Doctor Who Christmas specials can go one of three ways. Either they’re fun, light one-offs that appeal to the wider audience they receive on the 25th December, or they’re intricate, plot-filled tie-ins to the main story that can alienate casual viewers.
Or they’re just awful.
So it’s probably for the best that new superhero-themed offering The Return of Doctor Mysterio (the first Doctor Who episode in a whole year) is a tale on the lighter side, a story of love, heroics and living brains that tells a fun and breezy story over 60 minutes with some great gags and characterisation.
Our tale opens (as Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner originally did) with a young child whose life is changed forever by the Doctor, inspiring him to grow up to become a superhero called The Ghost while moonlighting as a mild-mannered type named Grant who hides behind a pair of thick glasses.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s supposed to be – the Superman/Clark Kent references are acknowledged early on and actually make some sense within the context of the story (in as much as the sci-fi technobabble in Doctor Who ever makes sense), and in many ways the whole story is a love letter to the Christopher Reeve era of the Man of Steel.
War of the Worlds and US Shameless star Justin Chatwin is no Reeve, but his Grant is a winsomely bashful hero well-paired with Charity Wakefield’s intrepid journalist Lucy, creating a two-person love triangle between woman, hero and dork alter-ego that’s charming enough on screen to carry the whole episode.
Though that’s not to say that Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor fades into the background, with the now-experienced Time Lord swinging from windows, solving puzzles and cracking some (genuinely funny) jokes all over the shop, while simultaneously battling a mysterious organisation called Harmony Shoal who have some nasty plans for people’s brains.
Capaldi could probably do this performance in his sleep by now, the darker Doctor of his first series replaced by a friendlier sort who is kind to children but can still whip out some black humour or talk down a scar-faced villain with a gun. Here’s hoping he can keep up the momentum for next year’s full series, which may or may not be his final in the role.
Of course, it’s not a perfect episode – there are a few clunky lines and misjudged moments, and Matt Lucas’ returning guest character Nardole will probably continue to divide viewers (his reappearance after being beheaded last December is briefly explained, in case you were wondering) – but overall it’s a surprisingly heartfelt, funny and entertaining hour of television (albeit not a very Christmassy one) from a premise that seemed like an odd choice when it was first announced.
All in all, after a long absence you’ll be very glad that Doctor Mysterio made his return this Christmas.
Doctor Who will air on BBC1 on the 25th December at 5.45pm