The Return of Doctor Mysterio - Additional ReviewBookmark and Share

Monday, 26 December 2016 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
The Return of Doctor Mysterio  - Nardole (MATT LUCAS), Grant (JUSTIN CHATWIN) (Credit: BBC)
Starring Peter Capaldi, Matt Lucas, Justin Chatwin,Charity Wakefield, Tomiwa Edun and Aleksandar Jovanovic
Written by Steven Moffat
Executive produced by Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin
Produced by Peter Bennett, Directed by Ed Bazalgette
Broadcast on BBC1, December 25th 2016
Again, Happy Christmas!!

The Doctor was back, briefly – and he was tripping across genre again and enjoying the dance. The decision to bring an American superhero into Doctor Who enabled the programme to reconnect with the contemporary and demonstrate that it still has that sense of humorous self-mockery British Book News remarked upon at the end of the 1970s, to the joy of Target Books and their blurb-writer. Much of the wit was extracted from the tension between the conventions of superherodom as presented by the story and the conventions which the Doctor seemed to think Doctor Who follows, while remaining aware that the two are not so different. It also – and far more successfully than The Husbands of River Song – extracted the twelfth Doctor from the shadow of the fiftieth anniversary year and from the intense presence (however appealing character or performer) of Clara. While the references to River Song and to UNIT and Osgood might have been designed to reassure committed viewers that the recent history of Doctor Who the programme was not being set aside after the Doctor’s twenty-four year night with River (neatly paralleled with his twelve month absence from television screens), they just kept to the right side of confusing entanglement for the Christmas Day viewer while looking to the wider television environment of streaming services and cyclical repeats where The Return of Doctor Mysterio will be watched minutes after The Husbands of River Song rather than a whole year.

I’d been cautious about the success of Doctor Who creating a televisual New York in Cardiff and Bulgaria, and the trailers and advance clips had somehow suggested a colder, grainier environment than I was used to from the gleaming adventure series, bright lights and sharp tonal contrast in so many American series. In the context of the whole, though, The Return of Doctor Mysterio did mount a credible New York, with its oddly warm green-white nighttime apartment set which could have been inhabited by characters from a realism-seeking police procedural, and most impressively of all the cityscape through which young Grant flew, the Doctor clinging to his heels, in the opening sequence. The Bulgaria-based New York streets compared favourably with locations in the superhero series with which The Return of Doctor Mysterio invited comparison, but Doctor Who’s sense of reality, at least here, was less dependent on the suggestion of a crowded Manhattan of people, businesses and criminals than on central pillars of emotional credibility.

Justin Chatwin’s Grant was a familiar Steven Moffat hero, a heterosexual man but uncertain in his relationships with the opposite sex and hiding behind masks literal and metaphorical in order to police desires he doesn’t know how to translate into reality. Moffat views the Doctor as part of this tribe, and his warnings that Grant shouldn’t repeat his mistakes recalled the Doctor’s advice to Young Kazran Sardick back in A Christmas Carol not to retreat to his bedroom and invent a new kind of screwdriver. Grant’s dogged professionalism in addressing Lucy by her married style when working as her nanny might seem odd given that he has known her since elementary school, but it’s another act of distancing and concealment. Charity Wakefield’s performance as Lucy complemented the worldview of Grant and the Doctor, combining a set of female attributes from male-viewpoint adventure stories – the reporter, motherhood, physical attractiveness, precise attention to dress sense, uncounterable authority – while still suggesting a believable person who could be represented differently by another narrative voice. Her deployment of torture by stress relief toy was played deadpan, admirably, and somehow represented Doctor Who's appeal across generations, So integrated was Wakefield's performance in the fiction that one of my family didn’t recognise her from Wolf Hall and assumed that she was an American guest star. Lucy was also a mask-wearer, of course, as Grant both recognised and did not recognise. Her shapeless grey dress, her date night red dress, as well as Grant's self-deprecating and self-deflecting casualwear and the Ghost's businesslike sculpted black costume made a starkly effective debut for new series costume designer Hayley Nebauer.

