So, it was a few weeks ago that we had Christmas, and that means a weeks ago that we had Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) and thus a few weeks since we had the first, last, best and worst new Doctor Who television story of 2016: The Return of Dr. Mysterio.
And overall it was a good one. Silly, but fun, and generally satisfying, even if the plot had a bit in common with that lamentable first season two-parter featuring the fat, farting Slitheen.
Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor has definitely softened his edges since his debut, but it’s a welcome evolution, and especially because it’s Christmas, it’s fun to see him so gosh-darn nice with young Grant, with teenaged Grant, and even with ridiculously powerful adult Grant. Maybe some of this positive energy comes from the purposeful Christopher Reeve-as-Superman vibe that the show is trying to ape. But that’s still a positive thing, especially in this day and age of the more dour Henry Cavill interpretation.
Anyway, I’m not going to spend a lot of time giving a proper review of the story. It was good fun, with the right mix of funny and touching to work for Christmas, and good performances especially from Justin Chatwin (Grant) and Charity Wakefield (Lucy). It was also especially enjoyable since it’d been a year since we’d last seen new Doctor Who on TV.
No, let’s move on to something more specific, and that’s the extremely obvious comic book superhero roots that the show demonstrates. This episode is chock full of comic-related references and Easter Eggs – some blatantly obvious, and some less so. As one of those particular brand of nerds who is a fan of both superheroes and Time Lords, I thought I might list out all the ones that I noticed…
Clark Kent Glasses
Grant, when we first meet him as a young boy played by Logan Hoffman, wears conspicuously awkward glasses.
He continues to wear these as an adult (long after he no longer needs them, presumably) as part of his persona as a nanny. They are reminiscent, of course, of those worn by Clark Kent and his famous disguise as a clumsy and unassuming reporter.
Grant Gordon’s Name
Grant Gordon is the young boy who grows up to be the superhero, the Ghost. He’s not necessarily named specifically after any superhero character (though there certainly are characters called “Grant” and characters called “Gordon” in the comic book world), but he does have an alliterative name. Many comic book characters, particularly those invented by famed Marvel Comics author Stan Lee, tended to have alliterative names: Reed Richards, Susan Storm, Bruce Banner, Peter Parker, Stephen Strange, Scott Summers, Warren Worthington, J. Jonah Jameson, and Matt Murdock, to name some of the most popular. Not to mention Clark Kent himself, whose name was alliterative in sound if not in spelling.
Young Grant’s bedroom of course is a bit of a museum to superhero comics and memorabilia. You can see evidence that Grant likes Thor, the Defenders, the Silver surfer, Spider-Man and many more.
A Superman Comic
Specifically, I’m pretty sure that’s a Superman comic that is written and drawn by John Byrne, which, if I’m correct, means it’s from the mid-late 1980’s. If I’m wrong, than it’s almost certainly from the following few years. Now, I realize, I could look this up somewhere on the internet, but I also realize that I’d find that on one of a 100 other lists of comic book easter eggs, and I figure if I’m going to write up a post that repeats a lot of information you could find elsewhere, I’d darn well better make sure this one comes entirely from my own head. So, basically, I’m doing minimal research as I put this together.
Spider-Man’s Radiation Poisoning
This, like the comic above, isn’t really an Easter Egg, because like many of these things it’s not hidden at all. But Grant and the Doctor have a specific conversation about Spider-Man and how real radiation poisoning would have effected Peter Parker quite differently. It’s a funny moment, and it almost feels like the producers are making sure to give Marvel and DC equal representation.
New York City
It might seem a bit random that the episode takes place in New York City, but it actually fits very well with the comic book / superhero roots of the story. The heroes that the Ghost is clearly inspired from are a generally American creation, and both Marvel and DC, the two largest American comic book publishers, were both located in New York City for many decades. In fact, for that reason New York City was the common home for many of Marvel’s most popular superheroes, including Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and Daredevil. DC’s characters tended to exist in fictional cities but both Metropolis (Superman) and Gotham City (Batman) have at times been represented as avatars of New York City. Indeed, Richard Donner’s Superman the Movie didn’t make any attempts to hide that as Metropolis clearly featured the Statue of Liberty and other famous landmarks.
