Here’s something we didn’t realize until we sat down to watch the Doctor Who Christmas special. Turns out? It’s a completely different experience when you don’t have the buffer of an entire season of the show between it and the previous year’s Christmas special. First, there’s a bewildering sense of confusion (which isn’t all that odd for a Doctor Who episode) as you try to re-acclimate to the world of this character and its particular idiosyncracies. You find your Who skills are rustier than you realized. Or we did, anyway. Then, to our surprise, we found that we had no tension about the episode needing to “stick the landing” after a convoluted or messy season. In other words, a lack of recent Doctor Who episodes actually made this year’s Christmas special better than expected.
To the frustration of a lot of fans, 2016 has been a year without a Doctor as the show went on hiatus for … reasons. We don’t know … there was talk of schedules and such, but it really just sounded like creative burnout. Season 9 wasn’t a disaster by any stretch – in fact, it had the best consecutive string of decent-to-very-good episodes in many years – but we don’t think we encountered one review of it that would have placed it among the show’s better seasons. We honestly have no desire to litigate or rehash Steven Moffat’s tenure on the show, which has been somewhat controversial among its fandom (although that’s not exactly unique in its history), but at this point, it’s practically impossible not to turn any review into some sort of statement on his work. Especially when it’s the first episode in a long time and it’s about to kick off the countdown to his exit from the series.
Anyway, the show’s been limping for a while and the hiatus must have contributed to our lowered expectations going into it, but “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” was surprisingly fun and … we don’t know any other word to describe it but “palatable,” which sounds like a backhanded compliment but isn’t meant as one.
There are many ways you can characterize Moffat’s aesthetic approach to the show, but for the purposes of this review, we’ll stick to two: bombast and sentiment, which just so happen to be the two qualities we think define his Who work overall. From the (in retrospect) completely over-the-top and dragged-out exits of companions Amy Pond, Clara Oswald and River Song to the tendency to view the Doctor as something of a fairy tale character, his time on the show has been dripping with sentiment, and no Doctor Who episode each season of his tenure has more maudlin sentiment per square inch than the Christmas specials. On the flipside of that is the screaming, fast-talking bombast that characterizes most of the major stories of the 11th and 12th Doctors. Sure, there were moments of quiet calm and good character work, but there was also a whole lot of emphasis on yelling one’s way past obvious plot holes or strangely conceived storylines. If we have to sum up the negative side of the Moffat years in one word, it would be “loud.” But to be perfectly fair, if we had to pick a few words to sum up the more positive aspects of the Moffat years, we’d have to land on “witty” and “sophisticated.” What made this special so surprisingly appealing was the unexpected dialing down of sentiment and bombast and the very welcome dialing up of wit and sophistication.
We’re not talking Noel Coward here or anything, but it was nice to watch a fun little adventure with likable characters who are so archetypal that you don’t need more than a second or two to get on board with whatever they’re doing. A lot of times, when a show that doesn’t have anything to do with the superhero genre (although plenty would make the case that DW is situated smack in the middle of it) attempts to do a pastiche of one, the levels of camp and silliness wind up overwhelming the story. But Moffat took his cues (and several scenes and bits of dialogue) from the best of the Christopher Reeve Superman films, which meant that the approach had “respect for the characters” built into its DNA. Sure, “The Ghost” is somewhat silly as a character, with a ridiculously complicated life and backstory (as befits most superheroes) and a costume that doesn’t exactly scream “dignity.” But because the performers are so game and the story simply a fun and witty spin on some of the oldest tropes of the genre, offered up on a day when no one’s really looking to be challenged much by their entertainment, it all worked really well.
Personally, we’ve always found the insane sentimentality of the Moffat-era Christmas specials to be more than a little eyeroll-worthy at times, so it was refreshing to see a special that barely even acknowledged any connection to the holiday at all. And while there were the requisite “Doctor + adorable child” scenes, the real fun came when the adults were bantering and adventuring, not when the Doctor was teaching lessons to a morose ragamuffin. It was also refreshing to have an episode so free of any continuity issues or story connections, although last Christmas’ sendoff of River Song was mostly done well. Still, we enjoyed this one for just being a fun stand-alone adventure of the Doctor, with one-off characters, a new semi-Companion (Nardole’s a welcome addition and apparently we’ll be seeing more of him in the new season), and a brief tip of the hat to the main character’s emotional history. Capaldi can wear the character like a comfy shoe at this point and Moffat seems to be a bit liberated by the upcoming endpoint to his time on the show. If this is any indication of where the upcoming season is heading, then the long hiatus may just have been worth it.