[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!
These posts fascinate me, because I find myself nodding along for the vast majority of them, but there’s almost always one or two things that just seem so, so wrong… it makes me think :-)
I thought The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords was pretty decent, especially since I had such low expectations for an RTD season ending two-parter… at least it was a largely well-acted character-driven story, unlike Army of Ghosts / Doomsday. Doomsday just seemed like one of those episodes where RTD figured he had a great spectacle at the center of it — Cybermen and Daleks together — and just didn’t need to bother with the rest.
I’ll also point out that Star Trek has its own share of methods to get the cast off the ship for its more ambitious episodes, whether they succeed or fail. Some of the best and worst involve Q (best: Tapestry; worst: Shades of Grey), or focus on a single character away from the ship (best: The Inner Light), or use the holodeck in its Old West or Dixon Hill storylines, or the Holographic Doctor (best: Living Witness), or time travel. Sure, some of the series, TNG in particular, had long runs of mediocre sameness. But if their format was limiting, they did have a good toolbox of ways to deviate from that format, and used them sometimes to good effect.
Warning: some spoilers.
I absolutely *loathed* this episode. It literally took me two hours to watch it because I had to keep pausing it to get up and do something else on account of not really wanting to continue watching.
It just came off as completely and utterly stupid. I just didn’t buy the Doctor’s over the top ‘wackiness’. For someone who possesses detailed knowledge thousands of worlds and their history, that he’s nigh-on completely ignorant of contemporary English society is inconceivable. He seems to have spent more time on modern-day Earth than anywhere else in the last few years and yet somehow he doesn’t even know how people greet each other?
Honestly, it *was* funny. At first. But when it’s more or less the same joke used over and over again for half an hour, it quickly gets tiring. “Oh-ho, he doesn’t know how to act in normal society! We get it already. You can stop beating us over the head with it. Yes, the toothbrush is clever, but can we PLEASE get back to the bloody plot?!”
So much of it just made my head hurt. I mean, do they honestly expect us to believe that the Doctor is incapable of telling the difference between a sonic screwdriver and a piece of metal with a plastic handle. Really? Really?! He’s smart enough to rewire a home’s electrical system but *not* smart enough to identify a screwdriver? If he’s doing it on purpose, then he’s being a tremendous asshole, which would be even less in character.
And the head-butting. Just… WHY?
It was also horrifically predictable. I can’t imagine anyone not knowing what was going to happen the instant that scene in the middle with… with… that guy and his girlfriend started. Look at that: I’ve only just finished watching it and I’ve already forgotten their names.
The ending was also hugely disappointing. Not only had I more or less predicted the rough shape of events by the start of the intro sequence, but it was a “The Power of Love” ending. To quote Steven Fry: “sometimes there just isn’t enough vomit.”
It doesn’t help that the episode was 35 minutes of the Doctor ineptly bumbling around, 5 minutes of actual things happening that didn’t really make any sense or have anything but the most tenuous of connections to the previous 35 minutes, and 15 seconds of arc development. I found the *trailer* the most enjoyable part of the episode.
As for Amy… it didn’t feel like she was really in danger. Being told “you’re in danger” is a bit different to having it demonstrated, which it never was. If there’d been, say, an external scene showing the TARDIS smashing into the side of the time vortex or something, it might have given weight to Amy’s situation. Instead, it just feels like she’s having a hard time parking. Hell, the TARDIS throws people around like that *normally*. This is supposed to be new and unusual?
In fact, I think the premise itself is fine; it’s just executed badly. A wooden door is a bit of a lame excuse for not simply barging in at the very start of the episode. What if the ship had been the house next door? Have the Doctor spying on the house, flatmate watches his suspicious activity, interferes?
I suppose I should stop now before I drag this out any more.
Can’t wait for the next two episodes, though!
Quxxy (esepcially, but others, too) —
One of the fascinating things about Doctor Who is how dramatically differently reviewers can see specific episodes. I see this all the time, especially with Gavin Burrows, whose reviews at http://lucidfrenzy.blogspot.com/search/label/Doctor%20Who seem to like all the episodes I don’t and vice versa — and whose reviews all make points I can’t help but agree with. In short, Doctor Who episodes seem to affect different people very differently.
