Sunday, 13 June 2010

Reaction: THE LODGER

Written by Gareth Roberts, directed by Catherine Morshead, 2010

A slightly different version of this article can be read here, on Kasterborous.

Well, that was a bloody improvement. After the dud contributions from Messrs Gatiss, Whithouse and Chibnall, it's heartening - albeit belatedly - to see that not all the new series writers have (quite literally) lost the plot. Not that the plot per se of this episode was anything more than a framework to drape a concept around, but that becomes forgivable when said concept is such a corker. Like Amy's Choice, a simple premise - the Doctor lodging in a house which, essentially, eats people - fares much better than this season's attempts at large-scale stories, while also avoiding the pitfalls of the two-wildly-different-stories-smashed-together approach, as modelled by Richard Curtis' preceding Vincent and the Doctor. Personally, I haven’t read the comic this story is based on, but with such a delicious ‘why hasn’t anyone done that before?’ central idea, it isn’t at all surprising that it’s the latest story from the spin-off media to make it onto the small screen.

In common with Simon Nye's episode, there's a sense of this story making good on the season's promise, the bold-but-twisty, storybook-tinged style premiered in The Eleventh Hour. (So much so that it felt credible that Prisoner Zero could be making a return appearance. Albeit sans dog.) There are certainly shades of that story in the Aickman Road house and its textbook-creepy upstairs neighbours (which is to say nothing of other familiar moments like the ‘possessed’ speaker and a combination of The Unicorn and the Wasp’s ‘stimulating the enzymes’ and The Christmas Invasion’s tannin fetishisation).

Outside of Moffat’s own episodes, relatively little of season fnarg has lived up to the fresh stylistic approach of its earliest episodes, mainly inhabiting a more generic version of the Doctor's universe, but, despite being set in unremarkable environs, The Lodger’s Colchester does feel something of a spiritual cousin to Leadworth. It’s surprising for a somewhat unassuming story - which it might be assumed would be filed alongside other equally low-key suburban stories like Love and Monsters and Fear Her - would be one to realign the season with the Moffat house-style most successfully. Not that it doesn’t have similarities with those season two stories, most notably the former - though James Corden, despite apparently doing his best to become an eminent hateable nonentity in real life, brings a shade more realism to the borderline-useless everyman catapulted into the Doctor’s life which both stories share.

Roberts' effort also wins out over those episodes’ Barratt Homes soullessness by acknowledging that perhaps there should, or at least could be more to life than pizza-booze-telly. While it is perhaps unappealing for every single guest character the Doctor meets to come away with an epiphanous new outlook on life, the resolution of Craig’s unrequited love is certainly preferable to the equivalent woman in Marc Warren's life being transformed into what I think Lawrence Miles memorably called a 'concrete fellatio machine'. By contrast, this story addresses legitimate fears about the crushing monotony of “work, weekend, work, weekend,” and it’s pleasing to see that though the Doctor may have been out of his depth when faced with van Gogh’s mental state, he can inspire Daisy – and without it feeling heavy-handed or mawkish. Win!

It's easy to forget how relatively short a period it has been since Doctor Who returned to television, and despite those four and a bit years peppered with Russell T Davies' trademark 'realist' settings, it's still quite a surprise to see the Doctor placed in such a rigorously ordinary environment. Human Nature aside, we've never seen the Doctor so fully immersed in day to day life (in 47 years, this is, what, the third time we've seen him have a bath or shower? And I’m sure a lot of people will thank Roberts for that. Drinking milk while wearing a towel, this could suddenly be anything other than Doctor Who). In fact, it seems absurd to imagine (say) the Third Doctor popping round the Brigadier's pad for cribbage and a Heineken. (Or... whatever.)

Obviously, this unexpected culture clash forms the crux of the episode, and it's perhaps the closest we've had to the Doctor as a Starman/Watt on Earth*-style alien-baffled-by-everyday-life. Fortunately, Roberts makes this chestnut funny rather than tedious (“Call me the rotmeister. No, I’m the Doctor, don’t call me the rotmeister”), and doesn’t seem too out of character, despite this season alone (and the new series at large) having already demonstrated his greater knowledge of the minutiae of human life than previously acknowledged (internet porn and Kylie Minogue, anyone?). Incidentally, I’m almost glad we don’t know how the Doctor got hold of £3000 in a paper bag over the course of one day.

There's arguably a danger that Matt Smith's Doctor is becoming an out and out comic figure in a way perhaps only formerly true of Tom Baker, predominately during season seventeen. For a lot of people that won’t be a bad precedent, but, given that the whole series was pitched at a more blatantly comic register, it does give rise to the question of how appropriate it is to the 'dark fairytale' stylings of the Moffat administration. In fact though, the Doctor's eccentricity may be exaggerated (the air-kisses…!), but Smith is in the enviable position of making it seem perfectly natural, and in fact delivers what may prove to be one of his definitive performances as the character. Also, whereas Fourth Doctor would probably be too aloof and alien for such a domestic arrangement, the Eleventh's constant state of wonderment and enjoyment of the situation is what brings this rather glorious concept alive.

Having said all that, perhaps with a (one hopes!) climactic finale on the way, we may yet see the Doctor acknowledge the weight of events – tune in next week, kids. Depending whether Stevesie (I'm getting tired of typing 'Moffat'; silly name anyway) goes down a gravitas-laden path, or ramps up the big overblown thrills’n’spills and out-Davies Davies. Either way, we know the next episode has the unlikely distinction of namechecking both Chelonians and Drahvins, so my geek-spot is already tickled.

Already the first outing for the revived series' second era is coming to an end, and, it has to be said, it's been a mixed bag. For what it's worth, on a personal level, the leads and the general timbre of the series - both richer, more whimsical, but also more traditional than the last few years – are a joy, so I’m prepared to overlook the slides into mediocrity. It’s just unfortunate that these have mainly come later in the run, giving the impression of a series that's lost its footings after a confident and original take at the get-go.

The Lodger goes some way to assuage those disappointments though, and as the last 'basic' one-episode story of the Eleventh Doctor's opening run, it's a welcome reminder of the deftness that has been displayed throughout the season, if not consistently. A relatively minor detail, but – by way of example - this story continues a trend this year for memorably self-contained pre-titles sequences, transcending arbitrary Deaths of the Week – The Time of Angels, Amy’s Choice, and even The Beast Below spring to mind.

Also, that Matt Smith shines is a given, but for those who've lost patience with the slightly one-note nature of Ms Pond's character development, her less-is-more involvement can't help but make the heart grow fonder. All Karen Gillen is required to do may be some shaky-TARDIS acting and talking to a gramophone horn, but she still does it rather lovely…ly. (Although you would be forgiven for thinking she'd already ticked the Amy-lite episode off her contract with The Hungry Earth.)

If an episode like this - and its earlier fellow standout, Amy's Choice - demonstrate anything (and really, we should know this already), it's that small-scale stories with a solid, simple concept and small but well-chosen casts, are, frankly, the way to go. (Especially given the visible strain budget cuts have apparently placed on some of the grander FX requirements of this series. By contrast, the pseudo-TARDIS upstairs is quite a magnificent set - up there with that in Mark of the Rani: praise indeed!).

This is a deceptively effective episode, and one that may perhaps be easy to dismiss given its frivolity. However, in its effortless blending of equally effective humour (“Those keys – you’re sort of… fondling them”) with genuine creepiness, in a far more equal balance than, say, Vampires of Venice, The Lodger is in a position to become something of a high benchmark for the Smith era. More like this for next time, please.

*That’s the last time I’m ever namechecking that series. Written by Pip’n’Jane Baker, fact fans!

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