There’s a number of issues with The Return of Doctor Mysterio, but I think if we were to find a single, ship-sinking kryptonite criticism of the thing, it would be that it’s just sorta there. Its reputation isn’t that it’s beloved, nor hated, nor divisive, but totally unremarkable, unmemorable, uncommentable. And that’s a criticism that stings twice as hard given the context surrounding it.
But it is precisely this unremarkability, and this surrounding context, that draws me to The Return of Doctor Myterio, which, unlike the other stories that most fascinate me, doesn’t so much embark on some bold idea in and of itself, but instead uses its position as just another episode to explore House Themes. Consciously or not, it’s an episode concerned with new developments in old ideas, incrementally, iteratively developing on the issues that the show has been working with for years. As is the job of a Just Another Episode episode. And in the same way that, according to the Doctor, every atom of the universe contains the DNA of the whole thing, I think that by tugging on the threads of this overlooked, unimportant episode, there’s a lot of insight to be found about the contemporary era — both of the show, and of the world in which it exists.
So a few things to bear in mind before we start: This was the first Doctor Who episode in a year, marking the first full hiatus since 2005; Moffat has just signed on to yet another series, a hasty-extension year on his hasty-extension second era, finally wrapping up his time on Who after already having wrapped it up with The Husbands of River Song, which aired exactly a year before this; and it is the end of 2016, a year politically defined by huge, demoralising Right Wing victories, and cinematically by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, quaint as it seems now, feeling like it Couldn’t Be Any Bigger, a couple of courses in on its own tale with films like Captain America: Civil War demonstrating the total self-consuming ubiquity of the Superhero Blockbuster.
While, in that context, you can see the executive thinking behind “Doctor Who does superheroes,” you also understand why eyes rolled at the idea. It’s obvious, to say the least. And so, faced with the already difficult task of doing superheroes in Doctor Who, well in the dust of the global phenomenon really taking off, Moffat, naturally, wrote an episode of Coupling instead.
Issue #1 – Literally Supernanny
Moffat loves an adaptation, and he’s not alone. There’s a lot to be said for spinning a story from scratch, but adaptations have this textual baggage of previous ideas, themes, lore, expectations, all of which mean a writer has material laid down for them already, not just to borrow from, but to twist, reflect, subvert, and interrogate. And the same and more is true of television itself, and especially Doctor Who, an adaptation, functionally, of itself, the Capaldi era especially keen on drawing on old or pre-established story and thematic elements. In a way, then, that makes this episode a kind of co-adaptation, pairing together two existing texts to create meaning between them.
And, as signalled from the very first scenes of the episode in Grant’s bedroom, The Return of Doctor Mysterio is for all intents, purposes, and aesthetics, an adaptation of Superman. The episode’s stubborn rejection of the modern, MCU, gritty-grounded, realist superheroes, (especially of any live action version of Superman in decades) speaks, certainly, to a middle-aged writer well outside the target audience for those films, but also to an interest in the platonic ideal version of superheroes, down to Clark Kent’s glasses, ripped directly and unapologetically from the source material, or the Ghost’s functionally undefined and unlimitedly powerful powers (literally the power of wish), akin to the writing of Golden Age Superman as explicitly however powerful he needs to be for the story. Essentially, despite the episode title’s play on Doctor Strange (which, surely, Moffat was only even aware of because it stars one of his mates), this story is more of an adaptation of the idea of a superhero, aligned with the era’s interest in the idea of the Doctor, as a mask, or costume, or persona for the person beneath.
In this great article, Max Kashevsky calls Return of Doctor Mysterio a Celebrity Mythological, a new genre of Who for the Capaldi era, where instead of some historical figure of pop significance, the Doctor meets somebody explicitly fictional, who exist only as that pop significance: Robin Hood, Santa, functionally Superman here, and later the Doctor himself, in his earliest and most mythologised form (or, if you prefer, the Doctor meets a mythologised version of himself from the future, 12 regenerations in), each of whom is a vector by which to analyse the Doctor along different, all mythological, analogues. Each asks what kind of hero the Doctor is, but The Return of Doctor Mysterio asks what kind of man.
