Tony Fyler brings rent.
Broadcast 12th June 2010
The Eleventh Doctor is the most self-consciously ‘odd’ of the 21st century Doctors we’ve had so far, and he was particularly angular and at odds with the world around him in his first series, Matt Smith conscious of the need to differentiate his Doctor from the worldly-wise chatterbox of David Tennant. So while both Ninth and Tenth Doctors had opined on the fact that they ‘couldn’t’ live the day-to-day life that most people were familiar with, it always sounded like they would just go a bit mad if they tried. The Eleventh Doctor genuinely gave the impression that he couldn’t do it, that it would not only drive him stark raving mad – as it was later to do in The Power of Three – but that he was actually missing some fundamental components in his psyche to allow him to understand the hows, the whys and the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other necessities of living a normal life. So there was a degree of inevitable charm and challenge in the notion of making him do precisely that and seeing how he coped.
The Lodger, by Gareth Roberts, delivers that challenge very neatly. If you’ve ever wanted a masterclass in economic scriptwriting, watch the pre-credits sequence of The Lodger. Within the space of five pre-credit minutes, it manages to separate the Doctor and Amy, establish the really rather creepy notion of a flat that ‘eats people,’ luring them in with their own compassion and turning them into a stain on the ceiling of the flat below. It also establishes the hopelessness of Craig and Sophie, who clearly love each other but are each terrified of being rejected by the other and ruining their friendship. It brings Craig to the point of declaring his love, only to declare it instead to his new lodger – the Doctor.
Funny, creepy, and covering a hell of a lot of ground, that opening sets the tone for everything that’s to come. The Doctor as ‘a normal bloke’ is a bizarre concept at the best of times, but never moreso than with the drunken giraffe Doctor in his first, most extremely alien series.
His initial extreme oddness in Craig’s life is offset by his very particular skills – he wings an exquisite omelette and Craig lets him stay. Meanwhile Amy, stuck in the Tardis and in danger of being flung off into the vortex forever each time the house devours a new victim, urges him to go upstairs and ‘sort’ whatever is causing the problem. And probably every other Doctor would. Roberts takes the opportunity to add some definition to the Eleventh Doctor by making him display that most unDoctorlike of characteristics – caution. A caution that is ultimately both justified and rather pointless, as when someone’s in danger of being killed and he knows it, he eventually goes haring up there anyway. You can argue that this is merely to fill the length of an episode with incident, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but Roberts the craftsman makes the direction he forces us down feel worth it by giving us an exploration in the Doctor without the trappings and the techy point-and-solve options of the 21st century Time Lord.
Even when he’s trying to be ‘an ordinary bloke’ though, the Doctor can’t supress his fundamental nature. Invited to play football, he plays with the same verve as though he were going up against the Daleks – powerful, inventive and not particularly keen to share. When awkwardly invited to stay in for the night with Craig and Sophie, he can’t help but tackle the problem that exists in their proto-relationship, the lack of certainty and motion. When Sophie hedges her bets about following her dreams, he’s uniquely cruel about her place in the universe – but only as a way of making her face the truth of her own ambitions and dreams. When Craig touches the ‘rot’ which isn’t rot and falls sick as a result, he not only saves his life, but goes to his meeting as his ‘representative’ and is an instant hit, establishing the company of a much firmer pathway than it had been on. Series 5 was supposed to be a timey-wimey fairy tale. When the Doctor goes to stay with Craig Owens, he acts like his genie, fixing all the parts of his life that are less than right – but irritating the bejeesus out of Craig in the process. Better than him at football, convincing the girl he loves to go and work with monkeys, stealing his place and dropping his clients in work, seen from Craig’s point of view, it’s almost as though the Doctor is a demon come to wreak havoc with his comfortable misery, rather than to give him three wishes.
Forced into a corner when Craig tells him to leave, the Doctor employs a trick we’ve never seen before – the Head-Butt of Knowledge Transfer, something as madly inventive and useful as you could only legitimately expect of Gareth Roberts, and the story powers quickly on to its conclusion: the crippled time-ship upstairs looking for a pilot who desperately wants to get away, the whole ‘defeating it with love’ idea that would grow to its full flowering in Roberts’ sequel story, Closing Time, and the happy-ever-after resolution of two people who’ve moved past the fear of destroying their friendship for an uncertain reward.
There are holes in The Lodger – the Doctor happening to have the earpiece with which he communicates with Amy on the Tardis, the whole idea of being cautious about what’s upstairs until exactly the right moment in the story, the defeat with love and the desire to stay put (are we to believe none of the ship’s other victims were perfectly happy staying at home?), the lack of adequate explanation of who the hell the ship belonged to (though we eventually get the idea it was the Silents…somehow) and so on – but it’s full of such inventive, fun dialogue and joie de vivre that it’s impossible to do anything but love it. It shows the Doctor both in genie-mode and learning to be ‘a normal bloke’ in his own, Eleventh Doctor way, by no means conventional, but all the more effective for that. It feels as though he genuinely has to overcome his own alien nature at every turn in this story, but that he’s equal to the task of doing so, and he reaps the rewards – friendship, success on the football pitch and in the office, and ultimately, winning Craig’s trust enough to make the stay-at-home bloke save his life.
Placed in a very particular slot, it’s possibly the most standalone story in Series 5, with Amy not having, or not remembering her connection to Rory at all, even when she finds the ring in the Doctor’s pocket at the very end. As such, it’s allowed to be something almost entirely apart from the series arc, while still exploring fairy tale themes and delivering an intellectually interesting experiment on the Doctor doing the things ‘ordinary blokes’ do. Along the way it gives us a reminder that whatever the Doctor looks like, whatever people think of him, he can actually do anything to which he sets his mind – ‘I could do those things. I don’t, but I could’ – and that, if we only choose to embrace the whole ‘Bow ties are cool’ self-possession of this particular version of our Time Lord, so can any of us.
That’s what makes The Lodger so eminently rewatchable. It’s essentially the fairy tale of The Hopeless Lovers, who find the courage to embrace their potential through the meddling, well-meaning, chaotic, bandy-legged intervention of their genie or fairy godfather. It’s a story that can be watched by children of all ages, on several levels, and still leave you feeling like you’ve had a proper adventure, with a fairy tale ending that rarely fails to make the viewer smile.
Stick it in your player again, and have a fun, oddball hour with the weirdest lodger you ever imagined. Invite the Doctor round to stay again.