BBC

Doctor Who Attempts Some Comics Relief

Marvel as the Doctor learns a thing or two about superhero mythology.

One nice thing about being the executive producer of a long-running television show is that you can make it do whatever you want it to. Want to take a year off and do one episode on Christmas in which the Doctor encounters a superhero? Who, if you'll pardon the expression, is going to stop you?

Now, some would claim that superheroes are a quintessentially American genre. There's even been some outcry about actors from across the pond portraying the likes of Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man. So if an English storyteller like Steven Moffat ventures into the realm of tights and spandex, he risks producing something that comes off like Americans trying to make...well, an episode of Doctor Who.

However, I am pleased to report that on his way to a sad coda about recovery from bereavement and loss, Moffat checked quite a few boxes in his homage to superheroes of the large and small screens. Would you care for a rough estimate? We can do better than that; we can give you an exact tally. Here we go.

Superheroic Element Present?
Exotic Origin Story
Being given a magical, instinctive, give-you-whatever-you-want gemstone, one of only four like it in the universe, by a man who swung into your apartment from the roof in the middle of the night? That's pretty exotic. Also, many superheroes -- especially on the Marvel side -- got their powers by accident somehow. Swallowing the gemstone because you thought it was medicine certainly qualifies. Plus it fits with one of the Doctor's most longstanding character traits, which is that he needs to give clearer instructions.
Alliterative Character Names
Names like Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Peter Parker, Matt Murdock, and even Jessica Jones are such an integral part of comic-book vernacular that people in real life whose first and last names begin with the same letter probably get asked all the time what their secret superhero identity is. Tonight's lead guest characters, Grant Gordon and Lucy Lombard, can't have names like those by accident.
Secret Identity
Tony Stark going public at the end of Iron Man made the very concept of a secret identity seem quaint at a stroke, and the ever-widening inner circles on The CW's DC Comics shows aren't doing much to help to keep it alive. But "The Ghost" on Doctor Who is, giving the usual reason that he wants to keep those around him safe. Not that there are many people around him. But of course the double life goes along with the traditional ambivalence about both wanting and not wanting to reveal one's true identity to that special person. That bit's actually deftly explored, with some decent Moffat-ese dialogue to boot. Also, I like how the Ghost has a mask that actually covers most of his face, as opposed to other disguises we've seen like not wearing glasses.
Coming-Of-Age Allegory
The comic world's built-in audience of young (read: frequently pubescent) people makes it fertile ground for stories about characters trying to come to terms with being able to do things they couldn't do before -- and being unable to stop doing certain other things. Like the scene where the Doctor visits the teenage Grant who (a) can't stop seeing through his classmates' clothes and (b) physically rises upward. That is the least subtle parallel to unstoppable erections since the Washington Monument.
Winky Easter Eggs
Having a character referring to a couple of people named Siegel and Shuster, the original creators of Superman, wasn't all that subtle. There may have been more clues that were so smooth that I missed them, but I doubt it. More enjoyable was the Doctor bringing his skills of deduction to bear on cracking open the secret relationship between Clark Kent and Superman, and later asking, "Why do they call him Spider-Man? Don't they like him?" Not that meta-commentary is exclusive to the superhero genre, by any means. Lately one can also find it pretty regularly on shows like Doctor Who.

Splashy Fight Scenes
Long before superheroes agonized over their role in the universe and made clever meta references, they existed primarily to beat up bad guys. However, The Ghost pretty much just knocks one dude over, and it's filmed so indifferently that the moment is conspicuously left out of a video playback later in the episode. Plus Doctor Who's superhero is never seen fighting what all superheroes seem to fight these days, which is a shitload of other superheroes.
Comic-Book-y Visuals
Shots of The Ghost flying around New York don't really work all that well, either as graphic novel homages or on their own merits. And there are few of the super-dramatic camera angles one expects in translations from the panel to the screen. The only standout moment in this category is when the Doctor lies sprawled in front of a yellow wall covered with black dots, making him look like a Roy Lichtenstein painting of an elderly heart attack victim.
The Great Unmasking
Of course, the whole point of having a secret identity is that moment when the person closest to the superhero discovers the truth. Or, alternatively, doesn't. This episode has it both ways, first with the Ghost trying to reveal himself to Lucy and then thinking better of it at the last microsecond. And then of course, the final revelation takes place in the most dramatic way possible: as Grant in his civvies saves New York City with a feat of heroism far beyond the ability of a BBC budget to convincingly depict.

6 / 8
Final Score
75%
Superhero story
25%
Doctor Who
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