Inspired by listening to the song a few weeks ago, I decided to spend the month of December reflecting on what Christmas means to me. Then I decided it would be a fun to use Doctor Who Christmas specials as the sole lens through which to consider this question! “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” written by Steven Moffat, was Doctor Who’s 2016 Christmas special. It starred Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, Matt Lucas as the oh-so-amazing-yet-forever-underrate Nardole, Justin Chatwin as Grant Gordon/the Ghost, and Charity Wakefield as Lucy Fletcher. Picking favorites out of the Doctor Who Christmas specials is all but impossible. Still…this one has always stood out for me. So, What Does Christmas Mean To Me (Vol. 3)? Let’s follow the Doctor stateside to New York City and start breaking that very question down!
Just to set the tone here, if a Phase One movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a Hallmark Christmas movie had a baby, it would be “The Return of Doctor Mysterio.” BOOM. There you go. What else could anyone want?
Mistaken for Santa Clause as he dangles outside a young Grant Guston (Logan Hoffman)’s window on Christmas Eve in the 1990’s, the Doctor is invited inside. There he tells the superhero obsessed Grant he’s trying to sort out a large amount of temporal problems going on in New York. After finishing the milk and cookies Grant brought him (and sharing with Grant the startling revelation the Doctor stumbled upon while flipping through his comics, that if you look very closely you can see that Clark Kent is actually Superman!), Grant takes the Doctor back up to the roof to activate the “time distortion equalizer thingie” he’s built. On their way upstairs, they discuss Spider-Man as the Doctor pages through another of Grant’s comics:
The Doctor – “Why do they call it ‘Spider-Man’? Don’t they like him?”
Grant – “He was bitten by a radioactive spider and guess what happened.”
The Doctor – “Radiation poisoning, I should think.”
Grant – “No he got special powers.”
The Doctor – “What, vomiting, hair loss, and death? Fat lotta use…”
Hahahaha, I love that XD. Once they’re up on the roof Grant, mistaking the gemstone the Doctor gives him to hold for a pill – as he’s coughing and the Doctor gave him a glass of water and the Doctor introduced himself as “the Doctor” – swallows it. The Doctor tells Grant, “Formed in the heart of a red hole, stabilized in pure dwarf star crystal, the gemstone is intuitive. It knows what you want and it draws energy from the nearest star to make it happen. There’s only four of ‘em left in the universe. The Apocalypse Monks of the Andurax call this one the Hazandra, the Ghost of Love and Wishes.” When something like that ends up inside the body of a superhero-crazed little kid, there’s only going to be one outcome – the Hazandra gives Grant superpowers!
Incidentally, I’ve always felt the Hazandra drawing energy from the nearest star to grant your heart’s deepest desires always had a ring of Christmas magic to it :). It’s a magical time of year, right? Christmas stars! Christmas magic! Your dreams coming true! Anything can happen! The idea of the energy of the universe intuiting what you want most and willing it into existence for you has always felt very Christmas-y to me.
The Doctor makes Grant promise not to use his powers and he tells him the gem will eventually pass from his system, leaving him a regular ol’ human being again. Grant promises…however, it would seem the Doctor wasn’t quite right. Checking up on Grant (Daniel Lorente) in middle school, the Doctor finds not only has the Hazandra not left his system but it’s reading puberty and giving Grant x-ray vision he can’t turn off as a result and making his life a living hell. Oof. As if middle school wasn’t tough enough already!
The Doctor returns to New York City in 2016, investigating Harmony Shoal, a mysterious company with headquarters in capital cities all across the Earth. There he and Nardole (who’s been travelling with the Doctor since he said his final goodbye to River Song (Alex Kingston) on Darillium (the previous year’s Christmas special and the last time we saw the Doctor)) run into Lucy Fletcher, a journalist who’s also investigating Harmony Shoal. Things go, well, the way they usually do for the Doctor. After he, Nardole, and Lucy discover a room full of alien brains being forcibly inserted into human bodies, the human brains scooped out with the alien lifeforms able to move around on the planet undetected, they find themselves held up at gunpoint by Dr. Sim (Alexsandar Jovanovic)…one of the aliens leading the invasion and running Harmony Shoal.
As the Doctor tries to figure out how he’s going to get out of this one, they are saved by the Ghost – New York’s resident masked vigilante superhero – and the Doctor learns Grant hasn’t been keeping his promise.
