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Mateship, maleness and Closing Time (2011)

closing time

As a one sentence pitch, “The Lodger, but with Cybermen” is pretty good. Actually, why stop there? Let’s remake Black Orchid with Cybermen. Or The Krotons but with Weeping Angels. Or remake The Time Monster with… nah, let’s never do that.

For a light-hearted, late season cheapie episode, The Lodger looms large over Steven Moffat’s tenure on Doctor Who. He often talks of his affection for it, and Closing Time and later The Caretaker are attempts to replicate its breezy comic charm.

Both of those later stories seek to eke more mileage out of the Doctor’s clumsy but endearing attempts to fit into modern life as we know it. All three involve, to lesser or greater extents, the Doctor getting a job. In Closing Time, he’s employed (briefly) by a department store to fool around in the toy department, amusing children. This fits like a glove to Matt Smith’s Doctor, who frequently demonstrates his childlike enthusiasm for having fun, despite the growing chaos around him.

The other element repeated from The Lodger is bumbling everyman Craig (James Corden) and his natural inferiority to the Doctor, in all things. Last time we saw him, Craig was struggling to make it with a girl. This time, he’s struggling with being a new Dad (it’s The Lodger, but with a baby).

Naturally, the Doctor is better at this than him. He speaks baby and can stop a baby crying with a look (“Can you teach me to do that?” Craig says, echoing new parents everywhere). He can project a starscape onto a ceiling, proving that his sonic screwdriver comes with After Effects installed.

So the Doctor is presented as this contradictory mix; hopeless at some mundane everyday tasks, but brilliant at others. Crucially, he’s brilliant at the things Craig is not. For instance, Craig can’t emulate the Doctor’s effortless ability to get people to like him and share information with him. “I bet you excrete some sort of gas that makes people love you,” grumbles Craig. Everything about their relationship is about how one of them is better than the other.

This imbalance is interesting, because the Doctor and Craig’s relationship is about mateship. The Doctor being involved in male friendship is surprisingly rare in Doctor Who. When I talked about The Lodger, I drew the comparison between the eleventh Doctor and Craig combo, and the second Doctor and Jamie. It still holds true, because these are the only instances of the Doctor having a genuine male friendship. Yes, he has had other male companions, but in every case they have been adjuncts to the Doctor’s relationship with a female companion.

(An honourable exception here may be the first Doctor and Steven, but they were not buddies in the way 11/Craig and 2/Jamie were. I suppose we might also consider the third Doctor’s friendship with the Brigadier, but that feels more like a professional relationship than two mates hanging out together for laughs.)

This is kind of how it works in real life. Imbalance is an essential by-product of mateship. Or to put it another way, no two mates are born equal. Blokes, don’t we all have that friend who’s smarter, better looking, altogether more impressive than us? And yet we still like to hang out together. We’re all Craig to someone else’s Doctor.

So that imbalance between Craig and the Doctor rings true. But Craig gets his own back. He might stuff up his attempt to rescue the Doctor from the Cybermen with a barcode scanner and thus end up encased in a Cyber carapace, but he saves the day when his paternal instincts kick in at the sound of his baby’s cries. “He blows up the Cybermen with love,” writer Gareth Roberts said on Doctor Who Confidential. Human relationships being a mystery to the Doctor, he couldn’t have pulled off that trick.

(We’re back to parenthood again, by the way, that particular obsession of Series Six. So many stories this season of fathers and the lengths they’ll go to for their kids. And interestingly in all of them – Captain Avery, Jimmy, Alex and Craig – are all worried about their adequacy as Dads. Craig’s at least is a little less angsty – just the familiar haplessness of a new Dad. I’ve been through it twice, Craig, so here’s my advice: buy a tumble dryer, a pair of ear plugs, a bottle of whisky and try to keep up.)

It’s not just mateship which is on display in Closing Time but also maleness. The Doctor has his eccentricities dialled up a little for this story, emphasising his awkwardness in social situations (he can’t, for instance, work out how to make a social call on someone). But he’s no Time Lord version of Sheldon Cooper. He makes friends easily with everyone in the shop for instance. Craig is your typical bumbling father, but he’s also a bit clueless at basic domestic duties like shopping and cleaning. But they’re both brave, protective and heroic and they both clearly adore each other.

