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June 13, 2010

The God Subtle

Stuart Ian Burns takes in Doctor Who: The Lodger

God, I hate James Corden the comedian.  He’s one of the few comedians who along with Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr make me think “Oh god not him…” and turn the television channel over even if it’s a programme I quite like which has musical innuendo in the title.  He’s smug, overheated and he’ll hammer a joke until it has lost all its mirth and then continue perhaps for minutes in the hopes that it’ll reach some kind of a renaissance and we’ll start laughing (evidenced by the CGI football monologue in tonight’s Doctor Who Confidential).  I’m sure he’s one of the reasons I watch less television than ever and I’m not surprised that Patrick Stewart took umbrage at his very existence, and respect the veteran Shakespearean even more for doing so via a slightly hammered reputational suicide mission at the podium of an awards ceremony.

But paradoxically, I quite like James Corden the actor.  True, with the odd exception that shall remain nameless, he’s essentially spent much of his career playing the same character, but the character is a meaningful microcosm of post-millennial angst representing men of a certain age who left school with all kinds of hopes and dreams but saw them drift away in a morass of technological and recessional paralysis.  Not that I’m saying that I know anyone who’s remotely like that.  His turn in The Lodger is further evidence of this; as soon as Craig fumbles with the pizza leaflet in an attempt to hide his love for Sophie, and Corden pouts, we immediately love him which means that when the Doctor connects with his simple, ordered existence we’re entirely engaged and want to see how they bounce off one another.

a morass of technological and recessional paralysis

Storywise, Gareth Roberts’s The Lodger shares a general synopsis with Paul Cornell’s Human Nature: the Doctor must live amongst humans.  But as if to expostulate the Frank Carson theorum, whereas the former was a complex meditation on what piece of work man is, his nobility and reason, this was a delightful spin on the 80s sitcom Perfect Strangers albeit with Mork dropping through the front door rather than a Mediterranean stereotype.  On first inspection perhaps, something of a departure for Roberts, best known on the television version of Doctor Who for his celebrity historicals.  But his work on The Sarah Jane Adventures demonstrated that he has the facility for placing contemporary characters in unusual situations, the kind of thing which doesn’t requite a Pixley-like attention to historical detail.

I wasn’t a fan of the original comic strip at first because in order for it to work, the Tenth Doctor’s eccentricities had to be exaggerated to such a degree that they became out of character for the incarnation with the greatest of empathies for the human condition (“Chops and gravy” etc).  It wasn’t until I realised that in telling the story from Mickey’s point of view, Roberts was showing us our favourite spaceman from a human perspective, albeit a human who wasn’t completely averse to walking with aliens himself, that the action made sense.  It was always a great shame that the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who couldn’t have found space for tv version; Noel Clarke would clearly have enjoyed the change of pace for Mickey put front and centre for a change rather simply the tin dog.

Robert Slowman and Barry Letts's patent pending presumably

In renovating the story for the Eleventh Doctor, Roberts was able to take advantage of an incarnation for whom eccentricity is a way of life, the bow-tied man who isn’t convinced of Terran etiquette and balanced the point of view.  Outside of the giant time flow analogue (Robert Slowman and Barry Letts's patent pending presumably) and targeted word salad, Eleventh was finally shown to be as adept as Ninth and Tenth in indirectly inspiring humanity to rise above itself.  From the moment he saw Craig and Sophie and their key obsessions, he understood their simple yet infinitely complex emotional relationship and knew that the only way that the boy would do anything about the girl would be to give him something to fight against, the kind of mundane arch enemy Amy referred to half a century ago in Victory of the Daleks (is it just me or has this series seemed to go on far longer than any of the others even without the Eurovision break in the middle?).

As in the previous episode, this made much of its limited cast.  Checking through her internet movie database entry, it quickly becomes apparent that the reason I haven’t alighted on Daisy Haggard’s charms before is because I’ve somehow managed to miss her entire career, other than her turn as the voice of a lift in a Harry Potter film and a key character called Donna in Ashes To Ashes #jamecordensfault.  If her Sophie was anything to go by, I’ve probably missed much.  Like a benign Donna Noble she was also required to be instantly likeable and approachable and very real; her relationship with Craig and the Doctor brought to mind another Daisy in a very different flatshare related sitcom, and Haggard tapped into that, her and Corden embodying that kind of nervous comfort that develops between friends when one of both of them is besotted.  Not that again I’m saying that I know … you get the idea.