Nardole pops up with the TARDIS later, after the Doctor’s talked a bit with Grant about his double life, with answers and a fantastic outfit. The Doctor asks Nardole, “Where did you get the robes?” Nardole replies, “12th century, Constantinople. I ruled firmly but wisely.” I just…I love Nardole so much! He’s hilarious. He’s so compassionate. And he never lets his fear stop him from doing the brave thing which, really, makes him all the more brave! It’s easy to do the brave thing when you’re not scared.
But he’s also unique among the Doctor’s companions in a lot of ways and that makes me love him all the more. He has a knowledge of the Doctor’s larger world – space, alien cultures, time travel, etc. – that the other companions never have (save Captain Jack). Given his comfort in himself, his abilities, and the world(s) in which they travel, he calls the Doctor out and holds him accountable in a way the other companions can’t (including Captain Jack). We see a great example of this as the Doctor’s asking him about the Ghost:
The Doctor – “The Ghost, what’ve you got?”
Nardole – “The whole story!”
The Doctor – “Fact me, baby! It’s why I reassembled you.”
Nardole – “No, sir, that’s not the reason, is it?”
The Doctor – “[sigh]…just get on with it.”
Nardole – “You cut me out of Hydroflax because you were worried you’d be lonely. And we both know why, don’t we? But oh! Look at you, avoiding the subject.”
The Doctor – “I’m not avoiding anything. I’m just trying to save a planet.”
Nardole – “Which is what you always do when the conversation turns serious.”
Compassionate but honest and firm, calling him out but not forcing the issue. I think it’s one of the great shames of the show we only ever had Nardole for one series! I always see polls asking, if you had your choice, which companion would you like to see come back and travel with the Thirteenth Doctor. It’s usually Rose or Donna who win (with good reason) but for me it’s Nardole all the way! Anyway, I’m digressing. We’ve got an invasion force of alien brains. We’ve got a masked avenger flying through the New York skyline doing everything from fighting fires to stopping armed gunmen. And we’ve got an intrepid reporter trying to figure out just who this hero really is.
So there’s our superhero setup! But where does Hallmark come into the mix? Well Grant and Lucy have known each other for twenty-four years, ever since elementary school (meaning they’ve known each other for the entire length of the last night on Darillium the Doctor just spent with River, a coincidence not lost on him when he learns this). He’s loved her forever and she fell in love with and married his best friend. However, Lucy’s husband took off once she got pregnant, leaving her a single mom. Grant seized the opportunity…to become her nanny and pine after her from afar. Lucy is living the fast-paced and exciting life of a reporter for the Daily Chronicle, while Grant quietly loves her from a distance amidst his mild mannered life of changing diapers and warming bottles. For all his superheroics, he lacks the courage to tell her how he feels. So he watches and wishes, dreaming of the girl he’s loved for two decades.
When the Ghost agrees to be interviewed by Lucy, she asks Grant to babysit that night. Wanting to keep her interview a secret, she tells him she has a date. Knowing he’s otherwise engaged as well, he tells Lucy he has a date. She’s thrown by this and, as she stumbles on her words, Grant assures her he’ll be there. He can’t let Lucy down. He plans to do double duty, an interview with his Ghost costume on and the baby monitor on his belt should little Jennifer need changing or to be put back to bed. The Doctor tries to tell Grant Lucy was jealous of his date but Grant only sees his own jealousy of Lucy’s date (even if it’s with himself).
While Lucy and the Ghost dine on the roof, the Doctor and Nardole investigate an alien spaceship they detected hanging in low atmosphere over Earth. The ship belongs to the alien brain thingies, or the Shoal of Winter Harmony as the race is formally known. The Shoal plan to destroy New York in the resulting nuclear explosion of crashing the ship into the city. Then, when the Harmony Shoal building is all left standing in the rubble of New York, the leaders in capitals across the world will flee to the Harmony Shoal buildings in their city…where their brains will be scooped out.
Here our MCU and Hallmark movies overlap. It’s so cute when Lucy realizes she likes Grant as she’s out to dinner with the Ghost! She’s dining with a literal superhero and she realizes she’s always loved the “mild mannered” guy who’s always been there for her :). Awwww, yay! As Lucy tells the Ghost how great Grant is while he tries to summon the courage to tell her the truth of her identity, the Shoal arrive. They want the body of the Ghost to be the ultimate vessel for their people.