The Harmony Shoal Building
The Return of Dr. Mysterio includes at least one non-existent New York City building, the Harmony Shoal offices, which is a tall skyscraper with a globe on top of it. This is clearly designed to look like the building for the Daily Planet (the newspaper that Clark Kent and Lois Lane work for) in Superman comics and movies, which is often depicted the same way.
The leader, or at least spokesperson, of the Harmony Shoal company was Mr. Brock, a guy who was at least initially reminiscent of the more modern interpretations of Lex Luthor – a powerful businessman who has the goodwill of the people but is filled with evil intent. Of course, this turns out to be a subversion as it is Brock’s hapless scientific lackey who is the real villain of the story, but it doesn’t take away from the connection.
The Girl Reporter
Lucy Fletcher is obviously an analogue of Lois Lane – she’s the “love interest” of our superhero, and she’s a fiesty reporter for a major newspaper. She’s also played by Charity Wakefield, who I have to say reminds me a great deal of Amy Adams, the current cinematic Lois Lane. Maybe it’s just the hair, but it’s definitely something I noticed.
Miss Shuster & Miss Siegel
The two representatives from Harmony Shoal that the reporters can talk to if they have any questions are obviously named after the creators of Superman – artist Joe Shuster and writer Jerry Siegel.
Brains in Jars
Old comic books had a lot of brains in jars. Evil brains in jars. Often, evil alien brains in jars. I mean, they didn’t invent this idea (as far as I know?) but there are four or five examples of this in the early Legion of Super-Heroes comics alone. And here in Doctor Who, the villains turn out to be evil aliens brains in jars, which just fits perfectly. Who knows…this may be the closest I get to ever seeing an adaptation of the Brain Lords of the Planet Khann from 1964’s Adventure Comics #325.
The Ghost & His Powers
Well, obviously one of the comic book / superhero connections that we find in this episode is the fact that it is largely about a superhero who wears a flashy costume and has powers very similar to Superman’s – strength, flight, invulnerability, speed and xray vision. He can also make a powerful glass window explode with the snap of a finger. Of course, it sounds like the Ghost should be able to do anything he wants, but since Grant is obviously inspired by comic books himself, it’s not unbelievable that he’s mainly focused around Superman’s particularly famous power set.
Since 1989’s Batman movie starring Michael Keaton, it’s been pretty standard that Batman speaks with a scary growly voice. Different actors have done this with different levels of success. As the Ghost, Grant Gordon does something similar with his voice.
The Ghost’s Speech
The dialogue that Grant speaks as the Ghost has an old-fashioned, artificial quality full of moral platitudes and some corny jokes – “Would you like me to call a glazier?”, “It’s against my personal code to cause lasting harm to any individual. However, light to moderate injury’s fine,” “Because fire prevention is the responsibility of every citizen, so get a smoke detector!” and so on. It is all very reminiscent of both Christopher Reeve’s earnest performance as Superman and Adam West’s intentionally wooden portrayal of Batman from the 1960’s TV series.
One particular example of this is when the Ghost says to Lucy, “Well, I certainly hope this unpleasant experience hasn’t put you off a career in journalism,” which is a deliberate callback to “I hope this hasn’t put you off flying,” a line that Christopher Reeve’s Superman said to Lois Lane right after rescuing her.
“The Bat-Signal’s an app now?”
Lucy hears but doesn’t recognize the Ghost’s baby monitor and ask this question. The Bat-Signal, of course, was a comic book trope (adapted for screen a few times) where the local police would summon Batman via projecting a giant Bat-symbol into the sky. Batman would generally show up then on the rooftop and consult with his police contact, Commissioner Gordon. Of course the idea is ludicrous (it’d have to be a gargantuan image to be visible from any great distance from the police station, for example), but it made for some cool visuals.
Amusingly, the folks over at the web-series How it Should Have Ended have recently done a few animated shorts which joke about how Batman is using an app similar to Pokemon Go in order to find and catch his regular bad guys!
Never Not On Call
The Doctor is concerned for Grant – when he is not saving someone? It’s a common sort of existential question to come up in stories about Superman and characters of his ilk.
Wonder Woman Spin
When the Ghost returns to Lucy’s apartment, he changes back to Grant with a zippy little spin that looks a lot like how Lynda Carter changed into Wonder Woman back in the 1970’s TV show.
“Go get ’em!”
