Hey there, Whovians! Doctor Who has been absent from the airwaves for a whole year, but no one could stop our favorite Time Lord from coming home for Christmas….
The Doctor meets superhero-obsessed eight-year-old Grant Gordan on Christmas Eve in 1992, and the boy mistakes him as Santa. The Doctor is setting a trap on the roof of Grant’s apartment building to guard a device he created to mitigate some of the paradoxes he created around New York in previous adventures, and hands Grant a very special gem that powers the thing. The boy assumes that it’s medicine for his cold and swallows the thing, not realizing that it’s a stone powered by wishes. The gem gives him superpowers, sensing what he wants; the Doctor makes him promise never to use those powers, figuring that the gem will pass out of him.
In present day, the company Harmony Shoal is busy drumming up good press for their scientific research, and holds a conference attended by reporter Lucy Fletcher. She’s suspicious of their activities and hangs out after hours disguised as cleaning staff, and runs into the Doctor as they both listen in a doorway to a vault. They learn that the company is keeping brains there, and that the brains are actually an alien species that transfer themselves into humans bodies. One of these aliens who has thane over the body of Dr. Sims discovers them and attempts to kill the Doctor, Lucy, and Nardole (who the Doctor reattached to his body after his time on Darillium) when a superhero known as “The Ghost” shows up and rescues them, flying Lucy home in his arms.
The Doctor knows that the Ghost is Grant Gordon and finds him back at Lucy’s apartment—taking care of the reporter’s daughter Jennifer as her nanny. The Doctor realizes that Grant has been in love with Lucy since he was a kid, recalling a time when he went to visit a teenaged Grant who couldn’t look up at his classmates for fear of exploiting his uncontrollable x-ray vision. Grant and Lucy have been in each other’s lives for 24 years, a number which currently holds great significance for the Doctor, as that was exactly how much time he just had with River Song before saying his final goodbye. The Doctor talks to Lucy and realizes that she’s far too smart for him to lie to, telling her what he knows about the alien brains and they plot; taking over the minds of world leaders and the colonizing the planet. Lucy knows that the Doctor can tell her the identity of the Ghost, so Grant calls her as his super alter ego to set up an interview between them and prevent the Doctor from telling her. He also agrees as Grant to babysit Jennifer at the same time.
The Doctor warns the brains to leave the planet alone, though they refuse to heed him. He finds an abandoned ship that waits in orbit and realizes that the brains plan to use the ship to bomb New York, panicking world leaders and sending them all running to Harmony Shoal for protection, where they will have their brains swapped out. The Doctor decides to crash the ship ahead of their schedule. In the meantime, the Ghost is having his interview with Lucy on her roof, unaware that the brains have him scheduled next for a transplant. He and Lucy talk, and he considers revealing his identity to her, but refrains before he is captured on the roof by the brains. They threaten to hurt Lucy and her daughter if he doesn’t comply to their wishes. The Ghost leaves, but Grant rushes onto the roof to protect Lucy, then gets a message from the Doctor asking him to stop the incoming bomb. He does, thereby revealing his alter ego to Lucy. He and Lucy admit their feelings for one another, and Grant disposes of the bomb ship. The plans of Harmony Shoal are foiled and they shut down their branches as UNIT descends to clean up the mess.
Grant tells the Doctor that he promises to stop his side gig as a superhero, and the Doctor promises that he’ll be around to stop any trouble now that he’s “back.” Lucy realizes that he’s lost someone, but the Doctor won’t give her any information. He tells them both to be happy together in this new beginning, leaving Nardole to tell the couple about the recent loss of River Song. He tells them that the Doctor is sad, but he’ll be happy again soon enough.
What a lovely thing.
Okay, the alien plot is completely unintelligible when you stop to think about it for longer than thirty seconds. Like… their entire plan is contingent on them being able to nuke New York City? And when it doesn’t work they just bolt? That’s it? It has bits of old plans from other species we’ve encountered, like the Slitheen and so on, but this plan felt needlessly overblown and depended greatly on the assumption that every single powerful human being would react the way they believed they would. On the other hand, referring to an entire evil species as simply “the alien brains with eyes” is kind of what Doctor Who is all about in my book, so at least it enjoyed its own ridiculousness this time around.
And outside of that strange overwrought scheme, this episode was perfect for the holidays and a happy return after a solid year lacking new Doctor Who stories. Nardole is back (and will be there for the upcoming season) and his position on the TARDIS is sure to be an interesting one—it’s rare to have a companion who mostly knows what the Doctor is about and where he’s coming from. Having someone around to occasionally scold him and serve as a truth-teller when the Doctor would prefer to avoid honesty altogether sounds like a lot of fun. It’ll be great to see what kind of dynamic he lends once Bill is on board next year.
