Here be spoilers.
The Doctor Who Christmas episode, The Return of Doctor Mysterio couldn’t be and do all to justify an entire year of his absence. Looked at that way, such an episode never could, but it was still enough to whet the appetite. We want more Who, now, is my rallying cry since watching this.
In and of itself, this episode had heart and most of what it was about, wasn’t said out (too) loud or made too obvious. This will undoubtedly annoy viewers who wanted something more obvious and more obviously ‘Christmassy,’ but since I prefer much of my text to remain sub, I enjoyed it this way. The Doctor is, after all, a master at not revealing too much about himself and his motivations, except when forced to.
The Doctor, returning to New York to fix its temporal issues, encounters local kid Grant who manages to botch this and thus transform himself into his own heroic archetype. What I have left out of what one sentence precise is everything this was about.
Remember this episode is exactly after his final contact with River Song before she visits the Library. And what does the Doctor attempt to do? Go to New York and without saying it, find a way to visit/save/see Amy and Rory, despite knowing it won’t work, because he has read her goodbye in River’s book. Adrift in the universe, after yet another sad ending, the Doctor pieces together Nardole, and springs from River’s heart-break back to that of losing her parents.
Lesson: The Doctor is nothing unless pain is his primary companion.
In a Christmas miracle, the world has other plans, and instead gives The Doctor Grant. Yes this a handy play on a ‘wishes being granted’. Since the Doctor’s something something star thing magic mcguffin doesn’t grant his wish for Amy and Rory, it manifests in the kid, who gets his own wish granted, thus becoming what he reads. Yep kids, this is yet another call back to both Amy and River as authors (literal and symbolic) and also alludes to their deaths – since Amy and Rory’s death is written on their tombstone. It even alludes to Clara, as nanny recommending the book by author Amelia Williams. That the Doctor’s recent companions remain authors of their lives by their own choices should also be apparent here.
Lesson: Tis by reading we (re)create ourselves. Oh how I know that.
So, Grant gets comic book super-heroic powers, and the Doctor advises against using them. Such a square. In this way, the Doctor is the god of Genesis, who plants an amazing tree and nonchalantly bans Adam and Eve from it. Of course, they were always going to break the ban, in the same way, of course Grant was going to use his super powers. And from that stuff, happens. In between Grant as child and Grant as adult, there is the fateful gap of 24 years, which is the length of a single night on Darillium. We can view The Doctor’s relationship with Grant in the context of this, his last night with River. Grant is a kind of weird kid resulting from the union of The Doctor and River, and his life is a result of being adopted out to his unseen and absent parents, if you want to read a Superman theme through this.
Which brings me to Matt Lucas as Nardole. I thought it was going to be a mistake to bring back a post-Darillium Nardole, but I was wrong. He worked. Frankly, Nardole’s quiet asides about The Doctor and Byzantine made the episode, when I could have been too distracted imagining Grant as the US son of Jarvis Cocker (it’s the hair and glasses and, you know, face). Anywho, Nardole offers a quixotic companion, who performed a narrator function to everyone unfamiliar with the Doctor’s time line (tenses are difficult aren’t they). And in the most obvious bit of exposition Nardole did mention his own unexpected presence, as a connection to River, and, as the Doctor’s familiar (when there are precious few about who get who he is). And it kinds looks like he may stay on for a bit, which I think is a positive.
I identified with the Lois Lane of the story, Lucy the journalist on the trail of the invaders. I appreciated her insights into The Doctor, and her method of questioning. She was smart and insightful, while being almost completely blind to Grant, who was a ghost to her, their entire lives.
In addition, I appreciated how each character had to balance dual identities: even the baddies as humans/aliens; Grant as Nanny and The Ghost, the madman in a box and Doctor ‘Mysterio’; Lucy as investigative reporter (Jessica) Fletcher and mother Lombard; and Nardole as robot/human or companion and narrator. Once again the invaders/bad guys are the background foils for The Doctor and his gang.
Some viewers, I noticed, missed all the Christmas trimmings, so much a feature of previous episodes. However, Who has always been science fiction first. There never was an order to include ‘Christmas’ in every 25th o’ December special, however, there is all kinds of stuff going on in this.
Like with the array that looks like a Christmas tree in the early scenes, for starters. Then later how single dude Grant, mother Lucy and Baby form an unconventional familial triad, on a special evening…or how The Doctor (a grey haired, older Wise Man, is on the roof of a building at night, delivering a gift to a magic boy….come on. It’s all so obvious it burns.
Even the identity crisis/missing Dad theme is a shout out to the J-man and his relationship to god. The Doctor is god here, given he visits gifts upon Grant, and keeps offering patronising advice and delivering commands, and generally acting like he is doing all the work, but has been away the whole time…any who.
But if you missed all of that, there’s more, like Grant, a self-sacrificing type, who ‘suffers the little children to come to him’ – ok just one as a nanny but still. Then there is Grant’s code name The Ghost, (as in Holy Ghost) which, much like his bright red unmistakable glowy sacred heart really puts the emphasis on the first syllable in Christmas.
With the baby and Jesus symbolism it couldn’t be more yule-tidey.
Yeah – Nah
I think though, what critics mean, is they wanted snow and a touch of something magical that tastes like turkey, and tinsel. Basically, they sought the trimmings without the myth. This year, there were no stockings and silly hats, there was only a myth made manifest, and so for this reason, for some, it didn’t capture what Christmas is all about. So yeah.
For me, I don’t require a rejigged Jesus birth myth to make it a Christmas episode, or tangerines, or Santa and sleigh bells, for that matter. No, this episode just required what it provided: a little bit of hope at a traditionally dark time (northern hemisphere solstice people, do I have to spell it out?).
Any way, Doctor Mysterio returned and while his return wasn’t magical, it was enough. I know I needed it to be.