Please adopt your best movie trailer voice for the purposes of this post. (Internal or external voice, up to you.)
In a world where Christmas specials have gone on so long we can no longer think of any more Christmas themed plotlines…
I like to think it happened like this: showrunner Steven Moffat, punchdrunk from making Sherlock, scrabbling around for a suitable Christmasy idea for Doctor Who’s 12th festive special, finally sighed and said “how about Superman? They show Superman movies at Christmas, don’t they? Sometimes, at least? It’s either that or we go with alien elves and sentient egg nog. Don’t make me do it, you know I will!”
Although I’ve argued that modern Who sometimes imbues the Doctor with superpowers, “superhero movie” is generally a genre the show has to avoid. Superheroes have only existed in the Doctor Who universe as fictional characters and integrating them into a Doctor Who story would have meant some oddball narrative deviation, such as a visit The Mind Robber’s Land of Fiction. In fact, that’s exactly what did happen when the second Doctor and Zoe were menaced by the mighty Karkus (as if you could forget).
But genre blending never frightened Moffat, and so he comes up with a way to tell a superhero story, as well as offering a fondly satirical pastiche of superhero stories, while still making it a Doctor Who story. If he neglects to cover this one in tinsel and Christmas baubles, then at least it’s still merry and bright.
In a time where superhero movies and Doctor Who collide…
To create this mishmash of formats, Moffat wisely decides to make the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) the mad professor who unintentionally creates a superhero, rather than making him the stand-in Superman. (The alternative would be for the Doctor to temporarily gain some superhero powers, but I don’t think anyone would have wanted to see the waspish twelfth Doctor donning a spandex body suit. Nor Matt Lucas’s Nardole as SuperDoc’s trusty sidekick. Although the image of that pairing does seem to suggest a duo of classic Little Britain characters we never got to see.)
As it turns out, it’s as simple as the Doctor giving young Grant (Logan Hoffman) a magic sci-fi pill which turns his comic book fuelled fantasies into reality. And hey presto, the Doctor has dragged a superhero out of the realm of fiction. And suddenly, we’re in a world where the Doctor can meet, work and argue with Superman (or at least his copyright free equivalent) while still being hyper aware of the stereotypes of the genre: secret identities which are both obvious but unnoticed, torturous romances between hero and human, and earnest, ethical instruction (“Because fire prevention is the responsibility of every citizen, so get a smoke detector!”).
It’s as neat a narrative conceit as Moffat ever constructed. And given his form in that field, that’s really something.
One man and his comedy sidekick must save New York City…
Every so often, the Doctor grows tired of travelling the universe with a succession of beautiful women and shacks up with a bloke for an episode or two. In this case, it’s aide-de-camp (emphasis on the “camp”) Nardole, unfeasibly bought back to life after being decapitated and embedded in a big red robot.
Nardole will go on to play an important role in Series 10 as the secondary companion and the Doctor’s nagger in chief. Here, though, he has no real plot function, other than to puncture the Doctor’s pomposity every so often. But he’s not entirely out of place in this tale of superheroes and the people around them. After all, Batman had a butler so why not the Doctor? Nardole is useful for running errands, asking questions, being exasperated and cracking the odd gag, but as companions go, surely the Doctor is overlooking someone.
A hero will rise…
Honestly, Doctor, if you’re looking for a companion to keep you company while you mooch around after the loss of River, boy next door Grant (Justin Chatwin) not only has the pleasantly dorky look of the permanent underdog, but he also has freaking super powers! Which could be very useful against the Daleks, the Mandrells and other top tier villains. Funny how the option to dump Nardole like a hot dumpling and take the phenomenally more useful Grant along for a ride never crosses his mind.
Perhaps he thinks it’s too cruel to break up the burgeoning romance between Grant and Lucy (Charity Wakefield). In which case, maybe he should cut along and get another magic red pill for Nardole. And we’re back to Super Nardole! He’d cut quite the figure in skin tight body armour and a big G on his chest.
With the woman he loves…
In an unusual move for Doctor Who, this story’s a romantic comedy. Quite a lot of it’s time is spent trying to get Lucy and Grant together.
In one sense, it’s a distraction from the Doctor’s fight against the agents of Harmony Shoal, because it’s a romance between two side characters. But it’s much more central the episode than that. It plays on all the old gags about Superman and Lois Lane, particularly her inability to recognise him out of his superhero duds. The Doctor almost derails this plotline mid-episode when he threatens to spill the beans to Lucy. “There are some situations which are just too stupid to be allowed to continue,” he sighs and he’s right of course, but that would totally spoil the fun. And as Moffat could write romantic comedy in his sleep, we see here what a superhero popcorn movie written by him might turn out like.
Come to that, where’s the spin off series for Lucy and Grant? You could call it The Ghost and Mrs Lombard (there’s a TV reference for the old timers among you). Wakefield and Chatwin make a charismatic pairing. I’d totally watch them tearing around New York (or its ersatz Bulgarian equivalent) finding a balance between crime fighting and child care. Quick, someone make it before Big Finish jumps on it.
And things will never be the same again.
It all gets wrapped up very neatly at the end, but one thing’s left hanging. The hinge heads of Harmony Shoal aren’t entirely defeated. One of them gets to turn meaningfully to camera, Valeyard style, at the end of the episode. Pure cheese, but still, an indication that a rematch was planned, but never delivered. And then there’s the name of the thing (to borrow a line from The Leisure Hive) – “Harmony Shoal” sounds a little too reminiscent of “Song, River” to be coincidental. Surely this is a tale unfinished.
Anyway. We never got that sequel and now the series has moved significantly on from the genre mangling, wisecracking world of Steven Moffat. But it’s just as well – we know from Superman II, Batman Returns and all the rest that they’re rarely as good as the original. Best to leave Mysterio alone. As one off, slightly festive, comic book hero, rom coms go, it’s pretty super.
LINK TO Arachnids in the UK: both feature Americans.
NEXT TIME: The Quest is the Quest! We take a detailed look at Tom Baker’s Underwear. Sorry, I mean, Underworld.