Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat is trying to explain what he loves most about superhero movies. He talks excitedly about the cape and the mask. The importance of a hero’s “normal” life.
“When Superman doesn’t work, it’s because there’s not enough Clark Kent,” he says.
And then there’s the romance.
“There’s always a good one at their heart – and Clark Kent/Lois Lane is certainly the only superhero story I’d ever want to write,” he says.
“It’s just fantastic – he can’t own up to being the man she’s in love with, and disguises himself with just a pair of glasses. But why doesn’t she know it’s him, and why doesn’t he tell her?”
All of this makes its way – sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly – into this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special, titled The Return of Doctor Mysterio.
When we speak to Moffat on the set in the United Kingdom during filming, he is completely open about how much of a debt this stand-alone episode owes to Christopher Reeve’s early Superman films.
So too is the Doctor himself, Peter Capaldi, and his co-stars Justin Chatwin, who plays superhero vigilante The Ghost, and Charity Wakefield, whose character is a journalist called Lucy “with definitely an element of Lois Lane to her”.
The story of how the Doctor, The Ghost, Lucy and Nardole – a character played by Little Britain star Matt Lucas, who was introduced in last year’s Christmas special – deal with the threat of alien attack begins on Christmas Eve in New York. But unlike some of the Doctor’s previous Christmas adventures, this one is not laced with snow, holly or tinsel.
Instead, it focuses on superhero-style family entertainment with a Doctor Who twist.
“The Christmas episodes are slightly different in that they must play to a slightly wider audience [than the regular series], and this fairly naive Clark Kent/Lois Lane type relationship between Grant and Lucy is light, funny and beautifully written,” says Capaldi.
“It’s been very enjoyable to be in scenes with Justin and Charity because the episode is sort of about their relationship and the almost farcical element of trying to maintain the secret, superhero persona.
“It’s great fun to watch someone fly into a skyscraper with a cloak on and fly off with a girl – and I’m liking not being inside a rubber costume myself.”
Capaldi makes an interesting point. The Doctor himself might be a universe-saving Time Lord, but he doesn’t have any powers, other than his intellect and longevity.
“The only superpower the Doctor has is an amazing ability to adapt to a new actor in the role,” says Moffat with a laugh, referring to the character’s ability to regenerate into a new body whenever an actor leaves.
“A lot of the fun writing him is that really, he’s a charlatan. He pretends to be more powerful than he is and bluffs his way around the universe – when we all know he can’t even drive his own time machine properly.”
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the show strikes such a chord across the world. There is something very British about the idea of a bumbling but brilliant hero – but it works wonderfully, even when Capaldi’s wiser, more aloof Doctor is so different from previous incumbent Matt Smith’s more charming incarnation, which in turn was distinct from the 10 actors who played the role before him, beginning in 1963 with William Hartnell.
“People tell me they like the escapism, and there’s something unusual in the idea that the Tardis could turn up in your back garden, your local shopping mall, your garage,” says Capaldi. “That’s unlike Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise and it immediate lends a fairy tale element to the story.
“But then, there is something potent about the death motif in it, too. People get fascinated by the fact a Doctor can get extinguished, when for many of them it’s a character they’ve really bonded with. There’s something deep in that.”
There is a corner of the world where Doctor Who has never quite taken off – Canada, which is where Chatwin is from. He admits he has never seen an episode – but this lack of Who knowledge was not an issue.
“I was better off watching American superhero films because that’s the scenario the Doctor has dropped into,” he says. Despite being unfamiliar with the show, he was bowled over by the script.
“This was the best piece of writing I’ve read all year,” he says. “Grant is humble, self-doubting, lacking confidence. His alter-ego, The Ghost, has superpowers to make up for that but has to save the city while having a baby monitor strapped to his belt. It’s just such smart writing, full of complicated characters, texture, emotion and humour.”
After an extended break of just over a year without a full new series, Doctor Who will return in April with a new, more earthy companion for the Doctor, Bill (Pearl Mackie), following the departure of Jenna Coleman’s Clara. Though Moffat – who will step down as showrunner when the new season ends – is at pains to point out that like all the Christmas specials, The Return of Doctor Mysterio stands alone, he says there is a tonal connection with what is to come.
“The Christmas special is a family friendly, action-based spectacular,” he says. “And because we’re going with a new companion for the new series, it reboots Doctor Who back to its simplest, purest form – basically, mad adventures with your nutty uncle from space.”
If there’s a better description of Doctor Who’s many charms, we have yet to hear it.
• Doctor Who: The Return Of Doctor Mysterio is on BBC First tonight at 10.25pm.