Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Return of Doctor Mysterio written by Steven Moffat and directed by Ed Bazalgette


This story in a nutshell: The Doctor wanders into a superhero movie to see what help he can offer…



Indefinable: I think this title has never been more appropriate. Capaldi’s Doctor has shown more development (or alteration) than practically any other Doctor since Tom Baker progressed from a brooding alien to a madcap Uncle to a haunted spectre of death in the seventies. Capaldi’s first season saw the show take a daring approach, to make the Doctor as distant and as unlikable as Colin Baker was in the 80s. Some fans enjoyed the approach, making the Doctor much darker and less approachable and having to work to get close to him. I certainly did. However, it’s probable that the casual audience were less keen and the gradual softening of the 12th Doctor has been a work in progress ever since the beginning of series nine. I didn’t enjoy some of the obvious quirks that were foisted upon the character (whether they were at Capaldi’s insistence or not) such as the sonic shades and the electric guitar. In my own words, it came across as an old man having something of a midlife crisis. However it is clear that Capaldi has the ability to turn on quite a charm offensive in quite a beguiling way…and I think Moffat finally got the mix just about right in The Husbands of River Song last Christmas. The Doctor was light on his feet, snappy with a one liner, charmingly one step ahead and seemed to be having a whale of a time. Interestingly we didn’t need a companion gushing about the wonders of time travel to get across the delight of travelling through time and space. That feeling of an adventurer who is at peace with himself and his place in the universe is extended here and the Doctor quite charmingly steps into a superhero tale to hold the protagonists hand from childhood who to adulthood. The Doctor is happy to stand back and let another man’s story play out. I’ve heard criticism that the Doctor seems out of place and is side-lined but that is quite a deliberate move. He is the outsider in this environment and that offers a new perspective on the character, not somebody who is trying to hog the limelight and show off (stand up latter day 11th Doctor) but someone who gently pushes the story on by truly living up to his name; a teacher, a friend and a mentor. I thought it worked very well and the small inclusion of a timeywimeyness with the Doctor popping up throughout Grant’s life added some depth to their relationship. The Doctor has always enjoyed an appealing relationship with children so it came as no surprise to me that the opening scenes had a suffuse glow about them. What surprised me the most was the very un-Doctor Who cut to the high school and Grant as a teenager rising to the occasion at the sight of Lucy and the Doctor offering advice. Doctor Who doesn’t often dish out erection metaphors (although those sonic screwdrivers are getting bigger over time) and rather than coming across as something lurid it feels innocent and sweet. Some might say that it isn’t the job of the Doctor to interfere in the domestic lives of people but this story does a good job of balancing his usual role (saving the universe from irritating nasties) and letting him help bring two people together. Simon still says that Capaldi is not one of his favourites and it saddens me to think that that might be a popular opinion because he automatically adds a touch of class to any episode he appears in and is probably the strongest actor to take on the role since it returned in 2005. He does everything that is asked of him to a very high standard. This isn’t stirring material for the actor, it’s comforting, hug-your-loved-ones-its-Christmas material. I’d take this over his unbalanced reign of terror on Gallifrey in Hell Bent any day of the week. Who cares if we don’t know why the Doctor is hanging outside of the window and setting traps, let’s just accept that he’s in the middle of an adventure and at the start of another at the same time. It wasn’t a problem in Blink. There’s few Doctor’s that would make an authentic Santa substitute and even fewer that would find the idea so amusing. The Doctor sipping pop, his legs hanging through the railings and talking to Grant about his adolescence, made me chuckle. Is this really the same Doctor who stepped out of the TARDIS in Deep Breath? There’s somebody worse at love in the universe than the Doctor, apparently. Even the Doctor realises this is less about the usual alien takeover guff and deals with all that and gives Lucy and Grant time to realise their future is together. How he calls in UNIT and deactivates the villains gun so half-heartedly at the climax reveals just how bothered he is by this latest threat to the world. I love his madness in the spacecraft, deciding the most unpredictable thing he can do is set their plan into motion and hope that Grant is paying attention on Terra Firma and isn’t distracted by a pretty girl. Nardole is right, when this Doctor smiles it means something is quite amiss. The final shot of him blazing eyed and heading off into the universe tops off a glorious performance from Capaldi.

Baldy: I don’t object to Nardole, in fact I though Matt Lucas did a nice job in underplaying the character nicely throughout and proving to be a sweet observer of the action in this story. But that is rather my problem – I don’t get why he is here. He doesn’t add anything to the story, we know absolutely nothing about his background and he has turned up again with the barest explanation as to how he and the Doctor met again after Husbands. He’s an enigma. One that I am sure it will be worth exploring further down the line in season 10 but for right now I find him a bit of an anomaly. His ‘You are completely out of your mind!’ was delivered to perfection, though. And how he appeared from the wreckage of the spaceship, Mainwaring askew, was very funny.

