Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Fish Custard [15]

I would go a long way to meet Beatrice or Falstaff or Mr. Jonathan Oldbuck or Disraeli's Lord Monmouth. I would not cross the room to meet Hamlet. It would never be necessary. He is always where I am.
C.S Lewis
1: "The Lodger" is my favourite episode of Doctor Who since... er...
2: "The Lodger" puts the Doctor alongside an ordinary person and asks us to watch how he interacts with them.
It is surprising that this has not been done before. In fact, the Doctor has relatively rarely been shown alongside ordinary people. One might suppose that the companion ("assistant") exists precisely to be an ordinary person and stand alongside him. In fact, for most of the series' original run, the companions were people as far removed from the audience's experience as the Doctor himself. Yes, there was a sailor and a teacher and an air hostess. But we were usually asked to look at the Doctor through the eyes of seventeenth century highlands warriors, mathematical boy geniuses, alien savages, or female Time Lords who were even cleverer and madder than he was.
Granted New Who has shown us a Doctor who chooses his companions primarily from the ranks of "ordinary" people – an unemployed retail worker, a medical student, an office temp, a kiss-o-gram. But it has also asked us to believe that people have to be very special before the Doctor will invite them on board his TARDIS. Rose, Martha and Donna were all, in different ways, remarkable normal people.
Human Nature, the story to which The Lodger is most frequently compared, showed as the Doctor becoming and ordinary person, interacting with ordinary people, and falling in love with an ordinary woman (much more surprising in Paul Cornell's 1995 novel than in the inferior 2007 TV episode). But the setting for the story was a boys boarding school on the eve of World War I – in retrospect, a curious decision. Wouldn't the question "What if the Doctor were a teacher at my school?" be more interesting than "What if the Doctor were a teacher at my Granpa's school?"
3: The Doctor's ostensible mission is to defeat the alien menace on the top floor of Craig's flat. However, his real mission, the real subject of the story, is to appear normal while living with Craig. We know that he will succeed at the first, and we also know that he is more or less incapable of succeeding at the second. That is why anyone who focuses unduly on the nature of the top-of-the-stairs thing has probably misunderstood the episode.
The threat at the top of the stairs is, however, essential -- to provide a reason for the Doctor's being there in the first place. Since the TARDIS became controllable and the Doctor became defined as "a person who saves the world" there has to be an alien menace wherever the Doctor goes, because the Doctor only goes where there are alien menaces. (This, I have argued, was the one flaw in the otherwise excellent Vincent and the Doctor: a touching little time travel fantasy was hijacked by a gratuitous giant chicken.) But it is also necessary because "saving the world" is what the Doctor does: to be visited in your flat by a Doctor who wasn't trying to save the world would be the same as not being visited by the Doctor at all. The thing at the top of the stairs serves the same purpose as the un-named creature menacing Elton at the beginning of Love and Monsters, or the unseen creature that the Doctor and Martha are chasing (with a crossbow) at the end of Blink. It's a place-holder / signifier for the kind of enemy we know the Doctor frequently faces.
4: This situation produces comedy.
It is a truism that all British situation comedies involve taking people who do not like each other (or who are otherwise poorly matched) and putting them in situations of close proximity which they can't get away from: hospitals, hotels, the army, boarding schools, holiday camps and, of course, marriages. Dad's Army is regarded as the best of all British sit-coms, not because the Second World War is intrinsically funny, but because the Home Guard did in fact force people of all classes and background to interact with each other. The flat share, from The Liver Birds to Men Behaving Badly is therefore a staple of situation comedy: and once we see the Doctor in a flat share situation, we spot that what we are watching is going to be comedy. (The title, The Lodger may make us expect a horror story, but that is largely dissipated in the opening scene.)
The story does, in fact, use many tropes from flat-share comedies – embarrassment and jealousy which occurs when one male room mate brings a girl friend home and the other one won't leave; and the fact that it is intrinsically funny for two adults to share a bathroom because this may also give rise to embarrassment. Most British comedy is based on embarrassment.
However, most of the comedy arise because of the tension between the normal situation (which is abnormal for the Doctor) and the inherent strangeness of the Doctor (which he is trying to disguise). The viewer who is complicit in the Doctor's strange behaviour – we know he does strange things, he's the Doctor – is asked to look at his strangeness through Craig's eyes. This de-familiarizes the Doctor, makes us less complacent about him. We see just how strange he really is. It is funny that the Doctor builds a plot-device-machine in a flat share bedroom out of domestic bits and pieces, because we expect him to do it in a lab, or in the TARDIS. It is funny that he tries to pass this off as a work of modern art, because it's such a poor excuse. The broad comedy of the shower scene depends both on the Doctor's weirdness (he seems to be less embarassable than a normal human) and the fact that we know things about him which Craig does not. From our point of view, saving the earth from an alien menace is more important than getting dressed: from Craig's point of view, the Doctor is an increasingly erratic room-mate who is paying a call on a neighbour and greeting his girl-friend wearing only a towel. To us, the Doctor's big bag of £50 notes signifies that he doesn't know what money is worth and wouldn't care about it even if he did: to Sophie, it signifies that he might be a drug dealer.
5: Although the story makes use of the flat-share format, most of the comedy comes from the personality of the Doctor himself.
New Who has repeatedly asked us to think that the Doctor's consciousness is different from that of a normal human being. He can perceive the movement of the earth through space; he is always aware of all the different outcomes an event could have in different parallel worlds; he can hear the sounds made by suffering beings which are not audible to normal humans. This tended (in line with R.T.D's perpetual use of pointless Christ imagery) to make the Doctor ineffable. Season 5 has made this Doctor-Consciousness much more domestic. The Doctor lives outside of time, so he is surprised and constricted when days all come one after each other: this has the effect of making him bored when he has to watch Van Goff painting a picture. (Many people might think that the capacity to watch a master at work would be one of the best things about owning a Time Machine.) To us, and therefore to Craig, the Doctor is endlessly strange and weird. To the Doctor, what is weird is the whole idea of living in linear time – the one thing which we find so normal that we couldn't even conceive of questioning it. He has been so many places that forgets where he is: he can fit in anywhere, but he belongs nowhere. When asked to play football, he first of all says that he "thinks" he is good at it, then asks if football is "the one with the sticks." But of course, when he starts to play the game, he excels at it.
I have heard at least one fan complain that the Doctor ought not to have been depicted playing football, because it makes him seem less intelligent: the membrane between jocks and geeks must be kept impermeable. This misses the point. English pub soccer is not a serious game. Craig is in no way a sportsman: he spends his time drinking beer and pizza. He has leaflets about art galleries on his notice board, so he's not a complete jock.) The pub football Captain is surely slightly ridiculous in taking the game so seriously. (If the Doctor had been shown in a pub chanting In Ger Land, this might, in deed, have been incongruous.) But it also misses the point that the Doctor's competence is his defining characteristic: if he's imprisoned in handcuffs, it will turn out that he took escapology lessons from Houdini; if he's forced to shoot with a bow, he'll claim to have been a personal friend of Robin Hood's. So of course he shines on the football field.
He is also, incidentally, an excellent cook. This is also a fairly common trope: "Martin" inveigles himself into the Bates household in Brimstone and Treacle because, like the Doctor, he can cook wonderful omlettes We take it for granted that the Doctor will be an expert in everything he turns his mind to.
6: The Doctor spends the episode trying, slightly too hard, to be normal. He isn't very good at it.
The key moment in the episode is when the Doctor, an alien, asks Amy, a woman, what normal blokes do, and she replies "They watch telly, they play football, they do down the pub."
Arguably, the Doctor is trying too hard be normal; trying to live up to Amy's exaggerated idea of male normality. He is not, in the end, very good at it. And very many fans of the asexual bus-spotter type will identify with this. They, too, would like to be normal, but they, too, are unsure what normal people do.