While the episode’s premise is “the most Doctor-y Doctor meets the most superhero-y superhero,” with both characters playing iconographic versions of themselves, there’s an interesting aesthetic clash going on in the visual identity of the Ghost. From the (presumably pointless) body armour, to the dull dark colours, to the name ‘the Ghost‘ itself (which is a little bit not-goofy-enough to fit the otherwise broad Superman homage) there’s a sense that Grant’s persona belongs less to the Golden Age, and actually more to that world of 2016 superhero cinema (or really, if we’re honest, superhero TV. There’s something very CW about the whole thing, born obviously of the shows’ limited budgets, but which does flag up connections to the idea of adaptation on television and television as adaptation).
The clash between the heavy-set shoulder plates and the big shiny ‘G’ are probably just an aesthetic confusion, for sure, but there’s a feeling of the Spider-Man 3 defence: this isn’t so much actually supposed to be cool as it is supposed to be what Grant thinks is cool. The idea that a fan would suck all the joy and colour out of the thing that they are a fan of to be taken more seriously by the people around them is, of course, a universal phenomenon, embodied nowhere better than in that eye-rolling fandom response to this very episode. But more explicitly than just trying to be cool, Grant as the Ghost is trying to be manly. The puffed chest, the dark, gruff voice, the sexy, powerful, finger-snap entrance (seems familiar, that!). But of course, it doesn’t quite work as Grant intends.
“You do fly around New York dressed in rubber with a big G on your chest.”
Grant’s persona and person, then, aren’t hero and not hero, but rather two different kinds of men. He’s got a title under which he’s all pomp and mystery-o and running-around saving lives, and he’s got a life where he takes care of a kid. The “the real hero is Clark Kent” angle is a vanilla-flavoured-vanilla take on Superman, but while it’s paid a lot of lip-service, rarely does it get any kind of textual commitment. Like “Bruce Wayne should invest in infrastructure” it’s obviously correct, but would fundamentally break the fiction if anybody actually recognised it in the story.
By 2016, in particular, in the long shadow of the “I am Iron Man” rejection of the Secret Identity, or, rather, the rejection of the Superhero persona as separate from the person beneath, the largely unquestioned expectation is that the heroes of these stories aren’t ordinary people doing good, but are uniquely Great Men who we might aspire to reflect, but can never actually embody. (There’s something very interesting here about Iron Man being the first film, and first hero, to find a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of not being able to film the actor’s face while they wear their mask: for the first time, there’s truly no line between the two, and there’s no need for him to remove the helmet to show his personhood. He is Iron Man.)
The Return of Doctor Mysterio instead marries itself to the trappings of a secret identity story and plays itself as identity farce, to the point where the formal elements of the walls of the comic book panels are used to tangibly, visually separate Grant from his projected Ghost persona that Lucy hears, as he puts on the voice down the phone, naked of his costume, all as a visual redux of the episode Split from Coupling, in which the split-screen is used to track two ex-lovers as they try to get on with life without the other. Farce is of course Moffat’s bread and butter, his love language, from Day of the Doctor to the River Song/Silence arc, which is functionally a decade-long identity-farce-played-straight, where miscommunication, secret-keeping across space and time, and the division of the self into distinct, interactable personas have all bled into the fabric of the show. The two episodes before this one, Hell Bent, and The Husbands of River Song both play a tragic sort of romance through the lens of disguise and recognition. But here, specifically Gender Farce is the focus.
Gender is, alongside the division of identity and the cruel progress of time, one of the show’s central obsessions at this time, and certainly the one most people take issue with, from criticisms of Clara Who to Clara Fridged (as well as many less silly ones). But the element of gender observation I think is most worthy of criticism is that it is so self-indulgently self-deprecating, rather than demonstrating a positive alternative: deconstructing masculinity and failing to reconstruct something better in its place. And I think this is what The Return of Doctor Mysterio intends to set right.
“As much as it is possible for a human male: try not to be an idiot,” the Doctor prototypically quips, but Grant sees that line for what it is and has always been: “No, seriously, are you okay?”