The Doctor was reintroduced as a man of action and legendary figure, both aspects in distress. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is perhaps the most difficult to pin down because his range is so broad; here he was at his warmest and most magical, someone whom a child would trust, lightly delivering brutal put-downs, at ease with the contradictions of being both someone passing through with no ties and a self-acknowledged saviour of humanity with contacts in a planetary defence agency. Depicting the Doctor as a swinging pendulum in a window was a great sight gag, pun on Time Lord, and witty introduction to a child’s worldview. Moffat has compared the Doctor to Father Christmas before, in The Curse of Fatal Death and The Doctor Dances, but here it was both a way of emphasising young Grant’s naivety and literalness and setting up the way the episode performs a series of commentaries. I enjoyed the irony of the Doctor offering sardonic comments on superhero lore when his own contains its fair share of pretend science and unlikely transformations. It’s possible to read the Doctor’s insistence that the moment the superhero’s love interest – Lois in Superman, Lucy here – discovers the superhero’s secret identity, the story is over, as a criticism of the ensemble superhero television series of the present day. There, the superhero’s activities depend on the presence of a substantial back-up team fully aware of who he or she is. The Doctor might agree with this, but Nardole’s presence and explanation of the Doctor’s recent backstory to Grant and Lucy indicate that the episode itself does not. The probability is that Grant will continue his adventuring in a new context, backed up by Lucy and baby Jennifer. I've largely avoided reading other reviews while writing this one, but know I wasn't the only person imagining what shape a Ghost spin-off might take. However, more immediately this rejection of the idea of the hero - whether the Doctor or the Ghost - as lone saviour indicates that the Doctor, having lost Clara and River, needs to assemble his own new family. Nardole has been reattached sensitively and gently by Matt Lucas, and (as the first pre-credits ‘Coming Soon’ for a new season for some years stressed) we are soon to meet Bill.

Although unheralded as such, The Return of Doctor Mysterio might be seen in future years as bearing a similar relationship to The Husbands of River Song as The Woman Who Lived does to The Girl Who Died given comparable links of theme and characters. The head-opening secret society of Husbands now become the brain-removing Harmony Shoal, and receive development, becoming scheming villains rather than containers. The Doctor is working through, and out, loss both times, and preaches the embrace of change. This is more foreshadowing, both of the new companion for the new series and the new directions beyond as Steven Moffat yields the showrunner’s chair to Chris Chibnall. These are simple points made clearly for the Christmas Day audience who might have just finished dinner; it will be intriguing to see how a full series builds on them.





The Return of Doctor MysterioBookmark and Share

Sunday, 25 December 2016 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
The Return of Doctor Mysterio  - Doctor Who (PETER CAPALDI) (Credit: BBC)
Starring Peter Capaldi, Matt Lucas. Justin Chatwin
Charity Wakefield, Tomiwa Edun and Aleksandar Jovanovic
Written by Steven Moffat
Executive produced by Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin
Produced by Peter Bennett, Directed by Ed Bazalgette
Broadcast on BBC1, December 25th 2016... Happy Christmas!

This review contains spoilers

 

I'll admit that I went into this year's Christmas Special with somewhat lowered expectations. The Children in Need clip had seemed a touch too stylised when viewed out of context, and then there'd been a surprisingly low-key trailer. Fan expectation can be a tricky superpower to handle, capable of spoiling things that would otherwise be appreciated when it blasts too high, and equally capable of casting a rosy glow over new episodes when set far lower. In this case, by not expecting too much I found myself savouring a wonderful Christmas present of Who, and a gift of a return from Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas.

For once, this Christmas Special isn't excessively garnished with festive trimmings, and it's all the better for it. Once an obligatory (and amusing) Santa reference is out of the way, we settle down to a loving homage to Superman, Superman: The Movie, and superheroes more generally, replete with lovely moments like a Shuster and Siegel name-check. And although the Doctor may not initially get how superheroes work, Steven Moffat's script is perfectly at home in this world of romantic comedy and wish fulfillment, even if he can't resist an assortment of X-ray vision jokes. "Light to moderate" excremental humour -- always a winner with the Christmas Day family audience, I suspect -- also slips by several times, with the "passing" of Grant's condition being a somewhat incongruous moment, especially as it places our favourite Time Lord in the role of an anxious parent awaiting... well, you know, that.

The flying effects and the Ghost's appearance appeared vaguely questionable in advance publicity but viewed in situ they are part of a beautifully-produced confection. 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio' looks consistently impressive, and there can be little doubt that its budget is all right there on the screen; Peter Bennett deserves our Christmas cheers for his production work on this, as does Brian Minchin for his sterling exec-production. New York has rarely looked so New York-y, particularly given that it's all a matter of media trickery here; iconography that's been replayed so many times in movies, reduced to its visual essence, that the unreality has become convincingly TV-real. Additionally, we get an array of directorial and design flourishes to remind us that this is a comic book-inspired version of Doctor Who. Entering events via a comics page is apposite, especially as one panel appears to prefigure the Doctor clinging to Grant's window sill, suggesting that this entire story is an imagined version of a graphic novel. And we are treated to some comic book-effect split-screen roughly halfway through, another nice touch from director Ed Bazalgette. Then there are the coloured rectangular window panels that linger in the background of Harmony Shoal's office, representing yet more bright evocations of the comic book form. 