In the pair of them, we see lots of ways to be men, most of them viewed next to the passionless Cybermen and through the lens of madcap comedy. And inevitably, where two men are running about with a baby, heads start to turn. It’s The Lodger, but with poof jokes. The jokes about them being a couple are fun, but in a way they also undermine what is nice about their relationship. They indicate that any close relationship between two men is indistinguishable from a romance between them, which is a bit old fashioned. Hard to imagine that joke working between two female characters.

Still, maybe we’ll find out. We’re only months away from our first female Doctor, which is great, but it does mean it will be some time before we get to see how the Doctor deals with mateship again. Which given how rarely the series explores it, is a shame… but given that the series has never explored a female Doctor, one I’m prepared to live without for a while.

But don’t the Cybermen seem a little out of place here, like they’re treading on another monster’s property? Surely a department store is where we’d expect to find mannequins coming to life? C’mon Chibbers, old mate, let’s remake Closing Time, but with Autons.

FORGOTTEN DEATH: Let’s spare a moment for poor dead Shona (Seroca Davis). Because none of her co-workers do. It’s all jokes and gossip and when’s my next tea break. As heartless as a Cyberman.

LINK TO The Invasion of Time: both have scenes with clothes racks in them!

NEXT TIME… I’m happy, I hope you’re happy too. C’mon, crack a Smile.


Friendship, cleverness and The Lodger (2010)

lodger 2

Part One: Buddies

Here’s an unusual way to start a Random Whoness post:

NEXT TIME… Don’t look so worried. Fancy a cup of tea? It’s more Cyber hijinks in The Invasion.

My random Who generator sometimes throws up these inconveniences. Obviously, it would have been very helpful to talk about the obvious connections between The Wheel in Space and The Invasion. But here’s The Lodger stuck in the middle, and on first glance it has very little to do with its two Cyber bookends. But then there’s this:

LINK to The Wheel in Space and The Invasion: they all feature ‘buddies’. That is, the combinations of Troughton/Hines and Smith/Corden would fit right into a buddy comedy.

Your classic buddy film, comedy or otherwise, features two main characters, usually men and usually from different backgrounds, with contrasting approaches to problems, forced to work together and through which they form an oddball friendship. Think 48 Hours or Wayne’s World.  Doctor Who‘s  tendency to match the Doctor with a female companion tends to work against the buddy comedy format. But The Lodger is a genuine stab at it.

It’s a story of two men trying to understand each other’s worlds; Craig (James Corden) gradually unpicking the mysteries of his new lodger, and the Doctor (lanky, loping Matt Smith) trying to work out how to fit in what we would call a normal life. This last aspect becomes a theme of Smith’s tenure. It pops up again and again, notably in The Power of Three and The Doctor, The Widow etc. It’s a terrific conceit because when looked at objectively, the Doctor’s life is bewilderingly crazy. And when looked at objectively, most modern life is too. The Lodger seems to be saying the real world is just as mad as the Doctor’s, depending on your perspective.

It works nicely because both Corden and Smith can bring the funny. An important part of the buddy pairing is that there’s no straight man; both buddies are funny in their own different ways. We’re quite happy to watch either one of them on screen, although as viewers, we’re positioned to side with Corden and view the Doctor as a funny, alien fish out of water. And from the DVD extras we know that Corden and Smith are great mates, and that chemistry is evident on screen. It doesn’t seem that big a leap to imagine that Corden might have been persuaded to do a Catherine Tate, and go from one off guest star to ongoing companion for a year.

It would have been an interesting and innovative combination for Doctor Who. A year of buddy comedy. It would have really subverted the series norm or Doctor/Girl. We have to look right back to the Troughton years to find a similar pairing, and that’s the Doctor and Jamie. Like the Doctor and Craig, they are both funny, both capable of holding the audience’s attention and the chemistry between the actors is evident. And of course, all four act like overgrown teenagers, so in each pairing there’s a sense of men behaving badly.

So at its heart, this is a story of male friendship. But…

Part Two: Forehead slap.

Look, I love The Lodger. Everyone loves The Lodger. It’s like that cheery, boozy mate we all have. The one who hangs about a lot, cracks some jokes, gets into a few scrapes but is always up for a good time. He’s brilliant. But you don’t spend too long in this mate’s company. Look too closely, and the shine goes off him a bit.

Here’s what I mean. Part of what The Lodger does is show how the Doctor would react to adopting an everyday suburban life. And it turns out, he’s rubbish at it. Hilarity ensues. Oh that daffy old Doctor. He doesn’t know how much rent to pay. He doesn’t know what football is. He can’t remember why he’s called the Doctor.

But as funny as all this stuff is, we have to ignore much of what we know about the Doctor to make it work. We know he’s not this dumb. He’s spent loads of time in contemporary Britain – more than he spends anywhere else (he was exiled there once, remember). So he knows you don’t air kiss everyone you meet.  Of course he does. Just as he knows that screwdrivers don’t have on switches. He’s a genius, remember? No, on second thoughts, forget it. Because that would spoil the joke.

We also have to ignore the way a Doctor Who story normally works. The threat in this story is an alien spaceship lodged on top of Craig’s house, threatening to spin the TARDIS off into oblivion, with Amy inside it. What the Doctor would normally do is go upstairs and sort it out. Indeed, this is what Amy keeps telling him to do. But no, says the Doctor, it’s too dangerous, I don’t know what it is, I need more info. I’ll just build a wacky machine and talk to this cat instead. Because if I do the most logical thing and behave in the way I normally do, the story will end after about 10 minutes.

Part Three: Ooh that’s a bit clever

But you can’t stay mad at that loopy, boozy mate of yours for long, and so it is with The Lodger. Look at the way Craig is suddenly brought up to speed with everything he needs to know about the Doctor, the TARDIS and the situation at hand. Three big head butts. Funny, but saves precious minutes of dull exposition.

And there’s one particular bit of plotting which is inspired. It starts in the terrific scene where Craig is hoping for a canoodly night in with Sophie (the brilliant Daisy Haggard, see her be hilarious in Episodes if you haven’t already), but the Doctor has unwittingly gatecrashed (oh that silly old Doctor, and so on). ‘Six billion people’, he muses at one point. ‘Watching you two at work, I’m starting to wonder where they all come from’, which is pretty rich coming from the chief gooseberry.

Anyway, the Doctor then tricks Sophie into reconsidering her limited world view:

DOCTOR: Everybody’s got dreams, Sophie. Very few are going to achieve them, so why pretend?  Perhaps, in the whole wide universe, a call centre is about where you should be.

SOPHIE: Why are you saying that? That’s horrible.

DOCTOR: Is it true?

SOPHIE: Of course it’s not true. I’m not staying in a call centre all my life. I can do anything I want.

(The Doctor smiles at Sophie)

SOPHIE: Oh, yeah. Right. Oh, my God. Did you see what he just did?

A lovely piece of dialogue but it includes a hidden plot point which pays off when the Doctor, Craig and Sophie discover the spaceship upstairs. The ship is looking for a pilot, and luring innocent people to their deaths to test them out for the role. The Doctor realises it doesn’t want Craig and…

DOCTOR: It didn’t want Sophie before but now it does. What’s changed? I gave her the idea of leaving. It’s a machine that needs to leave. It wants people who want to escape.

And as preposterous as a spaceship dependent on its pilot wanting to leave is – or perhaps it’s just a little too thematically perfect to ring true – I think the Doctor planting the idea in Sophie’s mind which will eventually be the key to solving the mystery, is neat writing. And hiding it in a jokey, seemingly inconsequential scene is very skillful. Hidden in plain sight, to use a Moffatism.

That funny old mate of ours is a bit smart too. But then, that’s why we’re buddies.

LINK to… Oh, we’ve already done this bit.

NEXT TIME… Oh, we’ve already done this bit too.