistol-wielding dodgy accented baddie, and the episode flies into a love letter to superheroes and comic books. The Return of Doctor Mysterio features references and tips of the hat to all kinds of comics and superheroes alike, from Watchmen to the classic “with great power comes great responsibility line” from Uncle Ben.
Alongside opening with a comic panel, the episode also features moments where the action splits into separate panels with a comic book aesthetic. The superhero content in the episode is done well, in a way that doesn’t cheapen the series or feel out of place, with the effects for The Ghost’s powers being more than commendable for the budget. Director Ed Bazalgette playfully experiments with the tropes of the genre and brings a liveliness to proceedings, on his return to Who directing after his season 9 double-header of The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived.
The main narrative thrust of the episode comes from Grant/The Ghost, and the plucky reporter investigating the villains of the episode (The Shoal of the Winter Harmony, returning from last year’s Christmas special) and afterwards investigating The Ghost himself. Their relationship is clearly meant as an analogue to Lois and Clark from the Superman comics, and the episode does play out very much like the Christopher Reeve Superman films, full of optimism and positivity. Justin Chatwin and Charity Wakefield as journalist Lucy have great chemistry together, and both put in excellent performances, with Charity getting a wonderful scene at the midpoint of the episode where she grills the Doctor for information on The Ghost using a squeezy toy called Mr Huffle (it can feel pain). It’s a gloriously ludicrous scene and full of uncomfortable Capaldi expressions as he’s taken way out his comfort zone by Lucy. Lucy is a resourceful, sparky character who could easily have been the new companion herself. Justin Chatwin meanwhile plays the dual role of The Ghost and Grant the nanny (of Lucy’s baby, no less) to perfection, capturing the Clark Kent/Superman spirit with plenty of emotional moments involving the true nature of heroism in the mix (not all heroes wear capes).
While Capaldi isn’t given any material that’s especially challenging, he’s such a dependable force by now in the show that seeing him on-screen doing any matter of acting as the Doctor is just a delight. He skips and points and Doctors his way through proceedings, whether that’s giving the villains a classic Doctor ultimatum of run-home-or-bad-things-will-happen or acting stupefied by the events that he’s witnessing involving The Ghost. Matt Lucas gives us good signs of things to come in series 10- his character is used sparingly and even though he’s the comic relief mostly, other than a grin-inducing scene near the end when he wraps events up, he’s a genuinely useful friend to the Doctor here and their relationship will be highly interesting to explore next series.
We’re taken at a brisk pace through Mysterio, with a story structure and feeling like the Marvel Cinematic Universe formula. Brightly coloured and energetic, there’s plenty of witty dialogue and snappy one-liners. Any fears from the Children in Need preview clip where stock Murray Gold music was used can be allayed, because the soundtrack to the episode is very special indeed, with multiple bombastic music cues sweeping us along. Most of all however, is that the episode is just so much fun. From the way Capaldi casually drops into a tense scene with a sushi tray (“I brought snacks”) to his brilliant moment near the climax where he starts bashing the console of the Shoal spaceship desperately trying to find something that works, there’s a real manic feeling to Mysterio, and a silliness that is more than welcome. It’s this balancing of ridiculousness with dramatic weight that makes the best of the Marvel entries what they are, and it’s the ideal offset to the heavy closing chapters of series 9.
As an episode, Mysterio stands as one which is easily accessible to those who may have felt slightly turned off by recent storylines, but also slots well into the recent storyline. It acts as a great coda to series 9 and its overlying themes, and especially working well as a double header with last year’s Christmas special and the story of hiding your true self, and the themes of love and loss (with a return of the quote “nothing’s sad ‘till it’s over. Then everything is”).
The Return of Doctor Mysterio will probably prove to be one of the most re-watchable episodes of the show. It’s perfect Christmas Doctor Who- breezy and effortlessly entertaining, there’s still plenty of storyline continuation within to be effective and slot nicely in the gap between our very long wait for new episodes. If we ever needed a reminder of the confidence of the revived show in its now unshakeable position in our culture, after nearly twelve years back on the air (this is the twelfth Christmas special since 2005) then this episode proves that even after a year off the air, Capaldi and co. can effortlessly bring us back into Who like it never left. And by the time that the intense beat of the Twelfth Doctor’s A Good Man? theme kicks in for the first time in the episode near the climax, you’re wishing you had super-heroic patience in the months before we get series 10.