This isn't all comics callbacks and romcom sparkle, however. There are echoes of Christmas Specials past: the plummeting spacecraft (and this episode's overall tone) put me in mind of the brash and movie-referencing 'Voyage of the Damned'. At times, this story could almost be channelling Russell T. Davies at his most crowd-pleasing (shots of crowds looking up into the sky: check) and it knows exacty what it's doing. We also get small moments of real human feeling, crackling like popping candy in a Christmassy Heston Blumenthal creation. The "24 years" sequence is especially outstanding, and Peter Capaldi's delivery of "Everything ends. And it's always sad" shows that he doesn't need a big old monologue to dazzle. Slightly akin to Rogue One making you think differently about Star Wars: A New Hope, this speech (plus the return of Harmony Shoal/The Shoal of the Winter Harmony and Nardole) made me see 'The Husbands of River Song' in a different light. What had seemed rather forced last Christmas, for me anyway, took on a much greater depth when reassembled through the lenses of 'Doctor Mysterio'. Even Nardole, who I had found a little frustrating last time round, was a far more welcome presence as the Doctor's glued together companion. Matt Lucas's performance is uniformly excellent here, and bodes well for next season, I would say. Hiding a key plot point within Doctor-Nardole banter was cleverly done, as was the rapidly sketched-in sense that Nardole sees his role as one of caring for the Doctor. The character still needs further thickening and deepening, but I've no doubt that future scripts and performances will be well up to delivering on that. 

The Return of Doctor Mysterio  - Lucy Fletcher (CHARITY WAKEFIELD) (Credit: BBC)

In fact, all the guest stars work really well in this outing: Justin Chatwin is effectively cast in the "mild-mannered" Clark Kent/Superman role, and Charity Wakefield makes the most of portraying Lucy Fletcher, who at times displays a sharp sideline is sub-Sherlockian deduction. Chatwin's switching between a "superhero" gravelly voice and "civilian" voice helps to sell his character's secret identity, even if, as the Doctor acidly notes, some situations "are too stupid to be allowed to continue". And Steven Moffat revels in the twists and turns of misunderstanding that a superhero narrative can afford (when is the Marvel Cinematic Universe hiring him?). The ultimate reveal of the Ghost-as-Grant is cleverly integrated into the Doctor's plan to save the world, with these plots dovetailing neatly in a masterclass moment of scripting.

Are there any pitfalls to this Christmas offering? Harmony Shoal are resolutely B-movie-style opponents, albeit good fun, but perhaps Lucy's deployment of Mr. Huffle as an interrogation device is a step too far. It's different, for sure, but would the Doctor really respond to this kind of thing? Presumably, he's indulging Lucy as he recognises her cleverness, but Mr. Huffle still gets to be quite annoying quite quickly. Even as a plot device this is remarkably twee stuff. But if, as a reviewer, I'm reduced to complaining about such minor things then I'll happily take that.

With mentions for Osgood and UNIT, and retoolings of favoured Moffatisms (especially the "in one bound they startlingly move from mediated presence to live presence" shtick) this will no doubt repay plenty of repeat viewings. It's an episode that suggests Moffat has endings on his mind, as well as the fact that endings can simultaneously be new beginnings (unsurprising for a showrunner entering his last season in the role). Nowhere is this fixation more apparent than in the outstanding "Coming Soon" trailer affixed to the end of this broadcast which really deserves its own screen capped review. "Can I use the toilet?" may well be one of the most refreshing lines of dialogue I've ever heard in Doctor Who, bringing an unexpected strata of basic reality to the Whoniverse. Just when fans might be expecting Moffat to wind things up towards a grand finale, Bill's introduction feels like a breath of fresh air, as if we've suddenly been thrown into series one of a brand new show called Professor Who. "See the universe anew": there can't be many better Christmas gifts than that.

To my mind, 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio' is one of the stronger Christmas Specials, successfully paying tribute to a genre that's long been an "anomaly" for the programme. Welcome back, Doctor, your unique superpowers have been missed.    