This episode was meant to be a rumination on superhero narratives, more specifically using the stylings of the Christopher Reeve Superman films that Steven Moffat purported to be especially fond of. At New York Comic Con in October, Moffat admitted to having a personal fascination not with Superman, but with Clark Kent, the man behind the cape. This episode does an excellent job at unpacking that sort of mythology and taking a peek at the sort of person who would take on that job. In the place of the “mild mannered reporter from Kansas” we have a man who has chosen to be a full-time nanny in order to be of service to his lifelong crush.
Also, the meet cute between the Doctor and little Grant is the stuff of Christmas dreams, helped along by Peter Capaldi’s never-ending enthusiasm in the part. His age has lent the role gravitas to be sure, but the place where he truly shines are the parts where the Doctor seems far younger than he should be—like the moment where he thinks himself clever for working out Superman and Clark Kent are the same person, not realizing that the conceit is well known in the comics. And the idea that a kid could become a superhero by accidentally swallowing a very special gem that he thinks is medicinal is a damned clever twist on one of the oldest tropes in the playbook.
The love story between Lucy and Grant could have played out creepily—in danger of framing the Superman analog as a “Nice Guy” who inserts himself into the life of the woman he loves by making himself indispensable to her as a form of childcare—but avoids that awkwardness because it’s clear that Grant expects nothing in return for his time and devotion. By making that choice, the story actually doubles down on the truth of what actually makes Superman such a super hero: his roots as Clark Kent, the ultimate caregiver, who thinks nothing of providing his support and protection to others. In service of that message, Lucy tells him to put his costume back on before disposing of the bomb… and slips his glasses back onto his nose. There is no Superman without those glasses. There is no strength and power without the love and vulnerability present in both Clark Kent and Grant Gordon.
Their “interview” on the roof is a clever parody of the interview on Lois’s rooftop in the first Superman film, but actually plays out a bit more sharply in the dialogue, which is fun to see. Lucy does Lois Lane proud, though it would have been nice to see a little more investigation from her. It’s always nice to see the Doctor cowed by any human who’s too smart to mess with, and her use of Mr. Huffle as a unique coercion device (due to the agonizing sound it makes when compressed) was both funny and a weird detail that allows Lucy to have her own eccentricities as a person instead of a carbon copy of her progenitor.
There’s an oddness as always to the New York that we see in this episode, certainly different from the real New York City, but in keeping with how Doctor Who has shown the it in the past. There’s a time capsule effect that’s in play, and it’s interesting to watch Who come back to NYC over and over, only to get it just a little bit off every single time. In some ways it seems all the more clever to stage a superhero plot in this semi-bizarro version of Manhattan that the show presents, the perfect setting to stage the tale of a man who would normally continue being a superhero…but doesn’t need to, because he lives in a universe where the Doctor is out and about.
Speaking of which, that had to be the greatest gift of the episode by far. 2016 has been a rough year to most of us, and the absence of the Doctor was perhaps all the more devastating for that reason. To have him back, to see him hanging upside-down by the window, waiting outside algebra class, hiding around the corner eating snacks and checking in just in time to save the world—well, it’s about time.
And if he’s back, we’re sure to weather the storm with him.
Notes and Bits and Sundry:
- I mean fine, why don’t you just keep twisting the knife about how he had 24 years with River and now they’re over and he will probably never see her again, that’s cool, that’s fine, I’ll be okay…. *sobs*
- The Doctor’s time distortion equalizer thingy is a reference to the many weird paradoxes he caused due to the weird plotting in “Angels Take Manhattan.” It doesn’t make sense of the episode, but it’s always fun to see a lantern hung on those sorts of things after the fact.
- Sushi as spy food. Yes.
- During the show’s World Tour, Capaldi and Moffat learned that Doctor Who was in fact titled “Doctor Misterio” in Mexico. Capaldi loved the name, so Moffat made use of the title in Grant’s special name for the Doctor.
- Both Osgood and UNIT are name-dropped. One of the UNIT soldiers is taken over by the brain occupying Dr Sim, so that’s bound to come up later….
- Calling one of the bad guys “Mr Brock” seems like it could be a reference to Eddie Brock, the alter ego of Venom in the Spider-Man comics. Lucy Fletcher’s paper, The Daily Chronicle, is an obvious reference to the DC universe’s The Daily Planet. The use of alliteration in the character names is another reference to comics and the many heroes who bear alliterative namesakes (Peter Parker, Jessica Jones, Wally West, Sue Storm, etc…)
- That trailer, though. Who’s ready for Bill? I need Bill.