Doctor Who Christmas special review: “a beautifully packaged hour of uplifting escapism”

The Radio Times grinch awards his first festive five stars since David Tennant's debut

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★★★★★  2016 is going down in the annals as a horrible year. What we need at its close is a little light. We need heroes. And we need the Doctor.

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The Time Lord has cruelly abandoned us during our annus horribilis so it’s a relief that he is home in time for Christmas – with a beautifully packaged hour of uplifting escapism.

If you’ve read this blog before, you may recall I’m usually lukewarm about the Doctor Who Christmas specials. As a long-term fan, I expect to be disappointed at this time of year. It likely stems back to Christmas 1974 and Tom Baker’s debut story, Robot. I didn’t like the story, didn’t like the robot, and did not take to Tom Baker at all. The omens for Christmas 2016 weren’t promising. The clip shown in Children in Need was dispiriting; the slipshod trailer on redial on BBC1 even more so.

In November, I was standing by the bar at the BFI (after the premiere of The Power of the Daleks animation) when a friend who works on Doctor Who came over, raving about the Christmas special. He asserted that, even in its unfinished state, it was his favourite of all time. “But then you hate the Christmas episodes,” he told me. “Do you like superheroes?” he ventured. “Not especially,” I said. “Well, there’s not much hope then, is there…?” he sighed, washing his hands of me.

A few weeks later Steven Moffat gave me an outline of The Return of Doctor Mysterio and, remembering my Yulephobia, slipped in the proviso, “It’ll be a relief to you, it’s got virtually no Christmas in it at all!” Well, he said that last year…

OK, I’m an inveterate grinch, presiding in judgment over seasonal Who like vinegary old Craig Revel Horwood. Crack a smile, dear. But after sitting through the BFI premiere of Doctor Mysterio, I turned to the chap from two paragraphs above, now perched two seats away, and I did the customary Craig RH volte-face, mouthing, “FAB U LOUS! I loved it!

This came as some surprise to him and to me. In particular, I hadn’t been relishing further exposure to Matt Lucas’s Nardole. Of all the one-off characters who might warrant a recall, this gormless nitwit decapitated and absorbed by a robot last Christmas in The Husbands of River Song, was not among them.

But it’s rather like the Catherine Tate/Donna Noble effect a decade ago. A popular and talented actor known for comedy pops up one Christmas, is annoying as a broadly painted character and you’re relieved when it’s over; then he/she returns a year or so later, subtly recalibrated and is actually rather effective. Who knows how he’ll work out in series ten, but I enjoyed the lightness of touch Matt Lucas brings to this special and the instant rapport he has with Peter Capaldi.

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There’s no time-wasting explanation about why the Doctor reassembled Nardole. It’s amusing that he can pilot the Tardis, has his own mini-adventures off screen (“a few accidental stop-offs… 12th-century Constantinople. I ruled firmly and wisely”), and returns looking like he’s had a tumble in a curtain sale at John Lewis.

Superhero movies are in vogue and are costlier and gloomier than Doctor Who can stomach. So it’s wise that Steven Moffat has presented a back-to-basics story: boy gains superpowers; grows up into a geek in specs; spin-changes into a superhero; averts disaster in New York; adores a smart woman who, handily, doesn’t realise the dork and the hero are the same man.

If you’re steeped in superhero lore, maybe you’ll be unimpressed by Doctor Who’s naïve presentation, but there’s no doubting the enduring appeal and effectiveness of the genre clichés: secret identity, thwarted romance – what Steven Moffat calls “a love triangle for two”. And Doctor Who has never overtly featured superheroes before – although I cringe at the memory of John Simm’s Master zooming up into the sky a propos of nothing in The End of Time, Christmas 2009.

The scenes between the Doctor and eight-year-old Grant (Logan Hoffman) are delightful, allowing Capaldi to work some grandfatherly charm and tottering eccentricity. Canadian actor Justin Chatwin looks great as both the lackadaisical nanny and rippling Ghost, while Britain’s Charity Wakefield (from Wolf Hall) is lovely as his Lois-Lane-alike, Lucy Fletcher, reporter for the Daily Chronicle. This duo/trio are definitely worth a revisit and, arguably, Steven Moffat has created a minor issue by introducing this superhero.

Why hasn’t the Ghost ever shown up in Doctor Who before when modern-day Manhattan was in dire peril? The logical answer is that we’ve been following the Doctor’s time stream and he hadn’t created the Ghost yet. But henceforward? At the end, Grant claims the Ghost is “laid to rest” and he discards the costume, but surely if any threat to New York arises, or even to the Earth, the Ghost will spring into action and be on the scene long before the Time Lord. It would be a worthier spin-off than Class…

The Return of Doctor Mysterio is a delicious mash-up of Doctor Who, Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, condensed into an hour that never drags. It’s witty and happy to be silly. When young Grant asks, “How do you keep a glass of water in your pockets?”, the Doctor answers simply, “Skills.” Learning that a radioactive spider gave Spider-Man his superpowers, the Doctor says, “What, vomiting, hair loss and death? Fat lot of use.” In the Tokyo HQ of the Harmony Shoal the Doctor has cleverly “created a distraction – I flooded downstairs with Pokémon.” There was a huge laugh at the BFI when Lucy quizzes the Ghost about his love-life. “Boyfriend? Well, there has been speculation – you do fly around New York dressed in rubber with a big G on your chest.”

Steven Moffat has written a heart-warming drama, free of schmaltz and sentiment, seasoned with action, romance and mildly icky gore, and with a linear plot that is perfectly digestible for a family audience on Christmas Day. Awash with CGI and under the direction of Ed Bazalgette, it looks gorgeous, cinematically and technically proficient. I hope he returns to the Who fold soon, although he’s not booked in yet for any 2017 episodes.

To cap it all, Capaldi. He’s brilliant. Long may he remain the Doctor.

In short, an unmitigated rave from me this year. The Return of Doctor Mysterio easily garners five stars – in my book the first five-star Christmas Who since The Christmas Invasion, David Tennant’s debut in 2005.

If I have one fleeting regret, it’s that they missed a trick in not finding a way to pay homage to David Bowie, the Man Who Fell to Earth and made New York his home for 20 years. Lifelong fan Capaldi wrote in the Christmas Radio Times: “I can’t believe he’s gone. A genius.” I’d have loved it had the Doctor pulled out his guitar and strummed a few chords of classic Bowie. It should, of course, have been Heroes.

*

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Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas photographed exclusively for Radio Times by Richard Grassie

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