Yes, I’m terribly late with these, but life has once again gotten in the way. I tried to get this done before ‘The Lodger’ screened, and then I had my proofreading course to finish, and then I had it settled – while I was in London, on the Saturday afternoon before ‘The Pandorica Opens’, I’d finish it and post it then. But then, of course, the wireless on my laptop wouldn’t work. So, rather belatedly, here’s my burbling words on ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ and ‘The Lodger’, with my post on last saturday’s storming episode coming up in the next few moments. As usual, fear the spoilers…
So, we find ourselves almost at the end of Season 5, with only the big finale of THE PANDORICA OPENS/THE BIG BANG to look forward to (and the fact that this is a big Who finale written by Steven Moffatt means, admittedly, that I am a lot more intrigued and excited than usual). Certainly, though, we’re also at a point where we can now look at the majority of Season 5… and what we’ve gotten is a season of New Who, with all of its traditional ups and downs and swings in quality. What we’ve gotten also hasn’t quite lived up to the promise of THE ELEVENTH HOUR, but has still been very entertaining – it does, however, feel a little like the show has rewound back to New Who Season 1 at times and is trying on different styles and genres to see what fits, with occasionally ungainly results.
In that style, there are episodes 10 and 11 of S5, both of which can be safely described as ‘middle episodes’ – safe and pretty much standalone, they’re not major arc episodes, they’re not dealing with old-school monsters, they’re nicely characterised placeholders between the seriously attention-grabbing blockbusters. Occasionally this kind of episode can throw out an absolute blinder (Blink) or a misguided catastrophe (Love and Monsters), but what we got here were both enjoyable and satisfying if not entirely consequential episodes – entertaining filler without ever feeling quite essential.
Episode 10 gives us another entry in the rather bizarre Who sub-genre of ‘Celebrity Historical featuring Troubled Writers/Artists’, and considering there are few famous artists as troubled as Vincent Van Gogh, it’s kind of amazing it’s taken them this long to get to him. It’s also the New Who debut of Richard Curtis, the second writer this season who’s best known for his comedy, and the results are good but not quite as impressive or distinctive as Amy’s Choice. Vincent and the Doctor is actually the closest the new series has ever gotten to capturing the educational style of pure Sixties Historical stories (the ones made between 1963-66, where (aside from The Time Meddler) there were no science fiction elements except for the Doctor and the TARDIS). Because let’s face it – this is an episode that’s out to talk about Art, and how those who produce it are often troubled, marginalised people who aren’t necessarily going to live to see their success – I got occasional flashbacks to Human Nature/The Family of Blood in S3, simply because it was another story where I couldn’t quite believe that they were getting away with showing this kind of stuff in a Saturday Night ‘entertainment’ slot.
Of course, Vincent and the Doctor is nowhere near as dramatic as that S3 two-parter, and that’s one of the main problems of the episode – that it really only works as a character study, and while the ‘hunt the monster’ thread is fun, it doesn’t give the story enough dramatic tension. It’s a story that’s happy to amble, talk about Art and soak up the scenery – the Craface is nicely linked to the idea of perception, but it’s really just an excuse to go back and visit Vincent Van Gogh (and considering it’s already set up for the audience that he’s going to kill himself in a few months, despite all the “Van Gogh might die!!” exclamations, it never really feels like there’s any sense of jeopardy. It’s a feeling that’s increased by the fact that the invisibility sequences aren’t exactly the show’s finest hour – we’re once again in the directorial hands of Jonny Campbell, the man who made a mild hash of The Vampires of Venice, and while Vincent and the Doctor is an improvement, it’s better visually than it is tonally. He’s not always good at controlling performances or executing action, and there are too many times when we simply don’t believe the Monster is there (while the early ‘Monster P.O.V. shot is, as we find out later, an utter cheat). A little extra CG, or a bit more tension, and we would have been there – but the lack of dramatic tension combined with a monster that doesn’t even feel like it’s physically there (after all, the Craface is pretty damn big) means that the episode never quite makes it into the thrilling category.
As it is, it’s just as well that Tony Curran was cast, as he does a very impressive job realising Van Gogh – not only looking the part, but giving him a real intensity and soul. They very sensibly don’t try to get him to do anything other than his own accent (and the resulting line asking Amy whether she’s from Holland as well is very nicely done), and there’s a dignity to the treatment of Van Gogh here that hasn’t always been the case with New Who and historical figures. There’s no trace of the embarrassing caricature of Winston Churchill from Victory of the Daleks – this feels like a real, believable person, and even if the drama of the episode never quite arrives, it does succeed in touching the emotions.
This being Richard Curtis, a man who’s never been shy in reaching for the sentimentality hammer, it wasn’t likely that we were getting away without the episode going over the edge somewhere. Of course, by setting themselves Vincent Van Gogh, they’d also set themselves an interesting challenge – they’d already done the ‘artist in their twilight years’ story (Charles Dickens in The Unquiet Dead in S1), but you can’t do a Van Gogh episode without acknolwedging the fact that this was a very troubled man who eventually killed himself. Given that Who is a time travel story, there were only two ways they could have gone – the route in the episode, or the “It’s terribly tragic but we can’t interfere” route, and it’s hardly amazing that Curtis went for the one that involved going from euphoria to tragedy in the space of a couple of minutes. It’s an understandable device, though – giving the classic underappreciated artist a chance to see that one day he will be understood – and while I could have easily done without the Keane song, the scene in the gallery is played well enough that you can forgive the sentimentality overdose – especially considering what happens next. Because the remaining minutes of the episode are kind of daring, in their own way, for simply saying that sometimes you really can’t stop bad things from happening, and doing good in your own way (and helping, however small) can sometimes be the most important thing. It’s a powerful message – a little overplayed, but nicely done, and certainly lifts the episode a couple more notches in my estimation.
VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR leads us onto THE LODGER, and the return of a writer with whom I’ve had some issues. It’s weird, because Gareth Roberts was responsible for some highly enjoyable New Adventures novels back in the Nineties, and also co-wrote one of Big Finish’s best ever audio plays, the hilariously brilliant The One Doctor (co-starring Christopher Biggins as a con-artist who’s posing as the Doctor), and yet his output for the show has been The Shakespeare Code in S3 (which I’m not particularly fond of) and The Unicorn and the Wasp in S4 (which I actively detested). THE LODGER is a major step in the right direction, though – it never quite steps out from being inconsequential fluff, but it’s very entertaining inconsequential fluff that gives Matt Smith the chance to stretch his comedy muscles as never seen before.
Because let’s face it – the Eleventh Doctor is fantastically odd, and one of the fun things (and yet also one of the flaws) in THE LODGER is that we get a chance to properly see that oddness in action, with the Doctor thrown into a ‘normal’ situation and doing a very bad job of pretending to be an ‘ordinary’ bloke. Of course, what he’s really been thrown into is a sitcom, and part of the problem with The Lodger is that it doesn’t quite escape from the sense of fun exaggeration, slight ridiculousness and predictability – I can’t help wondering if it might have been a bit stronger with just a little less oddity and a little more of a sense of realism. It also does have to crank the Eleventh Doctor’s oddness up to fairly significant levels, and it’s certainly not a story you could have gotten away with during the David Tennant era (at least not without major changes). The Tenth Doctor had his oddball moments, but was mostly a ridiculously capable (and occasionally smug) character – while the Eleventh Doctor is doing everything within his power to live up to the description of ‘Elegant Shambles’, and for the most part this makes The Lodger great fun. It does also mean that there are certain moments which feel very obvious, or which play on the concept of placing the Doctor in a mundane flatshare situation a little too much, but Smith gives the whole thing a brilliant sense of energy.
Again, as with Vincent and the Doctor, there’s the sense that the threat isn’t quite threatening enough to truly drive the story along – the scenes with people being lured upstairs to their doom are nicely creepy and vaguely Sapphire and Steel-ish in their execution, but with them essentially not varying at all, we do get to the point where a little bit of variety would be nice. The threat simply bubbles away in the background for most of the episode – and then, when it all starts heating up and the Doctor has to get his housemate up to date as quickly as possible, we get the ‘Psychic Headbutt’, something that is, to be honest, the writer seemingly realising he’s only got about 10 minutes left and having to get past the unbelief barrier somehow. It’s ridiculous and silly, and only really works because of the fact that they speed on from it so quickly, but it is deeply absurd, and I do sincerely hope that the Doctor’s oath to never do that again sticks, as that kind of storytelling quick-fix gets old very very quickly.
