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...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Day 3450: DOCTOR WHO: The Lodger

Saturday:


For starters: Big Fluffy Hugs and Thank Yous to Mr Chris and Mr Joe (and Auntie Jennie) for mentioning my diary on their Eleventh Hour Podcast show.

We've downloaded ALL your shows, now! The only question is: can Daddy listen to them all before the Pandorica Opens?

('Cos after that… ominous pause… SILENCE WILL FALL… Oooh!)

Before that though, there seems to be a lot of FOOTBALL* about.

Elephants, obviously, have NO INTEREST in football so we're watching Dr Woo…

What?

This?

Sigh.

OK… elephants, obviously, are BEST at football, but IN SPITE of that we're watching Dr Woo ANYWAY.

And even Daddy Richard admitted it was loads better than he expected, even though it had football in it too!
Another week when I'm proved wrong. Hurray!

It's all too easy to look at "The Lodger" and see the "cheap one at the end of the production run" set in a suburban street location in the present day and with one of the series' leads only minimally present and think: ah, this year's "Fear Her".

So I was already ready to look askance even before seeing who was writing it and what he was writing it from.

Which just shows you how little I know.

Reasons why I was expecting this to be worse #1: as I'm sure you already know, "The Lodger" was written by Gareth Roberts.

In the nineties Gareth wrote a triptych of near-perfect Season Seventeen pastiches for the Virgin "Missing Adventures" range ("The Romance of Crime", "The English Way of Death" and "The Well-Mannered War", do check them out if you can find them).

And I'll gladly concede that he has written rather well for the Sarah Jane Adventures, particularly the pilot, "Invasion of the Bane" (co-authored with Russell Davies); and he's been widely praised for the cleverness of his Trickster stories ("Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane", "The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith" and "The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith").

Your opinion of "cleverness" may vary depending on what you think of recycling the plot of "Father's Day" but, even so, you must admit that the Trickster is a terrific recurring villain, and rather better than any that they have come up with for "proper" Doctor Who. Ditto Mrs Wormwood from the Bane stories, in fact.

But for Doctor Who on television Gareth's track record stands at a much less impressive: "The Shakespeare Code", "The Unicorn and the Wasp" and a half-share of the blame for "Planet of the Dead" (again with Russell). There's been a touch of self-indulgence, a hint of "I'm so clever" smugness, the slightest whiff of "I think these people are geniuses and look how I can write like these geniuses". Pastiche worked perfectly for his Season Seventeen stories, where "cleverness" in storytelling was the order of the day anyway, but not so much for his celebratory historicals and I think it's because Shakespeare and Christie actually were geniuses, and Gareth, er, isn't.

"The Shakespeare Code" really needed to finish with genuinely clever wordplay – not a string of random words with a "Harry Potter" joke on the end. There's nothing wrong with the "Harry Potter" joke, as such, but it needed to be at the end of something genuinely Shakespearean, not just one more odd-sounding word in a string of gibberish. Likewise, trying to cram in as many as possible of the titles of Agatha Christie's many books as dialogue was neither big nor clever, and in fact got old very, very quickly. Worse, it got predictable: not being naturalistic speech, you could see each "title" being set up as another forced bon mot. Or maybe that's just me.

None of which predisposed me to expect "The Lodger" to be witty, engaging and, believe it or not, actually rather charming. Being set in the present day seems to have helped enormously: focusing the efforts on the human (and non-human) interactions of the characters with no need to show off the research.

He is lucky in his cast. For all his shortcomings as a comic, for all that he's basically playing the same part over and over, James Corden is getting rather good at the slightly-shy everyday blokey bloke that he's been playing since "The History Boys". Daisy Haggard is almost built for "ditzy blonde" roles, but here keeps the comedy elements of her character turned down very low, presenting a sympathetic long-suffering girlfriend-in-waiting, but with some nice strength to her character, particularly when slapping the Doctor down for suggesting she deserves life in a call-centre and then smartly spotting his reverse psychology (if not the double twist of it). In fact, both Corden and Haggard treat it as entirely real, which is just the way to play comedy drama.

