It’s Christmas Day evening in the United Kingdom. Questionably cooked roast turkey and boiled vegetables gently ferment in guts, racist relatives have soused themselves into bitter oblivion and, on TV, the Doctor is back in Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio. The instinctive reaction is “where the hell have you been?!”
It’s been a full (and eventful) year since The Husbands of River Song and boy could we have used the Doctor. Forget Daleks, Cybermen and the ever-present Silurian menace, we’ve got a lunatic moving into the White House, fascists ascendant in Europe and a planet staring down the barrel of potentially apocalyptic climate change.
Faced with all this, it’s unsurprising that Stephen Moffat has turned his pen to superheroes. Who better to fix all things than a gosh-darnit goodhearted kid with a floppy fringe, squarish jaw, flappy cape and bulletproof skin? An immortal time-travelling alien with a magic box is just the icing on the (Christmas) cake.
Smashing Doctor Who headlong into US superheroes, specifically Superman, makes for a strange cocktail. Both the Doctor and Superman are intensely malleable; entertaining children and adults alike and equally willing to delve into both the absurd and the intensely serious. The two in combination should be dynamite.
Doctor Who’s Superman/Clark Kent-alike is The Ghost/Grant Gordon(Justin Chatwin). When young New Yorker Gordon is inadvertently given superpowers by the Doctor, he makes him swear not to use them. Yet when the Doctor returns to New York years later he finds the citizens puzzling over the mysterious caped figure who plucks cats from trees, pulls children out of burning buildings and fixes fairground calamities.
All too soon plucky reporter Lucy Fletcher (Charity Wakefield) is literally swept off her feet by the dashing superhero. And as she lifts her eyes to the sky, she barely notices her nebbish live-in nanny Grant Gordon. It’s the classic Superman love triangle and you eagerly wait to Moffat to subvert and satirize it in that particular Doctor Who way.
And then… he doesn’t. The Return of Doctor Mysterio is essentially a self-aware reshoot of scenes from the 1978 Richard Donner Superman (with a couple of nods towards the 90s Lois & Clark TV show). The thing is, the Donner Superman was already self-aware, not to mention better acted, better shot and better written than this.
You’d might expect that parachuting the Doctor into the middle of classical superhero melodrama would shake things up a bit, but he ends up a peripheral character in his own show. There’s a rather limp world conquering menace to dispose of in the form of the body-hijacking evil sentient brains Harmony Shoal, whose plan is to invade the brains of world leaders and take over the world, a promising yet underdeveloped political analogue. But for all their scowling the Doctor treats them as more of an annoyance than a threat.
They’re subjected to the now slightly tired routine where the Doctor tells the pompous baddies that they’re inevitably going to lose. They cock an eyebrow and chortle disbelievingly, dismissing him as a lunatic. Then the Doctor wins. Even the weird quasi 9/11 notion of a hijacked ship hurtling towards New York skyscrapers somehow doesn’t raise the stakes.
Moffat’s decision to play it safe with both Superman and the Doctor is a sensible enough. After all, The Return of Doctor Mysterio will be watched by an audience of sugar-crazed kids, booze-sedated adults and grandparents still pining for Hartnell. No one is in the mood for metafictional genre-trickery on Christmas Day. Still, despite all that, you’d expect this exercise in genre-mashery to bear a little more fruit than this.
By the midway point the most interesting bit is working out which superhero director Moffat is visually referencing. A rooftop interview/date is classic Richard Donner, but there’s also several nods to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (static long shots of characters staring out of skyscraper windows), Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (the gold-tinted domestic scenes) and a very Marvel Studios press conference scene (I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but there are a lot of press conference scenes in Marvel movies). There’s even an ominous murmur of Joel Schumacher in The Ghost’s rubber-molded muscles.
Though the cast is uniformly decent and this is broadly well-made television, the potential of a Doctor Who/superhero mashup has been largely squandered. The Doctor’s presence in Superman should subvert a familiar story and reframe it through a different narrative. Instead though, he feels like part of the Christmas audience, munching his way through various snacks as he half pays attention to the story.
This 'Superman meets Doctor Who' romp is broadly entertaining, but eventually feels like a wasted opportunity to do something interesting with the two.