Saturday 1 October 2011

Doctor Who - Closing Time

The last few episodes of Doctor Who have shown a significant improvement over the earlier episodes of this year. The arc plot has taken a back seat, and while that does create the question of why the characters are ignoring it (particularly Amy and Rory and their forgotten parenthood), it has allowed the episodes to shine on their own merits. “The Girl Who Waited” and “The God Complex” were both substantially better than anything this season apart from “The Doctor’s Wife”, and now “Closing Time” also ranks with those lofty three. It shows a much older Doctor (possibly as much as 200 years have passed since “The God Complex” if the ages given in “The Impossible Astronaut” can be trusted—of course, it’s hard to trust the Doctor when he gives his age) on his way to his death. On one of his last stops on his “farewell tour”, one day before his fated death, he stops in to see his old friend Craig, first seen in “The Lodger”, one of last year’s best episodes. “Closing Time” is written by Gareth Roberts, who also wrote “The Lodger” last year as well as previous stories, “The Shakespeare Code”, “The Unicorn and the Wasp”, and “Planet of the Dead” (the last he co-wrote with Russell T. Davies). He has also written numerous episodes of the Sarah Jane Adventures and many Doctor Who novels. As such, he has a lot of experience writing for Doctor Who and it shows. In particular, he is expert at blending humour with horror, a key aspect of Doctor Who and something that “Closing Time” has in abundance.

Closing Time” guest stars James Corden, reprising his role as Craig Owens from “The Lodger”. Although he is best known for comedy, Corden slides into a dramatic role with ease, lending his comedic talents when necessary, but never taking them over the top. His on-screen chemistry with Matt Smith is wonderful. The two of them work off one another with astounding ease and look perfectly natural together. Craig is one of the most believable and sympathetic characters to appear on the show in quite some time. He is instantly likeable and it is very easy to understand both his frustration with, and trust in, the Doctor. As in “The Lodger”, Craig essentially has the role of surrogate companion in this story, and one of the purposes of the companion has always been to provide a link to the real world for the viewer, to provide a character that the viewer can easily relate to. Even though Craig’s role is often comical, he succeeds in this purpose better than many of the Doctor’s actual companions. SPOILERS FOLLOW

Also returning from “The Lodger” is Daisy Haggard as Sophie, Craig’s partner. Alas, she only has a couple cameo appearances, at the beginning and at the end. Sophie is going away for the weekend, leaving Craig alone with their new baby, Alfie—or, as Alfie would prefer to be known, Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All. Craig, of course, is unsure of his ability to be a good father, and it’s only through his adventure with the Doctor that he discovers his true potential. There has been a recurring theme this year of father/son relationships. “Night Terrors” focused on the relationship between young George and his father, while his mother was conveniently away for the night. There was also a prominent father/son subplot in “The Rebel Flesh”/“The Also People”. I’m not entirely certain whether this is a deliberate theme or just a coincidence (it could be an allusion to the Doctor being like a father-figure, but if that were the case, I’d expect to see some father/daughter relationships as well, especially as that would draw a parallel to the Doctor being a father-figure for Amy), but it is becoming quite noticeable. It works in “Closing Time” much better than it does in the previous stories, due to Craig being a much more three-dimensional character than the previous fathers, and as Stormageddon is only a baby, there is no need to rely on a child actor to have good chemistry with Corden. Corden can carry the whole relationship himself, which he does extremely well.

