Friday, June 18, 2010

Doctor In The House

In much the same way that certain things in Doctor Who (Churchill and Daleks, return of the Silurians) fuel anticipation with possibilities and promise, some things just ring alarm bells and put you on your guard. The name Gareth Roberts, for instance, is like a big Beware Of The Dog sign at the gateway to an episode.

In canine terms, I suppose he'd be one of those yappy little ones who'd like to prove he has teeth and go for the jugular, but only manages to annoy with lots of attention-seeking jumping around and nipping at your ankles. He's rated by a bewildering number (where any number above zero can be considered bewildering) of Who fans and as far as I can tell he is convinced of his own pedigree.

As such, when you're met with a story that's as average, unambitious and unpretentious as The Lodger from a writer who's so spectacularly failed to impress in the past it's a refreshing change. It didn't appear to aspire to much beyond being fun. It certainly didn't aim for a decent, well-constructed plot. So as long as you weren't expecting anything of that sort, you were pretty safe from disappointment.

I guess one remedy for a writer too often bound up in his own cleverness is to write a story that's not even trying to be especially clever. What you're left with is a script that clearly delights in its characters and their situation. Arguably, a sitcom.

And like a sitcom, it works to maintain the status quo because, since the comedy arises out of the situation, the last thing you want is for the situation to change too dramatically. Of course, this is Doctor Who, so ultimately it has to change – the evil has to be defeated and so on, so we can move on to the next episode, the next situation.

But that's essentially the level The Lodger is on. Two Pints Of Vraxoin And A Packet Of Jelly Babies – so to speak.

And it's funnier than a lot of sitcoms. In being out of his element, the Doctor is in his element and whether it's playing interfering gooseberry to his landlord's relationship, building fantastic Scrapheap Challenge contraptions in his bedroom or swapping Black Orchid's cricket for a spot of footie, Matt Smith is hilarious. Even James Corden, who I'm not a fan of, is perfectly cast and there's a nice enough rom-com chemistry between him and Daisy Haggard as Sophie.

As a rom-com it's less successful. Many (all?) rom-coms blatantly identify which two characters are destined to kiss in the final reel, but they work (the ones that do anyway) by throwing in more barriers, setbacks and misunderstandings to romance than are in evidence here. It's fair enough, because there's only 45 minutes to play with and also the small matter of a Doctor Who story to tell.

In this case, a mysterious predatory presence living upstairs, luring innocent victims to its lair. Despite a decent stab at atmosphere and the creepy images of shadowy figures on the stairs, it's on this level that the episode is weakest. The identity of the menace – a TARDIS hunting for a pilot - is sufficiently novel, but the resolution is rushed, messy and not immediately clear.

Ship wants pilot in order to leave. This desire is overridden by combined psyches of two inveterate stay-at-homes. So ship self-destructs or simply vanishes - it's unclear: the Doctor says 'implode', the fx say disappear. I freely admit I could have it all wrong there, but explanations were hurriedly shouted under a crescendo of sparks and Murray Gold.

I'm all for throwaway lines, but you're not meant to actually throw them away. Least of all the ones that (perhaps) explain what's going on.

Worse than that, though, is the fact that this is a climax without any proper build-up. It's because of that sitcom need to maintain the status quo, but it means that in terms of the mystery there's no carefully measured peeling away of layer after layer. It's all just the one big reveal at the end when the Doctor and Craig charge up the stairs because Sophie is the latest in a long line of victims. Story progression prior to that is minimal, essentially limited to the spreading stain on the ceiling, which is little more than a flag to tell us that the crisis, whatever it actually is, is worsening.

All of which is incredibly critical of a story that, it must be said, I enjoyed watching.

My main gripe with it at the time of viewing was the manner in which Amy was horribly sidelined. It's fair enough that she needed to be out of the picture in order for the premise to work, but for preference I wouldn't have done that by placing her in a predicament where the character was largely hapless and helpless. The rest of the season has worked well to build her as a resourceful and resilient – and highly spirited – companion and here that's all rather carelessly tossed aside because the writer apparently considers it too unimportant to give the matter any thought.

It's half-arsed and the Bill & Ted-style timey-wimey 'plot twist' with her placing an ad (in red pen) in the local post office just so the Doctor can find the right house etc falls far short of mitigating the laziness.

Oh and the one-storey house at the end looked really odd. To the extent I did wonder if it wouldn't have made more sense to have the offending TARDIS appear as an out-of-place third storey, which is what first attracts the Doctor's attention to the mystery and in the resolution the building goes back to looking like every other house in the row...

Other than that, expectations played their part again, this time to the episode's benefit. I wasn't expecting a decent story from the pen of Gareth Roberts, so could sit back and enjoy the comedy. It's not particularly cutting edge stuff - the Doctor fails to fit in is hardly news – but it does deliver plenty of giggles.

It's a fish-out-of-water situation, and that generally involves a lot of flapping about before expiring feebly at the end. Enough said.


iCowboy said...

Knowledge passed by head butting James Cordon (however appealing that might be) and getting the solution from a cat? Oh please - the far defter hand of Terry Prachett might *just* get away with it if this was Discworld, but this was Gareth Roberts' channelling the memorable (for all the wrong reasons) 'Love and Monsters' - okay perhaps not that bad, but we're certainly in 'Fear Her' territory.

And you'd have thought Jon Pertwee's Doctor would have picked up a few social conventions during his exile. After all he usually had seven episodes to fill.

Please BBC give DW a budget boost so we don't have to put up with these stories in the future.

SAF said...

Heheh. It was in some ways comparable to Fear Her, but funnier. I actually thought the head-butting was one of the funny bits too.

Still, like I said, this is, at the end of the day, 'written' by Gareth Roberts so it's all relative.