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June 14, 2010

Flat's entertainment

I absolutely loved this episode.

So here is a picture of a terrible tragedy:

Lodger next 

And with that image now burned on our retinas, let's move on to happier times with

Doctor Who: The Lodger

Review by Paul Kirkley

Lodger MBB Look, I’m not one for scurrilous gossip – much – but all I’m saying is, it must have been one hell of a pre-season writers’ party this year because, somehow, Richard Curtis ended up going home with Gareth Roberts’ celebrity historical, Toby Whithouse got off with Mark Gatiss’s Gothic comedy and Roberts, the dirty bugger, found himself sharing a cab with both Curtis’s romcom and Simon Nye’s flatshare caper. With the result that, while The Lodger may not be the greatest Doctor Who story ever made*, it’s difficult to remember a more thoroughly irresistible 45 minutes of shamelessly showboating entertainment.

Just as a Yeti sitting on a loo in Tooting Bec is scarier than one in the Himalayas, so a Time Lord in a flat in Colchester is more alien than one in the Panopticon on Gallifrey

The real masterstroke here is that, in exploiting the comic potential of the Doctor’s total bewilderment at lives less extraordinary than his own, Roberts has delivered a format-stretching bottle episode that feels new and fresh and different, but which is also fundamentally true to the spirit of Doctor Who. In fact, its alien-among-us premise is thematically not that much of a stretch from the show’s own ground zero, An Unearthly Child – except we never saw William Hartnell in a small bath towel or scoffing biscuits in a call centre. I can't help thinking all that grunty stuff with the cavemen would have been a lot more fun if we had.

Lodger alf So this was the perfect showcase for everything that's special about the Doctor - because, just as a Yeti sitting on a loo in Tooting Bec is scarier than one in the Himalayas, so a Time Lord in a flat in Colchester is more alien than one in the Panopticon on Gallifrey. But, more than that, it was the perfect showcase for this Doctor. Ironically, given its origin as a Tenth Doctor comic  strip, I’m not sure this story would have worked nearly as well with David Tennant; with all that blokeish charm, he’d have fitted in far too convincingly. But Smith’s angular, awkward young fogey is a more obvious outsider, ripe for mining fish-out-of-water comic potential in the spirit of Mork and Mindy, My Favourite Martian, Third Rock From The Sun and A.L.F – with whom, let’s face it,  Smith bares more than a passing resemblance (at the very least, they're using the same barber).

Matt Smith is just adorable here. There's no other word for it.

And boy does our man seize the opportunity with both hands: Matt Smith’s performance is a comic tour de force, from the bit of business with the toothbrush to his hilarious regurgitating wine act, from the Oncoming Storm warning to his bonkers take-over of the call centre ("Hello, Mr Jorgensen? Can you hold, I have to eat a biscuit”), he's just adorable here. There's no other word for it.
 
Lodger Odd If it had just been a straight knockabout comedy in the spirit of the unfairly maligned The Unicorn and the Wasp, then, The Lodger would have more than earned its stripes. But the horror element was also surprisingly effective, from the plaintive, disembodied voices luring hapless passers-by through the intercom – for some reason, it reminded me of Rex Harrison taunting Doris Day in Midnight Lace – to the shadowy figures at the top of the stairs. Why are things at the top of the stairs intrinsically more scary than things at the bottom of the stairs? Is it because there’s no escape? Because it’s where we sleep, and are thus most vulnerable? Or because it suggests the malevolent presence has already taken deep root in the most private rooms of our homes? I don’t know, but I do know there’s nothing more sinister than a creepy child looming down at us from the darkness above. In this respect, The Lodger was probably as Sapphire and Steel as nu-Who has got and, as any fule no, Sapphire and Steel remains the gold standard for creepy British fantasy television. (Incidentally, was it just me or did the hologram at the end look suspiciously like Sven Goran Eriksson in an Arthur Fowler cardie?)

