Each season of the new “Doctor Who” has one or two “experimental” episodes – stories that just don’t feel like anything that’s come before. Thus far, most – if not all – of these stories have been successes. “Boom Town,” “Love & Monsters,” “Blink,” “Turn Left,” and “Midnight” have arguably been highlights in each of their seasons. It’s noteworthy that all but one of those was written by Russell T. Davies (and of course the one that wasn’t, “Blink,” was written by Steven Moffat). Davies seemed to be giving himself chances to think outside the [police?] box, and do something radical and different with the series on each occasion. I’m still not sure whether “Amy’s Choice” (which, like this one, was also directed by Catherine Moreshead) should be lumped into this group, but surely “The Lodger” is oddball enough to add to the list. So how does it stack up?
Well, it’s worth pondering why the story was made in the first place. For starters, it was very likely a chance to save some money. Aside from the episode’s climax, most of this tale is just people involved in seemingly everyday situations. But I think maybe there was more to it than just saving cash. Aside from “Boom Town,” the aforementioned stories were all designed to give the lead actors breaks. Given that this was the inaugural season of a new era for the show, it probably would have been a risky move to write the Doctor and Amy out for the bulk of a story, so instead what “The Lodger” does is remove Karen Gillan for most of the episode, while allowing Matt Smith the chance to chill out and just banter with James Corden (“Gavin & Stacey”) for an hour. Oh, and he also gets to play football, but since Smith has a history with the game, that probably wasn’t too taxing for him – the guy looks like he had a blast in that scene. Yes, for those of you who don’t know, Matt Smith once upon a time had dreams of being footballer, but a back injury led to him taking up acting instead.
Unlike Davies however, Moffat handed the oddball story over to Gareth Roberts, who has a long and winding history with “Doctor Who.” He’s one of “those” writers who’s been tied to it in one form or another for seemingly forever. I’m not familiar with the prose work he’s done over the years, so I can only really judge him on the scripts he’s written for the series, most of which haven’t been any great shakes. I quite liked “The Shakespeare Code” back when it was broadcast, but time hasn’t been too kind to my opinion of it. The following year he did “The Unicorn and The Wasp,” which I hated then, and hate only slightly less now. A recent viewing of it on BBC America led me to take it less seriously than I did a couple years ago, and hence, I was able to laugh at it a little more. The ending and the idea behind it is still pants though.
Then Roberts co-wrote “Planet of the Dead” with Davies, and we all know – the visuals aside – how underwhelming that one was. On the other hand, and to play fair, Roberts has also written a number of stories for “The Sarah Jane Adventures,” and typically the best episodes of that show have been his – although that isn’t saying much when you consider the generally dire quality of the stories produced for that series. Then again, I’m not really the show’s target audience. I originally believed it was made for fans of Lis Sladen & Sarah Jane Smith, but it’s not. It’s for kids obsessed with the new series that can’t wait a whole year for the next season, so “Sarah Jane” comes along in the autumn to tide them over. In any case, I’ve seen numerous interviews with the man, and he seems like a really good, intelligent, thoughtful guy, and I’m sure we’d get along great provided he didn’t ask me what I thought of his “Doctor Who” stories.
Ahem, clearly I have digressed. My apologies. Back to “The Lodger,” which is about a half a good episode, and half not so much. The domestic stuff between the Doctor, Craig (Corden) and Sophie (Daisy Haggard) is wonderful – really, really fun material that’s the best thing Roberts has yet to contribute to the series. The sci-fi stuff with the alien timeship upstairs is – you guessed it – pants. From the start, the Doctor moving in and renting a room from Craig is ripe with possibility. Craig and Sophie have this mutual unrequited love, and the Doctor steps smack in the middle of it. He’s supposed to be concentrating on what’s upstairs, and yet he’s hesitant to confront whatever it is head on – going so far as to not use the sonic screwdriver, as he doesn’t want to alert the presence upstairs. This strikes me as very hollow.
