There’s a thing that’s always bothered me about Superman. It’s not the disguise. Henry Cavill recently proved there was a lot of mileage in a pair of spectacles with his recent New York stunt. No, it’s the fact that Clark Kent is surrounded by a supposedly cracked team of journalists, all of whom enjoy a close working relationship with him, and none of them – at least at first – are able to work out what’s really going on. A reporter who showed up in town the same time Superman did, who disappears at the first sign of trouble but who manages to bag all the exclusives? It’s too much of a stretch to think that someone wouldn’t have put two and two together by now – whether that someone is Lois Lane, the self-absorbed A-lister who loves one man and who is loved in turn by both – or Perry White, who spends most of his time with his sleeves rolled up shouting, but who’s obviously never heard of facial recognition software.
It depends which version you’re watching. Christopher Reeve, in all four of his films – from the glorious first to the dismal fourth – is a revelation, and anyone who doubted his skills as an actor would do well to look at scenes where he’s playing first Clark Kent and then Superman and note the differences. Reeve fumbles with the thick frames, smearing the lenses and only just managing to avoid damaging them. The posture changes, the body language becomes awkward and fidgety, and the whole voice goes up half an octave. Then go and watch Dean Cain – who, in The New Adventures, plays basically the same character with and without his glasses – and marvel at the fact that he gets away with it for so long.
That Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne manage to maintain and separate their public / private personas so consistently and successfully is down to three things. First, it requires a certain suspension of disbelief – the same resource we have to tap in order to accept that neither character seems to have aged very much despite both having been around for the better part of a century. Second, at least one blind eye has been turned to the telescope – Commissioner Gordon could easily figure out Batman’s true identity, but has presumably seen enough torture scenes to have realised that it’s in his best interests not to know. Similarly, Perry White is too bold and experienced not to put two and two together, but has chosen not to. Journalistic integrity is still alive and well, even in the twenty-first century.
But fundamentally the disguise conundrum plays on Shakespearian conventions. It was a running joke that the true identity of a disguised character in a Shakespeare play should be obvious to everyone except the characters onstage – it’s bled over into pantomime, and in Doctor Who it happened every time Roger Delgado stepped onto the screen. And thus, when it happens in ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’, it’s done as a joke that’s glaringly transparent to all but the girl who’s caught in the middle of it, and on this occasion it’s the Doctor who’s rolling his eyes.
‘Mysterio’ is, in essence, a crossover episode – the closest Doctor Who is likely to delve into the worlds of Supergirl or The Flash – and the creative team have the sense to play on this. Origin stories are revealed in flashback (tellingly, and with some degree of appropriateness, said origin story features the Doctor himself). There are numerous shots of characters hovering outside windows. And a crucial conversation between the basso-inflected superhero and his would-be girlfriend – with the Doctor listening in – is rendered with a three-way frame split. The superhero in question, a caped wonder whose body armour resembles that of Nightwing, doubles as a mild-mannered nanny when he’s not wearing the costume, zooming from house fire to traffic accident to bedroom, a baby monitor permanently attached to his waist.
The net result of all this is that the Doctor feels rather like a supporting character in his own story. Having unwittingly created the whole situation through a simple misunderstanding, just about the only thing Capaldi is able to do this week is react as the narrative unfolds around him. Not that much unfolding actually happens – in origami terms, ‘Mysterio’ is more a twice-folded letter than a concertina. The story is the sort of conventional secret invasion fluff that wouldn’t be out of place in either a series of Doctor Who or a Superman comic, and is perhaps the episode’s weakest element: a couple of expository monologues aside, we never really get to know or understand the brain-swapping aliens behind Harmony Shoals, nor do we much care what they’re up to. (And really, didn’t we milk the unzipped head thing to death last Christmas?)
Tellingly, that’s not a criticism. Regular visitors here will know that I’m the first one to complain when I watch an episode of Who without any tangible story, but as it turns out this matters far less when people are having fun (which is not something I could say for, say, ‘The Woman Who Lived’). That the episode concludes with a colossal spacecraft falling on New York is far less exciting than it ought to be, simply because ultimately that’s not what ‘Mysterio’ is about. There’s a far greater tension in the fact that in order to save the Earth, the Ghost must reveal his true identity to a single person – and while the image of Justin Chatwin holding up the spacecraft with a single outstretched hand is uproariously funny, there is a far greater sense of narrative satisfaction in the kiss that follows it.
