I think this picture says everything that needs to be said about ‘The Lodger’. Lightweight, oddball character comedy juxtaposing the Doctor with a cosy suburban setting. It’s not going to win any awards, but it’s generally likeable and well-executed apart from a slightly awkward finale.
I’m sure it’s not what everyone is looking for in an episode of Doctor Who. As with ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ and even ‘Amy’s Choice’ there’s a case to be made that this is a story from a slightly different genre that’s told using the trappings of Doctor Who. But that’s no bad thing. This series thrives on reinventing itself, its characters, tone and even genre from week to week and year to year. In a sense, the episodes which have failed most markedly in recent years have been those which have played it safe and coloured within the familiar etched lines of the format. Last year’s ‘Planet of the Dead’ falls firmly into that competent but lifeless category, as does this year’s Silurian tale. Unless Who is willing to try off-format episodes like ‘Love & Monsters’ (or, to some extent, ‘Midnight’) then it loses its creative momentum and begins to trundle gently to a halt. That’s not to say that ‘The Lodger’ is a massive risk, or even particularly creative. It’s not a patch on last week’s episode in terms of drama or impact. But it is something a little bit different, and it succeeds on the terms it sets itself.
As to whether it’s Doctor Who, well it lives and dies on the character of the Doctor, and as a showcase for Matt Smith’s catalogue of tawdry quirks it’s hard to beat. James Corden is one-note but fine, and certainly not the annoyance I was bracing myself for, but this episode would fall flatter than a pancake without Matt Smith. The characterisation of the Doctor has always mined a seam of comedy, and this is the motherlode. Interestingly it’s not taken Matt Smith’s Doctor long to carve out a fairly unique niche for himself. Eccleston and Tennant were written pretty much the same way, with Tennant taking a while to develop his own catchphrases and mannerisms which then got picked up in the writing. Perhaps boosted by the change in production team, Smith’s Doctor felt significantly less like his immediate predecessors from the outset (despite plenty of Tennantisms in his first hour to ease us in). As the season has gone on his Doctor has become progressively more unique and (dare I say it) iconic, and I’m hugely enamoured of this bumbling social misfit.
It’s tough to imagine Tennant or Eccleston in this set-up without major changes, not only to the writing but to the premise. Those Doctors had their eccentricities but they were much more straightforward tragic heroes, albeit with an anarchic streak. They could have pulled off the strand in which the Doctor is dazzlingly successful while Craig is a failure, but for this episode to really succeed the Doctor must be something else: archetypally kooky; socially maladjusted; missing by a mile the normal social niceties; with customs that are hundreds of miles or hundreds of years out of context. Smith’s Doctor is also an interesting blend of compassion and distance. Where Tennant wore his bleeding heart on his sleeve, Smith at times seems to forget there are other people in the room. He can be supremely compassionate when he remembers to focus, but he can also be supremely removed from the day to day concerns of humanity. His assumptions are not ours.
In fact, so much does the Doctor dominate proceedings that there’s not a great deal to say about most of the episode. Amy is mostly sidelined, presumably to give the actress some time off, and the Doctor spends the majority of the story simply being a normal human ‘bloke’. Poorly. There are some nicely creepy moments with the sinister lodger luring in people, but that’s about it.
Once the Doctor decides he has no alternative but to include Craig things become more awkward and the flaws of the premise become more apparent. The head butt is an amusing spin on the old mind-meld, but once Craig is up to speed things feel a bit Mary Sue-ish, and I’m not entirely sure that the DIY Tardis upstairs is sufficiently explained. The sweet, cliched unrequited love story is an important thread but comes off like a watered down hybrid of ‘Love & Monsters’ and ‘Blink’. It follows the rules of rom-com, right down to being cheesily obvious and predictable at every turn. Likewise aspects such as the Doctor talking to a cat are just that little bit too far gone. These things just about squeak by because the rules of the genre allow us to stretch our suspension of disbelief, but they’re hardly deft.
So it’s not great, I’m not raving about it, but I did like and enjoy it, and it felt fresher than a great many more worthy Who stories in the last few years.
And then of course there’s the coda, in which Amy finds the engagement ring (does she remember Rory?) and a trailer for the final two parter that makes it all look rather spiffing. Come on, Mr Moffatt, I know you won’t drop the ball.