The Doctor is deflecting — in this case from the subject of River, who we will of course get to, the long way round — because that’s what Moffat’s breed of gender farce has always been. Literally, he is masking. The idea of being able to put on a face and wear competence and heroism and being able to do the things that you’re supposed to, is, essentially, masculinity in a sentence, and a-typical as the Doctor is among superheroes, his non-violence and empathy setting him apart from the rest, he’s doing masculinity the same as the rest of them. And like Tony Stark, he doesn’t get to hide behind a mask, or have have a secret identity, or ever even just take some time off.
“I’m always okay,” the Doctor replies, obviously not okay, and we might be reminded of a similar conversation with a similar character, in a diner that might seem familiar: “I’m always okay. I’m the King of Okay! Oh, that’s a rubbish title. Forget that title. Rory the Roman! That’s a good title.” That Grant/the Ghost and the Doctor are reflections of one another is obvious, but it’s the small differences like these that mark the meaning of the episode: the Doctor thanks the universe that he’s finally found “someone worse at this than he is,” because Grant is looking after the kid of his best friend and forever-crush, laughed at much like Rory is before him as the “gooseberry” (or in the unfortunate language of our age: cuck). But the Doctor’s wrong! Grant’s not doing worse! He’s doing good! And he’s doing well. And it’s hard to do both at once, even if you are Superman.
The climatic moment of the episode is Grant catching the falling spaceship out of costume, without dropping the baby monitor, managing to perform both masculine roles at once; the ideal of men, then, in one image: dominant hand on his duty of care, non-dominant on doing his best to protect the rest of the world from harm. It’s the moment his person and persona collapse into one, the breaking of the farce, where he’s finally able to do both things at once, in and of himself, as one man.
And yet the episode still ends with the Ghost retiring, apparently rightfully, in a stark contrast with Hell Bent just a couple of episodes earlier, which celebrates Clara taking up a Doctor position in the universe, at the beginning of her own story of her own superheroinism. Is this, then, an assertion of ‘roles reversed’, suggesting that men finally step up to do the real work of looking after the kids, so women can have the time off to save the world as heroes of their own stories? The episode never comes close to broaching the question of Lucy’s work/life balance, concerned far more with the perhaps more abstract adoptive responsibility Grant has for the kid, and one gets the impression that the story’s patently paternal authorial voice simply doesn’t consider that topic in its domain. Clara doesn’t get interrogated for the irresponsibility of her heroics — in fact the idea of her being narratively punished is explicitly shot down — because it simply isn’t the say of this story or author. And this is probably the case, but I think there’s another read of the Ghost’s retirement, too, so pin the idea somewhere. We’ll return to it later.
And speaking of returning, the question of men’s duty and absence has its roots deep in this era of the show, flowering, first, where it all began…
Issue #11 – The Doctor Returns at the Eleventh Hour
The original title of Moffat’s tenure debut, was The Doctor Returns, until, according to Moffat, his son pointed out that the Doctor hasn’t actually been anywhere, which, yeah, fair enough. The Eleventh Hour is a great title with a lot going on, as I’ve written about before, but the lost The Doctor Returns, which is reincarnated for this episode with a Comic Book pallet swap, is one of the most interesting of the era, highlighting, explicitly, one of its most central and most prevalent recurring themes, and one that comes to a head in this episode.
Format-wise, The Doctor Returns is kin with The Doctor Dances and The Doctor Falls (very nearly very neatly bookending Moffat’s time on Who) which all pull the same trick of being both a specific description of the episode, and a generalised thesis statement about the character in the same three words: ‘the Doctor Falls (in this episode)’ as well as ‘the Doctor Falls (because falling, being able to stand and die for the right thing, is what the Doctor does)’. Presumably, had Capaldi’s regeneration not been moved to Christmas, both these meanings would also have forward-applied to Thirteen’s first scene as well: ‘she is the Doctor and she falls, and she falls, therefor she is the Doctor, so haters be damned.’ The same trick describes The Doctor Dances, and The Doctor Returns is doing even more:
1. “the Doctor” David Tennant left, but “the Doctor” Matt Smith has returned in his place; 2. A specific description of his returning 12 years late for Amy after first meeting her; 3. returning at the end of the episode another two years later; 4. returning to Amelia in The Big Bang to tell her a bedtime story; 5. returning to Amelia at the end of The Angels Take Manhattan to give her new fantasies; and 6. it also implies the generalised statement that the Doctor returns. Returning is something he does. His returning is the moment in Deep Breath he proves “the Doctor is still the Doctor,” after all, and so drawing on that idea of the person and the persona, this statement that ‘the Doctor returns‘ is an ideal, and an aspiration, rather than an actual fact.