It helps that both Grant and Lucy are fun and likeable, even though we’re given comparably little time to get to know them. There are all sorts of questions that could be asked about the fact that he repeatedly leaves a small child unattended, although it’s made apparent at the mid-point that he’s able to race from one side of the city to the other in about the same time it takes a parent to climb a staircase, and the Doctor is only able to get there first because he cheats. Grant’s mutual, unconsumated attraction to Lucy calls to mind the tale of Craig and Sophie, and while the love story here doesn’t hold the same sort of narrative credence that was there in ‘The Lodger’, there’s something very satisfying in the fact that Lucy prefers her heroes with their spectacles on.
Elsewhere, pathos remains. There are references to River Song (whose name would have been better left unsaid, although you can’t blame Moffat for wanting to avoid an epidemic of tedious fan speculation and Twitter theory) and a sense of melancholy loneliness that bubbles under the surface without ever really breaking through the skin. The net result is a story that is accessible and satisfying but somehow sad, as befits the best Christmas entertainment, with everyone making the most of the limited screentime that 2016 has granted them. He may not have a great deal to do besides watch and eat sushi, but Capaldi’s clearly enjoying himself this week, even though the Doctor isn’t.
I’ve got nine paragraphs in without mentioning Nardole, but that’s largely because he works so well. Comic actors in semi-serious drama is a lottery – Frank Skinner was a roaring success, Rufus Hound a dismal failure – and the fact that the reassembled Nardole is far less irritating than he ought to have been is a testament both to Moffat’s writing and Lucas’ ability to reign it in. Discounting an anomalous, cringeworthy opening sequence, Nardole is inhabited with the sort of understated, bumbling charm that’s been greatly missing in the TARDIS since Rory was trapped in New York, and he has some enlightening conversations with the Doctor. It’s too early to tell how this will play out in series 10, in which Lucas is purported to make a series of appearances, but we might currently file it under ‘Well, that was a pleasant surprise’, perhaps alongside ‘Donna Noble’.
There’s a much-quoted and not entirely accurate cliché suggesting that absence makes the heart grow fonder. When the announcement was made, back in January, that we’d have to wait for almost a full year without the Doctor, the sense of lamentation among fandom was so great that you could hear it on Mondas. But whatever else may have happened during the past year (it’s tempting to look back at 2016 as an annus horribalis, although I suspect history may be rather more generous) there were some of us who took it as an opportunity to take stock and look at exactly what it was we enjoyed about the show, and after a long period of soul-searching I concluded that if they’d decided to rest it completely, I wouldn’t mind. Perhaps we’re at the stage where it doesn’t matter whether Doctor Who is on or not, and where we can stop complaining about the number of episodes per year, and make the most of what we have. I don’t think it’s something that comes naturally, not to me, and not to fandom generally – when writing this one up, I stayed off Twitter, stayed away from Facebook, and didn’t read a single review, because I knew what many of the comments are going to say.
I’ve often wondered whether the concept of making the most of things is a reason we’re overly charitable to ‘Rose’, although to conclude thus probably does it a disservice. It’s no secret that the last forty-five seconds of the TV broadcast of ‘Mysterio’ consisted of a glib, action-filled trailer for series 10 that introduces an already irritating companion whom most of us have seen fit to judge before she even steps into the TARDIS. As someone who’s a willing advocate of that ‘God she’s irritating’ mindset I’d nonetheless suggest that I was wrong about Donna, wrong about Smith being too young and wrong (at least this week) about Nardole. And perhaps it doesn’t matter either way. If there’s one thing that a year without Doctor Who has taught me it’s to take it far less seriously than I have been, and treat at least some of its shortcomings as a by-product of a difficult production process. Perhaps all the show has to be, in the end, is enjoyable, rather than good, but perhaps that’s partly our responsibility, rather than simply the writer’s. Perhaps this is what happens when you allow obsession to dissolve into apathy, but I wonder whether we’d enjoy the experience far more if we’re willing to occasionally put a blind eye up to the telescope.