“All I have to do is pass as an ordinary human being. Simple. What could possibly go wrong?”
Last night, the nation was glued to its TV screens, watching a much anticipated clash of two mighty teams on the football pitch. And as it turned out, the Doctor was a pretty good striker.
Doctor Who fans and football fans have never got along very well, despite the obvious similarities – encyclopaedic knowledge of statistics, glued to the TV on a Saturday and a tendency to wear silly scarves. But last night, Matt Smith (a former footballer himself, of course) tried bravely to bridge the gap between Who-nerds and soccer-nerds. Which ones do you think will be most upset?
I’m being facetious, I know, but a lot of Who fans were outraged when they saw pictures of their beloved hero playing football! Gareth Roberts’ The Lodger did actually have more to it than just a football match – though not a lot more. In the ‘cheap’ slot of the season previously reserved for stories with few appearances by the regular cast, it broke with tradition by being all about the Doctor, and featuring Amy quite a bit too. But it was a slight story, even though the budgetary limitations were put to good use in its convincing contemporary setting.
Gareth Roberts’ writing has been the cause of some contention among fans, but I’ve enjoyed his work back from when he used to write for the Virgin New Adventures series. He has a great sense of comic character and dialogue, and previously his work on the TV series has been prestigious historicals like The Shakespeare Code and The Unicorn and the Wasp. The Lodger gave him a chance to flesh out a story previously written as a comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine, and like the strip was enjoyable without having much actual substance.
The central schtick was, of course, the Doctor’s efforts to blend in with what we know as everyday life – pub football matches, flatshares, working in a call centre. Even the setting of Colchester seemed deliberately drab and provincial, not like all those world shattering alien invasions that take place in that London. The actual sci fi part of the story was almost incidental to all of that, and in fact was never a part of the original comic story.
Nonetheless, the ‘something at the top of the stairs’ plotline did manage to be moderately creepy. The ever-changing, faceless figure in the top flat was an obvious homage to Sapphire and Steel, and the rationale for his existence as an automaton killing people off in an attempt to repair his spacecraft seemed very similar to the central concept of Steven Moffat’s Girl in the Fireplace. Derivative or not, though, its placing in such a humdrum, ordinary context was enough to bring a little chill.
But it was the humdrum context that was at the heart of the story, and the deliberate juxtaposition of the Doctor (“weird”) with the lives of two ordinary Earth people in a situation that’s familiar to all of us. There can’t be many people who haven’t experienced the fun and frustration of a flatshare at some point in their lives, and the script captured this very well. It also invited us to think about how an extraordinary figure like the Doctor can’t really have that kind of life, and how he might envy it – a theme that’s been touched on several times since the show came back.
There was much unease in fandom about the casting of James Corden as Craig, the Doctor’s flatmate. I didn’t see any problem with it even before the show was aired; I’ve been watching Corden for many years in various shows, and despite his (and Matthew Horne’s) recent awful sketch show, I know he’s a capable comic actor. And so he proved here. Craig was written well, and Corden invested him with a believable sense of being quite out of his depth with this eccentric new flatmate.
With Amy stuck in the malfunctioning TARDIS, the main interaction was between Craig and the Doctor; Corden and Matt Smith formed an amusing ‘odd couple’ double act, which made the episode seem oddly more like a sitcom than a sci fi drama. It was difficult not to laugh when the Doctor upstaged Craig at football, turned up at his work when he was off sick, and even tried to defend Craig against the monster while brandishing an electric toothbrush and clad in nothing but a bath towel.
Craig’s unspoken love for his best mate Sophie, and their cosy nights in together (“pizza-booze-telly”) were shaken up by this puzzling new lodger, as the Doctor once again showed his bafflement at all things human and ordinary. Matt Smith has really nailed this aspect of the character better than anyone since the show returned, and used it here to comic effect, blithely giving Craig £3000 in cash (“That’s a lot, isn’t it?”), unable to grasp why Craig might want some ‘space’ with Sophie, and completely ignorant of the game of football (“That’s the one with the sticks, isn’t it?”).
The love story aspect of the plot was another new addition from the original comic story, but did tie in neatly with the sci fi part of the episode. Daisy Haggard was again believably ordinary as Sophie, and it was fitting, if very schmaltzy, that the Doctor was the one who made these two ordinary people realise that they could be extraordinary, and that they belonged together.
Ultimately, though, while The Lodger was a nice bit of fun, it felt very insubstantial – as if there wasn’t quite enough story to fill the running time. As the ‘cheap’ story of the season, it did provide some worthwhile entertainment, but didn’t take the opportunity other such show have had to be wildly experimental with the format – just look at Love and Monsters, Blink, Midnight and Turn Left. A bit of fun, then, but not much more.
Still, with next week’s big finale approaching, we saw a few final clues about what’s going to happen – portents, even. For the second episode in a row we saw flashbacks of all the Doctor’s past selves – is that significant? There was a postcard of Van Gogh on the fridge, and aside from the entire episode about him, we’ve seen his pictures appear in this series before. And Amy’s Crack was back, a problem that could be far worse for Craig than the mysterious dry rot on his ceiling. What does it all mean? We’ve only two more weeks to find out…