“The Return of Doctor Mysterio” is not very Christmasy. But it does make a key step the show has been in need of for a while: it made Doctor Who fun again.
In something of a genre-bending twist, this Christmas special features more than just aliens: it features a superhero. Due to some weird scifi mumbo jumbo, the Doctor accidentally gives a young boy superpowers. If we forgive the show for being unsciency (even for Doctor Who), this becomes a really fun journey, albeit with very standard origin story themes that have been around since the Superman comics.
Fast forward a few years and the Doctor is in the area again. Not as a sidekick, you see, but for an investigation. Yet another alien race has decided to invade planet earth, and these guys have a nasty habit of hijacking people’s bodies and literally pulling guns out of their brains.
And you thought zygons were gross.
The episode melds these two storyarchs together, with the secret superhero story (along with the overlooked love interest, double life, and glasses to boot) complicating the would-be alien invasion. I’d love to make some super-deep theological point from this story, but here’s the simple truth: it’s just a simple, fun episode without a ton of thematic depth.
That’s both positive and negative. The charm of the Doctor has always been in his unorthodox heroism, and exploration of human nature through those heroic exploits. In episodes where that isn’t fully explored, the depth most certainly suffers (although it should be noted that the Doctor, still heroic, states quite emphatically that the Earth is under his protection). On the other hand, however, this approach to the show allows it to lighten up and showcase what Capaldi and his supporting cast does best: silly, over-the-top fun.
There’s nothing wrong with that. And, in fact, it works even better given the return of Nardole (Matt Lucas), whose quirky comedic sense blends quite nicely with Capaldi’s eccentric flair. And the fun is not simply mindless, either. While the superhero elements are mostly intended as camp and half-parody (including some pretty direct allusions to the original Superman film), there are serious discussions that could be led from them. For instance, does having the ability to help automatically equate to a responsibility? If so, as the Doctor asks, “When do you sleep?” Also, is there a good justification for lying to someone, even if it’s for their own safety?
The episode answers these questions largely in ways that you would expect. Invading the Earth is bad, power does mean responsibility, and lying, even for good motivations, almost always makes things worse. (Some spoilers for Season Nine are in the rest of this review)
Throughout all of this, though, there’s also the shadow of the last episode’s events. Having spent one last night with his wife River Song (that lasted for 24 years), the Doctor is left with sadness and grief. And yet, how does he habdle that grief? Well, according to Nardole, he saves the world to distract himself from the pain.
There’s a lesson in that for us. Noe certainly, distracting from the pain rather than dealing with it is not necessarily healthy. But as was mentioned in a Bible study I was in earlier today, we don’t choose many things that happen to us, but we do choose how to react to those things. The Doctor reacts by finding ways he can help save people. How often do we dwell on ourselves rather than on others during those difficult moments of our lives?
In this vein, I’m reminded of Joseph, who, after being reunited with his brothers (you know, the ones who sold him into slavery), says “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good.” The Doctor doesn’t quite connect those dots – but it’s not hard for us as Christians to make that leap from the Doctor’s positive example.
But that’s a small part of the episode. What you’ll find here is not by and large a list topping Doctor Who episode. It’s a bit strange tonally, more fantasy than scifi, and very cliche at moments. But it’s also fun in the way that Doctor Who should be, and gives me hope for an excellent tenth season for the show.