Descendent title, The Return of Doctor Mysterio, is of the cousin-family format, The [Aspect] of [Character]. The Name/Day/Time of the Doctor and The Wedding/Husbands of River Song, share their own brand of double entendre, this time regarding identity; they play with questions of what we know about the characters, what role they play in the narrative, and the question of whose story this is. They rework the traditional ‘Terror of the Zygons’ format to shift emphasis inwards, away from the monster-of-the-week element towards the serialised drama of continuing characters, much the same way that Rose or The Parting of the Ways do the same. The Husbands of River Song, for example, is staging River as the main character by subverting the Doctor-centric titles, and referring to her several partners in the episode, then also to the Doctor as a plural partner, being so many people himself, defining him in relation to her as her husband rather than she his wife, which comes to a head when the episode sees him actually commit to domesticity. Pin this.
This episode’s title, then, evokes that recurring theme of the Doctor returning, and being someone who returns, and also plays with questions of identity and the politics of who gets to be the protagonist, because, ultimately, The Return of Doctor Mysterio isn’t the title of a comic about the superhero Doctor Mysterio, the grammar’s not right for that, and as Moffat’s kid pointed out, you don’t call a story that when the main character’s not actually been anywhere. Instead we’ve got a similar shifting of focus as seen in the title The Wedding of River Song, but this time by omission, reframing Doctor Mysterio as a recurring comics villain, returning for revenge out of the hero’s traumatic origin story, bringing the myth full circle as superhero stories so often do.
The stories of Amy Pond and River Song are, not defined by, but resultant of, the Doctor’s traumatic, life-changing influence in both of their childhoods. And in many ways the key tension of Smith’s Doctor is the question of whether there is any way for him to heal that trauma (no) and whether having hurt his friends, directly or indirectly, the best thing for him to do is simply, against their wishes, remove himself from their lives and, because he’s dramatic, often also the universe (also no, obviously, men!).
Returning, then, as an aspect of the character, is a contested moral territory, with this specific question of his life-changing influence on children at the very centre — one reflective both of the prototypical paternal anxiety, but also the show’s unique position as an influence on kids.
There’s a very clever bit of structural misdirection here where the pre-credits sequence so closely resembles the opening of The Eleventh Hour, with the Doctor falling from the sky into the home of a kid with a fairy-story fascination, getting mixed up in the Santa Claus myth, and then getting flown away in an emergency while some alien influence has been planted in the child’s life. Here, though, we cut away from the scene in this moment without resolving the actual nature of the Doctor’s influence on Grant, leaving the audience to assume that, like Amy and River, he has only reappeared a decade later and failed his duty of care. It’s only then, from the retrospect of the modern day, in which Grant is a real-life superhero, saving lives and helping out, a little bit of a mess but by all measures basically doing pretty good, that we flash back to Grant’s childhood a couple more times, and determine exactly what the nature of the Doctor’s influence was that saw him turn out okay.
Since, and with the guidance of, Amy and River, and before them Reniette, and after them Kazran and Clara and Davros, the Doctor has grown past the reckless abandon of crashing into kids’ lives and conscripting them into his adventures. By Doctor, Widow, Wardrobe, he’s still messing kids up, but learning to go back for his friends, and by The Angels Take Manhattan, he’s going back to Amy specifically, on her request, to make right. Then we get to Clara who, predictably, is an inversion of the idea in that she is the life-changing influence over his “childhood,” right back when he was such a young old man. But her influence is corrective of the Great Intelligence’s traumatic meddling (which takes on a similar logic to the loss of Amy’s parents, blipping entirely out of reality) and manages to be generally positive by virtue of being a decision made out of selflessness and love. Clara also manages to soothe the young Doctor’s nightmares and assuage his fears in same episode that the Doctor does the opposite to young Danny. His imortalification of Me/Ashildr is traumatic, still, but ultimately empowering to her. Later we will have Bill, with whom the Doctor takes an extremely light-touch, similarly corrective approach to interfering with her past; not trying to make it in his image, but gently righting injustices. For the first time in The Pilot, the Doctor’s influence over his friend’s history has managed to be uncomplicatedly positive, finding that middle ground, being genuinely, selflessly kind. In this growth, The Return of Doctor Mysterio marks a stepping-stone moment, wherein the Doctor’s influence isn’t traumatic, but nor is it anything like light-touch; he knocks Grant’s life off-track, but he turned out okay in the end. And what marks that difference?
