21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Lodger

Blake's 7. Doctor Who.

Having written 50 out of 52 reviews for the classic space opera for Den Of Geek (which I guess makes me the Peter Tuddenham of Blake's 7 reviewers), coming to the task of reviewing Doctor Who in its TV entirety makes me wise to how similar the two programmes can be at times. Many of the Blake's 7 production team had already cut their teeth on Doctor Who whether it was writer Chris Boucher, producer David Maloney or a list of directors too long to mention. Most of the actors, regulars or guests, had turned up in Who at some point. And even some of the stories bear comparison with its grand older brother.

I only mention this because I'm plonked in front of the latest wacky Doctor Who adventure called The Lodger. On the surface this doesn't really have anything to do with Blake's 7: Doctor experiences life as an everyday schmoe as he tries to unravel mysterious goings on at a Colchester flat where people keep disappearing. Which is about as far away from the planet Cygnus Alpha as you can get.

But then remembering one of the early Blake episodes called Time Squad, I realised that The Lodger's a similar sort of deal when it comes to getting the best out of both stories. If you haven't seen Time Squad, and you're a fan of high drama, well, you're not missing out on much. In a nutshell, basically Blake and his friends welcome a small band of cryogenically frozen scruffs who wake up and go on the rampage around Blake's newly acquired Liberator spaceship. Well, I say rampage – in truth, these badly dressed ruffians fart about the one stock BBC corridor with all the menace of a three-year-old girl playing hide and seek.

In between this snoozy beardy-weirdy faffing about, Blake also finds the time to blow up a communication centre on the planet of Saurian Major – now this centre is supposed to be guarded by a crack team of Federation guards, except that they're the most useless bunch that I've seen on TV. They're slow. They're incompetent. They can easily be blown to kingdom come by a slight camera wobble and a quick burst of dry ice. Which, combined with the ice-berks on board the Liberator, make Time Squad a bit of a chore to get through for drama fans.

However, as a series of character studies, it works better, since we get greater insights into the Seven. Blake shows signs of his oncoming control freakery. Avon gets to be all sarcastic and aloof but displays his leadership qualities by successfully navigating the Liberator to collect the cryogenic spaceship on board. Jenna gets to be a bit jealous of new girl Cally, who in turn strides about scowling a lot (presumably she's heard that after this story she'll largely get zilch to do apart from hover over the controls of the teleport console). And hey, Gan, possibly the most overlooked tough nut in sci-fi history, gets his only five minutes of deep and meaningful characterisation. So with that in mind, that's how you get the best from Time Squad.

Apologies. Back to Doctor Who!

The Lodger then – a similar sort of deal in that as an amusing character study it succeeds admirably but as a piece of drama it doesn't quite hit the mark. The basic premise of The Lodger is admittedly quite a creepy one in that various people are lured off the street by a disembodied voice from an everyday second floor flat calling for help. Of course, the voice doesn't turn out to be quite as friendly as the good Samaritans would have hoped and so (presumably) they're killed on the spot. Just as creepy is the idea that the flat's only a one-storey job, so what's occupying the space upstairs?

Unfortunately, this premise fails to live up to its promise. There are three faults here. One – the direction's sloppy and generates no tension whatsoever. What happens is that we see two or three dopey extras cautiously enter the flat, go up a haunted staircase, and after that... Some clunky shots in which the victims are asked to look directly into the camera lens and go “Waaaarrrgggghhh”. Mind you, they can't even do this convincingly. It's like director Catherine Morshead failed to find one decent extra and so had to make do with a quick visit to the School Of Bad Extras for a speedy recruitment mission. How difficult is it to stare into a camera and look convincingly terrified out of your wits? Judging by this poor crop, it's probably easier to walk on the ceiling.

Another dramatic puncture is the fact that there's no real Big Bad for the Doctor to face off against. Basically, an alien spaceship is attempting to find a new pilot to lift it away from planet Earth. That's it. The ship design is a bit like the Jagaroth model from City Of Death, which might have been a nice link – even the original idea that writer Gareth Roberts had of bringing back Meglos would have been far more preferable to a flickering hologram, since at least there's a tangible menace. As things go, the big revelation in The Lodger is annoyingly vague – fair enough, past stories such as Warriors' Gate have left one or two questions unanswered. But here, the big questions are left up in the air, and it's annoying to try and piece together some sort of back-story in order to answer them all – like who were the crew or how the crashed wreckage of a spaceship could still manage to entice ropey extras up the stairs or create some sort of perception filter.

The lack of substance continues with the denouement. Basically, the day is saved by the Doctor's new friend Craig declaring his long-term love for Sophie, who's in danger of being fried to a crisp. The mantra of Love Is The Answer is the sort of thing that belongs in a cheesy mullet rock ballad, not in Doctor Who. We'd already had this sort of tacky ending with the rotten Fear Her, in which the Isolus could fly again after “feeling the love” from a small group of flag-waving extras freezing to death on a cold winter's day, sorry, I meant summer's day – so to repeat this hoary old cliché again smacks of desperation. Not a very satisfying way to defeat the Threat Of The Week.

Matters probably weren't helped by the big revelation that James Corden was the main guest star of the episode. At the time, there were howls of protest from some of the fans. I think the main problem was that it seemed like that there was no escape from Corden in 2009 and 2010. Everywhere you went, it seemed like you'd entered some creepy Stepford Utopia in which Corden reigned supreme. He was on practically every TV show going, every radio station going, every awards bash going... He was even roped in by fast food music guru Simon Cowell to sing on a football-related remake of Shout by Tears For Fears. By which point, it seemed perfectly feasible that Corden had also become your local pub landlord, mayor and vicar – probably all at the same time.