#jamecordensfault

On Amy’s Choice, I suggested that director Catherine Morshead had deliberately worked against the dream-like quality of the script and given that episode a more mundane style but sadly because of this week’s material, she wasn’t given much of a chance to demonstrate anything else.  Too wild and wacky visual elements would not have worked in these locations though it’s worth noting how fluidly, unwittingly or not, she mimics the “realistic” feel of a more typical BBC drama in the scene about Craig or Sophie then contrasts that with a more hand-held, fractured framing for the Doctor and Amy as though we are watching two different series stitched together.  The treatment of the hologram up stairs was effectively creepy especially in the shot when Craig visited only to find the old man on the edge of his vision, his silhouetted figure tantalisingly close. 

Elsewhere, time is out of joint.  Earlier today, I tweeted the wacky suggestion, based on a future synopsis, that it would be revealed that the man at the top of the stairs was some future version of the Doctor having trouble with his blue box.  Not in my wildest dreams did imagine I would be half right.  This DIY SOS time machine was a stunning piece of design, exactly as I’d imagine the Master’s TARDIS would have been in days or yore if a budget had dropped through the vortex into Barry Newbery (or whoever’s) lap in a brown paper back (assuming it could be sneaked onto the BBC’s accounts).  He’d certainly have gone for the plasma balls as a design feature, though the lighting designers might have baulked at the determined monotone and filled the thing with spotlights (with Mat Irvine storing up twenty-years worth of resentment ready to complain about it on a dvd commentary).  What was this egg shaped version of Scaroth’s ship and will we see it again? 

with Mat Irvine storing up twenty-years worth of resentment ready to complain about it on a dvd commentary

Perhaps because of the tone of the rest of the episode, one element that went unexplored was the deaths of those seventeen innocents whilst the Doctor could not make up his mind about visiting the room at the top of the stairs.  In the preceding era, they would have been standing around outside the newly bungalowed house vacantly wondering what had happened to them then cheering in the Doctor’s direction for no realistic reason other than to give Murray Gold a chance to insert “climactic burst of emotion cue #3” onto the soundtrack.  In The Lodger, they stayed dead, from child to pensioner, from the bedraggled to the bored.  It’s another instance of this series experimenting against the franchise’s usual philosophical attitude, embodied in its companions, that we should strive to leave and seek something different and exciting, which usually leads to hijinks and adventure but now just seems to get you killed.

Speaking of which I can’t tell if Amy was thinking at the close of this episode “Rory.  Who’s Rory?” or “Oh for fuck’s sake, Doctor, make up your mind.”  Shot in the same block as Amy’s Choice, whereas that episode knocked the Doctor out for some of its duration and brought in a substitute, The Lodger traps Amy in the TARDIS which meant we got to see her best LeVar Burton talking to a disembodied voice acting.  A lot.  Luckily she was very good at the LeVar Burton talking to a disembodied voice acting and acting in general, making Amy utterly compelling even when she’s simply shouting and draping herself nervously backwards across the TARDIS console.  Still, her general absence in the episode led to the rather wonderful Karen in Greenwich sequences in BBC Three’s premiere science documentary strand, culminating in her obvious delight in seeing Saturn in real time.  Part of me wished she’d done it in character, but across the weeks, despite what I just said about the acting, the gap between where Amy starts and Karen finishes has perceptionally diminished exponentially.

we got to see her best LeVar Burton talking to a disembodied voice acting

Whatever, even with the football sequences (the badinage about which I’ll leave to someone more qualified and I don’t mean the collective on Football Focus), The Lodger was another superb episode that left me feeling warm and fuzzy in a season with perhaps the highest unconditional goal rate yet.  It even managed to make the crack in the wall look like a proper structural defect of the kind you tend to find in buildings of a certain age, providing an ensuing montage as if to prove the point.  And what of the trailer for next week?  If the voiceover sounded like someone playing an amateur version of the lottery gameshow Who Dares Wins at a convention (with Matthew Waterhouse rather than Nick Knowles waiting for some smart arse to hit the thirty-three answers he's been saddled with) the rest offered what will be the most atypical finale yet, with a range of period settings, no global contemporary threat that requires Trinity Wells or celebrity cameos (as far as we can tell) and a general impression of a narrative working up to a conclusion rather than a last minute interjection of plot.  All I could think was, what will the prolls make of this?

Next Week:  We discover how literally Steven is interpreting Greek myth.  Will someone, to paraphrase that great organ of learning, the wikipedia,  "overcome by curiosity, open the Pandorica, release the evils contained into the world, then unable to close it again save but one thing: hope"?

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