(You’re just plain wrong about The Lodger, though :-) )
Am I the only one who’s been thoroughly disappointed with Series 5? I never realized how much impact that Russell T Davies had on the show until he left. Now it seems like each episode is worse than the last.
Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy Doctor Who. I was very excited when it came back in 2005, and have seen every episode (most more than once). But Matt Smith seems too much like an eccentric kid playing dress-up. I figured that it might take a few episodes for him to find his footing, but I just don’t see it. And don’t get me started on Karen Gillan. Sure, she’s cute, but she’s also… how can I put this nicely… dumb, in my opinion. I think she spends too much time screaming for the Doctor to save her than she actually does helping him. (Especially when comparing her to Billie Piper or Freema Agyeman.)
Sean, thanks for the opposing view!
First, I think you’ve got a point that Russell T. Davies did bring something unique of his own — see this earlier post — and that the new series suffers from the lack of that something. He had a knack for the perfect little character moment that’s been much less in evidence this time around. At the same time, Davies also had an appalling weakness for stories that simply didn’t make any sense, and that for me is a much bigger deal. If I have to lose the “Rose … have a good life” moments in exchange for coherent plots, that’s a sacrifice that I’m willing to make.
On Matt Smith, you’ll already know from my reviews that I couldn’t disagree more. I think he has a far more nuanced portrayal than David Tennant ever achieved (with the telling exception of Family of Blood when he has playing a character who was not quite the Doctor). He also seems much more intelligent (as opposed to magically brilliant) which for me a key part of what makes the Doctor.
On Karen Gillan … are you sure you’re criticising Gillan and not Amy Pond?
You’ve gone through a lot of TV shows there with both bad and good remarks. But it seems to me you’ve always avoided Star Wars. Neither bad, nor good. Just some seemingly off-topic, out-of-the-blue mentions in the last paragraph and in some other articles.
Andrei Vajna II, I’ve not avoided Star Wars, I’ve just not had anything particularly insightful or new to say about it. When I do, I’ll probably say it. In the mean time, I’m assuming it as a part of the shared cultural background of pretty much everyone who reads this blog.
Hi, not to come off as a hit-and-run poster, but I had to drop this in there: The X-Files starts to vary a lot more in tone as the series goes on, with more flat-out humour coming into the mix around season 2. Some would actually say that sunk the show. But it’s well worth staying with it for the first four seasons, and there are still good episodes after that as well.
Hey, I actually agree mostly with Quxxy about this episode – I enjoyed it for what it was, but the Doctor seemed like such an out-of-character doofus.
For him not to know all the human nuances and devices did not make any sense with his current portrayal over the first 4 seasons and specials. It’s like this is a totally new Doctor.
Also, with the “telling” that Amy was in trouble instead of “showing” is just a poor execution of a script or poor writing – that is just something you should never do. It doesn’t put the stakes high enough, especially as the Tardis is always a jump ride.
I’ve enjoyed season 5 and Matt Smith, but in no one do I find his role more nuanced than David Tennant’s. He seems more lucky than good or intelligent and even when he’s shouting to the heavens about his Timelord-awesomeness, he never seems to have the aura or gravitas around him to make you intimidated. It’s like he’s usually trying too hard to make up for his youth or something.
Seeing his white legs in those football shorts sure doesn’t help :)
Pingback: The Big Bang (11th Doctor, episode 13) « The Reinvigorated Programmer
I was ready to complain about the naked Doctor, when I discovered Jon Pertwee’s shower scene in Spearhead from Space ! But at least Pertwee was a manly man. I hate it when skinny guys take their clothes off !
See the Pertwee shower video on my blog.
I watch on BBC America, so I am a few weeks behind you guys…
Pingback: Day of the Moon (Doctor Who series 6, episode 2) | The Reinvigorated Programmer
Pingback: The Doctor’s Wife (Doctor Who series 6, episode 4) | The Reinvigorated Programmer
Pingback: The God Complex (Doctor Who series 6, episode 11) | The Reinvigorated Programmer
Pingback: Closing Time (Doctor Who series 6, episode 12) | The Reinvigorated Programmer
Pingback: The Wedding of River Song (Doctor Who series 6, episode 13) | The Reinvigorated Programmer
Pingback: Linear Narrative | The Reinvigorated Programmer
Pingback: Kerblam!: yes, but what does it all mean? | The Reinvigorated Programmer