Warning: spoilers throughout.
Every season has one (or two, or three), but few before have felt as inconsequential as “The Lodger.” This is not to say the episode is bad – it’s a fine story, and quite funny in spots – but the interconnectivity of this year’s batch of stories, with its sweeping adventure and a mystery that’s been steadily building for nearly three months straight, only emphasizes this tale’s meh-ness.
Written by “Who” regular Gareth Roberts (who loosely adapts a handful of plot points from his 2006 comic book adventure of the same title, a title which allows for a winking homage to the Marie Belloc Lowndes novel), “The Lodger” opens with a smart piece of storytelling frugality. Within less than a minute of their introduction, we know everything we need to know about homebodies Craig (James Corden) and Sophie (Daisy Haggard): they’re madly in love with each other but are both unable to say so, preferring to hide behind their comfortable friendship. We do not require lengthy dialogue passages here, just a few words about pizza and a few well-timed glances and pauses from both actors. There’s a sweetness to this opening section, a winning sense of engaging, relatable drama placed within what appears to be the unremarkable.
Such economy reappears throughout the episode. The mysterious mildew seeping through from upstairs onto Craig’s ceiling is rarely discussed, filling only a few sentences here and there, yet it’s all we need to know something bad is happening upstairs. (Never mind the “lured to their doom” scenes; our own real life “rot equals bad” association is enough to clue us in.) During the football match, the looks on Craig’s face say much more about his jealousy than any dialogue that follows. Near the end, all we need is a simple shot of Sophie’s now-familiar keyring (set up previously as a minor detail) to learn what Craig and the Doctor have realized about her fate.
The quest for such economy can backfire, though, which it does quite unspectacularly in Roberts’ failed attempt to bypass the usual “I’m a Time Lord and here’s why I’m here” exposition. I understand Roberts’ aim here; to a regular viewer, it can be monotonous to wait out yet another character’s discovery of the truth behind the Doctor. And yet, do we really need the Magical Head Butt?
The revived “Who” is a series whose hero’s alien nature allows the writers to take far too many storytelling shortcuts as it is (the sonic screwdriver alone has been reduced to magic wand status, capable of getting the Doctor out of any jam, a relief to writers stuck in plot corners), but few have been as admittedly lazy as the Magical Head Butt, which allows the Doctor to transmit his entire backstory into the mind of another character. He wallops Craig twice: once for the big picture “I’m a Time Lord” stuff, then again for the smaller “here’s what you missed in this episode” bits. Smith and Corden wriggle some good laughs from these moments (as does director Catherine Morshead, who displays a knack for capturing physical comedy), and it’s all presented lightheartedly enough that we’re unable to take it too seriously as a storytelling “out,” but still. The Magical Head Butt is, simply put, lame.
It doesn’t help matters that such a moment comes after a long string of jokey go-nowhere scenes, like the lengthy football match (written by Roberts before Smith was cast but filmed to accentuate his soccer skills), or the “Doctor doesn’t comprehend everyday things” jokes (which exaggerate his outsider-ness to the point of making him a rube), or the shower scene (yes, fangirls around the globe will delight to the sight of Smith in a bath towel, but it’s a looooong way to go for a single “he thinks the toothbrush is his screwdriver” punchline), or the “Doctor gets a job” scene (intended, when paired with the football scene, to suggest the Doctor is automatically great at everything, which doesn’t fit well with the Doctor-as-rube notion; worse, it ultimately turns our hero into a caricature).
The teleplay makes up for it, sort of, with some moments of poignancy. The episode’s main theme – life’s too short to not follow your dreams, but following your heart is even more important – is pleasant, especially when filtered through the Craig-Sophie plotline. When they finally declare their love, the script goes a bit too far underlining the message. The characters are likable enough to make it click, though; there’s probably too much of the Doctor around to make their love connection as effective as the Elton-Ursula tale in “Love and Monsters,” but overall it’s the same vibe, with gentle everyday romance being more exciting than the monster plot supporting it.
Ah, yes, the monster plot. This one has a terrific lead-in, with all that spooky “don’t go up the stairs!” tension, and the script holds that mystery for a significant length – the longer it takes for us to actually go upstairs, the deeper the suspense becomes. And then, well, it’s just some alien with a fake TARDIS and don’t put your hand on it and Craig kisses Sophie and the spaceship leaves and that’s it. It fails to capture the same sense of unease regarding the “perception filter,” and unease that filled a good chunk of “The Eleventh Hour.” It doesn’t provide enough of a satisfying pay-off to the “Amy stuck in a runaway TARDIS” subplot. It doesn’t even bother with much of a wrap-up with the Craig-Sophie story, just a few nice words and a quick goodbye.
Even Amy’s discovery of Rory’s engagement ring – positioned to be this week’s major “OMG!!” cliffhanger – lacked a certain oomph, perhaps because its darker tone was too much of a shift from the rest of the episode.
Maybe that’s the problem. This whole season’s been a long collection of oomph, and now that we’ve hit one without any, it feels more insignificant than it should. I don’t doubt this was on purpose; each season needs a lighter episode to serve as a calm before the storm, and this year’s upcoming two-part finale looks to be quite stormy indeed. But they overdid it. “The Lodger” is a smartly written and finely played misfire, an unnecessary chunk of comic relief that stretches its breezy attitude until it snaps.