Thursday, June 17, 2010

Doctor Who - The Lodger

*Warning: This recap contains spoilers*

I've read a few sniffy reviews of this episode elsewhere so I feel the need to say right at the start that I loved this episode. Yes, the plot was wafer-thin, the ending was a deus ex machina of the kind that I usually dislike (Love Conquers All, even evil time machines!) and there was an over-reliance on having people disappear into the mysterious upstairs flat. All of these things are true. But you know what? It was fucking funny.

The beauty of Doctor Who is that it can be, from week to week, a different type of show. It can be straight-up adventure, it can be a mystery, it can tell us a scary story, and it can be a comedy. Oftentimes episodes serve as a combination of all of these types of show, but once in a while an episode will focus on just one aspect. The comedy episodes, in general, haven't been massively successful, in my opinion, since they tend to shift the focus of the show to other characters (I'm specifically thinking of Marc Warren's character in the very divisive episode 'Love & Monsters') in order to make cheap gags about the inherent silliness of the programme.

The Lodger takes a different approach by essentially making the first thirty minutes an odd couple sitcom with occasional mystery elements. The Doctor lands a malfunctioning TARDIS at the start of the episode, only to be left stranded when it takes off without him. Trapped on Earth, The Doctor takes up the offer of moving into the flat owned by Craig (James Corden), since he knows that there is something very strange going on in the flat above.

I thought it was very brave to separate Amy and The Doctor at the beginning of the episode, having spent so long establishing their relationship, as well as taking away The Doctor's usual universal problem solver, the Sonic Screwdriver. It forced The Doctor into an unusual situation, one in which he was expected to pass as human, and gave the episode's writer, Gareth Roberts, ample opportunity to have The Doctor confuse and infuriate those around him with his ever so slightly off-kilter ways.

I loved seeing Matt Smith playing The Doctor acting 'normal'. It was like watching Mr. Spock trying to work out how to use Tesco ClubCard points; a mix of curiosity, playfulness and outright disbelief at the way in which human operate. Of particular note, aside from some of the funniest dialogue the series has seen, was the little look The Doctor gave when he guessed (incorrectly) that playing in a 'pub league' meant taking part in a drinking game. Matt Smith makes it seem as if The Doctor has never been so sure of anything in his life, that his deductive reasoning could not be challenged in this arena. It's a very tiny choice, but one which set this plot apart from something like, say, The Big Bang Theory, which has used similar plots multiple times. (I'm not bashing TBBT, though. I really enjoy that show and think that Sheldon is a great comedy creation.)

There were lots of little moments in the episode that Matt Smith really brought to life and which once again established just how much fun he is in the role. He was able to gets laughs not just from the big, obvious moments ("Have some rent. [Hands over a paper bag full of £20 notes] That's a lot, isn't it? It looks like a lot.") but from the tiny little flourishes in his performance, such as the inquisitive way in which he copies Craig's action of put his hand on the side of his head when they agree to play football together. The look of surprise and wonder on his face at such a tiny thing is priceless. Also, the incongruity of setting a scrappy football match in a park to dramatic adventure theme = very funny.

Also, also, the way in which The Doctor, upon hearing that their football team will "annihilate" another, falls into his tried and tested "There will be no violence, not whilst I'm around. I'm The Doctor, the oncoming storm" even though it's wholly inappropriate = hilarious

(Incidentally, as someone of Maltese descent, I get a giddy little thrill whenever Malta is mentioned in film or television, so the revelation that Craig's friend was in Malta and couldn't play football, necessitating The Doctor substituting for him, was a moment that perhaps meant more to me than most people watching.)

James Corden was very good. I have a slight problem with him as a person - whenever I see him as 'himself' on television I find him pretty unbearable, though I am willing to accept that it is a persona he puts on to appeal to the Nuts readers - but I've always found him to be a lively screen presence, whether in comedy roles or dramatic roles. He did most of the heavy lifting in this episode as the straight man to The Doctor - Zeppo to Groucho, Chico and Harpo, if they were all one person - and as the one involved in a romantic sub-plot (most of the stuff with Amy and The Doctor was on the backburner, considering that they were in two separate states of existence for much of the episode, though Amy did find the ring Rory bought her at the end and suggested that she was beginning to remember some of things that went on).

I thought that this episode captured the unrequited love between Craig and Sophie (Daisy Haggard, possibly best known for her role in 'Psychoville') very nicely. The awkward way that the two danced around their feelings for each other was very well played. You really felt like these people have known and liked each other for a very long time but have never been able to say what they really feel out loud (though the signs are all there: I liked that "CRAIG ROCKS" had been written in magnetised letters on the fridge door, assumingly by Sophie). That particularly dynamic, handled badly, can be saccharine and forced, but here they struck just the right balance between attraction, fear of rejection and the loneliness. And the way in which their already apparent discomfort was applified by the presence of an independent observer, even one as oblivious to the affairs of the heart(s) than The Doctor (lest we forget his surprise at Amy trying to jump his 900-year old bones some weeks back), was beautifully handled, too.

Outside of the comedy, I thought the episode was lacking in certain areas. The plot was pretty threadbare and obvious - it was always going to be aliens in the attic - and there wasn't a great deal of tension or creepiness to the mystery element of the story.

Having said that, I did find the shot of the 'old man' standing at the top of the stairs, beckoning the young man in to 'help him', very creepy. It reminded me very strongly of Psycho, a connection that was only strengthened when the drunken woman walks up the stairs as the camera slowly moves backwards. This was probably an intentional reference given that the episode shares its title - and a certain degree of plot - with the silent Hitchcock film of the same name (which is very good, and well worth checking out if you can acclimatise yourself to watching silent films) but also of 10 Rillington Place, the film in which Richard Attenborough played the British serial killer John Christie. The story of Christie, who murdered at least six women, in his flat over a period of years has always disturbed me. The combination of utterly horrible violence with the mundanity of a grubby flat has always made me uneasy, and that association, intended or otherwise, started the episode on a very strong footing, even if it revisited that same shot (or similar) a few too many times to sustain the tension.

This was a fun little episode which acted as a nice bit of breathing space before the start of the season finale next week which, based on the trailer, looks pretty intriguing if overstuffed in the way that a lot of Who finales are.

Rating: 8/10

Some of my favourite Quotes from the episode, which I couldn't find a place for in the bulk of the review but wanted to share regardless:

"I love you."/"Well, that's good, because I'm your new lodger."

"No, I'm The Doctor. Don't call me the Rotmeister."

"I'll shout if that happens. Something like; I WAS NOT EXPECTING THIS!"