My hot take was that it wasn’t my least favorite Christmas special, but I’m having trouble coming up with the one it beats. Maybe “The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe”? But even that inconsequential yarn included Matt Smith, whose effortless charm and spontaneity would have been more than welcome here. I like Capaldi, but the script includes very little of his Doctor. Indeed, he’s in full zany fish-fingers-and-custard mode, even dropping in on a child (see “The Eleventh Hour”) whilst working on a Rube Goldbergian contraption (see “The Lodger”).
I’d suspect this had been drafted in the Smith era if not for the genre, which is just hitting its stride in 2016. Superhero tales accounted for 1 out of every 3 new movies or TV shows greenlit in America in the last 18 months*, so it’s no shock that Doctor Who has finally gotten around to running this overexposed genre through the old meat grinder. The problem, and it’s a fatal one, is that nothing got ground up. There’s a slab of superhero sitting next to a strip of Who and it’s been sold as a sausage.
Classic Who has a long tradition of absorbing and reinterpreting existing genres and even specific novels or films. That approach has given us such masterpieces as “The Brain of Morbius” (based on Frankenstein), “The Robots of Death” (And Then There Were None), “State of Decay” (Dracula and Carmilla), “Planet of Evil” (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), “Pyramids of Mars” (The Mummy), and “The Deadly Assassin” (The Manchurian Candidate), and that’s in the Tom Baker era alone. The Moffat era has done the same on several occasions, most notably “Last Christmas” (Alien meets Inception) and of course “A Christmas Carol” (Great Expectations, j/k).
But there’s nothing absorbed or reinterpreted in “Mysterio.” The Doctor appears to be heavily involved in the plot, serving as the event creating our ersatz Superman out of a somewhat dim ersatz Clark Kent, and handling a lot of the exposition about the diagonal head opener aliens who want to invade Earth by wearing important-people skins in a manner completely unlike the Slitheen. But Grant and Lucy are on their own fairly predictable track, with the Doctor commenting on but almost completely failing to impact their relationship. He’s really good at equivocating around the Grant-related parts of Lucy’s interrogation, to the point that I found myself wishing for him just to calmly blurt out the truth, exhibiting some of the Twelfth Doctor’s characteristic lack of social grace. If there were any way for Doctor Who to invade and revise the superhero genre, that blithe subversion of the secret identity trope might be it.
Would that be enough to build a whole episode around? Probably not, which is why “Mysterio” can’t help but fall flat. At its best it’s a mildly entertaining, very slightly subversive (the “nanny” secret identity, the X-ray vision joke) piece of superhero fluff. At its worst it’s dead boring. “Wardrobe” at least made you wonder, on first viewing, if it might be headed somewhere. “Mysterio” is perhaps the least surprising Moffat episode ever aired.
* Source: I just made it up. Sounds about right, though, doesn’t it?