Of course, the real star is Matt Smith, somehow finding incredibly believable ways to play "eccentric alien who doesn't understand our Earth ways" without looking stupid. In fact, in a damn fine performance, he convinces as wise old man trapped in young man's body, seeing both the big alien menace and the small human drama with equal clarity. He gives the Doctor's scripted eccentricities a sense of child-like innocence; his misunderstandings stemming from a failure to grasp such Earthly failings as lying, embarrassment and shyness, rather than from some innate "wackiness".

Even so, even the best of casts – well, unless you have Sir Ian McKellen who can frankly make anything worth watching – can be undone if the writer doesn't give them anything interesting to say.


Reasons why I was expecting this to be worse #2: as I'm sure you already know as well, "The Lodger" was written by Gareth Roberts based on a comic strip that he had written for Doctor Who Magazine (DWM #368, in fact; online here), written for the Tenth Doctor and hapless "tin dog" Mickey.

I confess, I remembered the story mainly because I didn't like it. The simple enough premise – the Doctor sharing a flat for three nights with Mickey because the TARDIS has misfired on landing and made off with Rose for a few days – has the makings of some odd-couple humour. But the problem is that the story is told very much from Mickey's point of view and Mickey just does not like the Doctor, and has some perfectly good and intractable reasons for not doing so: principally that the Doctor stole his girlfriend.

So the tale plays out with the Doctor shown up as an arrogant git. His actions, without so much as a by your leave, make Mickey very unhappy over the course of those days: from "hilariously" sonicing out his own teeth, through being shown up at everything that he enjoys, to having his latest girlfriend encouraged to leave to find her own life. Plus the Doctor saves the planet in his free time. Again.

The conclusion where the Doctor stays with the TARDIS to give Mickey some quality time alone with Rose ought to be about the Doctor having learned something, but doesn't half come across as him pimping out his companion to make Mickey feel better for the inconvenience.

And yet, by some extraordinary alchemy, the revisions needed to make the story work with new character Craig instead of Mickey and the established history between him and the Doctor actually improve the tale enormously.

Because the Doctor has to win Craig over, he starts off by impressing him with his weirdness and his cooking skills. And Craig is clearly taken with him. It means that what follows is much more the Doctor doing more of the same but taking it too far, ultimately alienating Craig because he's an alien and he doesn't know when to stop, rather than him rubbing Mickey's nose in his superiority over and over again.

With a couple of crucial exceptions, the beats of the story are remarkably similar but achieve a very different perspective on both story and Doctor.

The Sonic Screwdriver:

In the Comic: Mickey mistakes the sonic for his toothbrush and accidentally sonics out his teeth.

On Television: In a neat reversal, the Doctor grabs Craig's toothbrush instead of the sonic and rushes to try and save his landlord wielding only toothpaste and a strategically placed towel. The Doctor's near-naked hijinks cleverly distract us from the whopping great clue to Craig's importance in the story: his confrontation with the sinister figure behind the door upstairs and more significantly his entirely unexpected survival.

Boys' Night In:

In the Comic: Mickey and the Doctor play a shoot'em'up on the Playstation – the Doctor somehow wins without shooting. Mickey tries to watch some telly only to find that the Doctor has rewired the TV to watch broadcasts from 10 years in the future.

On Television: Partly because the Doctor is trying not to reveal his non-terrestrial nature, these humiliations are necessarily removed. However, the "I'm the Doctor and I don't use weapons" line is transplanted to the moments after the football match where he misinterprets the team's desire to "annihilate" their next opponents. It's a predictable gag to use, but Matt delivers it with great charisma, particularly when into the embarrassed apology afterwards. And since this is a character study, it doesn't hurt to have a Terrance Dicks-esque statement of fundamental principles for the Doctor.

Football:

In the Comic: one of Mickey's mates is sick, so the Saturday afternoon football is off until the Doctor declares himself never fitter. Mickey asks him not to introduce himself as "the Doctor" because it's "weird", but the Doctor does so anyway and no one bats an eyelid. On the pitch, the Doctor proves to be an ace player and the team win four nil. Much to Mickey's chagrin.