For this reason, the football scene might indeed be regarded as an anti-Whovian betrayal. This is a Doctor who is not like us, a Doctor who, without even trying, wins over the mundanes. (As ever, there is the slight suspicion that scenes like this are really about the programme, not the character. When the girls on the touch-line start to chant "Doc-tor! Doc-tor!" you can almost hear the production team saying "Suck this, Michael Grade! We're mainstream now!")
But in fact, the Doctor carries the day, not because he's normal but because he's the Doctor. The scene in Craig's office is a piece of shameless wish-fulfilment; about a man who goes to work, breaks every rule, is rude to rude customers, prefers to eat custard creams than talk to important clients, but is nevertheless praised by the boss. The very fact that the Doctor is confused – almost detached from the world around him, almost as if he were slightly concussed – makes him successful and universally loved.
"Don't try to be normal, try to be you" says this scene, possibly not quite subtly enough.
7: The Lodger, in the end, deals with very traditional Doctor Who themes in slightly unorthodox ways: far from being a parody, it reminds us of what Doctor Who is really about.
R.T.D, who used to be producer but isn't any more, treated the Doctor as a type of personal growth therapy. Meeting the Doctor makes you a better person. Sarah Jane Smith opines, at the end of every.damn.episode that travelling with the Doctor made her understand that the universe is more beautiful and wonderful than she ever thought possible. Rory called time on this particular cliche in the Vampires of Venice: surely the main thing the Doctor does to companions is inspire them to get killed?
In the real world, you can't do anything if you try, and genius isn't 99% perspiration, whatever John Calvin may have thought. It is, of course, a very good thing to say "If a young man really wants to be a scientist, he doesn't wait for the PhD grant or the ticket to the Galapagos Islands: he starts looking at the insects in his own back yard." But if you aren't terribly, terribly careful, the message of Sarah-Jane can became anti-ambitious. If all the wonders of the universe are right here in Ealing and if having a family is just as big an adventure as saving the universe, then the best way the likes of you can be as exciting as the Doctor's is to pass your exams, have 2.4 children and stay at home – to do, in fact, exactly what you were going to do anyway but apply words like "exciting" and "universe" to it. The message of the ruby slippers is "don't get too uppity, be satisfied with what you've got." [*]
Which is why the sofa scene in "The Lodger" is so very refreshing. The Doctor, by being the Doctor, does change Craig and Sofie life. But he doesn't do this by opening the wonders of the cosmos to them. He does it but challenging Sofie – that if she really wants to work with animals then there is no reason why she shouldn't call up an animal charity and register right now, that if she's unhappy in her current job she doesn't have to stay there.
The one thing we definitely know about the Doctor is that he is the way he is because he made a decision to "leave home" (because, we were told many years ago, he was bored). He says, in effect, that if Craig and Sofie choose to stay on the sofa, they should know why they are staying, and hints that "because we love each other" may be a good reason: but on the other hand, if they are bored, they should get up and leave. This may again hint at Peter Pan's dilemma: that the Doctor, in leaving home, became a wanderer, and the price he pays for that is a life of eternal loneliness. But he wants mortals to make that choice with their eyes open.
So, at its heart, this most unorthodox of Doctor Who stories is about the most perennial of Doctor Who themes. Leave, or stay at home? The TARDIS or Ledworth? A planet of know-everythings do-nothings, or eternal exile? Alien worlds, or staying behind and regretting that staying until the day you die?
8: The Lodger is a perfect vehicle for Matt Smith, and therefore sums up all that is good about this season.
At the end of the football match, the taking-it-too-seriously captain says that next week they will annihilate the opposition. "No violence," replies the Doctor "Do you understand me. Not while I’m around, not today. Not ever. I’m the Doctor. The oncoming storm. You meant beat them in a football match didn’t you?"