Of course, the father/son theme plays directly into the highly sentimental resolution where the power of love once more saves the day. This is becoming a bit of a running theme, too. There have been a lot of recent episodes which have involved triumph through some sort of emotional response. Just last week, “The God Complex” was resolved by Amy’s loss of faith in the Doctor. Just a few weeks ago, “Night Terrors” had the exact same resolution. The evil dolls were defeated by Alex’s declaring his love for his son. And this week, the Cybermen are defeated by Craig declaring his love for Alfie. “Victory of the Daleks” last year even had a Dalek bomb being diffused by the power of love! It’s a resolution that can be hard to swallow even in small doses, but now it seems to be showing up quite frequently on Doctor Who. That said, much like the father/son relationship theme, this theme does work better in this story than it did in “Night Terrors” or “Victory of the Daleks”. It is an established fact that shutting off a Cyberman’s emotional inhibitors can cause it to go haywire, so it’s not a stretch that love can actually kill them. However, it is incredibly convenient that the Cybermen’s security system just happened to focus on Alfie at that moment and just happened to start broadcasting right at that precise moment. Those monitors do not appear to be on just moments before. Why do they suddenly come on just then? Also, why does the Cyber-helmet that has been clamped round Craig’s head suddenly split open again just because he’s managed to hold on to his emotions? This love-conquers-all resolution could have worked much better if it had simply avoided layering on these “cheesy” aspects. Instead, the Doctor could pull free from the Cybermen holding him just long enough to switch the security monitors on, allowing Craig to hear Alfie and hold onto his emotions. Then, when he breaks out of the conversion device, he could simply pull the helmet off himself rather than it mystically come off all on its own. The resolution would have also worked better if we hadn’t seen the exact same resolution just a couple of weeks ago.

Although it is a very light-hearted episode with many laugh-aloud moments, there is a very dark undercurrent to “Closing Time”. The Doctor knows he’s soon to die and even seems to have accepted it. More than that, it builds on the previous two episodes, particularly “The God Complex”, where the Doctor has had to come to terms with the way he manipulates his companions and leads them inevitably into danger where they might die or be otherwise permanently traumatized. The implication is that the Doctor has been travelling alone for the last couple of centuries (something the tenth Doctor attempted at the end of his time, but for nowhere near as long), doing his best not to get involved in events and not cause the pain and anguish he’s come to believe he causes. The last three episodes, including this one, have shown wonderful character development and continuity to a level not seen for the last two years. It’s happened fast, but believably.

Several scenes showcase this, but the seminal one has to be when the Doctor is alone with Alfie/Stormageddon. It’s one of the most powerful scenes of the eleventh Doctor so far. Having the Doctor able to “speak baby” is really quite silly, and its inclusion could easily have ruined this story. Strangely though, its silliness works utterly brilliantly. This is due entirely to Matt Smith’s ability to make it completely real. Smith has a real talent when paired with child actors, even babies. He works exceedingly well with them. Smith manages to take the absurdity of the Doctor having a conversation with a baby and blend in feelings of utter despair and loneliness. We see here just how much the Doctor longs for companionship and just how much he wants a “normal life”, even though he knows he can never have one. The Doctor here is the oldest we have ever seen him, and I don’t mean that in terms of his physical age. He is old because of his weariness, his longing for it all to finally be over. “I lived my dream,” the Doctor says. “I owned the stage, gave it a hundred and ten percent. I hope you have as much fun as I did, Alfie.” These are some of the most heartbreaking lines ever uttered on the programme, paradoxically delivered by the youngest actor yet to play the Doctor and said to a baby. Yet it makes for a brilliant juxtaposition: this very young-looking man who is ever so old paired up with a character who is as young as you can possibly get.

The story is also very therapeutic for the Doctor. Through Craig, he once more gets to see the good effects he can have on people’s lives. The weary Doctor we are introduced to in this story has been heavily affected by the events of the last few episodes (and likely other events that have taken place in the gap between those stories and this one). He tries desperately to avoid becoming involved in the problem that he can plainly see is there because he is terrified of getting people killed. Once more, he tries to make other people’s decisions for them by refusing to let Craig help, but Craig stands his ground, and through Craig, the Doctor can see that not everything turns out badly, and even if it does, his companions chose their fates, knowing full well the risks.

The cameo appearance by Amy and Rory is interesting. It, too, gives us a look at the Doctor’s loneliness. While he watches them without their knowing he’s there, we can see how much he longs to have someone to travel with again. There’s also the question of when this is. When I viewed this the first time, I got the impression that this was Amy and Rory after leaving the Doctor. The fact that Amy appears to have become a successful model (selling a perfume called Petrichor, a word first mentioned back in “The Doctor’s Wife”) would seem to support this. However, on second viewing, I couldn’t help noticing the date on the paper the Doctor carries around for the first part of the story and quite prominently shows Craig is 15th April, 2011, just before the Doctor’s death. In Amy and Rory’s timeline, this would be during their honeymoon/holiday from the Doctor between “A Christmas Carol” and “The Impossible Astronaut”. I’m not sure if the date on the paper is accurate or just an oversight. If it’s accurate, it creates the question of why we have never heard of Amy’s modelling career before. But then again, we were recently introduced to Amy’s best friend without ever seeing her before either. When it comes to Amy, it’s not really surprising. Whatever the case, it doesn’t diminish the effect on the Doctor, which is the main point of the scene.