On Television: almost exactly the same (the "you can't call yourself the Doctor" bit is even exaggerated by the Doctor doing his "air kiss" greeting)

What is particularly interesting is that while the Doctor is clearly a very good footballer – do you think that being able to see all the alternative probable futures might help? – he's clearly no good at all at football: football is a team game and he's just not a team player, he's doing this all on his own, see especially the moment where he steals Craig's penalty.

It means that Craig's annoyance and frustration are legitimate in a way that Mickey being sulky about the Doctor showing him up is not. We retain our sympathy for Craig's character because he's kind of in the right. But we also retain our sympathy for the Doctor because, and this is at least in part thanks to Matt Smith's natural charm and love of playing the game he'd hoped to make his life, because we see that the Doctor isn't showing off; he's just having a whale of a time doing something he's only just discovered he's got a natural talent for (at least in this body). He isn't humiliating Craig in the way that a gazelle isn't humiliating a chinchilla.

A Night in with the Girlfriend:

Now this is where the TV version gets really clever, taking almost exactly the same scenario and yet totally inverting what the Doctor is doing and why he's doing it.

In the Comic: Gina from the flower shop is Mickey's new date, at least until the Doctor turns up with the wiring and Gina invites him to stay for a drink (name-brand cola only) and he ends up telling her that there's a much wider universe out there and convincing her that she can do better with her life.

On Television: Sophie is Craig's not-date-at-all just girl that likes to hang around his flat all the time and has two sets of keys for it… you get the picture. The Doctor certainly does. She and Craig are stopping in for booze'n'pizza, at least until the Doctor turns up with the wiring and Sophie invites him to stay for a drink (nice glass of wine, doesn't drink any) and he ends up telling her that there's a much wider universe out there and convincing her that she can do better with her life.

Except on television, the Doctor is every obviously trying to make a bigger point: he's showing Sophie that she clearly could do better but there is something making her stay. Specifically, a large Craig-shaped something. Far from splitting them up – in the comic he claims to be "rescuing" Mickey from something he'd never go through with – the Doctor is trying to throw Craig and Sophie together. It's not just a more positive aim; as Mickey himself points out: sometimes people don't want to be saved from their mistakes. Mickey and Gina may be wrong for each other but it's presumptuous of the Doctor to sink it before it can start – and you might also consider it's a bit questionable for the Doctor to be making sure Rose's ex stays single.

The complete reversal of the scene with the eleventh Doctor makes Matt Smith's version a kinder and wiser Time Lord, not acting from either arrogant or selfish motives, just trying to make things a little better but, being too subtle for Craig's perceptions, mucking it up.

A Trip to the Office:

In the Comic: this doesn't happen. We know that Mickey is a mechanic – we briefly see the garage where he works in "The Christmas Invasion", and it's why he's always got different cars – so the Doctor could have gone round to his work and shown him up further by sonicing all the cars he's supposed to be working on. But the story doesn't need it, and in fact is better with the Doctor almost confined to Mickey's flat (he only goes out to the football and that's with Mickey too, poor Mr Smith can't get away from him. Which is the point, obviously.)

On Television: The TV story has a slightly different agenda by this point.

The Doctor is trying to be helpful to Craig – his line "I'll recruit a spy" clearly means Craig, and he does do his landlord a nice breakfast before discovering him near dead from evil-residue poisoning. He thinks that covering Craig's work for him is doing him a further favour.

He's also, ever-so-slightly, procrastinating. Something about the upstairs flat – maybe the time loops, maybe the fact that it can interfere with his TARDIS – has got him nervous and he's, maybe subconsciously, trying to put off the point where he goes up there.

(He's actually right to be wary as if he'd gone up there alone, the planet would have been blown up – though he's slow to realise that Craig is the key: it's almost two days between Craig being turned away at the door and the resolution.)