Sparkling Dialogue: I’m not really a fan of the one liner, especially not the Moffat one liner which is often drowning in self-assurance and smugness. Something was different in Mysterio, I found myself chuckling along with the characters. It’s because much of the humour is character based and it isn’t forced, it’s gently unassuming.

 ‘You’re kind of wet’ ‘I prefer mild mannered’ That line made me laugh on both watches.
‘Mrs Lombard, there are some situations that are just too stupid to be allowed to continue.’
‘You’re jealous of you!’ ‘Technically she’s jealous of her!’
'I flooded downstairs with Pokemon.’

The Good:

·         I have heard complaints that the episode looks cheap, with specific mentions of the general cheapness of the show since they moved on from The Mill. It’s nonsense. No part of this episode looks as though expense has been spared, in fact I was quite in awe at times at just how visually spectacular the show has become. Whilst it lacked the flash bang wallop action set pieces of a superhero movie (and I would never expect anything like that from Doctor Who), it is astonishing just how well New York is realised despite the production team never setting foot there. There were a multitude of vertiginous shots of the New York skyline that made me feel a little giddy, especially that incredible pan up the Ariel and looking down on New York from above. It’s delirious.
·         I have to confess that I am not the biggest fan of superhero movies but weirdly that might have increased my enjoyment of Mysterio. The episode had nothing spectacular to live up to for me and I thought the approach of playing out what is effectively a different genre to anything Doctor Who has ever been before was quite novel. There were lots of cute touches that I liked; the introduction to the episode through the panel of a comic strip, the comic book wallpaper in the young Grant’s room, the Doctor points out the absurdity to many a superhero cliché including how ridiculous the double identity plot is and why the regular Joe’s who are infected with radiation don’t happen to puke and die, Lucy mistaking the baby monitor for a bat signal app, neither Simon nor I guessed that Grant would wind up being the nanny to Lucy’s baby…when if this story was to pay homage to Superman he had to be a part of her life somehow as a regular guy, there’s a lot of fun to be had with Grant dashing off to save people from burning buildings and emerging with the baby in the apartment a second later, the biggest cliché of all – the glasses – turn out to be a lovely device, allowing for several catch your breath moments and reversals when it looks like Grant is going to be bold and reveal his identity to Lucy. My favourite thing was how because this is a superhero movie we have been pre-conditioned to accept the impossible. The climax features a man holding a baby monitor and spaceship. Under any other circumstances we would be decrying that that is ridiculous and the single most embarrassing thing that has ever happened in Doctor Who. Because of his choice of homage, Moffat has bypassed any complaints you might make about the implausibility of the story. I thought that was delicious.
·         Grant being a superhero and a nanny. It’s cute, it riffs on gender identification and it means there are lots of lovely gags that make your heart sing with the baby. I had yearnings for Sarah Jane Smith with Lucy a busy reporter sniffing out her own story and discovering the Doctor along the way. When the Ghost whisks in and snatches Lucy away he’s dragging the audience away from the naff Doctor Who story and into the romance/superhero one. It’s that point where the narrative makes up its mind what it wants to focus on. Lucy is smart and observant and takes all the information she needs from the questions she asks. Very Sarah Jane Smith. Lucy putting Grant’s superhero costume on (his glasses) was just lovely.
·         I can’t decide whether Mr Huffle is a nice, quirky notion or an idea that quickly out stays its welcome. Either way, he’s responsible for the one sincerely emotional beat in the story that made me catch my breath. Lucy grabs him tight when the Doctor says he is okay at the climax and she tortured the toy to prove that she knows he is lying. It’s nicely set up and it reveals a depth to their relationship. I like how he pops up in shock when the Doctor informs Lucy of the aliens’ plan for worldwide colonisation too. I wonder if Mr Huffle has a more important role to play in this story than Nardole, he certainly made me feel more. He’s a part of the TARDIS crew now, let’s see what other surprises he can provide.

