The Lodger, the eleventh episode of this season’s offerings of Doctor Who follows in the tradition of Love and Monsters, Blink and Midnight of being the episode with which the production crew saves its money, and ensures that the whole season can be filmed on time. This is another of the Doctor or Companion-lite episodes, where one or more of the principles is sent off to film something else, leaving the other principle, or sometimes even guest stars, front and centre.
Such episodes, which are supposed to be the ‘throw-aways’ of the season, have often surprised audiences by taking the opportunity offered by lowered expectations to try new things, and just generally have fun, and The Lodger is no different. Writer Gareth Roberts takes a simple premise and runs with it, and Matt Smith eats up the material with a spoon. More than that, director Catherine Morshead outdoes herself here, filling the production with numerous blink-and-you-miss-it details that makes this episode a visual feast.
Watch The Lodger more than once. Watch it a few times. You will marvel at how such a simple premise can provide so much material for the director and the actors to work with. Each time you look at the episode, you will find something new that adds to your appreciation of this tale. It truly is a delight to behold.
A full spoilery review follows after the break.
The TARDIS goes off course and lands in Essex. The routine arrival goes awry, however, when an explosion blows the Doctor out of the ship, the doors close, and the TARDIS takes off, leaving the Doctor behind.
A day later, an old man on an intercom calls out to a young man walking down a residential street, saying there’s been an accident and asking for help. The lock disengages with a buzz, and the young man heads up the stairs, worried, but not inclined to ignore the pleas for help. He enters the upstairs flat and, with a flash of electricity, we never see him again.
Downstairs, Craig Owens (James Corden) and his friend Sophie (Daisy Haggard) are talking about renting an extra room in Craig’s flat. It might be a hard sell, given the strange noises coming from upstairs, and what appears to be a large and growing mildew stain growing across the ceiling. Still, they decide they have to try, and Craig (who clearly loves Sophie, but hasn’t worked up the courage to tell her) goes to prepare the ad. Before the ad appears in the papers, though, the Doctor shows up, in need of a room.
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to have the Doctor as a flatmate, wonder no more. And, of course, it’s hell for Craig Owens (though the Doctor can cook, despite the issues he had with his mouth in The Eleventh Hour). Both guys mean well, but the Doctor is completely clueless when it comes to social cues. The Doctor stores his sonic screwdriver amongst the electric toothbrushes, and he is adding his own strange noises to the apartment’s cacophony, as he tries to work out the mystery of the man upstairs — who apparently has technology so advanced, it’s keeping the TARDIS from landing.
Matt Smith has been the uncontested high point of this season. As my mother notes, he isn’t just a man acting the role of the Doctor — as, arguably David Tennant was — he has incorporated the character of the Doctor into his very being. But separating him from the very able Karen Gillan allows Matt to turn his eccentricities up to eleven (no pun intended). Matt Smith’s performance here verges on the manic, and yet it’s easy to see why Matt Smith’s Doctor could so easily win over Clyde’s friends and co-workers.
The Lodger is an adaptation of a comic that appeared in Doctor Who Magazine, also written by Gareth Roberts. In that tale, an accident forces the Doctor to wait a few days before his TARDIS arrives, requiring him to seek out a place to stay. After trying to get accommodation from Jackie Tyler, he ends up having to move into Mickey Smith’s apartment, and as you might guess, shenanigans ensue.
In adapting his story to the screen, Roberts consolidates his tale, giving the Doctor’s search for an apartment added purpose. The Doctor’s separation from the TARDIS, and his decision to bed down in Clyde’s flat both relate to the mysterious lodger upstairs, which is entirely new to the story.
The Lodger is pretty close to perfection. It’s not flawless, but picking out the flaws amounts to nitpicking. Still, I wouldn’t be much of a reviewer if I didn’t nitpick, so here goes:
There are a couple of lost opportunities here. Initially, it looked as though the lodger on the upper flat would change appearance, to the person he’d just “eaten”. The second appearance by the upper lodger looked very much like the young student that was the first eaten. This was never taken up again, as instead of the bedraggled young woman (there’s a story in her desperate appearance, including a torn blouse, that just isn’t told), we see a young girl who, as far as I know, wasn’t selected by the timeship.
I’m also intrigued by the Doctor’s throwaway comment that someone was trying to “build” a TARDIS. There are many other timeships and time travelling devices in the Doctor Who universe, but the Doctor refers to this specifically as a wanna-be TARDIS. Why does he do that? Unless this small thread is taken up in later episodes (and it might be), I’ll be disappointed not to learn more.
There’s also a little joke about Amy operating the zigzag controls and having to take two steps to the right that doesn’t quite come off. Something must have happened here; perhaps the production was a little rushed, but it’s clear that the scenes of Amy talking to the Doctor were shot on different days — possibly to the point where the script got changed between the filming of one side of the conversation and the other.
Finally, there’s the scene of Matt Smith’s Doctor playing football. This is the one scene where the narrative drags a little, as the director lingers too long on the fact that the lead actor actually has decent skills in the beautiful game. Some cuts here could have helped spread out the rest of the tale, easing the breakneck pace of the story just a little bit, allowing more of the audience to catch up.
But The Lodger is remarkably subtle and full of detail. More than the latex monster glove that appears among the bric-a-brac of Clyde’s drawer, consider the make-up of the individuals that the upper lodger “eats”. As the Doctor later points out, the computer controller of the timeship is looking for people who want to leave this place (this is why Clyde wasn’t taken — he couldn’t ‘help’). Writing this down now, I can see why the young woman was shown, looking battered, with a torn blouse — how much do you think she wants to escape from her life? It is a mark of considerable talent that Roberts and Morshead have given even the most incidental characters of this tale a full and complete backstory, with only a few seconds of screen time, each.
It’s this level of detail and forethought that raises The Lodger head and shoulders above the other offerings of this season. It’s a surprising accomplishment for a story that’s supposed to be something of a throwaway. But then, many of the best episodes of Doctor Who are tales you don’t expect. Going back, consider how well received Midnight and Blink were — precisely because viewer expectations were low, and the production crew strove so heavily to overcome them.