The Doctor forces the ship to crash early, surprising the Shoal, and calls Grant, in hopes of stopping the explosion. Then we get a climax that’s part MCU, part Hallmark, and all adorable.
Hallmark Christmas movies have legions of devoted fans. They also have plenty of people who like to rag on them for being formulaic and predictable. Here’s what I’ll say though. Hallmark movies are formulaic and they are predictable and that’s why they are amazing. (Full disclosure, I don’t really watch Hallmark movies but everyone in my family does so I know the rundown on just about all of them.) And, in this, Hallmark movies are exactly like superhero movies and they are satisfying in a similar way, too. Have you not considered the great similarities between Crown for Christmas and Avengers: Endgame before? Because it’s there!
Both Hallmark Christmas movies and superhero movies are soothing because we know what will happen. Both superhero movies and Hallmark movies offer us the same comfort – happily ever after is ensured. The couple will get together. The heroes will win in the end. No matter what, it’ll all be alright. The journey there is so much fun! We can enjoy every step without anxiously fearing the end. It’s the how it will happen not the will it happen that we’re there for. As the world feels increasingly darker almost all the time, stories like this become all the more important.
However, the MCU Phase One and Hallmark Christmas movie’s child or not, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” is still a Doctor Who special so it’s not tied up quite as neatly as Crown for Christmas or A Christmas Detour or Christmas at Pemberly Manor. We see this as the Doctor, Nardole, Lucy, and Grant talk around Lucy’s kitchen table after the day is saved:
Lucy – “What if something happens? What if the whole world is in danger?”
Grant – “Well, you know, maybe I’ll keep the outfit then, you know, just in case.”
The Doctor – “The world will be fine. I’ve been away for a while but I’m back. I’ll take care of anything that comes up.”
Grant – “You were away?”
Nardole – “Oh, twenty four years – what a night! [notices the Doctor glaring at him]”
Grant – “Where’d you go?”
Lucy – “Wrong question. [puts Mr. Huffle on the table] What was her name?”
The Doctor – “I’m sure that I must be busy. Better go.”
Grant – “You ok?”
The Doctor – “Yes, yes, yes. I’m ok.”
Lucy – [squeezes Mr. Huffle to indicate the Doctor’s lying]
The Doctor – “Things end. That’s all. Everything ends. And it’s always sad. But everything begins again, too, and that’s…always happy. Be happy. I’ll look after everything else. Nardole…”
Lucy – “Hey Doctor, [tossing him Mr. Huffle] keep it real.”
[The Doctor leaves and Nardole stands to follow him.]
Nardole – “Her name was River Song. They were together for awhile and then they were very happy. And then she died, a long time ago, in a library.”
Grant – “You sure he’s gonna be alright?”
Nardole – “Hm, he’s the Doctor. He’s very brave. He’s very silly. And I think, for a time, he’s going to be very sad. But I promise, in the end, he’ll be alright. I’ll make sure of it. Bye.”
What does Christmas mean to me? In part, it means improbably happy endings. Even for the Doctor, we get an assurance that everything’s going to work out alright in the end. I think, for a time, he’s going to be very sad. But I promise, in the end, he’ll be alright. We need that! After another long, hard year amidst the dark and cold of winter, we need to be reminded that everything can turn out happily. Heck, we need to be reminded that everything can turn out perfectly. And that’s what all the Christmas carols and movies and specials and novels do – they mainstream improbably happy endings! Yes, I know life’s complicated. Yes, I know life’s filled with struggle and heartache and loss. This year has taught me that more than any other I’ve ever experienced. But Christmas shines like a beacon of happily ever afters. One of the things I love about Christmas is, for this month at least (or two months and change if you begin when Hallmark starts playing their Christmas movies round the clock), everything ends happily. Every story I consume leaves me feeling warm and fuzzy. The only crying I’m doing is because I’m happy and because the ending is that beautiful/moving. Even if life doesn’t work like that all the time, or even most of the time, Christmas is a time to remember life can work like that and to embrace the assurance of happy endings with the pure radiance of childlike trust.
Are you in the mood for more merry and bright Doctor Who Christmas fun?? Well you’re in luck! Check out: