DOCTOR WHO: 'Closing Time'
Last season's 'The Lodger' was one of New Who's more successful stand-alones, a charming little knockabout comedy which found an unexpectedly sympathetic guest star in Gavin & Stacey's James Corden, playing landlord Craig Owens. Sidelining the usual companions for an hour, 'Lodger' stumbled upon a winning formula by forcing The Doctor to live briefly under (relatively) everyday rules, rather than being able to impose his extraordinary powers over normality.
'Closing Time', written once again by Gareth Roberts, attempted to pull the same trick over again, but struggled to achieve any of its goals, whether as a sequel to 'Lodger', a double-header between Craig and The Doctor, a story in its own right, or the final step before next week's season finale.
The plot of 'The Lodger' didn't hold together all that well, but its premise was distinctive enough and the entertainment sufficiently distracting that it didn't really matter. The Doctor was playing football! Having a shower! Building a thing out of stuff in his bedroom! He had a bedroom! 'Closing Time' couldn't come up with a sufficiently convincing premise that would allow this to happen again, so settled for a more standard Who format - Doctor arrives on Craig's doorstep, quotes Patrick Troughton, notices something is amiss and sticks around to check it out - then wrangled in moments of 'everyday' for The Doctor to engage with. Thus, he works in a shop, briefly, and chats to a baby.
Those individual moments were charming enough, courtesy of Matt Smith having an easy rapport with children of all ages - fangirls will no doubt be swooning at the sight of him giving a baby nicknamed Stormageddon a quick kiss on the side of the head - but were too piecemeal to cover up the shortcomings prominent elsewhere. As mentioned, 'Lodger' worked because it felt like a break from the usual Who formula. 'Closing Time' tried to recapture its predecessor's spirit within that standard formula, resulting in an episode that wasn't good enough at being either, while lumbering under a plot that never convinced as anything other than a messy attempt to recapture an old glory.
By now, Who has been going long enough that its writers can do these episodes without them being bad, per se - certainly nothing so dreadful as 'Love & Monsters', anyway - but still can't justify their existence well enough to make them feel like anything other than the filler they are. The Doctor's time with Craig didn't need to be revisited, with neither having much to offer each other this time around. Does it make sense that The Doctor might revisit an old friend on the eve of his apparent death? Sure, why not. The problem was that he didn't go there with a purpose and giving him a problem to solve that Craig had nothing to do with was no help in giving his visit any greater substance. Craig is well-meaning, but not especially intuitive or wise: no new light was shed on The Doctor's impending death by his knowing about it, other than in him being someone to deliver exposition to. The Ponds made a fleeting appearance - Amy now apparently a famous model, selling a perfume called Petrichor, a nice nod to the season's best episode to date but possibly not the best name for a scent.
Speaking of which, there has clearly been a pretty big jump between The Doctor ditching the Ponds and arriving on Craig's doorstep, since the Doctor who posted the blue envelopes which kicked off The Impossible Astronaut was, if memory serves correctly, two hundred years older than the one whom we followed for the rest of the episode. Unless he was lying, and we know that The Doctor does lie, 'Closing Time' was either trying to get around that piece of uncomfortable continuity, or just dealt with it very badly.
Roberts' history on Who doesn't suggest someone at ease with working inside larger story arcs (he has only ever done stand-alone stories in the past) and the final few minutes of this episode were particularly messy in throwing together everything that needed to be in place for the finale. River Song was captured from her university and placed into the astronaut gear, the eyepatch nurse (whose name I've forgotten) got some hammy lines to deliver and The Silence/Silents made a return, just in case we'd forgotten them both. The Doctor was even given a stetson from completion's sake, even though it would have been a more natural fit for him to pick one up upon his arrival in the US.
Those final minutes were not helped by being so isolated from the rest of the episode. For sure, The Doctor mentioned that he was going to die a few times and there were hints at his guilt over drawing people into trouble - which, as I stated last week, he has been aware of for some time without it bothering him before - but it was mostly gallivanting around a clothes shop and a half-hearted excuse for a Cybermen plot (did I miss how it was explained that they ended up underneath Colchester, or was the reason just quietly forgotten?) that was recycling from start - people going missing is Cybermen story #101, while the Cybermat was a hollow attempt to distract fans with nostalgia - to finish - the 'love conquers all' ending again? Even Roberts evidently realised how terrible his ending was and tried without success to turn it into a joke.
Next week's finale looks like Moffat throwing everything and anything into the pot, from Churchill to Daleks (didn't take them long to come back, then) and Vikings and futuristic eyepatches. Hopefully it will not mark the apotheosis of a story arc that has become increasingly tangled and messy, but instead prove Moffat's assertions that he has known what he has been doing all along. It will take quite a feat of writing to pull together River Song, her relationship with the Ponds and how she came to be so important to The Doctor - who you would think might have shared some moments of emotional intimacy by now, should next week be their ultimate encounter - but fingers crossed that fans' trust in 'The Moff' is not misplaced.
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