This is very similar to the scene in the Sontaran Strategem where the Doctor thinks Donna is leaving him forever. "Thank you, Donna Noble. It's been brilliant. You've... you've saved my life in so many ways. You're – you're just popping home for a visit, that's what you mean." Tennant puts his whole drama-queen heart and soul into the first bit, and then seems humorously embarrassed at having to retract it. Matt's speech is almost off-hand as if something automatic inside him has made him make his "No violence...." speech and another little voice has interrupted him; a change of direction without stopping or breathing. The Eleventh Doctor talks about being confused when events come one after each other in order, but he seems to live only in the present, in the now, in the moment, and part of that is his speaking what is in his head without any internal censor. It is almost impossible to imagine him having an interior life: he shows us his consciousness whenever we're with him. We know him in a way that we don't know any other Doctor. Any other person.
Almost from the beginning, Doctor Who has stood or fallen on the persona of the leading man. Seasons 25 and 26 are really only watch-able because we found the Seventh Doctor so fascinating. The stories are weak or impenetrable, but we kept asking "what is this strange little man going to do next?" If the Doctor ever stops compelling us (in Season 17, for example, when Tom Baker had stopped trying) then there is nothing to do but switch channels and watch Robin of Sherwood instead. This is why the Fifth Doctor's era so consistently falls flat. The stories are, if anything, better than middle and late period Baker, and Peter Davison is a perfectly fine actor. But his Doctor is normal, believable, dull, a clever guy with a space ship. You are quite happy to take your eyes off him. He is never going to surprise you.
But more than ever before, Season 31 is about the characterisation of the Eleventh Doctor. We're watching this man discovering that he is the Doctor, learning to be the Doctor, working out how to the be the Doctor and what it means to be the Doctor and how he is going to play the role of himself in a complicated universe. And though terrible things happen and he is capable of being very very serious and very very grown up, he's having a ball, and so are we.
So this story is practically obligatory. If Season 5 is about the Eleventh Doctor, then we must must must have a story in which any question of alien invasion is more or less put to one side and free play is given to the Eleventh Doctor's consciousness. Sure, we've asked "What would this man do if faced with a very frightened little girl?" and "How would this man deal with a tormented space whale?" and even "How would he deal with an invasion by quite nice aliens who've got quite a good claim to the earth?" But what would he do faced with a kitchen, and a TV, and a glass of wine? How would he fair in an ordinary office job? What what it be like to play football with him? To share a bathroom with him?
According to legend, one Saturday in 1976, Tom Baker, who did not own a television set, became so irritated with the endless debates about TV violence that he knocked on the door of a random house and asked if he could watch The Deadly Assassin with them. He wanted to find out if it had any visible effect on the children watching it. It was a spontaneous act: he didn't have any photos to sign or badges to give away. He said thank you, and left, and realised that when the kids told their friends what happened at school on Monday, there was no chance that their friends would believe them. (This story may even be true. There'd be no point asking Tom. If you remember being the Fourth Doctor, you weren't there.There are also stories of him turning up in school playgrounds in costume to warn off bullies and comfort victims which seem pretty far fetched.) But it ought to be true. By this time, any dividing line between Tom Baker the actor and the Doctor was very, very thin. Watch Seasons 16 and 17 and ask if you are watching a character called the Doctor or an actor called Tom Baker. If the story is true, then the random children weren't visited by a professional performer. They were visited by Doctor Who himself.
What if Doctor Who came to my house?
Season 31 is about the Eleventh Doctor being the Eleventh Doctor. The Lodger is the quintessential Season 31 story. Pure Matt Smith. But Matt Smith has the Doctorness of the Doctor nailed so perfectly that it's pure Doctor Who as well.
The Lodger. My favourite episode of Doctor Who since 1962.
[*]Julia Cameron, an intolerable hippy who writes poems where "Avalon" rhymes with "travel on" gives some excellent advise: you can't necessarily fulfil all your dreams, but you can always take one small step in the right direction. If you wish you could be / had been a cowboy, then there's nothing to stop you picking up the phone right this minute and booking some horse riding lessons.

