Because 2016 wasn’t terrible enough, it’s actually been an entire year since we’ve been treated to a new episode of Doctor Who, and this is going to be the only one until spring of next year. Needless to say, there’s a lot of expectation set for this extra-long episode. Thankfully, I wasn’t exactly disappointed, even if I have some issues.
This year’s special opens with guest star Justin Chatwin heading to bed for the night and placing his glasses on a Superman comic. If that didn’t click for you, I’ll spell it out: Clark Kent reference. That’s going to come up a lot in this. We don’t spend a lot of time here though as a quick cut takes us to a young boy being woken up by sounds on the roof of his apartment building. Running to the window gives him a glimpse of The Doctor falling past, catching himself on a ribbon. The Doctor spends some back and forth with the child as he tries to convince him to let him up into the house. The child says he has to ask his mom, and runs off to do so. Moments later he returns and helps The Doctor up into his room, causing The Doctor to pause and ask why a young boy would get permission. It’s Christmas, and The Doctor just got mistaken for Santa Claus.
I love bits when The Doctor is bouncing off a child. The current showrunner has always maintained a certain mythology that Doctor Who was and is a kids’ show, so these are often some of the most genuine moments. Case in point: the child spends his Christmas night on the roof with ‘Santa’ as he is working on a time distortion device (it’s not really important as to what, why, or how.) The Doctor starts letting the kid help by giving him the device’s power source to hold for a moment. Thinking it’s medicine, the boy eats the power source and it has an interesting side effect. The source appears to activate the boy’s latent desires and grants him Superman-like powers.
While it’s not the last time we’ll see the boy, Chatwin is playing Grant, the grown up version of the boy. Grant is a nanny, and his briefly glowing chest while feeding an infant is used to indicate that he still has the power source all this time later, confirming everything so far has been flashback. Meanwhile in the current time, The Doctor is investigating a research company called Harmony Shoal as it announces its findings alongside newer character Nardole (Matt Lucas).
Nardole has been seen before, actually just in the previous episode, ‘The Husbands of River Song.” Of course, with that having been a literal year ago, it might have helped to re-establish him; especially since the last time he was around his head was removed instead. He does get a decent line as he asks for the “little boy’s room” and is told where the restroom is and becomes confused as he does not need to rest at the moment. Yeah, he’s an alien. I like Nardole in spite of this weird continuity. I’ve believed for some time that the show would benefit from a companion that didn’t originate from mid-2000s Earth, so he’s a welcome change of pace for now.
A reporter is also investigating Harmony Shoal, named Lucy Fletcher (guest star Charity Wakefield) overhears the speaker named Mr. Brock and one of the doctors, named Sim, about “the brains.” The two decide to meet at midnight about the situation. Later that night, Lucy has returned dressed as a cleaning lady and stalks the two to a vault in the building. Dr. Sim questions Brock about the vault, as we see it’s filled with brains in jars. Neither appear to know what they are for outside of it being related to a secret project. Sim tells Brock that the number of brains is growing, even as they aren’t receiving deliveries. Meanwhile, Nardole comes out of the bathroom he was hiding in, and The Doctor startles Lucy via his sushi eating. Inside the vault, Sim reveals that the brains themselves have eyes and that they’ve been taking over human bodies-including himself. The next sequence is actually pretty creepy as the once Dr. Sim leaves Brock in the vault as a bunch of surgeons walk in and surround him. With a few good music cues, this manages to come off pretty well.
The Doctor pulls Lucy away before they see the outcome and they try to escape. They meet up with Nardole and observe a map display of Harmony Shoal locations. They seem to all be in capital cities around the world, but Nardole notices that one is not: the one they’re in, which is in New York. Dr. Sim confronts the three and pulls a gun, but he makes the mistake of monologuing about saying it would be in self defense. Our Doctor turns the tables by turning around, as it’s hard to sell “self defense” with bullets in the back. This, actually, is pretty clever. At this point, we’re introduced to The Ghost, a masked superhero who blasts through the glass of the building. This impresses Sim, who says it can withstand a blast four times stronger than a nuclear blast. This is important later. The Ghost knocks Sim out, and promptly talks with Lucy as The Doctor looks on incredulously.
The Ghost’s interaction with Lucy is clearly meant to invoke the relationship between Superman and Lois Lane in the Richard Donner Superman films, as he compliments his work and ends up flying her off. Obviously, The Doctor is very aware who this is, of course. Another flashback to the opening of the episode has The Doctor explaining that the gem giving Grant his powers should “pass,” but makes Grant promise not to use those powers.
Ghost drops Lucy off at her house, which she looks like she’s going to question, but then doesn’t. A beeper goes off, and the Ghost flies off. As Grant, he returns to the home of the baby he is watching, but finds the infant has been calmed by The Doctor, surprising Grant. Grant tries to explain himself, pointing out that the beeper is a long-range baby monitor and his speed makes it easy to return. Meanwhile, Nardole plays with baby toys. As The Doctor questions how complicated Grant wants his life, he points out that things are going to be worse as Lucy walks in the door. Yes, she’s the baby’s mother. Lucy recognizes The Doctor and Nardole, and The Doctor decides not to out Grant for some reason and says he came out of concern for her. Lucy tells them to stay put while she puts the baby to sleep. The Doctor gives Grant a look and another flashback occurs.
