Among the many holiday traditions we have imported from the United Kingdom, neither the oldest nor the most cherished is broadcasting the “Doctor Who” Christmas Day special on Christmas Day.
Time was when these episodes would show up any old time. But the increasing popularity of the series here has brought worldwide schedules into sync, and now American families can fill their bellies with figgy pudding and gather ’round the “telly” to await the Tardis, like their cousins across the pond.
That said, you’ll probably record it. Because it’s Christmas.
Most previous “Who” Christmases have played off Anglo-American yuletide themes and images — Victorian settings, variations on “A Christmas Carol” and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” your classic Santa Claus, and snow or something that looks like snow but might be sadder or more sinister.
Written by show runner Steven Moffat, “The Return of Dr. Mysterioso,” Sunday's episode, is by contrast short on tinsel and absolutely bereft of snow. It does begin at Christmas, though not even a cold one by the standards of New York City, where it’s set. The Doctor is mistaken briefly for Santa Claus, and a contraption he has cobbled together is described as looking like a Christmas tree. (“Of course it does,” the Doctor says, “it's science.”) But it has the right seasonal uplift and a beautiful line near the end about renewal that I will leave you to hear for yourself.
(And as in the original Christmas story, there's a baby whose male caretaker is not his actual father. But that may be stretching a point too far.)
The story takes up the thread after the highly emotional last Christmas special, “The Husbands of River Song” — there have been, unusually, no new episodes in between. Nardole (Matt Lucas), whom we last saw living in the abandoned body of the tyrant King Hydroflax, is himself again, reunited with his own old body by the Doctor to serve as companion, co-pilot and comic foil and, in a small but insistent way, conscience. Momentarily without emotional entanglements — there are just enough references to his inner life and personal history to remind you that he has them — the Doctor is free just to gibe and joust.
Moffat's new big idea here is to bring the Doctor up against superheroism of the comic-book, caped and masked sort. Without going into great detail, there is a Clark Kent type named Grant (Justin Chatwin), in unspoken love with a Lois Lane stand-in, called Lucy (Charity Wakefield), and evil afoot in a corporate setting — a favorite device both of Russell Davies, who brought the series back from the beyond in 2010, and of Moffat, who has steered it since 2010.
Beyond that, the episode is the usual mix of the extremely local and the greater than global, with the Doctor changing individual lives on the way to saving all the lives. Moffat devotes more time here to the romance and domestic comedy than to the alien threat — two domestic comedies if you break out the scenes between the Doctor and Nardole. Indeed, the Earth-threatening elements of the plot are standard and familiar. But they are also not the point. (And like Christmas, what’s predictable about it is also what’s satisfying: It’s getting the present you hoped for.)
Indeed, the episode plays very much to Moffat’s strengths. He has a talent for fast-paced farce, with characters going in and out of doors and portals in space and time —the episode’s central engine, the difficulties of managing a secret identity, is a classic situation-comedy situation — and for crafting banter of both the light and glancing kind and of the kind that intimates deeper feelings below.
Among 21st century Doctors — does anyone who has read this far need to be told that the Doctor is a regenerating time-traveling alien who every so often, when practical considerations demand it, changes into another actor — Peter Capaldi is the most elegant and mature. (Literally he is, at 58.) But he’s also as mad a swashbuckler as any of his predecessors. “You are completely out of your mind,” observes Nardole.
“How is that news to anyone?” the Doctor replies.
Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles TimesReviews Peter Capaldi