But of course, The Return of Doctor Mysterio wasn’t really “Doctor Who”. Among all the grudging "It wasn't as bad as I was hoping it would be" type comments from Doctor Who "fans" in the aftermath of the episode’s broadcast (a sentiment that seems to appear after all of Steven Moffat’s episodes, almost as if fans are expecting them to be bad for no other reason than that they’re expecting them to be bad, rather than because there’s any precedence in the matter), by far the funniest criticism this reviewer saw was someone complaining about how unconvincing German actor Aleksandar Jovanovic's German accent was. It's just a symptom of the way a certain kind of fan watches the programme these days, proactively looking for things to criticise Doctor Who about - and indeed finding things, even when those things aren’t actually there. The most common criticism was the lack of originality, as if fan favourites like Seasons Seven and Eighteen didn’t tell the same story over and over again, or the mid-1970s heyday of the programme wasn’t the most derivative Doctor Who has ever been. It’s not a programme that prioritises doing new things, but one that finds new ways of doing old things or finds new meanings in those things.
And Steven Moffat is a master at finding new things for Doctor Who to deal with. To criticise the supertext in one of his stories for lacking originality is to entirely miss the point of his writing. Moffat has a particular bag of tricks he’ll often return to, albeit no more so than many another writer, but he is also just about the only man who has run Doctor Who, and who has chosen to concentrate on the time travelling aspect of the Time and Relative Dimension(s) in Space format. Hence here we have the Doctor meeting his principal co-protagonist as a child, before spending the rest of the episode examining the legacy of that encounter. Russell T Davies tried it just the once, in Love & Monsters, and the concept provided that episode with an especially tender coda that helped give the story its bittersweet quality. Moffat pulls it off again here, the numerous flashbacks to the evolving Grant junior’s narrative proving amusing and adorable, and nicely illustrative of the adult Grant’s conundrums. The rest of The Return of Doctor Mysterio was easily as much about the resolving of those problems as it was about their symptoms – and if Steven Moffat has trodden these paths before that’s only conspicuous because none of his predecessors ever really had the wit to do so.
It wasn’t really a superhero story at all. Most of the A-plot could have happily existed without the flying sequences and it was only really in the final scenes that Grant validated his powers, something that could well have been achieved another way; however, the superhero angle made for a neat gateway into the love story. Indeed, by showing how Grant came by his superhero powers in the pre-titles sequence, Moffat neatly dodged a time-consuming sub-plot which would have involved the Doctor investigating their source, and instead provided an already formed relationship between the two which was the cause of much humour and not a little pathos – and thus allowed the writer to get right to the heart of what he wanted to cover, the relationship between Grant and Lucy Fletcher.
That we’ve been here before, not least in Superman the Movie (Moffat’s confessed inspiration) was irrelevant; to complain that a love story lacks originality is to complain that love itself is out of mode. Rather, the question was, could Steven Moffat make us care enough about these characters that we didn’t mind the retread over old ground? The answer was assuredly Yes. Chatwin and Wakefield made a great couple, if not crackling with electricity, at the very least delighting with their timing. Their introductions – as adults, that is – were fantastic, Capaldi’s “I brought snacks” scene a lovely bit of nonsense designed only to illuminate the connections between the characters. Thereafter the story unfolded very slowly, with a bunch of nods to the Ghost’s bestowed superpowers but mostly driving the narrative to the point at which Grant’s secret would be revealed to the girl he’d spent his life standing in the shadows of, and lightly dancing with clichés along the way. It was a very simple entertainment, something familiar for Christmas Day that was none the less satisfying for it.
And the sequence where Grant’s alter-ego was finally revealed was beautifully done, Lucy dressing him in his superhero costume an arresting, warming moment.
Which is not to say that there wasn’t something scary for the kids and the kids at heart too. The brains with eyes were one thing, the alien who kept his gun in his head – albeit again, a visual we’ve already seen only too recently – about as grim as Doctor Who gets, especially at six o’clock on a Christmas Day. It’s quite something to write an episode of a television programme in which a young boy can swallow a magic crystal from outer space, a man can pull open his own head to reveal a revolver, and a superman can get the girl while balancing a crashing spaceship atop a New York City skyscraper all within the same sixty minutes, and not make those moments feel disparate and incoherent. But that’s what Steven Moffat does; his rulebook contains only one line: Anything Goes, just as long as it sings. Douglas Adams – another writer who had a bag of tricks he plundered many times over – would have approved.
It was also nice to see Christmas taking something of a back seat this year, although the nods were there before the titles crashed in, if the special needed its scheduling justified. Though having said that, the tone and tenor of Moffat’s story shared more in common with his first Christmas Special, A Christmas Carol, than it did with any of his predecessor’s, no matter how many nods to Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who he might have included. Funniest of all were Capaldi’s constant references to the Harmony Shoal’s head zippers, a very ostentatious way of admitting to having stolen a mostly harmless plot point from an eleven-year-old Davies story – and one that Davies himself had nicked pretty much wholesale from Spearhead from Space anyway. Elsewise, The Return of Doctor Mysterio was all about the characters, and any notions of an alien invasion were only there because, well, that’s what Doctor Who does.
All of which is to preface Moffat’s real accomplishment. Hell Bent told the story of the dissolution of an unmanageable relationship that neither party really wanted to let go of, yet knew they must, and The Husbands of River Song told of what happens when those parties meet again years later, and fully aware that they’ll never make something permanent of the situation, decide to go out in a mutual blaze of glory. The Return of Doctor Mysterio, which sees the programme itself returning after a voluntary interruption which mirrored somewhat the events depicted in the on-screen story (clever Moffat), is the story of finding love anew, of committing the past to the past – as exemplified by Grant’s ultimate relinquishing of his alter-ego – and putting down new roots that will give life to a brighter future (there was even a baby, just in case this point passed you by). The brief and anything but mawkish reference to River Song, was not only justified in the episode but indeed was what justified the episode’s existence.
If any of this is an augury for the forthcoming tenth series, then Moffat’s swansong year will be lighter on its feet and somewhat less intense than the five seasons that preceded it. And while that in itself isn’t necessarily a good thing, what will be exciting will be seeing the showrunner letting his hair down a bit. If the reintroduction of Matt Lucas’ Nardole is any indication – and how sublimely Lucas underplayed the character, the perfect foil to Capaldi’s skittish twelfth incarnation – Series Ten promises to be fun, and unpredictable, and somewhat of a revelation.
That’s a lot of ifs. We’ll find out in four months’ time. But for now we have something unique in the series’ canon, the second of two consecutive Christmas Specials, a pair of episodes that counterpoint and complement one another perfectly – the first a bittersweet ending, the latter an emerging of optimism out of the wilderness. The Return of Doctor Mysterio was a lovely thing for Christmas Day; perhaps not the kind of Doctor Who that the grudging old school might require, but something heartfelt and layered and whimsical, and when Steven Moffat steps down and his replacement dispenses with the quirkiness and the magic (assuming that that’s what Chris Chibnall does, of course), there will be those of us who miss a version of the series that competes more frequently with the likes of The Wizard of Oz than it does The Thing From Another World quite badly.