And then there’s Gareth Roberts.
While all the other writers in the latter half of this year’s series seem to be trying to impress ‘the boss’ by aping the style of Steven Moffat’s earlier stories (to a greater or lesser degree of success), the man behind The Unicorn and the Wasp and The Lodger is quite content, thank you very much, to ignore the direction of the tide and plough his own furrow – albeit one with a resolution that smacks of the era, but we’ll come back to that. Closing Time is as much proof as were needed that sequels don’t necessarily have to be of less impact than the stories they’re derived from; this is considerably more effective than The Lodger, and it’s not like The Lodger wasn’t any good to begin with.
What sets this apart from the earlier story is the premise; the fish-out-of-water conceit of The Lodger (Crocodile Doc?) would have been unsustainable in a follow-up, and so instead of simply trying to repeat the magic, Roberts introduces a new concept instead: the Doctor has a friend.
That might sound silly; after all, what are Amy and Rory? But actually the relationship between the Doctor and his travelling companions is never quite one of equals, and that’s what is drawn so well in Closing Time. Craig might not be on the Time Lord’s level when it comes to matters spatiotemporal, but there’s never any condescension between the characters. It’s not a case of them ‘needing’ one another either (that’s a common mistake in lesser stories of this genre); they spend the duration of the episode together simply for the enjoyment of each other’s company. And that they end up helping one another out is a necessity of the plot, rather than a flaw of the characterisation. It’s great to see Craig again (and a shame that the story didn’t allow for more of Sophie), and for 40 minutes Roberts hones in on this and resolutely nails it.
The Cybermen are pretty much incidental to the whole thing. But that’s not to say this isn’t a great ‘monster episode’ either; there’s something about having a ragtag half-dozen ‘spare parts’ Cybermen skulking around in an underground lair (I love that Terror of the Zygons is referenced in the dialogue right after it’s been evoked in the story itself) that seems far more appropriate than in their other, new series appearances. There’s a danger about these badly-formed cyborgs that hasn’t always been there, and they’re truer to their original conceit as a result. And while the resolution to the plot might call to mind that of Night Terrors (and Roberts recognises this, and pre-empts it being a problem by having the Doctor laugh at it too), in Closing Time it works better because, while James Corden might not quite be an actor of Daniel Mays’ standing, the character is better written, and by devoting so much of the episode to these ‘two men and a baby’, the emotional impact resonates more strongly. We could so easily have had a bunch of bafflegab about how, as the Cybermen are more weakly constituted then they are more easily overcome; instead Roberts lets the resolution play out and the audience come to their own conclusion. It’s ‘silly’, but then, it’s Doctor Who.
The reintroduction of the Cybermat (a Christmas toy waiting to happen, and Roberts’ dialogue recognises this as well) is exceptionally well-executed, too. The physical aspect has been updated respectfully, while modern production techniques have erased any memories of problematic presentation in the past. The Cybermat is sleek and mobile, and at once both cute and terrifying, and the attack sequence in Craig’s kitchen is both ridiculous and thunderously exciting. Their reintroduction could have been a major misstep, but it’s actually fantastic to see the Cybermats again; let’s hope they make another return soon.
Closing Time is, ostensibly, a rather inconsequential episode in the Doctor Who canon. The last few minutes aside, it’s not making any great statements about the series and it’s not making any great inroads into Steven Moffat’s story arc (although it’s a delightful surprise to discover how the Doctor comes into possession of his Stetson). But that’s not the whole story, because actually, while on the surface pretending insignificance, what Gareth Roberts has done is show us a side to the eponymous character that the series has never properly investigated before. Here is a Doctor who will ‘drop in’ on a friend when he has so little time left he might be doing something altogether more significant (like watching the galaxies align in Exeter). There’s a hint of the farewell visits Tennant’s Doctor paid in the epilogue to The End of Time, but in this instance, Matt Smith is not calling on recent companions and old friends, but somebody he met previously just the once, someone who he connected with so thoroughly that, come his final 24 hours of existence, this is where he wants to be. It demonstrates a more ‘human’ facet of the eleventh Doctor than we’ve previously been privy to, and it shows a more verisimilitude side to the series than we can usually be afforded. We’re often hearing about the adventures-between-the-episodes that the series can never show us; Closing Time feels like nothing so much as one of these brought to life.
And it’s filled with lovely touches, far too many to mention, but the moment the Doctor spies Amy and Rory in the middle of the department store is one of those times when the acting, the idea, the execution and the score all come together so perfectly, it sent shivers down my spine. It was unexpected and beautiful.
Gareth Roberts’ episode won’t be winning awards come the end of the series. It’s not that kind of episode; Roberts’ stories never are. As he readily admits in the current Doctor Who Magazine, he’s always guilty of writing the ‘odd one out’, the episode that stands apart from the rest of the run perhaps by not trying too hard to be the best of the bunch. And Closing Time is not the ‘best’ that Series Six has had to offer, but it’s solid and enjoyable, emotionally robust and quietly thought-provoking, and if that’s an average Saturday night on BBC1 then long may Gareth continue to engage us with his ‘little’ stories.