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.
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Last week I posted a quick update saying that I would wait until this week to write about both of these episodes, but that “The Hungry Earth” was a “very good setup.” Having had a week to reflect on that, I’m not so sure that’s the case, and yet I still think “The Hungry Earth” is a very or at least reasonably good episode, but perhaps not an effective setup for “Cold Blood,” unless you enjoy bait and switch. The tone and feel of “The Hungry Earth” is vastly different than “Cold Blood” (how about from here on out I refer to the episodes as THE and CB respectively?), and a fairly inconsequential amount of the information the episode delivers has much of anything to do with the second half. Probably the single most important bit that carries over from one episode to the next is the Doctor, Amy, and Rory seeing future versions of Amy and Rory off in the distance at the very start, but we’ll get to that in due course.
THE plays like one part spooky horror story and one part scientific fiasco. It’s a clear homage not so much to the classic series Silurians tales, but other stories from the Jon Pertwee era like “Inferno” and “The Daemons.” Heck, even the earth swallowing people up takes me back to Peter Davison’s “Frontios.” One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about this season is the conscious decision to go for more rural settings, as opposed to the urban backdrops which so dominated the Davies era. It’s given the season a much different texture, and one that’s a welcome change, and you can’t get much more rural than the countryside, an old church and graveyard, and a tiny cast. In so many ways both THE and CB are perhaps the closest to classic “Doctor Who” the new series has yet produced, which I’m not entirely sure is a good thing, because trying to hammer an old formula into a new box is an often dicey proposition, and I quite honestly am not sure if it works all that well here. The best episodes of the new series have been the ones that did something with “Doctor Who” that we’ve never seen before, and if the new series has proven anything, it’s that it’s best to keep moving forward.
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Here we are, more or less mid-season, and as someone who’s recapping this block of episodes week in and out, as well as someone who’s been deconstructing this series for years now, I’m frankly a bit flummoxed by Steven Moffat’s inaugural year. It’s starting to feel as if the season is only going to make total sense once it’s over and done with. Some time ago, long before the season began, Moffat was saying that he wanted the season to be referred to as Season One, rather than Season Five, and that’s starting to make a whole lot more sense. Aside from the occasional references to the past, everything about this year feels as if some kind of reset button has been hit, and yet it remains difficult to watch without bringing the baggage of the last five years into the equation, even though I’m fairly certain Moffat would prefer that we didn’t. I mean, it’s hard to picture a character like Mickey Smith, for instance, fitting into any part of this narrative in any kind of believable manner, and yet you almost want somebody like him to turn up in a scene just to remind you that you’re still watching the same show.
I continue to want to compare this material to stuff from seasons’ past, and yet this nagging feeling keeps telling me that’s just an unfair thing to do. I wonder if Moffat’s even got some kind of grand master plan that extends beyond this block of 13 episodes? None of this means I’m not enjoying the season, just that it’s a much different kind of enjoyment than what I’ve become accustomed to during the Davies years, which began feeling predictable about three years in. Say what you will about this season, but, at least at this stage, it is most certainly not predictable. In some ways watching this season is as disorienting as the predicament in which our heroes find themselves in this week’s episode. As viewers, we’re experiencing a new reality of the series, while we keep thinking back on what we came to know prior to this season’s start. Which is the real “Doctor Who?” The Davies or the Moffat era? Both, or maybe neither? I’ll likely elaborate on all of this further during the final recap of the season.
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