Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio

Perhaps the single greatest beauty of Doctor Who is that it's a show where you can pull off just about anything. From fantasy epics to historical romps, from film noir investigations to science fiction wars, the series has covered a staggering number of different outings. Some have been good, some have been exceptionally bad, but The Return of Doctor Mysterio is nevertheless an entirely new one. The question it asks is - What would happen if Doctor Who stumbled into a superhero setting?

That question is really all you need to know here. The Doctor lands his TARDIS to investigate an ongoing alien invasion, discovers their plan, and figures out that a child he met decades ago has gained superpowers thanks to his efforts. It's simple to be sure but oddly ingenious in the fact it can be worked into just about any era of the medium or any take. At first it seems to be wholeheartedly embracing the concept, with a visual start and stylistic quality akin to Tim Burton's first Batman flick, with villains which seem akin to a darker take on a Silver Age concept - The sort of thing which has worked wondrously before in the hands of Grant Morrison and co. The problem is that, before the first act is done, the script loses sight of its direction and the sheer potential behind this plot.

Now, let this be clear: It's not a bad episode by any stretch of the imagination, it's just extremely middling. Rarely rising above competency, it plays things extremely safe, sticking to the bare basics and ideas it won't screw up. On the one hand, given the quality roller-coaster the show has been riding for the last few years, this is definitely a welcome change until they can get their act together. On the other hand though, this seems like the wrong episode to do it in, turning it into something which could have been the average story for any DC Comics show, and going even further. The Doctor's usual biting sarcasm and anger (a key selling point even in the worst of episodes) is all but gone, and there are honestly few to no surprises to be found here.

The story sticks largely to the cliches and best known superhero tropes for its "Doctor Who examines this genre" stuff rather than fully delving into things. Besides a few gags here and there, or even the odd commentary upon some of the more commonplace quirks, the best we get is a few played out ideas. It never seems to want to do more than just put the two together and say to the audience "there we are: Laugh" without pushing to add anything more to the story. One could say that this was just the series pushing for an extremely basic take on the genre, but even the Doctor Who side of things is performing exactly the same stunts. Sure, we get the Doctor having a few fun gags at the expense of the foes, and a moment where he points out every alien invasion has failed thanks to him, but it's all extremely by the numbers. 

Half the time Capaldi doesn't even seem to be playing his own Doctor, but a very toned down and slightly reworked version of Matt Smith's incarnation. River Song is even forced back into things once again, years after the show should have moved on from her at long last; all of which almost suggests this is an older script reused from past eras. Even then, that's just when the story is actually letting him do something. He doesn't even manage to be the hero in his own episode and is effectively regulated to the role of guest star, with the heavy lifting and actual solutions to their situation are dealt with by almost everyone else. While he might put one thing in motion which does ultimately resolve the invasion, the big money shot and ultimate resolution is performed by other characters. This leads to a few quite unsatisfying moments where the episode never comes close to achieving its potential.

Still, once again, the episode is far from a total disaster and it does retain some positive ideas to stop it crashing and burning. For starters, the actual guest stars this time around are strong across the board and nail the archetypes they're supposed to represent. Lucy Lombard might be playing a Lois Lane pastiche, but she at least gives real energy and life to an otherwise one-note role within a bigger story; offering some surprisingly human and engaging reactions to the insanity about her. Equally, Matt Lucas returns as Nardole, and offers little besides a few wise-cracks to the story, but his performance does at least get a few laughs. Atop of all this though, Justin Chatwin nails both the Superman and Clark Kent roles without missing a beat, and proves that (while many sci-fi fans will sadly continue to remember him as Goku from Dragonball: Evolution) the guy can deliver a good performance even with a bad script.

Other positives which work in the story's favour stem from the special effects, which are used sparingly but prove equal that of the other superhero shows on the air. This is doubly true for the villains, who never fail to be anything short of intensely creepy and even the odd moments of snark do not detract from that. Even if he's extremely toned down today, the Doctor can still offer a few fun comments, meta moments and loving jabs at other genres. It's just a damn shame that this script wasn't punched up a bit further, pushing it to at least be something more than mashing two unremarkable stories together.

This is really fluff more than anything else, made remarkable only by its premise, a some nice cinematography and the fact the Doctor is a side character in his own show. As the core story arc completely follows someone else, you honestly wouldn't lose much by just removing him entirely, and the problem is that's not what people are tuning in to see. In this regard, it's very much akin to Star Trek's True Q. It's entertaining to watch for a while, but ultimately it's quite unfulfilling. Still, it's a better send-off for Steven Moffat than Hell Bent, so let's take that for what it's worth.

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