Lots of spoilers lie ahead.
The Doctor is back! And this time he’s brought with him a cornucopia of superhero riffs and references as a special Christmas treat for all of us here at Den of Geek. As is traditional, here are our viewing notes for the episode, as we try to explain the callbacks, the allusions, and the things that definitely weren’t intentional but are fun to think about anyway. And as ever, if you’ve spotted something we’ve missed – very likely, as it’s Christmas evening and we’ve been on the sherry – feel free to share it in the comments section!
The Last Son of Gallifrey
By the admission of Steven Moffat, who was a huge fan as a child, The Return Of Doctor Mysterio borrows liberally from the adventures of DC Comics’ Superman, the Kryptonian superhero who was created by Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster and first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938 – but then, you probably knew that already. Siegel and Shuster are namechecked as part of the presentation at the Harmony Shoal building – the globe atop which is inspired by the logo of The Daily Planet, the newspaper which features heavily in most Superman stories.
Like Superman’s alter-ego Clark Kent, Grant Gordon (superhero law dictates that character names are alliterative wherever possible – see Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Lex Luthor, and of course Lois Lane, the reporter on whom the character of Lucy Lombard is based) conceals his super-identity with little more than a brush of the hair and a pair of glasses. Gordon is described as ‘mild-mannered’ – an adjective commonly attached to the name ‘Clark Kent’ as early as the radio shows and Max Fleischer cartoons of the 1940s – and he changes into the Ghost by ripping open his shirt to reveal the G beneath; this is an iconic Superman move, which you can learn more about the history of here.
The Ghost appears to have a very similar power set to Superman: he can fly, he’s impervious to bullets, he possesses super speed and super strength and has X-ray vision. Superman abilities we don’t get to see Grant using are heat vision, freeze breath and super-ventriloquism. While Superman draws his powers from Earth’s sun, the Ghost also draws his powers from a star – albeit one much further away. He also follows the same personal moral code as Superman of not causing permanent harm (Zack Snyder films aside).
Grant wears a giant ‘G’ on his chest as an homage to the ‘S’ on Superman. Though this was initially simply designed to stand for the character’s name, Superman writers over the years have redefined it as being Superman’s family coat of arms and also the Kryptonian symbol of hope. In the CW TV series Supergirl, however, it stands for their family motto, ‘Stronger together.’ Though this and the cape are clearly inspired by Superman, the rest of the costume is more like something from the Batman franchise, with the partial mask bearing a passing resemblance to that of Batman’s sidekick Robin.
More than any other part of the Superman mythos, The Return Of Doctor Mysterio draws inspiration from Richard Donner’s iconic 1978 film Superman: The Movie. The rooftop date/interview which is so integral to this story is one of the most memorable moments of that film – and both Lois Lane and Lucy begin by asking their super-visitor if he eats. The special riffs on another iconic line from the film – when the Ghost sets Lucy down after flying her around, he tells her “I hope this hasn’t put you off a career in journalism;” in Superman Supes tells Lois “I hope this hasn’t put you off flying.” Grant being contacted on a supersonic frequency is also taken from the film, as Lex Luthor sends a high-frequency message that only Clark and animals can hear.
Oh, and at one point Lucy exclaims that the Ghost is ‘super’. And the Doctor flicks through a Superman comic book – there’s a Den of Geek No-Prize for the first person who can tell us which issue!
(hint: that’s John Byrne artwork in it)
Does Whatever a Time Lord Can
Superman isn’t the only comic book franchise to get a nod. Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962, is alluded to a few times after the Doctor’s querying of his name. The Doctor tells Grant ‘With great power comes great responsibility;’ this phrase first appeared courtesy of the narrator in Spider-Man’s debut comic, Amazing Fantasy #15, and has since retroactively been attributed to Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben. When Lucy tells the Ghost ‘Go get ‘em,’ this is one ‘tiger’ away from being Mary Jane from the end of Spider-Man 2. Finally, Mysterio is the name of one of Spider-Man’s arch nemeses, who first appeared in June 1964’s Amazing Spider-Man #13.
Spider-Man is one of many superheroes plastered all over young Grant’s room; not only does he have a fetching retro Avengers bedspread featuring the likes of Captain America and Iron Man, but characters spotted on the various posters on his walls include Marvel’s Hulk, Thor, Wolverine, Spider-Man, Silver Surfer and an incarnation of The Defenders, plus DC’s Batman, Superman and the Flash. Viewed in HD there’s likely even more, so leave your spots in the comments…
There’s a few potential nods to Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in there, too; the most obvious of these is the opening shot of a New York drain cover panning up to several pizza establishments (The Turtles live in the New York sewers and almost exclusively eat pizza), but there’s also something of TMNT’s Krang and his various inspirations/descendants about the pink brain monsters and their evil eyes.
Speaking of pizza, Joe’s Pizza is a real downtown New York City establishment, known for serving one of the best (and cheapest!) slices around. The actual downtown Joe’s was the location of Peter Parker’s ill-fated turn as a pizza deliveryman in Spider-Man 2.