Doctor Who The 1996 TV Movie: 20 Years OnBookmark and Share

Friday, 27 May 2016 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The TV Movie (Credit: BBC)

Starring: Paul McGann (The Doctor), Eric Roberts (The Master),
Daphne Ashbrook (Dr Grace Holloway),
Sylvester McCoy (The Old Doctor), Yee Jee Tso (Chang Lee),
John Novak (Salinger), Michael David Simms (Dr Swift).

Written by Matthew Jacobs 
Directed by Geoffrey Sax 
Music by John Debney 
Additional Music By John Sponsler and Louis Febre

A Joint Production by Fox and the BBC.

Transmitted in May 1996.

It does seem scarcely conceivable to myself that it is now two whole decades since the transmission of the most lavish TV production thus far seen in Doctor Who history. This is a beautifully directed collection of character drama and hi-octane escapades, and still stands up visually to this day. Of course, the script is far from perfect and the running time is somewhat on the short side, no doubt dictated by the many ad breaks that Fox TV needed for it to be able to afford showing the story. This still is a good watch, and has a pace to it that few of even the strongest four-part stories from the original 1963-1989 run could really pretend to boast, when viewed in one go.

 

It is a shame that Sylvester McCoy had such a truncated and gratuitously dismissive exit, involving a very careless departure out of the TARDIS without checking the surrounding area by scanner first. And although the actor does some fine work with very little screen time, he would perhaps have made a better cameo as a flashback to the Seventh Doctor's last full adventure. At the time writer Matthew Jacobs wanted a transition from the last of the classic series Doctors into this arrestingly romantic 8th Doctor, in order to honour tradition. However as was proved 9 years later on, the better method was to jump straight in with a new leading man and allow him to fully establish his credentials. It is rather curious that Paul McGann actually is present as a narrator in the very early stages. The script has a rather muddled approach to trying to honour the past but look forward at the same time. And many have commented over the years that brand new viewers who had never seen a single story with the Doctor would have been rather befuddled by the way the key principles of the show are conveyed.

 

If only Paul had actually had the opportunity to truly show his great skills as an actor in a proper ongoing series. We have many big finish audios to enjoy but most doctor who fans regard the TV medium as predominant. He eventually came back for the short but enthralling Night Of The Doctor, and it managed to pack a lot of continuity for audio and book followers alike. He really can be seen as a great prototype for the much loved David Tennant incarnation. Endlessly energetic, not afraid to take risks, and always looking to please people that he encounters. McGann is a rather modest and self effacing man in real life, and rarely does a fan-related event in the way that Tennant, Matt Smith, or Peter Capaldi would. But he clearly appreciates the opportunities he has had over the years, and respects the institution that is Doctor Who. He may still have another chance to blaze on screen, and perhaps this would be a multi-Doctor vintage. I cannot be alone in hoping along those lines.

 

Regardless, McGann can still be counted as a worthy Time Lord and one that kept the franchise alive as the face of the various BBC books, official magazines, and other merchandise that dotted retailers' shelves. He is instantly likeable in this story, and really makes the idea of a more passionate and relationship -conversant alien from Gallifrey seem credible. The line about the Doctor being half-human is one of the glaring weaknesses from the script, however and takes some of this boldness in McGann characterisation away. The idea of a man of many lives, and infinitely more knowledge and experience having the patience for us mere Earthlings was a wonderful element of the never-ending continuity that first had its roots in the days of William Hartnell and grainy black-and-white experimental efforts.

 

A couple of new 'companion' figures were introduced as well along with the Eighth Doctor. We have initially the rather thinly sketched Chang Lee, who is innocuous and passive but does have some wells of anger and frustration simmering beneath the surface. Jacobs does not really give us enough of a reason to care for this character in the crucial opening act. He has obviously fallen in with the wrong crowd and got into the lethal environment of gang warfare. He is young and reckless, and easily won over by the thoroughly malicious Master; along the lines of Eve seduced by the serpent in Eden. Yee Jee Tso is likable enough for the most part, but does struggle to make this character breath full life in various aspects.

 

Grace Holloway however is almost the equal of the Doctor in terms of being a relatable and inspiring protagonist. She clearly has a full life of worries and torrid emotions, as she tries to find the right man who can appreciate her demanding duties as a surgeon in San Francisco. She is in the middle of a date with a handsome man, and wondering if he is the one for her, before a fate-defining phone call gets her straight back to work. She was certainly not expecting a seemingly manic, eccentric with a Scottish burr calling out "I am not human.. I am not like you!".

