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‘Doctor Who’ Christmas Special Review: River Song Isn’t Forgotten in Heartwarming Retro Superhero Adventure (Spoilers)

The lighthearted episode pays tribute to Superman and the Doctor's wife, all while aliens scheme to take over the world.

Peter Capaldi, "Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio"

Peter Capaldi, “Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio”

Simon Ridgway/BBC America

WARNING: The following contains spoilers from the Christmas special, “Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio.”

’Tis the season for the Doctor to bring good tidings of comfort and joy to our world whilst ridding it of power-hungry alien invaders.

It’s been a year since we closed the book on River Song in 2015’s Christmas special, but in “Doctor Who’s” uniquely timey-wimey way, it picked right back up with the story, albeit 24 years later in Earth time. So in that sense, this wasn’t quite the standalone episode that specials have been in the past, although enough exposition allowed it to act as one. It was a smart move on Steven Moffat’s part since Whovians have been deprived of any new “Who” this year.

READ MORE: ‘Doctor Who’ Sneak Peek Reveals First Look at Justin Chatwin’s New Superhero

Although we may have hoped for a more Christmas-y episode, at least there was a nod to St. Nick when the Doctor was mistaken for Santa. Let’s take a look at the episode in a more traditional Christmas format:

Ghosts of Christmas Past

In the grand fashion of “Doctor Who,” the Doctor does not do heartache on a small scale (after all, he has two hearts!). His love story with River Song has always been bittersweet since they’re constantly passing each other like time travelers in the night, and he knows of her eventual death in a library. In last year’s Christmas special, he spent his final night with her on Darillium, which lasts 24 years in Earth time. Therefore, he had been absent from our planet for that time and is just getting back in the game.

Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas, "Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio"

Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas, “Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio”

Simon Ridgway/BBC America

Although it would’ve been nice to see Alex Kingston back as River Song, perhaps it was for the best she wasn’t in the episode since she’s such a force of nature. Instead, we got the return of Nardole (Matt Lucas), whom we last saw in a cyborg timeshare, from which he’d been liberated because he guessed the Doctor worried that he’d be lonely (aww!). We have yet to warm up to him as a sometimes Companion, but at least his presence represents continuity with River Song.

READ MORE: ‘Doctor Who’: Matt Lucas Returns as Nardole for Season 10

Also, through flashbacks we learn that the last time the Doctor was on Earth, he was responsible for accidentally making a 8-year-old Grant a superhero when he swallowed an alien gemstone. Nods to comic books abound, and everything, including New York and even reporter Lucy Fletcher’s speech cadence, has a retro feel.

Ghost of Christmas Present

When the Doctor and Grant (guest star Justin Chatwin) meet again, 24 years have passed, and Grant has embraced his superhero powers even though he had once promised the Doctor he wouldn’t use them. The Ghost is as good a name as any, and at least the “G” insignia still works with the name Grant.

Justin Chatwin and Charity Wakefield, "Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio"

Justin Chatwin and Charity Wakefield, “Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio”

Simon Ridgway/BBC America

Let’s take a minute to attempt to acknowledge all the ways that the Grant/Ghost story is an homage to Superman:

  • Grant can fly, is super fast, super strong and has X-ray vision
  • He gives off major Clark Kent vibes with his alter ego who wears thick glasses frames as a disguise and works as a mild-mannered “manny”
  • Lucy Fletcher, a reporter, cannot penetrate that devious disguise and see that Grant is Ghost
  • Lucy and The Ghost have an interview/date very much like the one that Lois Lane and Superman had in Richard Donner’s 1978 film, even down to her asking about his x-ray vision
  • Lucy’s married name is Lucy Lombard, giving us the double L initials that are so prevalent in the Superman world.

READ MORE: From ‘Outlander’ to ‘Doctor Who’: The Trickiest Time Travel on TV, Ranked

As for the non-superhero storyline, the Doctor and Nardole discovered that there were aliens who are basically brains with eyes that had a plan to take over humans as “vehicles” to get around. As Whovian monsters go, these aren’t anywhere near as iconic or scary as the Daleks, Cybermen or Weeping Angels. They’re actually just kind of gross — weeping blue tears and storing pistols inside of their heads (neither handy nor clean). Defeating them was somewhat anticlimactic.

The name of their Earthbound science research organization, however, is a nice Easter egg tribute to River Song. Harmony Shoal is another play on words much like Melody Pond was in her other incarnation.

Justin Chatwin and Aleksandar Jovanovic, "Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio"

Justin Chatwin and Aleksandar Jovanovic, “Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio”

Simon Ridgway/BBC America

Ghost of Christmas Future

Season 10 marks the final season that Moffat will act as showrunner, through to 2017’s Christmas Special. It appears he’s set up a few threads that could be picked up later, including the return of Harmony Shoal (since the alien that took over a UNIT officer got away). Nardole will be returning for the 10th season as well. A sneak peek for the season also highlighted new Companion Bill (Pearl Mackie).

This may not be the last we see of the Ghost either. Even though Grant didn’t seem too interested in leaving Lucy’s side now that they’re finally together, he did leave the door open for donning the “G” again. We also suspect that Lucy’s daughter Jennifer may make an appearance sometime in the future.

Overall, the Christmas special reentered the world of “Doctor Who” on a far humbler and earthbound scale than in episodes past. It also didn’t wring us out emotionally like “Last Christmas” and “The Husbands of River Song” did, but it was comforting and heartfelt, especially with the nods to the Doctor mourning his wife. It felt like the grounding transition we needed for the new adventures that will come in Season 10

Grade: A-

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Matt Lucas and Justin Chatwin, "Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio"

Matt Lucas and Justin Chatwin, “Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio”

Simon Ridgway/BBC America

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