28 June 2010

The Zero Room #5- What's The Crack?

Matt Smith's first series drew to a close on Saturday night on BBC One, and the last thirteen weeks have been a hell of a ride. This penultimate Series 5 post reviews the romantic comedy episode The Lodger and the epic, balls-to-the-wall final two-fer, The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang (to be referred to henceforth by the former name to save time)

Reviews will contain spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, toddle over to the iPlayer, or watch BBC Three at some point in the next century's worth of repeats.


The Lodger opens on an unexpected incident with the TARDIS, which strands the Doctor on contemporary Earth. He's forced to move into a house on Aickman Road, sharing with a laddish flatmate called Craig. Craig pines after his best friend Sophie, likes playing football, and is suitably charmed by the new lodger because he's weird and can cook well. Just as the Doctor is oblivious to how he's usurping the things that are important to him, Craig is oblivious to whatever is living on the top floor of his house. People go up, but never come down...

The episode 11 slot has been put to various uses since the series returned. It's the slot that gave us fluffy episodes like Boomtown and Fear Her, but was later used for ominous stage-setting episodes like Utopia and Turn Left. What's special about The Lodger is that Gareth Roberts' script seems to somehow traverse both, while still spending more time in the former camp than the latter. It's adapted from a pretty good comic strip that Roberts wrote for Doctor Who Magazine back in 2006, in which the Tenth Doctor lodged with his companion's put-upon boyfriend Mickey for a week or so. The screen translation is even better- Matt Smith's Doctor basically is a fish-out-of-water, most of all in this scenario.

Where David Tennant's portrayal had a reasonably easy grace, Smith plays the oddball well enough to pull this plot off fantastically. He eclipses James Corden's Craig in the acting stakes, and that would usually be a good thing. I really don't like James Corden, see. Here, he's close to being endearing, which makes me realise I simply don't like his overexposure in the media. He's an actor, not a stand-up comic, so I suspect his ubiquity elsewhere makes him seem more annoying than he really is. It is great to finally see the radiant Daisy Haggard in the show as Sophie too.

Karen Gillan takes the backseat for this one, and it's curious to see that we get a "companion-lite" episode in this series while the "Doctor-lite" counterpart is conspicuous by its absence. Maybe Matt Smith really does have the energy to keep bounding around for nine months without an episode to sit back and put his feet up, but it'll be interesting to see where Steven Moffat goes if he does a Doctor-lite episode next year, with a 14-episode filming run to do instead of this year's 13. Moffat previously gave us Blink, so we know how good he can write this show even without the Doctor, but you'll never hear me outright ask for an episode with less Matt Smith.

The obligatory menace of the story sits well with the more comedic elements too, although I think Roberts possibly over-egged the menace upstairs with the number of people we see wander in off the street. What's interesting is that we never get an explanation for just who built the second-storey TARDIS on top of Craig's house. It's a fine twist, and pays off as a conclusion to this particular episode, but it's in this character's retained mystery that you have to wonder if it's going to be important later.

At its heart, The Lodger is a romantic comedy, and a fine one at that. It's actually one of the unexpected pleasures of the series, proving to be warm, funny and the episode that would have sat best in the Davies era. Luckily, it comes with the great comic timing of Matt Smith instead, who gets some great one-liners ("Can I put you on hold? I need to eat a biscuit"), while continuing to develop his incarnation before the big finale.

After eleven weeks, everything converges as the two-part finale begins with The Pandorica Opens. By way of Liz 10's royal art collection and Churchill's bunker, River Song retrieves one of Vincent Van Gogh's final paintings, for which the episode is named. It depicts the explosion of the Doctor's TARDIS, an event that would be massive enough to crack the skin of the universe itself. In 102AD, the Doctor will find out exactly what the Pandorica is, and Amy Pond's fractured life will finally begin to make sense.

The high watermark of the new series for me was The Parting of the Ways, as far as finales went. I enjoyed Doomsday, Last of the Time Lords and Journey's End too, but they often fell short of their superior openings. The Pandorica Opens bucks the trend in a big way- where Russell T Davies' thirteenth episodes in each series came to give the impression that he'd written himself into a corner each year, Steven Moffat appears to have planned this all along.

With director Toby Haynes on board, the story is certainly the best two-parter since 2007's Human Nature and The Family of Blood, while still being a fundamentally different beast. The stakes have never been more massive, and the universe having been ended at the end of part one trump even RTD's increasingly hyperbolic threats without becoming ridiculous. RTD largely avoided silliness too, but there was still a question of whether or not the Moff would pull it off.

Haynes helps a lot by lending the story the most cinematic direction the series has ever had, moreso than this series' The Time of Angels. His influences are very much worn on his sleeve, encompassing both George Lucas odysseys, Star Wars (see those scene transitions?) and Indiana Jones (everything below Stonehenge) alike. It's his first time on the show, but I actually find it hard to imagine any of the more seasoned directors shooting the monster mash here as well as he does.

To bring in Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans and whatever other monster prosthetics were lying around at the studio may well have been an economic move, but it pays off wonderfully. For one thing, the Cybermen haven't been as effective as this in a long long time. And the scale just doesn't get any bigger than the moment when the Doctor is shoved into the Pandorica, as his enemies hope to prevent him from inadvertently destroying the universe. This massive alliance of monsters is almost apologetic for the comparative lack of monsters in the second part, which focuses much more on character and on the resolution of the series arc.

In the way of other two-parters penned by the Moff, it's definitely a story of two very distinctive halves, and the latter is much more cerebral than you'd expect. We've seen wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff before, but it somehow still seems fresh here. At the same time, there's some beautiful character development for Rory, who's been resurrected as a plastic duplicate by the Nestenes. Arthur Darvill is one of the unsung talents working on this series, and it'll be fun to see where the millennia of experience he has on the Doctor takes him next series. Then again, it's always been easy to overlook him with Matt Smith at the helm.

And what a great Doctor he's turned out to be. He has the full gamut of emotion in this story, and the only time it ever seems tired is when the Doctor believes he's going to die, which we already saw David Tennant do on New Year's Day. Smith still combusts with energy every time he's on-screen, and he plays well against everyone who shares it with him, from Caitlin Blackwood, who makes a welcome return as young Amy, to Karen Gillan, whose Elder Pond comes to the fore as her arc is partially resolved.

Even River Song is more palatable this time around. Even though she utterly divested this story of jeopardy by glibly recalling the Pandorica at the end of her last appearance, the character plays a more interesting role without shedding any of her secrets just yet. That's promised for next year, along with what actually caused the TARDIS to explode and nearly bring about the end of the universe. It should be a lot more disappointing than it actually is, that these threads are left hanging. Trouble is, this story is just too wonderful.

Emotional, exciting and ultimately very satisfying indeed, The Pandorica Opens is the most fulfilling series finale since Christopher Eccleston's swansong back in 2005. Both episodes are fantastic in distinctive ways, with the constant of the central performances holding up through to the tantalising Christmas teaser. The story does its job as both a shameless bit of fan-service and as a quality bit of family drama. And best of all, it has a happy ending, which we had never seen in the new series, up until Rory became Mr. Pond, anyway. The upbeat conclusion makes you long for Christmas and the next series more than ever before.

Bravo Mr. Moffat.
I'll be back soon with a quick overview of this series of Doctor Who. Until then, why not share your comments below?

Doctor Who will return to BBC One and BBC HD on Christmas Day.

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