The Return of Doctor Mysterio

Story No. 289 The Ghost
Production Code Series 10, episode 0
Dates December 25, 2016

With Peter Capaldi
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Ed Bazelgette
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: The Doctor accidentally creates a superhero.


"One Year Older" by Thomas Cookson 3/5/19

2016 was a strange gap-year indeed.

The Husbands of River Song had felt almost like New Who's Survival. A perfect, appropriate stopping point on which the show could be considered to have concluded. Then Bill's two-minute preview aired, reminding me the show was still in production, having a place to fulfil in the Saturday night TV line-up, which it wouldn't for another year. For the first thirty seconds it conjured my excitement again. A spectre of 2005's long-faded excitement, but there nonetheless. Promising to fill a void I hadn't realized I'd missed.

Momentarily I hoped this meant a return to traditional, simple Who adventures. Corridors, Daleks, explosions. Making childhood treats from small resources, some enthusiasm and imagination.

The presence of a new companion represented a fresh way to enjoy the show anew, through fresh eyes, making the previous era's mess seem instantly wiped away and forgotten. A chance to enjoy all the show's thrills again, without getting into murky waters of whether the Time War's lost its effect, or The Witch's Familiar had irreparably changed Dalek nature and history.

Yet all too quickly it turned into one big, painful excitement-killer, exhibiting the same problems plaguing Moffat's writing. Bill's usual insufferable Moffat-girl trademarks. Unrealistic dialogue and terrible humour undermining the suspense, making incredibly dated, infantile (fat-shaming) jokes about the Daleks' appearance, with utter disrespect for the past creativity of previous writers and designers.

Capaldi's clearly doing his best to maintain the breathless excitement and urgency of the situation, and he's fighting a losing battle against everything else. I was honestly surprised to read fan excuses for the excruciating dialogue, saying that Bill's reaction of pointing out how silly and laughable a Dalek looks to a layperson, and why should she be afraid of one, was 'realistic'.

The media does mock and parody the show to a degree that's frankly asinine. But the show's fiction is supposed to exist at a remove from that. Otherwise Doctor Who ceases being any different to its own sketch-show parodies, and you no longer get from it the kind of conviction in the stakes that can't be found anywhere else. Doctor Who loses what makes it special or unique.

It seemed obvious The Return of Doctor Mysterio would further Moffat's wish-fulfilment agenda to supposedly turn Who into something else, far cooler and less embarrassing. Moffat's sadly no longer a writer you await and anticipate something interestingly different from. Instead, rapid creative burnout and impatient, jaded boredom with his overdone gimmickry has set in. When RTD asked audiences to believe too many impossible things at once, he at least knew to make the experience feel emotionally rewarding.

When morbid curiosity compelled me to watch this, it left me with a sour expression from the outset. I felt scant engagement with it. From the desperate idiocy of the opening slapstick with Capaldi swinging from his own trap (making me cringe at why every Christmas, Capaldi gets forced into this 'wicky wacky' indignity), to Nardole asking to go the toilet, I barely broke a smile. The only moment genuinely making me laugh was Capaldi deducing the spaceship set to collision was uninhabited because its lights were off.

Moffat's riding the coattails of Marvel's Avengers, and its core fanbase who are conditioned to potentially like this story because it resembles other things they like, or they'd suspect it's interconnected in a shared universe with them. But the comic book movies' craze is a seemingly fading fad already. Marvel arguing already reached its ne plus ultra with Captain America II: Winter Soldier. Everything after has just felt like a repellent descent into tired, portentous fan-service. Perhaps audiences are getting tired and exhausted now after Batman vs Superman's critical failure (that said, I did love Wonder Woman).

Nonetheless, diehard Whovians championed Moffat's mining of this zeitgeist out of desperation for the show to remain liked and popular, even if its popularity ultimately ends up having nothing to do with being Doctor Who. Who knows if those fans genuinely enjoyed this or were just being typically manic and pathological about endorsing it for the show's survival.

I liken fandom's 'Cult of Russell' to Scientologists. 1989's cancellation gave fandom an apocalyptic vision of what can become of the series again. So they relentlessly follow the 'keep scientology working' principle of overwhelming, degrading (even gaslighting) any critical fan voices into nothing.

The Return of Doctor Mysterio does possess the infectious sense of the cast having a ball. Charity Wakefield particularly brings some spunk into this, buying into the idea of a steamy, sexy romance being told here and plays it as such. But it's quickly apparent we've seen this all before. Lucy letting G-Man carry her off basically rehashes Rose's first swooning into Captain Jack's arms.

G-Man walking through hails of bullets is milked for its spectacle (leaving me sorely missing the days of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, when the show relied on theatrical limitations and substance), but we'd seen River do the same back in Let's Kill Hitler.

Even Grant's character journey is Rory's all over. A timid Clark Kent, barely noticed by his love interest, yet suddenly becomes an invincible badass when donning his Centurion superhero costume. In A Good Man Goes To War, that wasn't made lucid enough for confused viewers. Here it's on the bloody nose.

I was curiously amused by Lucy (another Moffat-y female unhinged control freak) grilling Capaldi by torturing Mr Huffle. It's the story's oddest scene and the only moment possessing genuine intrigue.

For personal taste reasons, I'm happier about Who giving ground to becoming a superhero flick than to RTD's Powell Estate soap, which always set my teeth on edge. But overall, this is a far less workable hybrid. Far less of Doctor Who survives in this form. There's no longer a contrast between the mundane and the fantastical. Any sense of Doctor Who is obliterated here in ways RTD's era never quite managed.