We cut back to a scene we didn’t know happened, Grant’s a bit older, struggling with his powers and their morality, and on a slow pull back from him, with all the grammar of a reveal, we see that the Doctor returned for him, linearly, at an appropriate time, to help in his real life rather than taking him away. The Return of Doctor Mysterio. It turns out that the Doctor hasn’t been the villain who carved out the Ghost‘s traumatic origins, but an Uncle Ben figure to Grant’s Spider-Man — the only other existing superhero to get a direct reference in the episode. Essentially, then, this long running thematic thread is the story of the Doctor becoming a better nanny, growing up into that duty of care that the title tells us is essential to his identity.
Grant’s imperfectly balanced version of masculinity, then, isn’t just surprisingly healthy, but genuinely aspirational; he’s got a divide between his person and persona that the Doctor doesn’t, as is clear just from their names: The Doctor is “the one. The main one,” mononymic by definition. Not just a definite article, but the definite article… the definite definite article, you might say. Where, while Grant borrows that article for his moniker, he’s not let The Ghost, the man who isn’t there, become his whole identity, leaving him the space in his life to be present, to be present, that the Doctor lacks.
It’s a long overdue development out of the show’s history of depressingly fatalistic masculinity that stretches back to the very first, actually fatherly, companion relationship, and the first steps into outlining an actually positive role model were marked by a man with his own title: Rory the Roman, who can put his costume on and take it off, being the hero, the centurion, the nurse when he needs to be. And his hero-costume, as it recurs through the series, specifically represents the time that he waited, dutifully, because he was needed. If a doctor nips in and out as called for, a nurse stays and attends, and it is this ability to be there, as a man, that Doctor Mysterio finds room to celebrate, after widely mocking Rory’s representation of exactly the same thing as, basically, lame.
AMY: Crying Roman with a baby. Definitely cool.
As I say: the only power the Ghost gets any real use out of is his ability to respond to the baby-monitor that he wears on his utility belt, suit and powers both, again, built around this duty of care. His heroism isn’t in contrast with a caring form of masculinity, it is that, however much the Doctor and show struggle against that idea, from the dick-measuring of Real Life against Fairy Tale Fantasy of the Smith years to the Doctor’s attempts at balancing the two in this arc.
The Doctor is always wearing his costume, even if he’s managed to loosen the strictness of that persona he adopted in series 8, but across Smith and Capaldi specific icons from those costumes have worked as the same kind of short-hand as Clark Kent’s glasses, with Eleven retiring and subconsciously re-adopting his bowtie as he abandons and rediscovers his Doctor persona in The Snowmen. For Capaldi, the bowtie is replaced by its defined absence: the stark, closed collar of his buttoned-up shirt, and the doctor-is-out symbolism of undoing that button is recoded not as a failure of duty, but as the ability to let the mask drop for just a moment. It’s a genuine development that he’s finally managed to loosen up, just a little, when he needs it.
But Doctor Who, show and character, are defined by their inability to sit still or to wait. We zip off to a new planet every week, as is baked into the foundation of it all. So, if to be there, permanently, as constant companion, is the virtuous mode of masculinity, what would that look like for Who? What would the Doctor do?
Issue #24 — “Split”
Of course, in a way, the Return in the title here is justified by the fact that the Doctor has been gone; He’s been away for a while, but now he’s back, he says, referring more explicitly to the show’s first full year off-air since 2004 than to his domestic bliss with River. It’s hard to understand, following the last few years of scattered production, how serious the deterioration of strictly annual Doctor Who after 2008 felt to kids. The Doctor had become unreliable. He wasn’t returning when he said that he would. And the show’s real-world failure to materialise yearly has always manifested in the world of the show, from the Doctor’s Trial, to the Time War, to his retirement in The Snowmen following the stunted half-series 7A; ”two years!” Amy shouts in The Eleventh Hour, 2010, the first episode of a proper series since 2008.
