Craig: “You gave up your hours for me?”
The Doctor: “Of course. You’re my mate.”
After the admittedly satisfying big philosophical themes of the last two weeks’ episodes, it’s nice to get back to a good old-fashioned romp. Gareth Roberts’ Closing Time was unashamedly that, a runaround bit of fun, but nonetheless contained some real depth along with the adept comedy as the Doctor put a brave face on his rapidly approaching doom to engage in one last bit of “noticing” with his friend Craig. This sequel to last year’s The Lodger contained no real surprises but was satisfying nonetheless; like that episode, it was a romp that centred very much on the nature of friendship, particularly as it applies to the Doctor.
Having guilt-tripped himself into dropping off Amy and Rory last week, this was plainly a Doctor who, as he put it himself, had “been on his own for a long time”. As we later learned, he was only one day off from his ‘inevitable’ death, which means, given the ages we were told in The Impossible Astronaut, that he’s been travelling alone for about 200 years. No wonder he’s lonely! Like the Tenth Doctor’s interminable farewell tour during his regeneration, he’s decided to try a social call on old friends; thankfully without all the sturm und drang that accompanied that trip. In the case of Eleven though, it seems the closes friend he has outside of his companions is Craig Owens. Fittingly enough, as he spent a while living with Craig – we all have fond memories of flatmates we get along with.
Craig’s moved on since the Doctor last saw him though; he’s in a nice new house with Sophie and their baby Alfie (or as he prefers to be known, “Stormageddon, dark lord of all”). Sophie’s off for the weekend, leaving Craig to cope alone for the first time, which plainly fills him with ill-disguised fright. So, despite his initial reservations, a social call from the Doctor is probably the best thing that could happen to him!
Gareth Roberts is a writer who’s always had a good sense of what the show’s about, having cut his teeth writing Douglas Adams-esque novels recreating the overtly comic Tom Baker/Lalla Ward era. His tendency towards outright humour has produced the same divisions in fandom as that era did, with some complaining that his scripts are too funny and lack menace or depth. In my view, that misses the point; just because a story is humourous doesn’t exclude either of those things. Closing Time was a good case in point. It may have lacked the complex timey-wimey plotting of the series recently, or the big concepts of the last few weeks (which may be a welcome change for many in any case), but like his best episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures, it was a good straightforward adventure enlivened by some real depth of character.
This worked because there really were only about three characters in it (or four, if you count Stormageddon). As Craig, James Corden once again proved that he can be a very good comic actor, despite his often annoying comedy shows and public appearances. As with The Lodger, Craig is effectively the straight man in this odd couple, and Corden once again had fantastic chemistry with Matt Smith as a comic duo. The other major character (though she was really only a comedy cypher) was Val, but it was great to see Lynda Baron back in the show. I’ve got a feeling this may have been one of Gareth’s suggestions; not only did she sing the classic “Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon” in 1965 comedy romp The Gunfighters, she’s perhaps best remembered as the fantastically over the top Eternal pirate Captain Wrack in 1983’s Enlightenment. Not to mention her best known role, Nurse Gladys Emmanuel in Open All Hours!
Val helped catalyse many of the best comedy moments in the episode, with the running gag that she thought Craig and the Doctor were a couple, something Craig didn’t cotton on to until the very end. This wasn’t just a bit of comedy business though; it caused the Doctor to muse on the nature of his relationships with people. “Partner? Is that better than ‘companion’?” Elsewhere, the gag sprang up in other ways – most notably the Doctor’s hilarious attempt to distract Craig from the fact that they’d just teleported into a Cyber ship. “Look into my eyes Craig… It’s you, it’s always been you.” “Doctor, are you going to kiss me?” Followed by Matt Smith’s comically gruesome portrayal of how the Eleventh Doctor might try that; he’s certainly not the smooth operator that Ten was.