James Corden does a pretty good job of support here, only really wandering into over-the-top territory in the post-headbutt scenes (which would have been difficult to do subtly, to be honest), and while the romance is blindingly predictable, it is at least fun to watch and surprisingly charming. This is Who in entertainment mode – the creepiness of the subplot never really threatens the main plot, meaning that the whole thing does feel very light – in fact, it does feel slightly (and tonally) like a more grown-up version of The Sarah Jane Adventures (not tremendously surprising, considering Roberts has written a number of episodes for them). The finale is a tad rushed but again does show that there is a slightly better and sharper sense of world-building going on here than in the RTD era – distinct echoes of Girl in the Fireplace (with the malfunctioning ship trying any means necessary to repair itself), but nicely executed, and I like the fact that the Emergency System hologram remains a shadowy figure wherever it’s standing. Also, there’s the only briefly referred to but (surely) extremely important fact that someone out there is trying to duplicate TARDIS technology – I’m suspecting that may feed into the finale, as may the fact that we have yet another appearance of a Perception Filter. This can’t just be coincidental – I have a sneaky feeling that there may be some very big Perception Filter-related shenanigans going on (possibly relating to Amy) and it’ll be interesting to see exactly how it shapes up.
So again, The Lodger is an episode that feels at a halfway point between the RTD era and the fresh new style that was kicked off in The Eleventh Hour. It’s also, amazingly, one of the few times when Murray Gold’s music has seriously annoyed me this season, something I’ve found a major surprise. When the handover of production teams was happening, I did find myself praying for a new composer, as I had grown a little tired of Gold’s OTT approach which only seemed to hit the target less than 50% of the time. I was somewhat shocked, then, when Gold’s soundtrack to The Eleventh Hour – and almost every single episode since – has been really, really impressive (especially in The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone). The Lodger marks one of his only stumbles – comedy does seem to bring out the worst in his music, and there’s a return to RTD-style excess in slathering music over scenes that don’t necessarily need it, but hopefully we will be back in stronger territory for the finale. Catherine Morshead’s direction isn’t quite as strong as it was on Amy’s Choice (which was a nicer mix of creepy and funny), and there are a few very odd editing choices where it feels like chunks have gone wandering from the episode by accident.
And then… there’s the question of Amy Pond. The Lodger isn’t a major episode for Amy, with the character being trapped inside the TARDIS, but it does point out a couple of problems – firstly, Karen Gillan’s only as good as the material she’s given, and here ends up giving a slightly overdone, bolshy and shouty performance (possibly just because she’s on her own in virtually all of her scenes), and secondly, it’s very difficult to connect up this version of Amy with the version we saw in The Eleventh Hour. Moffatt created a really distinctive companion, but he doesn’t seem to know how to keep her going and keep her feeling like the same person across the breadth of an entire season – especially when the Rory Death/Deletion plotline means that we don’t really know exactly who Amy is anymore. The defining feature of Amy at the beginning of the season is that she’s someone who’s been let down by life, and while this has made her very self-reliant, it also means she’s running away from adulthood and maturity. It’s the mixture of bolshiness and insecurity that made her interesting – the vulnerability and the ability to empathise, to see things that the Doctor won’t perhaps notice. But there hasn’t really been a tremendous amount of that since, mainly because with virtually all of the non-Moffatt writers (with the exception of Simon Nye) have essentially written a generic Who companion with a little bit of ‘Amy-ness’ bolted on. And with Rory and her marriage deleted, why did this version of Amy get in the TARDIS? It feels like the story has wandered a bit, partly because (as I’ve said before), when this season has gotten it right, it’s gotten it very, very right, and I’m hoping the finale can knock my socks off. At the least, with Amy having recovered her engagement ring (and the discovery seeming to tie in with the crack in time), there’s the potential for some major confrontations between her and the Doctor. We’ve also got River Song returning, and the season arc (which has been a genuine arc this time, rather than simply vague connections) building to its climax – and even if the season hasn’t been quite as strong for the last four episodes, I’m still very excited to see what happens next…