But where the Doctor’s absence to Amy, or his retirement in The Snowmen, or his waging the Time War, are uncomplicatedly bad things for him do have done, breaking a promise, abdicating himself to apathy, or turning on his most basic principles in wartime, the absence that the Doctor returns from here is his twenty-four years with River on Darillium. It’s the one time that he actually managed to stay, without abandoning or hurting her, actually staying when asked, after a lifetime of unreliability. And they lived, happily… as the story goes. Then, the idea that the Doctor’s absence from our world, from being on TV, from adventures and fighting monsters and being his hero identity, is a traumatic absence which he and the episode are apologising for, is in a tension with the fact that his retirement was actually very healthy, and very happy.
There’s a clear textual/metatextual struggle here based around that central question of person/persona, embodied nowhere better than in this episode’s first shot of the Clark Kent glasses that symbolise everyday, nurturing, reliable masculinity:
They’re set on top of an open comic book. In other words, the glasses aren’t just symbolic of the person/persona Superman-style divide, but are also the means by which Grant even understands that divide in the first place. The totem that defines Grant as an ordinary, real man is the exact same thing that allows him to aspire towards the fictional ideal of a super man. The Doctor’s healthy, real domestication informs the out-fiction notion that he’s let us all down by being away for so long.
In the one word test, in the Snowmen, Vastra describes the Doctor as someone so hurt that he chooses to isolate and insulate himself from others rather than face the possibility of pain’s return, and Clara’s one-word response is ‘man‘. Years later, in another Clara’s wake, the Doctor puts himself through 4.5 billion years of torture, each cycle of which is coded as a Doctor Who Episode — arriving in a strange new location with a new monster, the rules of each needing to be understood, even though the whole charade has been played a thousand times before, literally the show in miniature — stripped of everything but its clockwork mechanical components and an aching absence of heart, all because he couldn’t lose her. He turns his pain inwards and dies and dies again, always returning again, fuelled by the burning of his own body, to try and make things right.
And when she gets him back she tells him that if he understood her at all he wouldn’t have done that to himself. And then they split, and it hurts, and the trauma it leaves him with is of the same kind as Amy’s: an oblique absence in his life, like a hole of forgetting. And Clara doesn’t tell him to try and remember, like her echoes did, because there’s no remembering to be done, but to go ahead and be a Doctor. And then he meets River again, and faces down the same, inevitable split that has defined their relationship since the day he first knew her. And now the Doctor doesn’t cut himself off but opens himself up. And he doesn’t hurt himself to make it okay, but he lets himself be loved by giving love to his wife. He does stay. And the show itself suffers for it, going off air to accommodate their happiness. On that notion of person and persona, there’s just one character in the show who we know for an absolute fact knows the Doctor’s “real” name. His secret identity, if you will. And she’s gone now. And so he gets on with getting on with the rest of his life.
Like Heaven Sent, then, The Return of Doctor Mysterio presents “doing Doctor Who” as a vessel for mourning. And in that sense, this episode’s feeling of being just another episode is emblematic of that getting on with it that the Doctor uses to cope with all those days she stays dead. He waltzes through the story as it washes entirely over him, snacking on the job, zapping away the main threat with a flick of his sonic, whistling for the TARDIS (surely at least an aesthetic progression from snapping open the doors), jumping out of CCTV screens, because he can. He’s deeply unserious about the whole unserious affair, and Nardole calls him out on it: “I know you miss her, but couldn’t you just write a poem?“
This is practiced Who, with some of the best, but most thoroughly autopilot gags, reveals, and set pieces in the whole show because Doctor Who does superheroes is a trite concept even for the Doctor. The episode is so entirely and intentionally unexceptional and by-the-way feeling that we don’t even get the larger context of the Doctor’s life until halfway through the next series, which does place this adventure, exactly, as just another adventure while the Doctor is at the university. Like how Heaven Sent starts with an entirely unexceptional loop, thousands of years into the story, this is an unexceptional adventure decades, at least, into the Doctor’s mourning and waiting at the university. As the story iterates on all these House Themes, it is itself an iteration, too. Just another one in a long string of similar stories.
