(Between the demise of the old Starburst and the birth of its new incarnation, there were fourteen Doctor Who stories broadcast that the magazine never got around to reviewing. This is one of them.)
Moffat’s first year in charge of Doctor Who seems to be taking the reverse approach to the tone of the series to his predecessor. Whereas Russell T Davies’ series usually kicked off with the wackier, funnier episodes, before turning towards darkness the deeper into them you ventured, this year the gloomier episodes were all in the first half of the series. And so just before we reach the finale, we get The Lodger – Doctor Who as situation comedy.
The Lodger is, of course, inspired by – if perhaps not based upon – the comic strip of the same name that writer Gareth Roberts had already seen printed in Doctor Who Magazine. But whereas in the previous version the tenth Doctor had been sharing a flat with Rose Tyler’s boyfriend Mickey Smith, here instead we are introduced to a brand new character – Craig Owens, as played (controversially, if a certain sector of fandom is to be listened to) by James Corden – and the situation in the comedy is that of the Doctor experiencing normal, human life for a few days. Corden is fantastic as Owens, always underplaying the emotion and the comedy (and thus belying the apparent reputation for overdoing it that so incensed fans at the news of his casting), and even better yet is Daisy Haggard as Owens’ would-be girlfriend Sophie. It thus falls to Matt Smith to carry off the funny business and he does so with aplomb. It’s almost as if Smith was born to play comedy, rather than (his first love – and almost his vocation had an accident not come in the way) football, although The Lodger gives him a chance to shine at both.
Sadly, one of the story’s best attributes is its sidelining of Amy Pond, although this does result in a return to Karen Gillan’s shouty-shouty acting style that beleaguered several of her earlier episodes; thankfully then the character doesn’t appear overly often. It’s a real shame that Gillan’s at her best when we can’t see or hear her, and hopefully something that will be addressed before the next series.
Meanwhile The Lodger itself – while very satisfactorarily accomplished in most departments – suffers some highly unsatisfactory developments as it reaches its conclusion. One such detail – albeit it a rather throwaway one – is the manner in which Roberts invokes ‘timey-wimey’ as a means for the Doctor to have arrived at the flat in the first place. The twist as we realise that the flat itself is, in fact, actually a bungalow instead (with a perception-filtered spaceship acting as its ‘upstairs’) is extremely disappointing and manages to make what might otherwise have been a head-turning moment seem bungled and illogical (had the flat been situated above a shop, with a fake second floor above that, the twist would have been far more convincingly accomplished). And the explanation for what the spaceship is (with its faux TARDIS interior), where it came from, why it is here and to whom it belongs is left open – presumably for the next series to address – which simply leaves the viewer scratching their head and wondering what the story was really all about.
The Lodger is about relationships, of course, and the last ten minutes can’t really spoil the thirty or so that got us there.
Most importantly, it’s about Owens’ indecisiveness in his relationship with Sophie. He’s in love with her, and it’s apparent from the start that the feelings are reciprocated. But rather like a lovelorn, cheap accommodation-renting version of Hamlet, Owens can’t act upon his feelings until he has proof of their reciprocation. The arrival of the Doctor only serves to undermine Owens and in two ways; firstly, the Doctor and his investigations are forever – comically – getting under Owens’ feet just as Owens’ own investigations are about to get under way. And secondly, the Doctor – however amusingly – begins to make Owens feel second best, and inadequate to the challenge of becoming Sophie’s choice. If Owens begins to feel he can’t match up to the Doctor, then it’s in the football match itself when this is at its best illustrated. The Doctor (wearing number eleven) discovers a hidden talent, and Doctor Who ventures into territory it’s never quite visited before – save for a brief dalliance between the fifth Doctor and cricket in Black Orchid. It’s all rather eye-opening, and is a sharp reminder to viewers who don’t think the show ought to do this kind of thing, that the programme really shouldn’t be pigeon-holed. Bravo for The Lodger being brave enough to try such things, and bravo for some pretty unbelievable timing, too, as the episode was broadcast on the same night as England’s opening World Cup match in South Africa.
The Lodger is one of those odd episodes – rather like The Doctor’s Daughter – that truly would feel more at home in a comic strip or an annual. It’s so unlike the rest of the series’ television output, its appearance is incongruous at best. But that’s not a reason to dislike it; for just as Love & Monsters divided fan opinion so thoroughly back in 2006 that it is almost impossible not to have a strong opinion about it (and for what it’s worth, I absolutely adore Love & Monsters), so The Lodger is one of those Marmite episodes that you either love or you loath.
Truth to tell, it’s not quite on a par with the best of these sideways glances at the show’s tropes and format; having said that, if you don’t get something back from episodes like this, then you’re probably watching the wrong programme anyway.
(If you’d like to go further into the programme’s past, I’ve collected together various reviews and articles that I’ve posted online over the years here: http://watchingdoctorwho.weebly.com/)