After the emotionally replete ‘Last Christmas’ which saw Clara flip the middle finger at her haters and stay on for another year, and ‘The Husbands of River Song’ which brought a satisfying end to a storyline eight years in the making, tonight’s episode was always going to be up against it. How do you inject the same level of pathos into a story with no main returning characters (save the Doctor), minimal follow through narrative, and a premise as worn as Russell T. Davies’ plot devices? Simple, you bring back Nardole. You remember Nardole, the completely unremarkable character from last year’s Christmas special? Yeah, that guy.
Let’s face it, Nardole was a character absolutely nobody was clamouring to see return. Much as I love Matt Lucas—and I really do—Nardole is as bland as an overdone turkey (sans the trimmings), and probably only half as entertaining. Yes, they fleshed out his character a little, but he still wasn’t as funny as he should've been, he didn’t do anything particularly heroic, and all he seemed to be there for was to serve as an elaborately dressed body for the Doctor to talk at, making the process of exposition that much easier. (Albeit still rather clumsy for Moffat.) Considering Lucas had joint top billing with Capaldi, he really should have been utilised more. But even when he was used, his line delivery was so unconvincing, his physical acting so pantomimian (not an actual word), that he added virtually nothing to the story. I really hoped for more from Nardole. Hopefully, with fewer time constraints, he'll delight next season.
On the plus side, the Lucy/Grant storyline was lovely, and the numerous homages to the Superman films/comics tremendously enjoyable, not to mention the various tips of the hat to Spiderman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the brief appearance of a whole host of other famous superheroes. Moffat clearly loves his super-powered dudes, and this whole episode genuflected warmly to his childhood heroes. Admittedly, Lucy’s realisation that she loved Grant was somewhat sudden and plot-convenient, but Charity Wakefield and Justin Chatwin played
The alien invasion plot I found less convincing. Even within the Whoniverse it’s a pretty worn out theme, and tonight’s story really didn’t bring anything memorable to the table. The head-splitting CGI was admittedly excellent, but the icky head stuff has been done before, and with a cast of nobodies, and a main character that can’t die, the tension was sadly minimal. The brains in jars looked cool though, as did the split-screen comic panels, and the flashbacks and erection gag were perfect baubles on a tree suspiciously light on festive treats. Apart from a flurry of snow at the beginning, and a 'time-distortion equaliser thingy' masquerading as a Christmas tree, there was almost nothing Christmassy about it. In fact, this felt more like a Christmasified regular episode, than a dedicated Christmas special.
Presumably, we were meant to take tonight's episode as a companion piece to 'The Husbands of River Song'. In that episode we saw the Doctor and River's relationship come to its natural end, and tonight's episode was obviously meant to highlight the Doctor's emotional distress. Except, I didn't buy any of it. Although I liked the River references, I found it hard to buy that the Doctor was particularly bothered by her absence. Yes, Nordole kept bringing it up, and Mr Huffle was positively insistent that the Doctor share his feelings on the subject, but outside of those moments, the Doctor appeared to be at his most relaxed, most humorous, and most flippant. He didn’t strike me as a man mourning the loss of his wife, it simply felt like a clumsy way of attempting to insert some depth into a script disappointingly light on emotional drama. I don’t doubt that the Doctor misses River, it just felt like his wise-cracking antics throughout belied his supposed emotional torment.
I did enjoy that the title of tonight’s episode was a reference to the Doctor, rather than a reference to The Ghost, but I do wonder how fondly this episode will be remembered in the years to come. It wasn’t awful, in fact there was nothing tragically wrong with it, it just committed the egregious crime of being ordinary, and that's something we don’t often see from Moffat. The superhero aspect of it was beautifully done, the comedy elements frequently hit the spot (apart from when they didn't), but the villain plot was paper thin, Nardole was a disappointment, and after a year of waiting, I was left feeling oddly underwhelmed. Here’s hoping that the casting of Pearl Mackie has invigorated Moffat’s storytelling chops, otherwise season ten is going to be hard work.
—Hopefully, them namedropping Osgood means that we'll see more of her in season 10.
—They did a decent job of the flying visuals. I usually have a bit of a whinge about the CGI, but I think Milk/BBC Wales VFX did themselves proud tonight, considering the TV budget.
—Nice 'Mind of Evil' reference.
Grant: 'Who are you thanking?'
Doctor: 'The universe: there's somebody worse at this than me.'
Lucy: 'You're kind of wet.'
Grant: 'I prefer mild-mannered.'
Lucy: 'Do you eat dinner?'
Grant: 'Of course I eat dinner.'
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.'
Grant: 'Life's not a comic book, right Doctor?'
Doctor: 'Possibly, I'm not the right person to ask.'
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.'