There’s a reason we’ve not talked about Harmony Shoal yet, the villains so run-of-the-mill that nobody recalls that they were in the very last episode. We’ve not mentioned that their disaster capitalist scheme is an identikit reworking of the Slitheen plan in Aliens of London/World War Three down to the ‘zips in the heads of world leaders’, a repetition of an old and familiar story. Nor have we mentioned that the episode ends on the sting that gasp Harmony Shoal has infiltrated UNIT! which reads more as a genre obligation of a mid credits sting than it does an actual plot point ever intended to be followed up on, because it’s just a symbol of ongoingness; there’s always another fire to put out, there’s always another sequel or reboot or legacy adaptation. We’ve not even mentioned my pet theory that the Shoal are Dalek mutants, evolved from squirming fascists into cool, collected corporate oligarchs. They’re easily the era’s most uninspired villains, visually bland, conceptually barely even alien: just a corporation manufacturing political influence, same as ever. They’re cartoonish, and comic-booky, and ultimately hardly worth mentioning at all. Which seems, itself, the point. They’re just another villain for just another episode.
The question raised by this episode, as last episode, as the last two before that, is whether doing Doctor Who, is in any way actually sustainable, or can ever be healthy. Is the show’s persistence the same persistence of burning your own body in the clockwork castle of grief just to get yourself another go-around? And if we do want to stop, is it possible? And is it even our decision to make?
Issue 4.5 Billion — Be Happy
(Content Warning: suicidal ideation)
Perhaps the most stark similarity between Who and the logic of comic book heroics is the way that neither of them are ever allowed just to end. Superman will always be resurrected, or rebooted, or brought out of retirement, and the Doctor will always be regenerated, as a fact of the fabric of the show. Dying well is the finish line. It’s winning. But a good death is the victory Who itself just isn’t permitted. He’ll always come sputtering out of that 3D printer a-fresh for another go-around. He burns himself up, and some new man saunters away. Can’t I just die?
The Doctor got his Happily
Ever After and then barely a year later has to start gearing up for a whole new Pilot episode for a whole new era, no different to the constant rebooting of these superheroes stuck, we can only imagine, in their own existential nightmare-cycles. Even the old faces aren’t allowed to rest, and their stories not allowed to end: the Doctor has an infinite future of curated old faces, forever returning at the behest of the oh-so-ironically named Big Finish, and every Spider-Man forever is coming back, their franchises reanimated and reconstituted into the croaking Cronenbergian behemoth of cinematic multiverse cultural ubiquity.
This era of Doctor Who is, more than any other, about the whole, ending, literally, with a return to the very first face and the very first regeneration. And The Return of Doctor Mysterio is, by every metric, textually and meta-textually, the story of a man who has had to go on longer than he expected, or, frankly, wanted to. The Doctor’s not even allowed the mercy of Uncle Ben’s death, where he gets to say something beautiful and pass, which he aches for explicitly in the next special after this one (cheery cheery Christmas Family Sci-Fi). Twice Upon a Time is only It’s a Wonderful Regeneration from the First Doctor’s perspective; Twelve knows the difference he’s made to the universe, and he knows how much worse the universe would be without him, but he’s just so, so tired.
Mentions of River throughout this episode feel almost intrusive, as this masculine-ly unspoken grief bubbles up to the surface, and is quickly swallowed back down by the foregrounding of superhero adventures! as if the thought of this as a chapter of the Doctor’s life rather than just another wacky weekly instalment is abrasive, or wrong, or threatens the shape of the narrative, which of course it does. His domestic bliss on Darilium, his final happiness, fully took the show out of commission for a whole year. Pardon the series it is about, but this great essay on the dialectics of and tensions between episodic and serial television from a character perspective highlights the inherent contradiction in doing Just Another Adventure forever; that’s not how life is. Life doesn’t clean reboot with a new face just to keep going another series, it carries scars and battle damage and trauma, and it doesn’t last forever.