This one takes place with a slightly older and awkward Grant. The Doctor has been checking in as the powers appear to have become permanent. Grant has developed x-ray vision, which is causing puberty to be that much more uncomfortable. A younger Lucy passes by, indicating Grant has had feelings for her for a very long time as he rises into the sky as a metaphor for, well, you know. Like the scenes with child Grant, this is where the episode is particularly strong. Peter Capaldi is incredibly well used here, as he sympathizes and is even amused by Grant’s struggle. This is likely my favorite part of the episode. Going back to the present, Grant explains that Lucy actually fell in love with and married his best friend, but he ran off when the baby was born. Grant stepped in and began working as a nanny to care for the child and stay close to Lucy. Fire trucks race by and Grant vanishes Superman-style to assist. Lucy reappears with a squeaking stress toy that she’s named Mr. Huffle.
This scene is pretty weird, and doesn’t add a lot outside of establishing that Lucy can somewhat tell when The Doctor is lying. She squeezes the toy when she thinks he is, to unnerve him. The Doctor resists revealing information on Ghost, and a sequence begins with Grant coming in and out, demonstrating the super lifestyle. At the climax, Grant calls Lucy’s phone as the Ghost, and sets up an interview tomorrow. Lucy then goes to Grant (who quickly hides his phone) and asks him to baby sit. Grant says he has a date, causing a tinge of surprise in Lucy. Eventually he relents, deciding he’ll find a way to make it work.
Afterward, The Doctor returns to Harmony Shoal to confront the brain aliens (note: I’m frankly not sure if Harmony Shoal is the species name and it’s confusing enough, so brain aliens until further notice) and warns the aliens that he’s protecting the planet. As one of the hosts pulls an alien blaster from the body’s split skull, The Doctor realizes the brains can re-adapt their hosts to their needs and calls the TARDIS to him. Nardole is piloting it, as he was apparently sent away earlier to research Harmony Shoal further. During this sequence, Nardole reveals that he was, in fact, “reassembled” following the previous episode.
The next night, Grant arrives to babysit and comments that Lucy isn’t going out in her “date” dress, as she says what she’s doing is business. Once she leaves, Grant quickly changes and meets her on the roof as the Ghost. She’s removed her coat and is wearing her date dress, shocking him. They participate in some back and forth, as Lucy tries to pry information while the tension between the two builds. Ghost mistakenly reveals he knows she has a daughter, which leads to a discussion about male nannies. Lucy is surprisingly defensive of Grant to the Ghost, despite the Ghost’s insistence that there is no issue with a male nanny.
Back on the TARDIS, The Doctor and Nardole go to the Tokyo location of Harmony Shoal and discover that the buildings are signaling something in Earth’s orbit. Tracking the signal, they find and abandoned ship and board it. The Doctor discovers the ship is rigged to blow and figures out the plan: the ship will be aimed at New York, destroying everything except the Harmony Shoal building, which was built with this in mind. The aliens would then open up the other locations to world leaders for protection, assimilating them. An alarm was also triggered, and drone guards block the path to the TARDIS.
On the roof, Lucy realizes she has feelings for Grant, and the Ghost tries to reveal his identity, but she’s too busy having an epiphany. This all gets interrupted as the brain alien in Brock’s body arrives with surgeons to take Lucy hostage and assimilate the Ghost. At first, the Ghost appears to submit, but instead breaks free and escapes when Lucy insists he flee. She believes the aliens won’t kill the only hostage, but alien Brock reveals he knows about the baby. This causes Grant to return in his civilian clothes to stand up to the aliens.
With few options, The Doctor activates the bomb ship and aims for New York. He uses the sonic screwdriver to reactivate the ship’s communications and beams a message to Grant as a warning. The ship enters the atmosphere, catching the aliens off guard and giving Grant a moment to warn Lucy to get to safety. Grant is instructed by The Doctor to catch the ship, which he does in a truly Superman-like fashion, completely with one had. This works, as The Doctor explains, as a shock absorber and prevents an explosion.
Lucy is in shock as the TARDIS materializes on the roof. Grant and Lucy leave to get rid of the ship, throwing the baby monitor to The Doctor. The Doctor confronts and disarms alien Brock, revealing he also tipped off UNIT to shut down Harmony Shoal. The aliens are captured with the exception of the brain controlling Dr. Sim, so we’ll be seeing these guys again, I’m sure.
In the aftermath, Grant decides to give up the Ghost mantle to be with Lucy. She’s hesitant, but The Doctor assures them he’s been away, but is back now. This leads Lucy to ask about River Song, which The Doctor waves off with a monologue about endings and beginnings. He leaves, but Lucy gives him Mr. Huffle as a reminder. Nardole delays, explaining briefly to the two who River was and why The Doctor was sad. Even so, Nardole insists things will be fine, and he’ll see to it as they depart.
Lucy then asks Grant who The Doctor even was, and Grant calls him “Doctor Mysterio,” the superhero name his childhood self gave The Doctor in the beginning of the show.
All in all, this episode is just fine, plenty serviceable and entertaining. Justin Chatwin actually does a good Christopher Reeve impression, even if it robs his character of any proper depth. Charity Wakefield plays reporter well also, though several issues come up where she ebbs from too good at her job to completely inept. The Ghost literally knew where she lived and gave that no thought. Having been introduced previously and not needing an arc this episode, Nardole is handly comic relief as a foil that can actually keep up with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. Various moments come off as overly campy (after assisting with the fire, the Ghost points at a TV camera and extolls the benefits of smoke detectors for crying out loud), but with this being an earnest tribute to superhero comics and film, I think it works.
One final complaint: this isn’t really a Christmas episode. I know it’s a weird complaint, but the holiday has always been a fun hook for these episodes. Plus, it wouldn’t even be that hard to carry over the Christmas opening to the rest of the episode: Grant could just believe he got his powers from Santa Claus. This isn’t a deal breaker or take away from the episode as a whole, but I think that would have been more fun.
Most importantly, The Doctor is back. Series ten is back in April, provided BBC America sticks to a same-day airing schedule. By any accounts, the most important parts are coming along.