Over the last five seasons of Doctor Who, the week or two just before the big finale has tended to be where the oddball, envelope-pushing episodes turn up. Format-stretching exercises (like "Love & Monsters" and "Turn Left"), cheap budget-savers ("Fear Her," "Boom Town"), and episodes that do without one or both of the regular cast (see "Blink" or "Midnight") have all appeared here. "The Lodger" fits right in with this off-kilter tradition, presenting Doctor Who as domestic sitcom. Its setting is something of a throwback to the previous era of Russell T Davies—the sort of mundane, present-day world which formed the bedrock of those years, and which this season seems to have deliberately avoided until now.
The script is provided by Gareth Roberts, reusing the basic idea of a story he wrote for the comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine some years ago. That story featured David Tennant's Doctor being stranded on Earth due to a random TARDIS malfunction (in basically the same way as this episode starts), and inviting himself to stay with Mickey Smith for a few days until the problem was sorted out. To this fish-out-of-water premise, Roberts has added a strand of menace, in the form of a mysterious flat above where the Doctor is staying, a voice from which periodically lures passers-by inside, from which they never emerge.
Instead of Mickey, the Doctor's bemused flatmate for his stay on Earth is Craig Owens (James Corden, a high-profile comedy star in the UK), a thoroughly typical office worker with no real ambitions other than getting through life one day at a time. He has a mundane call center job, and a domestic relationship which is likewise going nowhere, with his girlfriend—which, as he carefully explains to the Doctor, means "a friend who's a girl"—Sophie (a very sweet performance from Daisy Haggard). Right from their first scene it's obvious that these two are madly in love with each other, and equally obvious that they both lack the nerve to admit it. They're locked into a cycle of evenings of "pizza-booze-telly" (and ignoring the odd strange sound emanating from upstairs) and both immediately shy away from anything that might lead to them getting closer.
Sophie: "You put the advert up yet?"
Craig: "Yeah, did it today." …
Sophie: … "That's your mission in life, Craig. Find me a man."
Craig: "Yeah. Otherwise you'll have to settle for me."
Sophie: "You'll have to settle for me first…"
It's a credit to the actors that watching these two dance skittishly around each other remains funny rather than frustrating—helped by the fact that once the Doctor gets involved, without even really intending to he starts pushing them both out of their comfort zone.
Sophie: "Life can seem pointless, you know, Doctor? Work, weekend, work, weekend, and there's six billion people on the planet doing pretty much the same."
The Doctor: "Six billion people… Watching you two at work, I'm starting to wonder where they all come from."
The Doctor (Matt Smith), having been led to the flat by Craig's advertisement, quickly wins Craig over and takes up residence. He has a comms device in his ear (which we have to assume was in his pocket when he was rudely dumped out of the TARDIS at the beginning) which enables him to talk to Amy, still trapped in the TARDIS. Karen Gillan's involvement in this episode is pretty much limited to staggering around the console of the lurching TARDIS, as the ship is caught in a "materialization loop" which prevents it from landing properly. She does later get to offer the Doctor some advice about passing as an ordinary human (which he ignores), and uses the TARDIS databank to look up the plans for Craig's building, but that's about it for Amy this week.
The first half of the episode contains a long string of sitcom-style sequences—the Doctor cooks an omelette, the Doctor takes a shower, the Doctor meets Sophie while wearing only a towel, and so on. He is deliberately keeping a low profile and hiding from whatever is in the flat above until he can find out what it is, so in one sense these scenes are just padding out the episode's running time. But they're also fun in their own right, full of great dialogue:
Craig: "Where did you learn to cook?"
The Doctor: "Paris, in the 18th century. No hang on, that's not recent, is it—17th? No, no, 20th. Sorry, I'm not used to doing them in the right order."
Craig: "Has anyone ever told you that you're a bit weird?"
The Doctor: "They never really stop. Ever been to Paris, Craig?"
Craig: "Nah. I can't see the point of Paris. I'm not much of a traveler."
The Doctor: "I can tell, from your sofa."
The Doctor: "You're starting to look like it."
Later, the Doctor gets to join Craig's football team and win a match for them. Watching this sequence, I thought that it must have been included to give Matt Smith a chance to show off his skills (for those who don't know, Smith was on his way to becoming a professional footballer before a back injury curtailed that career and diverted him into acting). I was surprised to find, though, it's actually been carried over unchanged from the original comic strip story. Interestingly, Craig momentarily seems to sour on the Doctor at the way he simply takes over the game, and in a more serious episode that could have been explored more deeply, but since this is a comedy the conflict is gone again by the next scene.
