Last year, "The Lodger" proved to be a very successful off-format episode, a sort of present-day sitcom version of Doctor Who immediately preceding an epic season finale. Now, writer Gareth Roberts is back with a sequel, which at first looks like more of the same—but this time the comedy goings-on with Craig Owens (James Corden) gain more than a tinge of melancholy thanks to the Doctor's own personal situation. This, it turns out, is the Doctor's last stop before going to his predestined end—the end we saw at the very opening of this season ("The Impossible Astronaut"
). For the first time in the revived Who series, we're not having a two-part season finale this year. Instead, this penultimate episode is a separate story, which slowly brings the Doctor to the point he needs to be at for the finale, and has a cliffhanger lead-in to it bolted on to the end. This episode thereby gains a significance that it probably needs to avoid being completely overshadowed by what's to come next week.
The episode opens with a deliberate echo of "The Lodger," as Craig Owens unexpectedly finds the Doctor (Matt Smith) on his front doorstep. The Doctor is making a quick social call to Craig as part of what he calls a "farewell tour"—as gradually becomes clear, we are looking at a Doctor two hundred years older than the one who parted from Amy and Rory at the end of last week's "The God Complex". He is about to leave when he notices "Something's wrong"—Craig said he was alone, but the Doctor detects another life form in the house. He charges up the stairs, prepared to confront the intruder—only to find it's a baby boy. Craig is now a dad, dealing (not particularly successfully) with the myriad challenges of fatherhood.
Craig's partner Sophie (Daisy Haggard) is seen only at the beginning and the end of the episode. The reason is different (she is off on a weekend holiday so that Craig can prove he can cope with the baby on his own), but otherwise this is an unfortunate repetition of the same plot setup as in "Night Terrors"—the mother is absent from the episode so that the story can concentrate on the father/child relationship. Had "Night Terrors" remained in the first half of the season as was originally planned, this duplication would have been less obvious (as would that episode's similarity of tone with "The God Complex").
Thanks to the reuse and elaboration of the joke from "A Good Man Goes to War" about the Doctor's ability to communicate with babies, the many comedy sequences throughout the episode with the Doctor, Craig and his son Alfie ("though personally, he prefers to be known as Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All") are consistently very funny. Matt Smith's superb comic timing ensures that his "conversations" with Alfie are always perfectly believable; sometimes it even seems like the Doctor and Alfie are ganging up on poor stressed Craig. ("Do I look like I'm stupid?"…gurgle…"Quiet, Stormy.") Later, the Doctor presents Craig with a papoose to carry the baby around in: "Alfie wants you attached to him. You are far too slow when he summons you."
The Doctor intends to leave after his quick social call, doing his best to ignore the strange power fluctuations in the area, and newspaper stories about the mysterious disappearances of three people from a local department store. His frustration when he uncovers a residue of alien teleport energy ("I am through with saving them. I am going away now") is the first indication of the deeper melancholy that is driving him in this episode. Despite appearing as full of life as ever, he is a tired man, actively looking for an ending.
In the late 1970s, the Doctor Who script editor's post was held for a year by the great Douglas Adams, concurrently with his work on The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. One idea he proposed for a story involved the Doctor becoming finally fed up with saving the universe and deciding to go into retirement—but finding himself unable to avoid getting dragged back into various troubles. The then producer, Graham Williams, rejected the idea as being too self-referential—but it's interesting that Gareth Roberts has managed to incorporate a very similar concept into this season's overall arc plot. (Roberts would certainly be aware of this unused idea of Adams—he has a particular affinity for that period of the classic series. Back in the 1990s, he wrote three excellent pastiche novels featuring the regular cast of that time, which do such a good job of capturing the style of the Williams/Adams era that they seem almost like novelisations of unbroadcast TV episodes.)
And so Craig, having seen the Doctor leave, is rather surprised to find him working in the toy department of the store. This provides another opportunity for Matt Smith to show off his talent for creating a rapport with children, as the Doctor demonstrates the various toys and urges the kids to spend their parents' cash ("They'll only waste it on boring stuff like lamps and vegetables…"). In amongst the quick-fire dialogue, Roberts includes some easter eggs for long-time fans, such as when the Doctor plays with a plastic toy dog and remarks, "Robot dog—not as much fun as I remember." Earlier in the episode we had "Oh, you've redecorated. I don't like it"—very similar to a famous line said by Patrick Troughton in both "The Three Doctors" and, ten years later, "The Five Doctors". Later, the Doctor will discover a "disillium-bonded" door—a bit of technobabble that comes from "Carnival of Monsters".
Craig decides he needs to stick with the Doctor in order to find out what's going on, which leads to some unfortunately drawn-out comic scenes with Craig trying to emulate the Doctor's success at investigating. These are dull because the characters he is interacting with—security guard George, bored shopgirl Kelly, and gossipy old woman Val (Lynda Baron) are simple stereotypes, who take up rather more screen time than they deserve. (There's also another running gag in the episode, of Val mistakenly thinking the Doctor and Craig are a gay married couple, which is overplayed to the extent that it becomes tedious by the end.)
The truth behind the disappearances is not intended to be a great mystery to the audience, even if it takes the Doctor a while to catch up. The episode's teaser let us in on the secret by showing a store employee being captured by a Cyberman. The Doctor at first thinks he's dealing with an invasion from a ship in orbit, but it soon becomes clear that it's a much smaller-scale threat. Their base is a ship that crashed long ago and was buried underground. The few Cybermen remaining have tunnelled through to the store and are abducting people in order to convert them to Cybermen and replenish their numbers.
