|In this scene, Meglos is cleverly disguised as a Silence ship.|
It’s June 12th, 2010. David Guetta is at number one with “Gettin’ Over You,” with Eminem, Alicia Keys, and a duet between Sean Kingston and Justin Bieber also charting. Chris Brown postpones a UK leg of his tour because he can’t get a visa due to the fact that he’s a domestic abuser. The trial of Rod Blagojevich begins, and the World Cup kicks off in South Africa, with England playing their first game, a frankly dismal draw with the United States most notable for goalkeeper Robert Green badly fluffing a routine save.
While on television, or, rather, slightly later in the day on television, Doctor Who offers a bit of late season levity as a calm before the storm. What’s interesting about The Lodger is, in many ways, just how influential it was. Smith’s Doctor had, from the start, been a creature of eccentricity and physical acting, but it’s not until Gareth Roberts wrote him as the funny man in a good old-fashioned comedy double act that the character became what is now the default and recognized version of the character. As with every major development in the Moffat era, this is at the moment visibly polarizing, but equally, given the sizable bloc of people who quite like the Moffat era, seems destined to eventually settle down into a consensus good thing, with the people who currently hate the Moffat era with a passion eventually fading away as its immediacy dissipates, leaving the Moffat era, like every other popularly successful era of Doctor Who, reflected upon primarily by the people who love it.
Which is to say that the question of whether the post-Lodger characterization of the Doctor is any good is ultimately just one I’m not that interested in. Nothing is loved by everyone, but Smith’s post-Lodger Doctor is loved by loads of people, which is frankly good enough. Populism is not equivalent to quality, but the particular eccentricities of a version of the Doctor are a means to an end, and populism pretty much works to determine whether or not they’re succeeding at that end.
Let’s instead, then, look at exactly what quietly changed with The Lodger and why it worked. The Lodger, of course, is itself an adaptation of a Gareth Roberts comic for Doctor Who Magazine featuring the Tenth Doctor and Mickey. “Adaptation,” in this case, is a terribly loose term. Several of the specific gags are recycled: the Doctor playing football, the sonic screwdriver/toothbrush confusion (although the subject of the gag switches), the “talk the girlfriend into doing something with her life” bit, and even the detail of the Doctor making an omelette are preserved. But “The Lodger” is basically a sequence of one-page gags based around the idea that the Doctor is good at everything, framed by a kind of sweet story about the Doctor trying to make things work between Rose and Mickey.
The Lodger is straightforwardly a comedy, but its basic joke is different. Instead of being about the Doctor’s universal hyper-competence, it’s about the idea that the Doctor is simultaneously wonderful at everything and completely and utterly maladapted to society. Where “The Lodger” made jokes about the Doctor being good at all sorts of weird stuff, The Lodger jokes about the absurdity of the way in which he is good at them. “The Lodger” plays at this occasionally, most notably when the Doctor wins a video game without firing a shot because “there’s always another way,” but this is fundamentally different from the joke of the Doctor being an astonishing football player who then misunderstands his teammate’s comment about annihilating the opposition, even though both trade on essentially the same set of character traits. The result is that The Lodger becomes a story about how the Doctor is completely and utterly mad. Where “The Lodger” is about the humor of the Doctor being good at all manner of things, The Lodger is about the absurdity of putting him in those situations in the first place.
The reason this works supremely well in The Lodger, at least, is twofold. First is that Matt Smith turns out to be very, very good at playing that sort of comedy. His broadly physical performance has always made his Doctor seem just a little madder than any of his predecessors, and it turns out that he’s absolutely magical at dropping that into sedate settings and just unleashing a bunch of impressive chaos. But this only gets proven because of how perfectly engineered the situation into which the Doctor is dropped is. First and foremost, Roberts writes a beautifully standard issue romantic comedy. This may sound like damning with faint praise, but it’s really not – the nature of Doctor Who is that the genre you drop the Doctor into has to be developed incredibly quickly. Craig and Sophie are efficient characters who nevertheless have enough detail to be engaging.
A fair portion of this is down to the fact that Roberts worked out a solid amount of background for Craig and Sophie hat didn’t make it into the episode – much of it detailed in The Brilliant Book alongside some more obviously humorous material like the Oligarch of Lammasteen, an explanation for the bizarrely unsettling portrait hanging in Craig’s front hall, others real bits of background Roberts created for the props department (who wanted to know how to decorate Craig’s apartment), and others bits created for the book. But ultimately, the particular reasons why this extra material exists is immaterial – the point is that he’s thought about the characters enough to be able to structure a gag like the observation that Melina is “Sophie’s fourth best friend, who thinks she is Sophie’s best friend,” coupled with the character of Clare, who is “Sophie’s third best friend, who thinks she is Sophie’s second best friend,” a joke which says so much about Sophie. (Notably, her second best friend is never revealed at all.) It’s not that Craig or Sophie are enormously complex characters, but they’re characters that Roberts has taken the time to develop to where he can riff on them.
