[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]
To start with: an apology. I’ve been writing so much about Doctor Who and Buffy recently that I’ve slacked off a bit on the subject of programming, which was always supposed to be heart of this blog. I’ll get back to that real soon, I promise. But first …
The Lodger was written by Gareth Roberts, whose previous on Doctor Who consists of the so-so Shakespeare Code, the forgettable and very silly The Unicorn and the Wasp and a co-writer credit (with Russell T. Davies) on the truly awful Planet of the Dead. So you’ll forgive me if I came to The Lodger with low expectations.
To my amazement, it’s my favourite episode of the season so far. I laughed, I cried, I was scared, I was delighted. I felt caught off guard by this episode in a way that I’ve not for most of the others. I had no real idea what to expect, so everything took me by surprise.
I don’t think I’m giving too much away if I say up front that the Doctor himself is the eponymous lodger, and that watching him trying to lead something like a normal life is hilarious. On paper, this sounds like a similar setup to Season 3′s outstanding Human Nature/Family of Blood — unquestionably David Tennant’s high-point in his tenure as the Doctor — but the episodes could hardly be more different. The Human Nature two-parter was intense and harrowing: the Doctor had literally become human and had little idea how to deal with the threat that presented itself; self-doubt was central; the Doctor felt incomplete, truncated, like half a man. By contrast, in The Lodger, the Doctor is fully Time Lord, just playing a role, badly. And it’s a setup that can hardly help but be funny.
As has so often been the case this season, Matt Smith’s acting is crucial here: the Doctor slips seamlessly between confident brusqueness and social ineptitude, one moment sensitively deducing the nature of the relationship between his flatmate Craig and his just-good-friend Sophie; the next, he is mucking up that relationship by turning up at inopportune moments and making inappropriate comments. His excellence at football is undermined by his total obliviousness to the effect it’s having on Craig. There were four or five laugh-out-loud moments, which is not bad going in a science-fiction/drama programme.
And underlying all this is a sinister mystery in the house where the Doctor is lodging, and a crisis on the TARDIS, where Amy has been inadvertently abandoned. I’ll say nothing about either of those, because half the fun is progressively discovering what’s going on as the episode progresses. Or, no — I’ll just say one thing: that, in the part when the Doctor and Craig went up the stairs, all the hairs on my arms stood up.
How many programs are there on TV that can make you laugh and scare you, all in the same episode? Sometimes even in the same moment? And how many of those programs can also make you think? Well, let’s see, there’s Doctor Who and … er … anything else? I’m struggling.
It’s frankly amazing that a program aimed primarily at children can do all this. More: it’s amazing that it even tries to. If I try to analyse why I love Doctor Who in a way that I don’t quite love even manifestly superior shows like Veronica Mars, it might come down to its sheer ambition. Even when it fails, it fails because it’s tried something great and beautiful that it’s not quite been able to carry off. (Well, except for Planet of the Dead. That was just plain bad, and come to think of it, so by-the-numbers that it was devoid of the very ambition I’m talking about now.)
What do I mean by ambition? How about trying to make you feel sympathy for a Dalek (Dalek in Season 1) or a Cyberman (Age of Steel in Season 2)? How about twisting your mind in knots with the implications of time-travel (Blink in Season 3)? How about showing you how people can psychologically disintegrate in the face of a threat they don’t understand (Season 4′s Midnight)? How about confronting you with the idea that war pushes you to accept allies you otherwise wouldn’t (Victory of the Daleks in Season 5)? And remember — all this in a show that has to be comprehensible and appealing to children.
In the end, the great thing about Doctor Who is not regeneration, or the TARDIS, or the Time Lord mythology, or the tin dog, or any of the continuity stuff, or the time-travel paradoxes, or the humour, or the pathos, or the drama. The great thing is that a single show attempts, and in many cases successfully does, all of these things. It’s a great strength that the Doctor Who format lets you do the hardish sci-fi of The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood one week, the historical/psychological romp Vincent and the Doctor the next, and the broad comedy/gentle romance of The Lodger the week after that. You really never know what you’re going to get.
That stands in great contrast to, say, The X-Files, which I’ve been trying to watch for the last couple of months. I’ve made it through the first eight episodes, but I’m struggling to find any desire to continue because those episodes are (A) so slow-moving and (B) so very similar to each other. Similarly, who can honestly tell one Star Trek episode apart from another? Even Veronica Mars, for all its unquestionable brilliance, stuck largely to the same formula from episode to episode, bar the finales of the first two seasons.
In fact, the only show I know that comes close to Doctor Who‘s variety was Buffy, which was able to leaven its usual monster-of-the-week format by throwing in deeply different episodes like Restless (the one with the First Slayer in everyone’s dreams at the end of Season 4) and The Body (Season 5, and I’m not going to spoil it for anyone who doesn’t know what it’s about). But Buffy had the luxury of aiming squarely at a reasonably mature audience — I guess mid-teens and up — whereas Doctor Who has to work for my seven-year-old son as well as my wife and me.
So: what was meant to be a review of a single episode seems to have turned into a sort of panegyric to the series as a whole. Sorry about that.
It’s particularly badly timed, of course, because we now face the last two episodes of the season — the two-part finale by which the rest of the season will stand or fall. (If you doubt that, consider that Season 3, despite its outstanding tenth-Doctor episodes Human Nature/Family of Blood and Blink, is mostly remembered by the grotesquely misjudged and horribly botched Master story, The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords, whereas the generally inferior Season 2 is remembered more fondly because of its Daleks-and-Cybermen climax, Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, with its Bad Wolf Bay parting.)
So if The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang disappoint, I may regret having written the above. But I’ll take my chances — not least because we are back in the hands of the Grand Moff himself for those last two episodes.
The gloves are off now. Come on, Moffmeister — you can do it!