He’s separated from his TARDIS and clearly somebody’s screwing with time, so why doesn’t he just confront whatever’s upstairs? People are dying, right under his very nose (although admittedly he seems unaware of this fact). It’s very out of character for the Doctor to not just take the situation in hand. Or is it his chance to, even for a few days, live a normal life that keeps him distracted? It’s never explicitly stated in the episode, but he seems far more interested in what’s going on with Craig and Sophie than he does in getting to the bottom of his problem. In order for this episode to work, you almost have to give yourself over to the notion that the chance to just be a guy for a few days is far more interesting to him than the nightmare above. He’s mentioned this in the past numerous times – how people get to live lives that he isn’t able to. Here, for a few days, he lives one of those lives, and he really basks in it, so perhaps that’s the only way to read the episode.
The relationship between the Doctor and Craig is lovely, due to two great performances from the leads. We already know Smith is great, but having never seen an episode of “Gavin & Stacey,” I didn’t know what to expect from Corden. I had a vibe that he’d be playing a more boisterous character, not someone as withdrawn as Craig is. His friendship with the Doctor is like two little boys learning how to play together. I really felt for the guy and his failure to tell Sophie how he feels. In particular, the shot of him standing alone on the grass once the Doctor has stolen all the thunder in the football game is sad and pathetic and it works. I feel like I’ve seen that happen before. In fact, I was probably that guy.
Later on, when the Doctor takes Craig’s place at work (after saving his life), he really starts to lose it, and when he thinks the Doctor’s moving in on Sophie, it’s just too much for him to take. Funny thing is, the Doctor is oblivious to all of this. One thing that’s been played up with the Eleventh Doctor is how out of touch he is with humans and their feelings, and how he simply doesn’t see the smallest things. Case in point: when he first moves in, and Craig is trying to explain to him that should he want to bring someone around, arrangements can be made so that he can have privacy…and the Doctor just doesn’t get it (much as he didn’t get Amy hitting on him at the end of “Flesh and Stone”). It’s hilarious to watch stuff like this, and it’s one of only many reasons I’m so taken with Smith’s alien portrayal.
There’s a bunch of other great, little stuff littered throughout the episode, too: The Doctor wearing a #11 jersey for the football game; the head butting scene in which the Doctor imparts the entirety of who he is on Craig; the van Gogh exhibit postcard on the refrigerator; the contraption the Doctor builds in his room (he built a much smaller version of this thing in “The Time Monster”); the implication that at some point after the story the Doctor and Amy both travel to points and fix things so the events we see here can work out properly; the rot on the ceiling, which is not unlike the Pandoricrack in concept; the Doctor spitting his wine back into his glass; Amy finding the ring in the final moments; and no doubt many viewers enjoyed watching Smith prance around in only a towel for one scene, as well as him mistakenly think an electric toothbrush was the sonic screwdriver.
But unfortunately most everything that happens when the story comes to a head is very boring, or at least not as good as all that came before it. We never find out exactly who was behind the ship, which leaves the episode feeling incomplete, and don’t get me started on the perception filter. Some people may be tired of the sonic screwdriver, but I’m sick and tired of perception filters. And in this case – and please correct me if I’m wrong – this perception filter somehow has the ability to build a flight of stairs that doesn’t actually exist, and yet characters and cats are able to run up and down them? I don’t get it. It’s just this gigantic hole in the story that makes everything on that top floor (which is actually the roof of the building) seem really phony. And frankly, as novel as the head butting scene is, I can’t help but think Craig’s head would have exploded having been saddled with all that information, but maybe I’m over thinking it all. “The Lodger” is good, but not great, and certainly not as groundbreaking as the episodes I mentioned at the top of the recap. But perhaps it’s unfair to make that comparison, since we’re in a whole new era, and there’s a much different approach being taken with this season than the Davies seasons that came before it.
Lastly, “The Lodger” was based on a comic strip that was also written by Gareth Roberts for the Tenth Doctor and Rose, while Mickey stood in for Craig. I’ve not read the comic, but would certainly be interested in giving it a look, and apparently you can find it in Doctor Who Magazine #368, or in the graphic novel collection “The Betrothal of Sontar” (what a title!).
NEXT TIME: All hell is going to break loose when “The Pandorica Opens,” in the first half of the two-part season finale. You don’t want to miss this one, folks.
Classic “Who” DVD Recommendation of the Week: Since I mentioned it in the review, I might as well go ahead and recommend the just released “The Time Monster,” starring Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning and Roger Delgado. Or if this isn’t up your alley, maybe you should check out “Black Orchid,” where you see Peter Davison playing cricket with as much fervor as Smith plays football.
(Thanks as always to Sonic Biro for the screencaps.)