The reality-warping gem that gives Grant his superpowers is one of five such stones in the universe – this may be inspired by Marvel Comics’ Infinity Gems, six coloured gemstones which give their wielder power over space and time. Each of the gems has a particular characteristic – the red Infinity Gem, which looks very much like the one Grant swallows, is known as the Power Gem. According to the Marvel Database, the Power Gem bestows upon its wielder “increased strength and durability, enhances virtually any known superhuman ability, energy manipulation”
To round up the pop culture references, the Doctor uses the year’s hit mobile game Pokemon Go as a distraction. At least, we hope he was referring to the mobile game – the alternative, that Pokemon exist in the Doctor Who universe and the Doctor transported lots of them around in the TARDIS – doesn’t bear thinking about. We’d also like to think that Lucy’s other surname, Fletcher, is a reference to the fantastic Angela Lansbury’s character in Murder, She Wrote. But that’s probably just us.
24 Years Later
Being a festive special (and the first new Doctor Who in a year), the Doctor concerns himself a lot more with the Ghost of Christmas present (see what I did there?) than of Christmas past. However, the effects of last year’s special The Husbands Of River Song are felt quite heavily; at the end of that episode, the Doctor began his final night with his friend/girlfriend/lover/wife/assassin River Song – a night that would last 24 Earth years. This is seemingly the last time he would see her before meeting her for the first time and her dying – an entirely complicated story which we tried to untangle last year.
Returning from The Husbands Of River Song is Matt Lucas as Nardole. Nardole was originally in River’s employ, but when the Doctor and River ran off with the head of King Hydroflax, Hydroflax’s robot body took Nardole’s head for its own in order to track them down. We last saw him sharing the robot body with Ramone, one of River Song’s other husbands, but apparently at some point during the 24 years the Doctor decided to reassemble Nardole; whether he also reassembled Ramone is, at this point, unknown.
When he first meets Grant, the Doctor is attempting to clear the time distortion around New York. This has been in place since The Angels Take Manhattan, which showed the Weeping Angels occupying the city in 1938, and even taking the form of the Statue of Liberty. The Doctor is being unfair to himself in suggesting the distortion is all his fault, as the Angels’ time-warping abilities will have created most of it. However, on that occasion he did have Rory and Amy create a paradox which would ‘poison’ the Angels, and this had lasting repercussions which left the Doctor unable to return to the time period.
The Doctor tells Grant he ‘always gets an invasion at Christmas.’ The Return Of Doctor Mysterio is Doctor Who’s 13th Christmas special, with the first airing in 1965 and a new special airing every Christmas Day since 2005. Additionally, the 2005 episode The Unquiet Dead took place at Christmas, though it was not aired in December. To say the Doctor always gets an invasion for Christmas is misleading; the 1965 episode The Feast Of Steven, for instance, was actually a light-hearted break from the 12-part Dalek plot that was running at the time, and featured no alien threats at all. 2007’s Voyage Of The Damned and 2010’s A Christmas Carol also didn’t feature alien invaders, though reassuringly 2005’s The Christmas Invasion did.
It’s a bit of a surprise that the Doctor doesn’t show more horror at the plight of Peter Parker in the Spider-Man comics; the Doctor’s third incarnation was seen off by the radiation on Metebelis 3, where spiders had been irradiated by crystals native to the planet, causing them to grow to many times their normal size and develop psychic powers.
This isn’t the first time the Doctor’s enemy has been a brain in a jar; 1976’s Frankenstein allegory The Brain Of Morbius saw the fourth Doctor face mad scientist Solon, who was attempting to build a body to house the brain of Time Lord criminal Morbius.
The Ghost is not the first superhero to appear in Doctor Who; in 1968’s The Mind Robber, the second Doctor and his friends found themselves in the Land of Fiction, where they were assisted by the Karkus, a fictional superhero created for a comic strip in ‘The Hourly Telepress’ in the year 2000.
The Doctor once again demonstrates that he finds it difficult to determine human ages; in 2014’s Into The Dalek he clashed with Clara after insisting that she was ‘not a young woman anymore.’
The Doctor tells Lucy he is ‘Dan Dangerous from Scotland Yard.’ This isn’t the first time he’s pretended to be from Scotland Yard; the eleventh Doctor told Nixon he was working for them in 2011’s The Impossible Astronaut, while the twelfth tried to pass himself off as an operative in last year’s The Woman Who Lived – the snag being that it was the 17th century and Scotland Yard had yet to be founded.
Whilst the Doctor claims he doesn’t have an employer, this is technically untrue; in 2013’s The Day Of The Doctor, it was established that the Doctor still works for UNIT, the military organisation who are called in at the end of the story and who the third Doctor worked for on a permanent basis when he was exiled to Earth for a time. The UNIT troops refer to Osgood, the scientist who was introduced in The Day Of The Doctor and who featured heavily in last year’s Zygon two-parter.
Nardole refers to the Time Lords’ promise of non-interference with other cultures. It is the Doctor’s habitual breaking of this policy that caused the third Doctor’s exile, after the second Doctor was put on trial and forced to regenerate.
When asked whether he is okay, the Doctor replies that he’s ‘always okay.’ Steven Moffat has used this line on several past occasions, including The Impossible Astronaut and The Girl In The Fireplace. However, the most relevant use in this context is the tenth Doctor’s insistence that he’s ‘always alright’ in The Forest Of The Dead – after he’s just watched River Song sacrifice herself…