The Bad: The ridiculous throwaway reason that Grant is granted super powers. As played it makes logical sense that grant would think that the crystal is medicine but it’s still pretty naff – a gemstone that when ingested gives you everything that you want? It’s almost as fairy-tale as the Doctor existing just because Amy Pond says so. Brains with eyes? Was anybody else thinking Morphoton brains? There was absolutely nothing original about the nature of the invaders, their plot to scare the world and their desire to take over those in power. Aliens of London/World War Three played this out much better because despite the domestic element of Rose coming home and the comedy aliens (I still love the Slitheen) it was structured like a traditional Doctor Who adventure and it was focussed on it’s scenario. The alien invasion takeover is the Doctor Who aspect of Mysterio but it feels like it is intruding on the more personal story taking place between Lucy and Grant. It feels like an intruder, there because it has to be rather than because it needs to be. A threat was needed, one is conjured up but let’s not pretend that the banal nature of aliens taking over by popping their brains into human shells and dropping a spaceship on New York is anything special. Strangely enough it is the most Doctor Who-y moments where I felt creative fatigue from Moffat. The effect of the head tearing open is fantastically achieved but beyond that these aliens didn’t managed to distinguish themselves at all. I get the point of the split screen sequence, cutting the action up like a comic book but I don’t think it is particularly imaginatively realised or effective. It feels kind of half arsed, just there to add a (unsuccessful) visual quirk. Not even the cut to the baby adds any charm to the sequence.

The Shallow Bit: Justin Chatwin con glasses. Hot.

Result: This is less of a superhero movie and more a collection of the elements that make up a superhero movie. It’s also less of a Doctor Who episode but more a collection of elements that make up a Doctor Who episode. The two don’t mesh together entirely well and plot wise you’re looking at a bit of a car crash of a story with some underdeveloped ideas. What salvages the story and lifts it surprisingly high in places is the amount of heart on display, the fun kisses to the genre it is aping, the stylish visuals and the character work, which whilst never aspiring to anything substantial is warmly written and brought to the screen by the cast. In other words, the precise opposite of what Steven Moffat usually delivers, light on plot and ideas and heavy on character and sentimentality. I really enjoyed the love triangle between Lucy, Grant and the Ghost and the cute humour that arose from the situation. There really haven’t been scenes like this in Doctor Who before…because these scenes aren’t really Doctor Who. They’re the New Adventures of Superman, but I rather liked that show and the bizarre love triangle that played out (until they married off Lois and Clark, that was a disaster). Justin Chatwin and Charity Wakefield deliver charming performances and you’re rooting for them all the way, even if their eventual smooch is predictable. It’s the gentlest kind of romance, so chaste and innocent there’s only one hint of sexual tension but that’s why it’s so enjoyable for all the family to watch. You know, at Christmas. There were moments where the direction worked a doozy (the vibrant way New York is brought to life, the honesty of the intimate character moments) and there were times where it felt a little sloppy (the pointless split screen sequence, the Doctor on the live camera, the pedestrian nature of how the aliens were presented). I’ve seen better Christmas specials (The Christmas Invasion, The Snowmen, Last Christmas) and I’ve seen far worse (The Next Doctor, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, Time of the Doctor), this was a middling adventure but a kiss and a cuddle of a character tale. Against the odds, The Return of Doctor Mysterio was very enjoyable. It left me with a warm feeling in my stomach…although that might have been the Disaronno too: 7/10

3 comments:

Jamie said...

Joe, just wanted to say I truly appreciate your strong and confident opinions and writings about this show. As a long-time Who fan, I sometimes don't know what to make of the new series, as it has evolved so much beyond the old-format "classic" series that would never work with a contemporary audience.

Probably the best thing about this episode was NO CLARA with Capaldi's Doctor and while Nardole may or may not be a fixture, for me it was a relief to see another episode without that dynamic playing out (Jenna Coleman's fun portrayal nonwithstanding, the relationship between the two of them as co-dependent reckless adventurers had long outlasted its arc for me).

I think you make very good points about the superhero genre being unexplored and providing some unique opportunities within Who - and it helps that Justin Chatwin is such a hottie. My complaint with this show was the character of Lucy - I'm not sure if it was the portrayal, or just badly written, but I found her to be completely uninteresting and perplexing - while she had the nosiness of SJS to stick around and investigate, her interrogation of the Doctor was bizarre and her obliviousness to Grant's goodness hard to fathom - especially as even with glasses he was pretty darn hot.

So thanks again for all your writings - just wanted you to know they are appreciated. Here's to a new season and happy 2017!

TF80 said...

Agreed with you as always. I Aldo dislike the embarrassing-uncle-having-a-midlife'crisis portrait of the Doctor but I adore Capaldi in the role and DO NOT wish him to regenerate yet. (What a wasted year with no Doctor Who this has been, it's like 1985 with Colin Baker all over again, an incarnation I enjoy and lack of series on tv)
I didn't see the point of having Nardole but at least the guy is likable and not annoying
I found the episode entertaining enough and bit of fun, nothing spectacular to write home about but was okay

Btw I'm not sure if you read the comments any more but in case... do you plan to continue watching and commenting the New series with Simon? His comments are funny and insightful as a non fan point of view. In spite I NOT agree with his opinions on RTD and Moffat (I'm a total RTD nostalgic at heart)

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