Closing Time” also offers a refreshing change of pace for the viewer. After a couple episodes in a row set in very isolated locations with few, if any, supporting characters, this episode takes us to a very normal location, populated by normal people. There are actually extras wandering around in the background, and several small-role characters. Even better, those bit parts are not just two-dimensional walk-ons as we’ve sometimes been treated to in the last year or so. They are believable, three-dimensional characters in their own right.

Then we come to the Cybermen. One thing I have really liked since Steven Moffat took over the show is that it has finally moved away from the alternate reality Cybermen and back to the Cybermen of our universe. The alternate reality ones worked the first couple of times, but by “The Next Doctor”, the reasons for why this latest batch managed to cross over between universes were starting to feel contrived. Returning to this universe’s Cybermen was a wise and overdue decision. I have seen some accusations that “Closing Time” makes the Cybermen seem weak and too easily defeated, that there is no menace to them. I have to disagree with this assessment, but I understand where it’s coming from. The means through which they are defeated does have the effect of making them appear unmenacing, but I would say this is mainly due to the problems I discussed above and the fact that an apparently easy defeat makes one forget any previous menace they have demonstrated. For throughout the rest of the story, the Cybermen most definitely are menacing. They don’t appear on screen very often, this is true, but if anything, that increases their menace. The Cybermen in “Closing Time” are calculating. They don’t have a huge army to march out and slaughter people with, so instead, they work from behind the scenes, slowly collecting victims to convert into more Cybermen. I would say that this is much more menacing than scenes of Cybermen armies marching down the street. The return of the Cybermats is also quite welcome. The last appearance of the Cybermats was in the 1974 story, “Revenge of the Cybermen” with Tom Baker. The Cybermat in this story is both suitably menacing and eerily cute.

Apart from the sentimental resolution, the weakest part of the episode is the coda, which brings the arc back to the forefront and ends the episode on a cliffhanger. Honestly, I feel it was overdone, and detracted from the episode. Why did those children stop and stare at the Doctor before he did anything? The Doctor is famous about the universe, but he’s not that famous. He’s not instantly recognized by anyone who sees him, especially a trio of random kids who see him on the street. If the Doctor had spoken to them first, I could understand their stopping to look at this strange person saying these strange things. But they stop and stare at him first. And then we’re meant to believe that they wrote down their experience of having met the Doctor to be kept for posterity so that River Song could read their recollections three thousand years later. Again, how do they know he’s the Doctor? Perhaps this is a mystery that will be revealed in the next episode, this year’s finale. However, I honestly don’t think it will be explained, because it’s not displayed here as a mystery. It’s presented in a way that seems to expect us to just accept that these three children recognize the Doctor, as if this is perfectly normal. Especially since this moment isn’t the cliffhanger. It is there for no other reason than to present us with something that River Song is reading in the future. From there, we have Madame Kovarian showing up along with a couple of Silents and the not particularly surprising revelation of just who was in the astronaut suit in “The Impossible Astronaut”. The cliffhanger doesn’t work because it’s not a surprise. “Let’s Kill Hitler” already told us that River kills the Doctor at Lake Silencio on April 22, 2011. Seeing her in the suit now doesn’t add anything to this. All it does is tear us away from a completely different story that is not about River Song. This story is about the Doctor preparing for death. “Closing Time” should have ended with the Doctor at the TARDIS doors, saying, “Well the, Old Girl. One last trip, eh?” This cliffhanger scene should have been the opening to the next episode.

The problems with the ending aside (both the resolution of the main plot and the cliffhanger), “Closing Time” is a great little story. It’s funny, fun, scary, and heartbreaking. It’s not the kind of story that would work every week, but one story like this or “The Lodger” each year makes a great break from the usual fare and showcases one of Doctor Who’s greatest strengths, the thing that has kept it going for 32 seasons over nearly 50 years: its ability to show a vast variety of different styles.

No comments:

Post a Comment