 

That she turns out to be the Seventh Doctor's inadvertent killer, by using a 'cutting edge' probe is an interesting irony. Bullets did not kill our beloved rogue wanderer, it was the lack of earth technology and a determined medicinal doctor that ended up doing that deed. This makes the eventual romance between Grace and the new Doctor truly interesting. She sees him as a miracle man, but also somewhat terrifying. Ultimately she takes a leap of faith and trusts him, and proves to be of great value thereafter on more than one occasion. By the end, and the rather too neat way Grace and Chang lee are returned from the dead by TARDIS 'gold dust' the audience has been taken on a journey with a really engaging and relatable person. Daphne Ashbrook deserves plaudits for her efforts. She has a long sustained career on television and showed much range. Her acting chops are indisputable and a great asset for what was a much hyped venture, for which those who were responsible had invested so much hope.

 

Crucially this TV movie needed a robust and chilling villain. For much of the running time it did have it. Eric Roberts has famously been in the shadow of his sister Julia much of his career, but is still a fine actor. I certainly enjoyed his brief turn in Christopher Nolan's triumphant The Dark Knight. He does well enough in the dual roles of Bruce and then the Master proper. This in itself was not unprecedented, as the Anthony Ainley incarnation of the renegade had first come about from the disturbing fate Tremas had in the early 1980s Tom Baker story The Keeper Of Traken.

 

It is rather silly, especially today after the three rather weaker films in The Terrminator franchise, that Roberts attempts to emulate Arnold Schwarzenegger's most celebrated alter-ego. When those shades are not used and the terrifying snake eyes are in full display then the stout-hearted and quick witted McGann Doctor has a true equal and opposite. And even when Roberts waltzes in for the final battle revolving around the TARDIS' Eye Of Harmony - something that went over the heads of many a casual British and American watcher - and oozes camp rather than creepiness, he has a dominant presence. Ultimately he does not really belong in the elite of onscreen Masters, but definitely is worth being remembered all these years later.

 

Paul McGann as The Doctor (publicity photo from The TV Movie) (Credit: BBC)In terms of the audience participation, this feature needed to have a double triumph in order to justify further expenditure into an ongoing series or mini-series. Whilst there were pretty good ratings on BBC 1 over in the UK, the US side of things was lukewarm at best. Things were not helped by the ever popular Roseanne having its finale being shown around the same time on the networks; an ironic reflection of how latter day Sylvester McCoy stories had to contend with the UK's powerhouse soap opera Coronation Street. As this was a limited success in terms of pure numbers, Doctor Who just could not carry on at that point in time. However a certain Russell T Davies was only just now coming into his own..

 

On a perhaps more personal level I found the lack of any new Doctor Who, and the frustration entailed, further compounded by the decision at the time by BBC Video to delete the majority of classic stories in the catalogue. This was to allow the maximum number of editions of the TV movie on shelves everywhere. There probably was some sound enough economic argument, but I cannot have been the only collector out there grimacing as I missed out on invaluable ways to witness capsules of history. For a 13 year old adolescent that got a rush from exploring shops on the sly, whilst also trying to fit in socially with various peer groups with more current and inherently Nineties pop culture in mind, it did feel undoubtedly cruel.

 

Of course before long there was another medium altogether in DVD which made the return of all those stories suddenly something to look forward to. And nowadays every Doctor Who story that exists in the archives is available via streaming across the internet. But at the time, even for someone wildly imaginative like myself, this felt as troublesome a setback as any other.

 

Over time as well the rating for this story has been modified. When it first was released in the UK on videotape some of the early stages had to be edited down so that the youngest fans, who traditionally are the target audience of Who, could be catered for in terms of the video being a viable 'present'. Some years later when the BBC did a Doctor Who theme night, the full version of the story was shown for viewers, and most notably gave the full account of how Chang Lee lost his pair of friends. And then on DVD release the story finally could be shown uncut and with the 12 certificate retained, obviously reflecting the changes in what was acceptable language and violence according to censors.

 

So let's raise a toast to this one proper story that represents the dynamic, vibrant universe of time travel and twin hearts, from the final decade of the 20th Century. There were of course high profile charity shorts in the form of Dimensions In Time, and The Curse Of Fatal Death, with the latter's case being a sign of greater things to come from Steven Moffat. All the same, this feature-length tale has a great deal of verve, and willingness to try new things, such as suggest the Doctor truly wants to love and be loved, and that there is more than one way for a Time Lord to survive a final incarnation. This fascinatingly unique entity is worth at least one look, if you yourself have yet to sample its many attributes.