continues



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5 comments:

Mike Taylor said...

Since 1962! High praise indeed!

I'm not sure I liked it more than The Empty Child or Human Nature, but otherwise I am pretty much in agreement. Thanks for so perfectly nailing all the things I loved about it.

Andrew Stevens said...

I agree with all the substantive points made in this review although I don't agree with the conclusion. I don't think it was that good, but then I'm not English and perhaps you have to be to appreciate it properly. Even to an Anglophile like myself who grew up on PBS, the Doctor in that setting is still in a foreign setting, rather than a normal one. The Britain of classic Who was that of a series trying to be relatable around the globe - change the accents and the Brigadier and UNIT could just as well be in the U.S. or Australia or New Zealand; the Britain of new Who is self-consciously British.

By the by, Peter Davison surprised us once, in The Caves of Androzani. It would probably have just been a standard Doctor Who run-around with Jon Pertwee playing the Doctor, but having watched Peter Davison be a limp dishrag for three years, we didn't expect any heroism from him. So the heroics of Caves were actually much more heroic than any of the many, many times when the Doctor has objectively been more heroic with other actors in the role. Every time I watch it, for 100 minutes, Peter Davison becomes my favorite Doctor. Otherwise, Peter Davison was just an experiment (Q: "What would happen if the Doctor regenerated into just some guy?" A: "Nothing very interesting."), though not one that we should ever wish to repeat. This is distinct from the experiment of Colin Baker ("What if the Doctor regenerated into an anti-hero?"), which was an interesting experiment gone horribly wrong and which may be worth trying again.

Mike Taylor said...

(I have nothing to add right now, but I forgot to check the "Email follow-up comments to" box when I commented previously, and the dumb Blogger software will only let me do that now by posting another comment.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Interesting. I wouldn't go so far as to say that "The Lodger" is the best episode of Who ever, but it is certainly the best episode of the season - which, to be fair, is not particularly high praise coming from me - and a good episode in general. The reason I like it, though, is that it seems to me to do things that the Davies seasons did all the time and that the Moffat episodes had all but abandoned. Of course Davies's Doctor interacted with regular people. That was practically his thing. Or, more precisely, his thing was that he saw regular people as remarkable and worthy of his time and attention. Rose, Martha, and Donna were entirely ordinary when he met them. They're made extraordinary through their contact with the Doctor (it is in fact the central point of the fourth season premiere that, following her experiences in "The Runaway Bride," Donna tried to become extraordinary on her own and couldn't manage it). Smith's Doctor, meanwhile, is too busy dealing with his own, thousand-word-a-minute, constantly-churning, surprising-even-himself personality to notice other people for very long, which is why "The Lodger" was so refreshing - because he does actually notice Craig (though note that it takes Amy's near-total absence to free up enough space for him to do this).

The viewer who is complicit in the Doctor's strange behaviour – we know he does strange things, he's the Doctor – is asked to look at his strangeness through Craig's eyes. This de-familiarizes the Doctor, makes us less complacent about him.

This strikes me as entirely wrongheaded. The Doctor has been strange and unfamiliar for an entire season. The most noticeable difference between Smith and Ecclesone/Tennant is how much distance the season has imposed between us and him, the fact that we've been forced to view him from the outside, that unless they're anthropomorphized by a bit of technobabble, his internal thoughts and motivations are entirely opaque. The comedy of the episode derives, as you go on to say, not from seeing the Doctor through Craig's eyes - which is exactly how we've been seeing him since "The Eleventh Hour" - but from his uncomprehending efforts to behave like a normal person. Besides the fact that it actually makes Craig a person rather than a plot point, "The Lodger" works because for the first and only time in the season the Doctor's strangeness is used not as a buffer between the viewers and his personhood, but as a way of illuminating it.

Mark Goodacre said...

I agree -- it's a fabulous episode. By this point in the series, we love Matt Smith's doctor so much that we really want to spend some time with him, and then he turns up at our house. Or at James Corden's house, which is the next best thing.