I can already hear certain sections of fandom begin to scream about the return of the ‘gay agenda’ to the show, but, innuendo aside, this was more of a bromance than anything else, believably showing a friendship between two men secure enough to joke about that. The sequences of the Doctor and Craig chatting in Craig’s house were the real point of the episode for me, with the bolt-on trad sci fi plot almost incidental. Who hasn’t had a heart to heart with their best mate on the sofa late at night? And, inevitably, who hasn’t then looked round to realise said best mate has fallen asleep while you were opening your heart to him? All that was missing, in my experience, was the four pack of beer on the table; and we’ve already established that this Doctor doesn’t really care for booze. The Doctor’s wry smile, and genuine fondness as he tucked Craig and Alfie into a duvet, said it all.
Matt Smith was on sensational form this week, as in fact he has been every week since the show came back for the autumn. Regardless of the quality of each episode, his performance has been consistently excellent, and for me has depths of subtlety not usually displayed by Ten (sorry, Tennant fans). In Closing Time, this was a believably resigned, weary Doctor, nonetheless prepared to put a brave face on the angst for one last run at thwarting the bad guys. Smith was able to go from the genuinely comic (his chats to Alfie, his attempt to demonstrate a remote controlled helicopter in the shop), to the heartbreakingly sad. The scene in which he unburdened his woes to Alfie, using the sonic screwdriver to project a starscape on his ceiling, was a tour de force of, effectively, solo acting. His sad resignation of his fate, while eulogising all the possibilities a normal human baby has in front of him, was one of the highlights of the episode; and certainly worlds away from Ten’s grumpy attempts to dodge what he knew was coming. And there was still comedy in that scene, easily leaped to from the pathos, as the Doctor explained that the real angst would come later, with things like mortgage payments – “save your crying for later.”
The whole business about being able to talk to the baby – something we established the Doctor can do in A Good Man Goes to War – provided many of the episode’s comedic and dramatic highlights. The Eleventh Doctor has already shown himself to often be joking, or outright lying – “Rule One. The Doctor lies.” So it’s hard to know whether the baby talking business is either or both of those. If not though, Craig may want to worry about young Alfie – if, at the age of one, he already wants to be called ‘Stormageddon’, thinks of everyone else as ‘peasants’, he may be rather a worrying personality when he gets old enough to properly articulate all of this. But of course, by the end of the episode he’s happy to be called Alfie, and proud of his dad (who’s no longer simply “not-mum”). It’s an amusing aspect of the plot that even the baby has a character arc – though Sophie seemed less than pleased that his first word was “Doctor”.
Of course, it’s a given that Doctor Who can’t just be a character drama or comedy, especially these days; there has to be a sci fi plot as well, on which the character arcs can hang. As with other character driven stories (The Lodger, School Reunion etc), this was a pretty straightforward thing that felt like something of an afterthought to drive forward the character arcs, but it was nice to see the Cybermen again. It fits with Gareth Roberts’ love of the classic show that he should bring back such an archetypal monster (not to mention the line “You’ve had this place redecorated. I don’t like it.” from both The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors). Gareth has said that, as nobody was using a classic monster this year, he felt that he might as well bring one back.
This is unlikely to be remembered as a classic Cyberman story in the vein of Tomb of the Cybermen or The Invasion, though. Fittingly for the setting in a shop, these were the bargain basement Cybermen, with a typically ill-thought through plan. So, proceed with the conversion of humanity via a department store fitting room? Yeah, that’s going to work. Thankfully the script didn’t shy away from pointing out the absurdity of this, with the Doctor explicitly telling the Cybermen that it wasn’t going to work with just six of them; shades of the post-modern moment in 1976’s Terror of the Zygons, in which the Doctor points out, tacitly, the show’s budget limitation to a would-be world conqueror: “Isn’t it a bit large for just about six of you?”
But it was nice that the show finally brought back the Cybermats, the metallic rat creatures first seen in 1967’s Tomb of the Cybermen. I was never too sure in the original series what these things were actually supposed to do; it’s only in 1975’s Revenge of the Cybermen that they actually pose any sort of threat, as they go around injecting a space station crew with poison. Here, they had another purpose; they were there to siphon off the power from the cables that Colchester council had rather ill-advisedly put so close to the buried Cyber ship. Oh, and they can attack you with their oh-so-cute little organic gnashers.