Moffat’s next show after Who picks up on these threads, and in Dracula which is all about the divinity of the ability to die — something that, like the Doctor, this tired immortal simply isn’t allowed to do — he revisits a line from the Doctor and River’s first last date: dying gives us size. It’s what this is all for. If you’re set on trying to find some ultimate point to life, you’ll struggle to find any point more ultimate than death. It’s only from that final mountaintop that you can see the whole; only from the finish line that you can look back on how you ran. Dying Well becomes a motif in the Capaldi era, and the paradox is clear when the series simply isn’t allowed to end with Husbands of River Song, or The Doctor Falls, or even the yet-untitled Centenary Special, and this post-ending hasty extension of S10 has to negotiate that unasked for immortality… just stayin alive… “It’s so boring, isn’t it?“
These recurring scenes where the Doctor gets the upper hand by putting his life on the line, here turning his back on a shooter so they’ve got no excuse of self defence, are very clever, but they functionally only work because we know the Doctor can’t die. The show won’t let it happen. Like Clara reasons that the Doctor only survives because he’s already assumed that he’s going to, and he’s assumed that because that’s what the show demands. From Harmony Shoal’s disaster capitalism, to the survivalism of the Cybermen who eventually bring him down, to the Oxygen corporation, to the Daleks, who creep and evolve on Villengard, biologically hardwired never to die, just living out their narrative function forever into the long eternity ahead, this desperate need to keep going is what all life has in common. If you only understand a story from its resolution, only know a life from where it ends, then is this immortality a curse? Or a responsibility? Or a soul-crushing privilege?
If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point to any of this at all. But it’s the best I can do. So I’m going to do it.
That line, “Be happy, I’ll look after everything else,” has always read to me a very specific way that I wonder if anybody shares. Here, the Doctor isn’t agitating that humanity stand up and be better. He offers no actual solutions to the world’s problems that seem to have jumped to the fore of our consciousness across 2016, and this recurs across S10, in which the Doctor repeatedly, entirely fails, and which ends with a shrug of the inevitability of defeat. The Doctor knows he isn’t real, and he knows that he can’t fix real-world problems. “Being happy” won’t do anything to stave off the collapse that’s coming in reality. But it’s a euthanastic lullaby. The sweet story we’re told as our morphine drip is turned all the way up and we white-out to nothing. Be happy, humanity. It’s what you’ve got left.
I’m not convinced that the show ever finds its answer to this question, to be honest. Twice Upon a Time is simultaneously a story about carrying on, and about letting go, and in a quip of metanarrative trickery, the Doctor’s letting go would be Moffat’s carrying on, retaining control of the show until the very end, and the Doctor’s carrying on is Moffat’s letting go, such that in many ways, Capaldi’s acceptance of the coming change feels like an ending with more finality than Tennant’s infamous “I don’t wanna go…” Perhaps this is a bitter hindsight talking, but these days, the ending of Twice Upon a Time feels less like a positive step into the future, and more like a grim consignation to another 4.5 billion years of this. Of this. Dracula ends with the immortal facing his final fear and, finally, undeservedly, being allowed to die. Doctor Who is not so lucky. And while all of us will while away to bones and ash, that great writhing beast humanity will keep on keeping on, too, making superhero movies until the stars all die and longer still after that.
And so of course this is farce, because we’re getting enough tragedy as things are, history smashing itself against a diamond wall as it is. And we can punch, and we can fight, and we can crash spaceships into New York skyscrapers, apparently, but there’s no finish line in sight. You have to laugh, because that’s all there is left to do. It has to be a love story, because it would be too sad not to be. The reason there’s no happily ever after isn’t that forever isn’t possible, it’s that you wouldn’t stay happily for it if it was.
It never ends, and that’s always sad.
And I know that for many fans, Who’s immortality is its highest virtue. And I know that this very longevity of the show is what gives it the weight and ability to iterate on itself that I endeavoured to describe here. But that’s a fate I wouldn’t wish upon anybody, fictional or otherwise.
But precisely that is the final line in the sand of the duty of care that we each have for each other; the promise to keep on keeping on, so that everybody we matter to doesn’t feel quite so alone; your life isn’t your own. Whether or not forever is what we want, there’s simply no way of shutting down this human project without hurting one another. Looking after each other, then, like a nanny, like a nurse, like a Doctor, and like a superhero, is what we have left.
Not because it works, because it hardly ever does, but because it’s decent.
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