They are also using the rodent-like Cybermats to steal electrical power and beam it back to the ship (hence the power fluctuations). These "silver rats" are quite effective, scuttling around the floor and leaping up at people, where their heads suddenly open to reveal a gnashing set of animal-like teeth. Ironically, the Cybermats were originally developed in the 1960s with an eye to merchandising opportunities, which never happened. So it's very appropriate that they look like escapees from the store's toy department—and I wouldn't be surprised if there were plans for a radio-controlled Cybermat to be on the market this Christmas.
Oddly, one of the most affecting moments of the episode is a completely unexpected intrusion into the plot. Just as the Doctor is telling Craig that coincidences are "what the universe does for fun," he sees Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) in the distance. They have clearly gone on with their lives after leaving the Doctor (as seen last week), and Amy is now a famous model selling a perfume named Petrichor (a callback to "The Doctor's Wife"). Matt Smith plays the moment beautifully—the Doctor has to take care not to be seen by them, but his underlying melancholy is relieved as he realizes that he did finally manage to extricate himself from their lives without harming them.
I've remarked before in these reviews about Smith's amazing range in portraying the Doctor. He can be full of energy, like an overgrown schoolboy, and then quickly switch to the wise old man in scenes like the one with Amy and Rory, or the long speech when he is left alone with Alfie for a moment while Craig is out:
The Doctor: "Really, stop crying. You've got a lot to look forward to, you know. A normal human life on Earth. Mortgage repayments, the nine-to-five, a persistent, nagging sense of spiritual emptiness… Save the tears for later, boyo." (beat) "Oh, that was crabby. No, that was old. But I am old, Stormy. I am so old. So near the end. … You know, when I was little like you I dreamt of the stars. I think it's fair to say, in the language of your age, that I lived my dream. I owned the stage. Gave it a hundred and ten percent. And I hope you have as much fun as I did, Alfie."
From this sombre moment of introspection, the tone veers back to comedy as a captured Cybermat comes back to life, attacking the Doctor and Craig before they overpower it.
The Doctor: "Do you still feel safe with me, Craig?"
Craig: "Can't help who your mates are."
The Doctor: "No…I'm a stupid, selfish man, always have been. I should have made you go, I should never have come here.…I put people in danger."
Craig: "Stop beating yourself up. If it wasn't for you, this whole planet would be an absolute ruin."
The Doctor: "Craig, very soon I won't be here. My time is running out.…Silence will fall when the Question is asked. I don't even know what the Question is; I always knew I'd die still asking. Thing is, Craig…It's tomorrow. Can't put it off any more."
The Cybermen part of the plot is wrapped up fairly quickly, as the Doctor simply walks into their ship and confronts them. However, there is an unexpectedly dark moment as Craig is captured by the Cybermen and they try to convert him. The tone of the episode has already lurched from light to dark several times, so as the steel helmet of a Cyberman closes over Craig's face it seems horribly possible that the Doctor is about to be the agent of another tragedy. But suddenly, the baby's crying is heard over the Cybermen's monitor, and Craig finds the strength to resist the conversion process and overcome the Cybermen's emotional inhibitors; the feedback causes the Cybermen and their ship to explode. "Oh please, just give me this," pleads the Doctor—a lovely callback to Steven Moffat's first exploration of parental love in Doctor Who, "The Empty Child". Afterwards, the Doctor is happy to go along with Craig's contention that he blew the Cybermen up through love (even though he might prefer to express it a bit more scientifically).
The lighthearted tone returns as Craig gets a happy ending—the Doctor ensures that his house is all clean and tidy before Sophie gets back; he uses up his remaining time for Craig, having come to terms with his approaching end. The melancholy is gone, replaced by a calm acceptance ("Well, now it's time. I have to go…Goodbye, mate"). In a neat touch, we see him acquire the blue envelopes that he used in "The Impossible Astronaut" to send out the invitations to witness his final moments. And the Stetson he was wearing in that episode is now revealed to be a gift from Craig. As the Doctor departs, Craig's story comes to a perfect end as Sophie returns and Alfie speaks his first word: "Doctor."
The Doctor returns to the TARDIS, ready at last to make the journey to his final destination. He pauses when he sees three children playing in the street, and addresses them with a sign-off of poignant simplicity: "I'm the Doctor. I was here to help. And you are very, very welcome." The wonderfully fitting elevation of the banal "Here to help" motto on his department store nametag into a heartfelt expression of his whole raison d'Ítre is just part of the reason I found this scene unexpectedly moving. Another part is the use of the past tense, emphasizing that he is looking back and summing up his existence. Obviously, we know that Doctor Who is not in fact stopping any time soon—there's another Christmas special in the offing, and more stories next year (and no doubt in further years to come). But whatever happens next week and into the future, right now it feels like the Doctor's story is building up to a true ending.
And so the episode ends as the overarching season plot crashes in, with Doctor River Song (Alex Kingston)—having just achieved her doctorate—studying the records of the testimony of those three children. She is captured by her eyepatch-wearing controller, Madame Kovarian (Frances Barber), and the monstrous Silents from the opening story of the season, which she describes as River's "owners." The mysteries begin to be resolved, as Kovarian's minions bring in a familiar-looking spacesuit and begin to force River into it. As we were told as long ago as "Flesh and Stone" last year, River was guilty of killing "a good man—the best I've ever known." Our final sight is of River imprisoned in the spacesuit of the impossible astronaut, waiting beneath the surface of Lake Silencio for what seems to be an unavoidable final meeting with the Doctor.
Next Week: It's season finale time, as Steven Moffat brings the incredibly intertwined stories of the Doctor and River to their climax, in "The Wedding of River Song."
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: For more Cybermen and Cybermat action, see "The Tomb of the Cybermen," starring Patrick Troughton, with Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling.
[Screenshots from doctorwho.sonicbiro.co.uk]
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.