It is, of course, hilarious to see the Doctor "in the workplace"; he's totally out of place there, and we'd all love to be able to treat annoying people on the phone the way that he does.

And I loved the metal slotted-spoon rotating on the desk in front of him with no given explanation at all. Magnificent.

Craig and Sophie, incidentally, clearly don't work in any normal kind of call centre, at least not from the appearance of the rather nice open plan office with swish desks and pot plants – see the grey cubicles of Adipose Industries in "Partners in Crime" for a more realistic view. Although we are probably safe to assume that it's only the Doctor's special charm that has the boss offering out biscuits.

But we all like to think that we are indispensible at work. We certainly don't want someone else turning up and effortlessly doing better at our job. That would feel like a threat to our well-being, particularly if maintaining our status quo is as important to us as it is to Craig. Remember, his job doesn't just pay for his house; it's also where he met and continues to meet Sophie. So having inadvertently undermined Craig's sense of his own football prowess, the Doctor's apparent attack on his security is what is needed to push Craig over the edge into open hostility.

That brings Craig to the point where Mickey sort of was in order for the row with the Doctor to happen. But even this row is different on television than in the magazine: where Mickey had an actual point about the Doctor's behaviour, Craig is just overwhelmed; and with Craig the Doctor argues back, insists on staying, because he isn't here just to kill time but because he's actually doing something plotwise.

Of course, dramatically, the argument on the telly is so that they are distracted enough not to notice Sophie's arrival and abduction by the upstairs neighbour.

Hence roll on the conclusion…

Meanwhile back in the TARDIS:

In the Comic: no time at all passes for Rose – the Doctor steps out of the TARDIS on Thursday but the materialisation glitch means that Rose emerges on Sunday with no intervening gap for her.

On Television: Amy actually has something to do, even if it's just play with the standing set while emoting to the Doctor's voice. The TARDIS continues trying to land for all the time the Doctor is alone on Earth, with the suggestion being that the same amount of real time passes for Amy as for the Doctor.

(The synchronisation of the time loops with the TARDIS going into shakes seems to indicate this, as does the way that the Doctor's earpiece lets them have conversations with Amy in real time – although he could have built in some kind of temporal compression filter as well. I'm sure someone can find a use for the word "Blinovitch" in any explanation they want to make up. Of course, the Doctor arrives at Craig's a day after the attempted landing and stays for at least more two days… does Amy really spend all that time stood at the TARDIS console? Does the girl need no sleep?)

Finally…

The biggest difference between the two versions, though, is of course that the TV episode has an actual plot rather than being just a study of two characters forced together despite causing friction whenever they meet.

A forty-five minute television episode needs a stronger backbone than a five-page comic strip.

Of course it was Alex, who is far brighter than I am, who spotted that this one is lifted from "Sapphire and Steel", actually a combination of two stories: the invisible apartment on the roof from Adventure Three crossed with the faceless man on the stairs from Adventure Four.

In the comic strip, the Doctor just happens to save the world in passing (inverting a time cone – how very Logopolis – to hide the Earth from intergalactic scavengers) and it's just the last in his long line of perceived slights at which point Mickey flies off the handle at the Doctor's persistent interfering.

On television, saving the world is the point. And saving the world and the Doctor being a lodger and the romantic subplot and the thing that causes the TARDIS to glitch in the first place all come together in the same point. Hmmm, do I detect the hand of Moff?

That point, that conclusion, that jaw-dropping moment of "oh… it's a TARDIS", which the series hasn't managed since 1965's "The Time Meddler", was an absolute stunner. Of course, all the clues were there if you were up to spotting them. I didn't.

Of course the peril is a little bit silly and slightly overstated. A threat to destroy just Colchester… the episode is set in Colchester, apparently; Alex used to live in Colchester, and he didn't remotely spot it. So, not what you'd call really hammered home, there… A threat to destroy just Colchester would have been equally adequate, and perhaps more appropriate given the stay-at-home themes of the episode. Again, someone who wants to use the word "artron" can probably think of an explanation of why plugging the Doctor into another Time Machine should explode the solar system. (Although this appeared not to happen when he was plugged into the time capsule in "The Two Doctors" – though it might have been a blessing if it had!)