That evening, the Doctor, missing the broad hint that Craig wants to be alone with Sophie, finds himself watching the pair again tie themselves in knots to avoid admitting their true feelings. In one of the best scenes of the episode, his gentle questioning leads Sophie to confess that she does have ambitions, of working in an animal sanctuary abroad. He manages to draw a spark from her:
The Doctor: "Perhaps, in the whole wide universe, a call center is about where you should be."
Sophie: "Why are you saying that? That's horrible."
The Doctor: "Is it true?"
Sophie: "Of course it's not true. I'm not staying in a call center all my life, I can do anything I want."
The Doctor: (just smiles at her)
Sophie: "Oh… right!"
Catherine Morshead's direction, as with "Amy's Choice" earlier in the season, is mostly straightforward and unshowy, although there is some nice creepiness as a string of people, culminating with Sophie, get lured up the mysterious staircase. When the Doctor and Craig realize that Sophie is in danger and finally approach the door of the upstairs flat, the moment of realization as Amy yells, "It's a one-story building—there is no upstairs!" was really well done.
Once through the strange door, the Doctor and Craig find an impressively huge space with a TARDIS-like console in the center. The entire upper floor flat is actually a crashed time ship, concealed by a handy perception filter, and the Doctor gets to make not one but two pop-culture references—to Thunderbirds and Star Trek: Voyager—as an emergency hologram appears:
The Doctor: "Right, stop! Crashed ship, let's see. Hello, I'm Captain Troy Handsome of International Rescue. Please state the nature of your emergency."
Hologram: "The ship has crashed. The crew are dead. A pilot is required."
As with a couple of previous Steven Moffat stories ("The Empty Child" and "The Girl in the Fireplace"), the root of the problem is an overly literal-minded repair mechanism running out of control, rather than any particular malice or villainy. The ship has been luring people inside in an attempt to replace its crew, but it lacks the ability to realize that the process merely burns them out and destroys them. It latches onto the Doctor as a suitable replacement pilot and begins dragging him toward the console. I could have done without the unnecessary and ridiculous inflation of the threat level at this point—apparently if the Doctor's hand touches the console, "the planet doesn't blow up, the whole solar system does!" I suppose the idea was that if this machine is capable of interfering with the TARDIS to the extent we've seen, it must hold an enormous amount of power, but really there was no need for such a jarring clunker of a line.
My favorite part of the episode was the way the domestic romance plot and the sci-fi plot reflect each other and neatly come together at the end. The ship is in a similar situation to Craig and Sophie—stuck in a rut, repeating the same actions over and over, with no idea how to get out of it. The Doctor can't help the ship directly, but he inspires Sophie to want to change her life (which, ironically, is what puts her in danger—until that point the ship had ignored both Sophie and Craig because they had no desire to be anywhere else). Craig is able to shut down the console temporarily and release the Doctor because he's "sofa man," the one who's got no ambition to go anywhere. Then the Doctor drives him to blurt out his feelings for Sophie, and as the two finally admit they're in love the emotional overload drives the ship into self-destruct. It all comes to a satisfying culmination with the Doctor's shout of "For God's sake, KISS THE GIRL!!" being echoed by Amy (and the audience) as the music swells to a comically huge climax.
Apart from anything else, this episode was an impressive showcase for Matt Smith. With no companion to have to share center stage with this week, he really took over the story. He is so adept at constantly finding ways to keep the viewer's attention, both physical—I laughed out loud when he took a mouthful of wine, made a face and immediately deposited it back in the glass—and verbal. I love the way this Doctor is always letting his mouth get ahead of his brain ("I'm good at fixing rot. Call me the rot-meister. No, I'm the Doctor, don't call me the rot-meister"). This was actually the last episode filmed for the season, and it shows how well Smith has grown into an assured command of the role over the year—I can't wait to see where he takes the Doctor next year.
But first, there's one more adventure to come for this season. Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor quickly ties up the loose ends of the plot with a bit of casual time-twisting, reminding himself he needs to change the will that will cause Craig's friend to come into money and move out, thereby leading Craig to advertise for a lodger in the first place, and telling Amy to write the note which directed him to that advertisement. In his jacket, Amy finds the engagement ring which is all that's left of her fiancé Rory after the events of "Cold Blood". Twilight Zone-style music plays, as faint memories stir…
NEXT WEEK: The threads of the whole season begin to come together, as "The Pandorica Opens."
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: The classic series never really did this sort of domestic comedy, so instead I've selected another story where the Doctor gets separated from his TARDIS and has to contrive a way of getting back to it—"Mawdryn Undead," starring Peter Davison.
[Screenshots from doctorwho.sonicbiro.co.uk.]
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.