Those real, animal-like teeth were not only cute, but served to remind the viewer that Cybermen aren’t robots, they’re part organic too. This was reinforced by their attempted conversion of Craig – “your designation will be Cyber Controller”. Well, without wanting to be too cruel to James Corden, it’s fair to say that the Cyber Controller we saw in the classic series was always, how shall I put this, on the ‘chubby’ side.
Also notable was the fact that the conversion process was more like that of old, with Craig’s entire body being bolted inside Cyber armour, rather than the recent process shown of simply removing the human brain and placing it in a metallic body. I rather liked that, as I thought the brain transplantation wasn’t quite horrific enough. And it’s justifiable too, as that process was being employed by Cybermen from an alternate universe; these are the homegrown variety, refreshingly free of the Cybus Industries logo on their chest. Mind you (and I know this is a budgetary consideration), this would have been a great opportunity to redesign them; while fans are still in shock about the redesign of the Daleks, the Cybermen used to be retooled practically every time we saw them.
Also not exactly original, but entirely in keeping with the themes of the story, was the manner of their defeat, as Craig’s love for his child managed to overcome the Cyber conditioning. It was amusing to watch the Cybermen’s heads explode as they struggled to cope with the concept of parental love, but this still couldn’t disguise the fact that this was, basically, the same resolution as in 2006’s The Age of Steel. Not that this really mattered when that resolution played so well off the themes of the story – love, parental instinct, and friendship.
So, a nice, trad sci fi story, underlying a sensitive examination of the nature of friendship, with some heartfelt insights into the show’s main character. Not a demanding episode, but a fun and touching one. I never thought I’d be glad to see James Corden, but after last year’s episode, his odd couple chemistry with Matt Smith was a delight to see again. And Gareth Roberts mix of comedy and pathos was perfectly pitched. It was a good standalone story – this second half of the season has had a better track record than the first with those – that still played cleverly into the overall plot, as we saw a brief return for Amy and Rory. Having said that, I could have hoped that Amy would find success in life at something a little more substantial than modelling for perfume – and since we all now know what ‘Petrichor’ means, who’d want to smell like damp earth?
But the real meat of the plot arc business was in that (seemingly very tacked on) final scene, as we were unexpectedly shunted into the future to see Madam Kovarian confront, and recruit, River Song. Frances Barber was hamming it up like mad, which is probably the best way to deal with being in a scene with Alex Kingston, as the monsters formerly known as The Silence bolted River into the previously seen astronaut suit to wait beneath the surface of the aptly named Lake Silencio.
It’s still hard to fathom the logic of this plot – if they had River bolted into the suit as a little girl, why not use her then? Why use a late 60s vintage Earth space suit to disguise their assassin at all? And why have her pop up from the bottom of a lake to kill her target? It’s like the most contrived Bond villain scheme of all time, but we can hope that next week’s final episode might make some sense of it all. At least Madam Kovarian’s tale of River’s frequent brainwashing does explain why she doesn’t remember herself having done this in The Impossible Astronaut; though it was far from clear where in her time stream she was when bolted into the suit as opposed to standing on the shore watching herself rise from the lake. Still, that final shot of her helplessly strapped into the suit beneath the lake was a doozy, even though that (presumably Moffat-penned) children’s rhyme about the Doctor’s death seems a bit contrived to me.
Other recurring oddnesses – yet again, we had a father-son relationship crucial to the plot, with the mother all but absent. There does seem to be a recurring meme of monsters getting in through reflective surfaces, in this case the mirror in the shop’s changing room. And what was that business last week with Rory talking about himself in the past tense, and both he and Amy flinching from each other? Knowing Steven Moffat, next week may or may not resolve things, but timey-wimeyness will be central to it all. As the Doctor gathered his blue envelopes and gained a convenient Stetson from Craig, the stage was set for the death we saw at the very beginning of the series. Now let’s see how Moffat gets us out of that…