I imagine everyone will mention the "Star Trek: Voyager" homage: Hologram plus Doctor plus "Please state the nature of the emergency".

I imagine everyone is going to say that the timeship looked Jagaroth -like, too, but I won't disappoint.

The gloriously dimensionally-transcendental interior looked like a TARDIS; in fact, looked like the TARDIS that the Master ought to have had: all gothic tomb done out in black metal and sharp edges.

But the exterior, the black sphere and spider-like legs, was straight out of "City of Death". And, with localised timeloops making everything go timey-wimey whenever the thing tries its starter motor, you do have to wonder if that wasn't deliberate.

Yes, localised timeloops equals someone is building a time machine. TARDIS can't land, must be getting blocking, must be another TARDIS. I said the clues were there for the spotting

A TARDIS disguised as part of a building is Douglas Adams-inspired as well: in the uncompleted "Shada", Professor Chronotis's college rooms are in fact his Type-38, usually materialising in the form of "a door".

It's still genius, though, to use a TARDIS as the "upper floor" of a one-storey building. Too rarely do the writers remember the full range and power of the Time Lords' Timeships.

Of course, this isn't a proper TARDIS – or correctly TT capsule – though. It's a homemade version knocked together by someone we never find out about. But what a great hook. I would really like to see the series develop this thread – someone is trying to rebuild the Time Lord technology? It's a bit of Lawrence Miles oeuvre that no one has mined yet. Come on Moffat, there's a story arc in there and you know it.

In many ways this is what makes this the most "Moffat-y" of the Moffat era so far: the use of ingenious plotting as a frame to hang human relations around makes this all but an episode of "Coupling" where an alien Time Machine is needed to bring the boy and the girl together.

Of course, a happy-ending rom-com is never going to be as moving as the intense emotion of the Van Gogh piece last week, so to an extent Gareth was on a hiding to nothing anyway. But in its own way this was a polished little gem, and certainly told me not to prejudge a book by the name on its comic-book cover.

Next Time… Take the money or open the box? Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen, Drahvins… Drahvins??? Is it for a bet? Is it because "Galaxy 4" is the next story after "The Time Meddler", the one where they discover another TARDIS? Is it a contest with Russell to see who can bring back the most obscure black-and-white alien? Or does Moffat just want an excuse to have more women in micro-skirts? And as a special reward for Gareth Roberts: Chelonians. And Romans. And Stonehenge. Who's locked inside the Pandorica, then? Is it the Doctor? Or someone exactly the same shape as someone played by Arthur Darvill? And is River Snog going to kill him? Expect everything to go timey-wimey 'cos it's Steven Moffat's first season finale. Anything could happen when "The Pandorica Opens".




*Football, as I understand it, is a game where you place one sphere, approximately twenty-two centimetres in diameter, on top of another sphere, approximately twelve thousand kilometres in diameter, and attempt to kick the smaller one and not the larger one.

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3 comments:

Mike Taylor said...

Thanks for this more than usually brilliant analysis: the comparison with the comic drew out why I likes this so much very well.

Ryan said...

As someone who works in mobile telecoms that call centre was pretty close to looking like ours. Open plan desks, pot plants (although plastic), managers stood hovering around...

Knife and Spoon said...

It’s also weirdly like Mawdryn Undead – disguised time-space capsule blocks Tardis from landing, separating it from the Doctor, the Doctor is needed to help remedy a failing bit of stolen (?) Time Lord technology. Or maybe you can make any Dr Who story sound like any other Dr Who story if you boil it down to its constituent parts, and I did watch Mawdryn Undead all through for the first time last week.

I absolutely adored this episode. It was genuinely funny and sweet and clever and creepy. Plus, Matt Smith in a towel! Well, it was my birthday week...

And didn’t the half-finished Tardis interior look like Paul McGann’s?

Absolutely class review.

Can’t wait to see Moffat’s first finale, especially if it has Drahvins in it!