This special shows appalling planning on Moffat's part. He's kept Capaldi absent from our screens a whole year. Then finally comes this long-awaited special, and the final product reduces Capaldi to a pointless extra in someone else's show. Begging whether Moffat even understands what his audience wants anymore. I was particularly dismayed at Capaldi standing back, eating sushi, doing little to save the brain suckers' first victim, but I couldn't feel enraged, since I don't expect better from him anymore.

This story's so on the nose and 'meta' to the point of fourth-wall-breaking about how Grant's acting out the DC comics fiction, as a comic fan who happens to have a Lois Lane love interest who's a reporter eager for an interview.

Moffat used to be able to maintain this Russian-doll-style plotting, but here he doesn't seem to think we deserve the effort. We're just to accept this canon merge that instantly makes the show's universe feel smaller and more artificial for being completely diluted. Bringing the show to shrinking point.

Furthermore, it's not a good superhero story. Grant's an appallingly hollow character with nothing compelling about him. He's basically a cosplayer. Where usually there's a backstory that gives a hero substance and conviction, Grant has absolutely none.

When I first watched Superman II or The Empire Strikes Back, I didn't know anything about their heroes' backstory, about Superman's homeworld being destroyed. I knew even less about Luke Skywalker. But it didn't matter, I was still hooked and impressed by them as dynamic heroes. Moffat would cynically say that's simply because, as a kid, I was just entertained by their awesome superpowers, which they used amidst exciting events. I think it's more because that backstory, despite meaning nothing to me yet, actually gave their respective actors some substance and grit to work with, which gave them screen presence, gave them goals and determination. Just like Eccleston's Doctor had when he bore the weight of the Time War, before Moffat erased that from his backstory.

Grant definitely doesn't have that. He's easily the blandest Moffat character inspired by a childhood encounter with the Doctor so far. In fact, Moffat seems invested in making sure he doesn't change or evolve from childhood to adulthood. I guess that's what happens when only the superficial details of a superhero-origins strip are imitated, and the substance is assumed to take care of itself.

Grant had a childhood crush on Lucy, and apparently nothing else interesting's happened to him since. If he ever was struck by the temptations, dilemmas or failures that adolescent Clark Kent did when disasters struck that he wanted to fix, the story completely skips them (apart from Catholic guilt making him renounce his X-ray vision powers during puberty).

Nonetheless, despairingly, many feminist fangirls considered Grant's twenty-year crush on Lucy 'creepy' and 'stalkerish', despite his aforementioned refusal to take advantage of his vision powers around girls and Lucy employing Grant to work in her home, making him far from an uncomfortable, uninvited presence in her life.

This might be down to them fundamentally misunderstanding stalkers' psychological make-up and why they become dangerous, when rage at their own inadequacies becomes projected psychotically upon their idolized target.

However, the fact he's maintained that crush so long until finally, out the blue she realizes she feels the same way reveals Moffat's seeming inability to understand love, relationships or women. Moffat understands the clockwork mechanics of what people in love do, but not the heart. RTD somewhat got lucky, casting Billie Piper at the height of her talents, during an emotionally raw period of her life, hence why Rose felt emotionally full-blooded.

Moffat, rather infuriatingly not only doesn't seem to get women, but possesses the arrogance to assume he has women, and how to handle them, all sussed. Moffat seems obliged here to make the poor sell to his fragile, hysterical SJW viewership that even 'feminized' beta males with a nannying job, can still be tough and get the girl.

Moffat's trying to artificially recreate Classic Who's anti-macho positive male cultivation, as seen back in Season 16. When male heroes could be gentle, intellectual and poetic (even though Moffat clearly prefers Earthshock's macho sensibilities). But Moffat only conveys it in the cartoonish, trite terms modern SJW's would understand.

Embarrassingly, Grant doesn't come across a self-determined man but slavishly desperate to please his SJW/feminist friends who've vilified his every other masculine trait and pursuit in life. Basically Doctor Who's no longer about writers reckoning with their anxieties but about them insipidly soothing the trigger-prone audience's.

Speaking of Earthshock, Capaldi speculates on the devastating aftermath of the ship's collision crash and the inevitable government response. His trite anti-war speech condemns war and Western governments with the most inane vitriol that ends up conveying no coherent point whatsoever. Describing how in said disaster, the government would seal itself away in bunkers, sending its youngest soldiers to fight and die hopelessly against the alien enemy in the decayed streets.

What does Moffat think is the alternative? Let ISIS win? Have no governments whatsoever and become like Somalia's lawless hellhole? Turn back time and make it all magically unhappen?

Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11's anti-military posturing (whilst hypocritically advocating for enlisting congressman's sons) at least added the caveat that this system becomes deplorable when young soldiers ultimately lay down their lives over a lie, rather than genuine necessity.

So much happened politically in 2016, that it's the worst time for the show to become both elusive and politically moribund. Especially with Star Wars: Rogue One, and Martin Scorsese's masterpiece Silence speaking directly to a modern generation living in the age of ISIS' evil theocratic fascism.

There are some incidental moments of excitement, like when young Grant can't control his flying, leaving Capaldi clinging to tower railings, a sheer drop beneath. A single joke that made me laugh, and a temporary female companion I wish was staying on. But ultimately it feels a waste, begging the question why even make this as Doctor Who?

What was it for?