But this is only part of the story. A huge amount also comes from fact that Daisy Haggard and James Corden and are both very solid comic actors. Corden gets the bulk of the praise, and fair enough, as he’s got the bigger role, but Haggard, formerly of the transcendently clever Man Stroke Woman, is in many regards just as good, making Sophie compelling with less than half as many lines as Craig gets. Corden, however, is absolutely essential to the episode. For Smith’s comedic performance to really land, he needs an absolutely rock solid straight man, and Corden rises to the task. It’s fashionable to dislike Corden, who is not always great at making himself sympathetic in public, but he’s a veteran comedic actor of the sort that The Lodger needs to function. His role in the story is genuinely tricky: he has to simultaneously make Craig into a sizable enough character to serve as a one-off companion and consistently serve up a platform of beleaguered sanity for Smith to play in. Corden isn’t primarily a straight man (although he’s played the role before), and could have absolutely killed the episode stone dead by hamming up the part. Instead he manages the feat of being the big name celebrity guest star and the junior partner with aplomb. (Compare to Vincent and the Doctor, where Tony Curtis pushes Matt Smith into being the co-star of his own show. Which is wholly appropriate for that story, but would have been a nightmare here.)
That, at least, explains The Lodger itself – it works because it’s a well-structured comedy, and doubly so because it’s sandwiched between a rather intense story about suicide and mental illness and the sweepingly epic season finale, which is a good place for light comedy. But why has it had such influence? Why, after this point, does Matt Smith’s Doctor start getting written this way by everyone else? Part of the reason, certainly, is that it gets written this way by Moffat, which sets the template for everyone else. And why Moffat would embrace this characterization is straightforward. Moffat, after all, got his start as a sitcom writer, and particularly a specialist in farce. The structure of farce is essentially one of continually escalating tension followed by massive and cataclysmic release: you steadily pile on more and more misunderstandings and complexities, and then finally bring the entire structure crashing down as everybody simultaneously figures out what’s going on.
The moment right before the balloon pops in a farce is typically characterized by having a character – typically one who has made a basically reasonable if rather self-evidently ill-advised set of decisions up to this point – behaving in a completely absurd and ridiculous manner. Which explains why Roberts’s characterization of the Eleventh Doctor is so desirable for Moffat: he can jump right to that moment with essentially no buildup. Furthermore, because the Doctor is not actually behaving stupidly when he triggers the farce-climax moment, it’s something that doesn’t end the plot so much as move it forwards.
What this ends up doing is fueling a trend that develops over Series Six and Seven of narrative velocity – a tendency for individual stories to begin moving with increasing and impressive speed. There are a number of new sorts of narrative conventions Moffat adopts to pull this off, and he eventually ports the technique over to Sherlock where he has to develop yet another approach to it, but one of the earliest is essentially a straightforward derivative of The Lodger in which the degree to which the Doctor can immediately introduce massive amounts of chaos to a situation by bringing about a farce-climax is used to simply eliminate entire concepts in seconds. Another, equally important, is the degree to which “here’s a shot of Matt Smith being completely bonkers” is a straightforward and acceptable image that requires little to no exposition or setup.
But more broadly, there’s a change in the basic conception of the Doctor here in which “completely and utterly mad” becomes the default state, and, perhaps more to the point, where the sense of the Doctor as continually being too large for the narrative starts to be established. The other thing that really ramps up after The Lodger, and that seems to come from the way in which this episode is largely structured as a series of gags based on seeing Matt Smith behaving ridiculously, is the tendency to suggest that the Doctor has a nearly limitless number of extra adventures shoved in the margins of the text. This has always been a popular idea among Doctor Who writers who play with the expanded universe, since it’s what lets any given era of Doctor Who become a fractal into which more and more stories can be inserted. But the Moffat era is where the vast number of extra stories that can be inserted becomes a fundamental part of the narrative, and where mini-adventures start to be sketched out by a single televisual portrait of a particularly absurd comic beat. (This is, in fact, where Series Six starts.)
Much of that comes from The Lodger and Roberts’s discovery that you can basically just put the Doctor into any situation and have it make sense with a few lines of entertaining dialogue. This is something that raises a real and proper question about its long-term implications. So far we’ve seen it work because Matt Smith is an extremely gifted physical actor, which means that the old actorly “I can do all this dialogue with a look” argument for why they shouldn’t have to memorize so many lines becomes even more true. You can sketch out an entire story by panning across a chaotic scene to get to Matt Smith looking confused and slightly guilty. This is not intrinsically true of other Doctors – indeed, trying to copy it with Capaldi would probably be, in a variety of ways, a poor idea.
But on the other hand, the narrative techniques that have developed out of that fact are much less likely to disappear, at least while Moffat is still in charge. And, if I may risk being speculative over things outside the scope of this project, I suspect that they won’t simply because Moffat’s experimentation with just how fast you can pace a narrative is properly experimental and groundbreaking in a way that makes enduring influence seem inevitable. And while it’s not accurate to say that Roberts invented all of those approaches, he did figure out the characterization for Matt Smith’s Doctor that allowed them to develop. What we have in The Lodger, in other words, seems very much like a story much like The War Machines or The Mark of the Rani that quietly introduce a major new approach to the series, albeit in what, at the time, is such a rough draft that it doesn’t feel momentous until you’ve seen how many imitators it has. Unlike The War Machines and The Mark of the Rani, however, The Lodger stands on its own merits and is as good as it is important.