Lucy’s line to the departing Ghost, including the way the moment is shot (camera overheard looking down on her with a slow push in) is very reflective of one or more similar moments in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, except with Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane.
With Great Power…
It’s the Doctor himself who quotes the famous line from the Spider-Man comics and movies, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Only he says it in reference to the fact that Grant has the job of looking after a baby.
It’s hidden a bit, but it turns out that the Ghost’s love-interest has LL initials. This was a thing with Superman as well, where not only his girlfriends – Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lori Lemaris – but lots of other characters in his life had the same initials (Lex Luthor, Lightning Lad, etc.) It was a joke that was often drawn attention to though never revealed as actually important, to my knowledge. Sort of like me and the number 47.
Also, Lombard is the name of a moderately important supporting character in the Superman universe: Steve Lombard who reported sports at the same TV station that Clark Kent worked at at the time. It’s probably just a coincidence, although it does occur to me that Steve was often treated as a bit of a jerk, so maybe he’s the kind of guy who would ditch his wife if an unwanted baby came along.
Why can’t Lucy recognize the Ghost?
The Doctor is baffled that this extremely intelligent and perceptive woman is absolutely unaware that her nanny is the same man as the superhero she has just met. To be fair, the Ghost actually does wear a mask, but still it all reminds one of the eternal question amongst fans (and detractors) as to how stupid must Lois Lane be to not catch on to the fact that Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same. A lot of humor is mined out of this idea in this episode.
Putting people close to you at risk
The Ghost’s argument for not revealing his secret identity is that it would put his loved ones at risk. This is the same rationale that comic book superheroes have been using for years, both for keeping their identity secret and for not marrying. It’s becoming harder to sell the latter motivation, especially on TV when it seems like everyone knows the hero’s identity. But it still makes sense to try to keep your enemies from knowing who you really are, so that makes sense.
“Do you eat dinner?”
“Of course I eat dinner!” replies the Ghost, confused by Lucy’s question. Back in the Christopher Reeve Superman film, Lois Lane nervously asks the Man of Steel, “Do you…eat?”
Again, like the 1970’s Superman movie, the hero has an interview with the reporter he’s attracted to over a meal on the roof of her apartment. The main difference is that in the movie, the roof was really the balcony outside of Lois Lane’s apartment. Here it really is just the roof.
Lucy wonders if the Ghost is gay, because of his manner of dress and the “G” on his chest. This of course puts one in mind of all sorts of commentary that has been made about superheroes for decades – some serious, some in jest, some maybe in wish-fulfillment – about the sexuality of various characters and also the nature of their relationships, particularly Batman & Robin.
Grant actually describes himself as mild-mannered, which is a term that you’d often get for Clark Kent, particularly in the narration of TV shows and comics.
Ripping the shirt open
Earlier, the Ghost became Grant in a way reminiscent of TV’s Wonder Woman. But later, it happens more like Superman from almost every TV and movie incarnation (as well as Supergirl, actually): the hero is running into action, and they move toward the camera ripping their shirt open, dominating the screen with their insignia.
The evil brains certainly have an evil plan, one that is straight out of a lot of comic books. Actually, the whole thing about stage managing an alien attack sounds a bit like the famed series Watchmen, although the ultimate goals were different. However, it also sounds a lot like every second episode of Doctor Who, so maybe the fact that it’s here really has nothing to do with comic books.
“You are the only living thing on earth that can hear this frequency…”
The Doctor contacts Grant using a frequency that only his super-ears can hear. Back in 1979, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor used the same technique to contact Superman (stating that Superman was the only thing on earth that had less than four legs that could hear what he was saying), and I’m pretty sure the idea has been homaged in other shows since.
Phew! Is that it? Did I miss anything?
Incidentally, I was going to include a whole bunch of publicity pictures that the BBC released from the episode, but then it turned out that their copyright policy on those pictures only allows registered members of their service to use them, and then only for a couple of weeks after the show has aired. And to register for their service, you have to be a whole bunch of things that I am not. Oh well. As a result, the only Doctor Who related image is a free download from the BBC’s website from a couple of years ago. The other comic book images I feel okay about because they are small scans of individual panels from issues that I own. Oh well, not sure if it really matters or not, but I’m learning all the time how to have integrity with this whole blogging thing.