But in actual fact, Corden delivers a perfectly agreeable performance as Craig. Interestingly, given his background, it's a nice tack to make him the straight man out of the Doctor/Craig comedy duo. He's bouncing off the Doctor's witty lines and playing second fiddle to the Time Lord, who's unassumingly proving to be the bees’ knees in the local community – and more to the point with the object of Craig's desires, Sophie.

Incidentally, a quick round of applause for Daisy Haggard who provides a charmingly understated performance as Sophie. It's an unobtrusive but perfectly pitched turn from Haggard, who would also prove to be popular enough to return for a fleeting cameo in Closing Time. It's also nice to see both Craig and Sophie as everyday, genuine people rather than (as might have been feared) loud, boorish oafs.

However, the real star turn of The Lodger is of course, Matt Smith. Where The Lodger wins out is in its hilarious attempts to integrate the Doctor with the normalities of everyday life. Apparently, the story's genesis began in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine, when Gareth Roberts penned a comic strip about the Tenth Doctor adapting to humdrum Earth life in Mickey's flat while waiting for his beloved Rose. I've never read the earlier version myself, but somehow I can see the happy-go-lucky, pop culture authority Tenth Doctor blending in far better with modern day Earth customs – which probably wouldn't have worked so well on screen. Replace Ten with Eleven though and you've got a ready made seam of comedy gold.

The Eleventh Doctor is nowhere near as hip and happening as his predecessor, no matter how many times he splutters that bow ties are cool. The thing with Doctor Eleven is that so far he's been presented at times as an outsider who's desperate to try and fit in with his beloved human race – whether he's ill-advisedly bellowing “Who da man?” at the top of his voice, bringing Rory's stag do to a crashing halt with his blundering faux pas from inside a giant fake birthday cake, or even hovering awkwardly around Amy and Rory like a useless fifth wheel. So that 'Fish Out Of Water' aspect of Doctor Eleven's personality stands him in pretty poor stead for a brief spell as a humble flatmate.

However, it's hilarious to see him try and adapt to this radical new lifestyle, whether he's handing over rent in a paper bag (“That's probably quite a lot, isn't it? Looks like a lot. Is it a lot? I can never tell”) or greeting Craig with ridiculously over the top Gallic air kisses (“That's how we greet each other nowadays, isn't it?”). He's constantly referring to unlikely people, places and times, whether he's presenting references from the Archbishop of Canterbury or reminiscing about cuisine in Paris in the 18th century. “Has anyone ever told you you're a bit weird?” frowns Craig at his new flatmate, and never a truer word was spoken.

In fact, this is one of the stories that highlights the weird alien bumbling of the Eleventh Doctor – but at the same time, it also highlights another characteristic: that of the unassuming outsider. Whereas the Tenth Doctor was hell-bent on dominating whatever situation he was in with tons of one-liners, wisecracks and bellows of “Allons-y!”, the Eleventh Doctor doesn't need to rely on trying so hard. Instead, he just gets on with things in his own quieter, but far more awkward manner.

Take the scene in which he's asked to play football after Craig's team is a man down. Initially, the prospect of the Doctor doing well at football seems as likely as England winning the World Cup trophy in the 21st century. “Now, football's the one with the sticks isn't it?” ponders the Doctor before hilariously replying “Arms” to Sean's question of where he's strongest. But despite all this unassuming bluster, the Doctor turns out to be a bit of a hit on the field, winning the game and turning out to be a bit of a local hero. The Eleventh Doctor proves that he doesn't have to rely on big, blustering speeches but on his talents, and it's a neat contrast to the overly-confident Tenth Doctor.

Other observations about Doctor Eleven. He's a mean cooking machine, and presumably has banished the avant-garde Fish Fingers And Custard cuisine to the back of the larder. He's not quite as keen on wine as his predecessors – whether or not he points this out to Jo in The Sarah Jane Adventures is open to debate, given that she's used to the One Man Cheese And Wine Society. He's also pretty good in an office environment, being the hit of the meeting and deposing Rude Mr Lang. Clearly he could have taught David Brent how to run a tighter ship without having to resort to painful covers of If You Don't Know Me By Now.

Another important observation though: Just how much this story highlights what a great asset Matt Smith is to Doctor Who. Like the character he's playing, Smith manages to engage the audience in a quiet, unassuming but highly entertaining way. His comic timing is spot on without having to resort to OTT mugging and shouting. And he manages to portray that quirky alien-ness with such ease that it's tempting to think that he was maybe born in the outermost reaches of the galaxy rather than in Northampton. By now, Smith has managed to make the Eleventh Doctor a proper character in his own right and has also managed to fill the big shoes left by David Tennant.

Even if the dramatic aspects of The Lodger aren't quite up to scratch, Matt Smith makes the story highly watchable thanks to his highly amusing and endearing performance. A good story then, but not one that's to be taken too seriously. Even if the drama's non-existent, Gareth Roberts' script is still very good, and is probably his best for Doctor Who so far. Catherine Morshead's direction is generally fine, although she could have done a lot more to bring out the small instances of drama. Poor old Karen Gillan doesn't get much to do apart from jump around the TARDIS set while bellowing at the top of her voice. But these complaints aside, as an amusing look at the Doctor's attempts to become an Everyday Joe, it succeeds brilliantly and turns out to be one of the unsung heroes of the season.

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