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 of this episode is anything more than a framework to drape the central 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 seriesâ€™ attempts at large scale stories, whilst 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 havenâ€™t read the comic this story is based on, but with such a delicious â€˜why hasnâ€™t anyone done that before?â€™ idea, it isnâ€™t at all surprising that itâ€™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 this 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 creepy upstairs neighbours.
Outside of Moffatâ€™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 Lodgerâ€™s Colchester does feel something of a spiritual cousin to Leadworth. Itâ€™s surprising for a somewhat unassuming story – which it might be assumed would be filed alongside other equally low-key suburban stories like Love & Monsters and Fear Her - would be one to realign the season with the Moffat house-style most successfully. Not that it doesnâ€™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 Doctorâ€™s life which both stories share.
Roberts’ effort also wins out over those episodesâ€™ 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 Craigâ€™s unrequited love is certainly preferable to the equivalent woman in Marc Warren’s life being transformed into what I think Lawrence Miles memorably described as a ‘concrete fellatio machine’.
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 Iâ€™m sure a lot of people will thank Roberts for that). 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 (â€œCall me the rotmeister. No, Iâ€™m the Doctor, donâ€™t call me the rotmeisterâ€), and doesnâ€™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?)
There’s a danger, arguably, 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 wonâ€™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-kissesâ€¦), 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 enjoyment of the situation is what brings this rather glorious concept alive.
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 â€“ are a joy, so Iâ€™m prepared to overlook the occasional slides into mediocrity. Itâ€™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 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.
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, 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 look a quite magnificent set).
Gareth Roberts has written 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 and creepiness, in a far more equal balance than, say, Vampires in 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.
Neil Clarke writes the Doctor Who reviews page â€˜Shall We Destroy?â€™: shallwedestroy.blogspot.com