For once, the secret of the top of the stairs actually turned out to have a satisfying pay-off. We’re always banging on about how this show successfully mixes the domestic with the fantastic – well here’s the physical manifestation of that: a huge, impossible time machine hidden inside a flat in Colchester. And what a time machine – a beautiful, cathedral-like chamber that I imagine the Eighth Doctor’s TARDIS would have looked a bit like without the set-dressing from an All About Eve video. After so many disappointing reveals over the years – It’s a giant Ood brain! It’s a giant Metal Mickey Cyberman! It’s  really, really rubbish Human Dalek! – it was refreshing not to feel short-changed by the money shot.
 
The manner in which the romcom element was hardwired into the sci-fi resolution was also extremely elegant: love literally saving the world courtesy of some well-seeded gags (and there was me thinking that joke about the sofa was just a cheap shot about Corden's weight). Who needs biological metacrises or Whitepoint stars when the only words necessary are: “For God’s sake, kiss the girl!” Brilliant.
 
Lodger Mork I also really like James Corden. There, I’ve said it. Maybe it’s because we’re such hopelessly late Gavin & Stacey adopters in our house (for some reason, I never got beyond the opening episode when it first went out, and have only recently caught up with what I’ve been missing). So, as far as Corden is concerned, I’m mentally still somewhere around early 2007, in the first flush of Smiffy love, before Horne and Corden and Lesbian Vampire Killers. Here, he proves he’s big enough to play the straight man and let Matt Smith get on with the crowed-pleasing stuff (though he still got the biggest laugh of the night in our house with “Sorry, are you going to live with monkeys now?”). As a gesture of solidarity, I should also admit I feel a bit ashamed this week to be related by marriage to that miserable, pompous old bastard Patrick Stewart.

So there you go. I loved it. Some people hated it, but I loved it. But that’s okay because, if we’ve learned anything from misfit flatshare comedies over the years, it’s that the world don't move to the beat of just one drum, what might be right for you, may not be right for some, because it takes, diff'rent strokes to move the world, yes it does, it takes diff'rent strokes to move the world.

And, for what it’s worth, I don’t like cats.

Random observations:
 
I loved the Doctor’s vocal tribute to his only previous shower scene. Though perhaps he should have gone the whole hog and got a naval tattoo as well. Fantastic hair, too: maybe he’s from the same branch of Smiths as Robert?
 
Interesting choice of past Doctor clips during the psychic headbutt. For those not paying attention, the order went: 9, 10, 8, 4, 3, 2, 1. No doubt the conspiracy theories are already mushrooming all over the interweb. Here’s mine: Ten is just a figment of Nine’s imagination and Five, Six and Seven have been wiped out by the crack in time. Maybe this will be the terrible choice the Doctor faces in The Big Bang: restore the timeline and you get The Caves of Androzani back; leave it as it is and Pip and Jane Baker will never have existed. Tempting, isn’t it?

Lodger Alan The Doctor dodging the spindles of his non-technological technology gizmo really reminded me of Alan Partridge’s legendary World Cup Soccermeter. As it’s topical, let’s take a moment to enjoy it again here.

Daisy Haggard = Lovely. I think I could even forgive her for her terrible dwarf-baiting in Psychoville.

But Karen Gillan needs to calm down sometimes. Not all the time, but there are occasions when she could take on Tom Baker and David Tennant in a boggling contest and win hands down.

Next time on Doctor Who: Am I the only one who thinks The Pandorica Opens looks a bit, you know, meh? Still, I’m sure the Mighty Moff won’t let me down. And at least those big stupid multi-coloured Daleks aren't in it, right?

*The Lodger may not the be the greatest but, as I'm feeling bullish, here are 10 much-admired stories it is better than: Tomb of the Cybermen, The Daemons, Carnival of Monsters, Genesis of the Daleks, The Deadly Assassin, Earthshock, The Christmas Invasion, Gridlock, Utopia and The Waters of Mars.

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