darkness, death and drashigs

TV Lovely’s not really a word that’s often used to describe Doctor Who, largely because there’s rarely anything to describe as lovely what with all the darkness, death and drashigs, but it suits Gareth Roberts’s Closing Time perfectly so I’m going to use it. That was lovely. A love letter to the Russell T Davies era and the kind of welcome alternative that only Doctor Who could offer from the surrealist trilogy of the past few weeks, it seems designed for those viewers who’ve found themselves a bit alienated recently and much prefer the Doctor teaming up with his old friends to fight Cybermen. Lovely.

The problem with lovely things, of course, is that they can become dulled by too much analysis of the kind which usually clogs up this weekly column. At university I had to write an essay about whether Amelie “conformed to the standard conventions of femininity in film” with reference to “the psychoanalytical theories contained in Freud’s Oedipal complex” and “elements of Lacan’s theory of the mirror phase in the development of human sexuality” and I’ve not been able to watch it since because I discovered that far from offering a brew of female empowerment, she’ll still ended up only being fulfilled at the end by the love of a man. Now I’ve spoiled it for you too.

Let’s tread carefully then and try not to refer to anyone who does their best work when sitting next to someone lying on a couch. Pre-publicity including Gareth Roberts’s interviews have suggested this is the first stand-alone episode. It depends upon your definition. It fundamentally has a different plot to next week, but the reason for it's existence, the Doctor making a final domestic stop before confronting his demise in an unseen gap somewhere in the teaser for The Impossible Astronaut places it firmly in the main story arc for these two seasons. We’re at episode twenty-five of a twenty-six part story (give or take some specials). Plus there’s the final scene. Stand alone episodes aren’t what they used to be.

As though to echo his first adventure in this new iteration at the end of his life, the Davies episode Closing Time most resembles is Rose. Except when the shop worker enters the shadows to be menaced by an old monster this time, the Doctor’s not there to hold her hand and whisk her away, too busy reacquainting with Craig. Like Rose, the threat is secondary, a way of bringing the Doctor and his companion, sorry, partner, closer, then romance, now bromance, and like Rose, it’s up to the partner to save the day as the Doctor stands on hopelessly trapped within the arms of his adversary.

Which also means that like Rose, the highlight is the screwball, and as with its antecedent, The Lodger, that zinged. Much of the episode is about Craig’s Mindy dealing the Doctor’s Morkishness, the alien qualities which he now finds rather charming if a bit frustrating with all the baby talk (lovely) and the shadows which have crept into his deep-set eyes. With two hundred more years on him since they last met, this Doctor even seems to have a clearly understanding of humanity than his old friend and the best scenes are when the Time Lord is instructing the human on looking after his son or aiding in the investigation.

Like the Davies era, this is also an episode which freely embraces pop culture.  Does mentioning Star Trek rule out a crossover now?  Best not tell IDW who now have the rights to both and were probably planning a crossover comic as we watch, the crossover Davies himself dreamed of back in the days before Enterprise was cancelled and Trekkers didn't have to wait years for a new instalment.  The shoe is firmly placed on the other foot.  Enjoy too the gentle satire on the show's main ratings rivals on ITV back when the show was a summer series, the Doctor slightly more pleasant in his approach to the karaoke Sauron and his hoards than Marina Hyde.

Parenthood has been a strong running theme through this past couple of years, people without them, people becoming them, and once again it’s parental love which wins through just as it did a couple of weeks ago in Night Terrors. Not having been a parent, this will be one of those moments in which my experience will be different to others, not having heard the sound of my own child in distress. But I know from my own experience what your parents are capable of and how they’ve always been there for me. That’s not a conversation we’ve ever had. When did they learn how to be such good parents? When I first cried? I cried a lot when I was a baby apparently. Still do.

Roberts etc are quite ambiguous as to the nature of these Cybermen. The design suggests some more marooned Cybus industry models ala The Next Doctor but with breast plates largely blown out they could just as well be renovated Mondasians. But it’s the nature of the story that, like the Autons who weren’t even named in Rose, such exposition isn’t included. Apart from all the cybermat fun (who’s attack run was also similar to the severed hand of the shop dummy) they might as well have been any number of other monsters. Their final end is almost perfunctory, the Doctor recalling his methodology from The Age of Steel, a feedback of emotions, the new gold to the chest.

Now do you see what analysis does to an episode like this? Enough! What next? Right, the actors. Hate James Cordon as much as you like when he’s not acting, but he’s simply marvellous as Craig, the sort of character who’s quite rare in television Who, of the kind which seems to have wandered in from a Cold Feet-style comedy drama and probably has given the actor’s previous work in Fat Friends and Gavin & Stacey.  Even in the "pervert" scene (for want of a better description) he doesn't overplay the moment, caricature it.  For a brief moment we were back in one of Donna's misunderstandings and that's high praise indeed.

Linda Baron was in Fat Friends briefly too, but this franchise knows her best as Captain Wrack in that last couple of episodes of Enlightenment and the singer of The Last Chance Saloon in The Gunfighters. Glancing across her CV, she’s bestrode British television with appearances in most popular drama series, sometimes as a regular which accounts for why she fits so well in here. A woman who offered one of the campest performances of the eighties, doesn’t exactly dial it down here since hers is, if we must continue the Rose analogy, the Jackie Tyler role of cluelessly introducing a vital piece of information without quite realising it.

Matt carries his weariness well. How do you play a character who’s physically the same but a couple of centuries older than in his previous appearance. You sag your shoulders slightly, perhaps droop your eyelids a bit, offer a bit of forced jollity. This is the bedside confession to Amelia from The Big Bang stretched out across a whole episode and you can see the thought processes of a man who’s already resigned himself to his fate linking in seamlessly to the opening of this season, helped by the explanation of where the Doctor’s now iconic stetson came from. Older Eleventh Doctor has feet of clay but he retains his smile.

Clearly his best moment was when seeing Amy and Rory. Hiding back, trying to remain unseen, he somehow manages to make the character suddenly become very small, not least because not for the first time Pond is towering over him. Given her previous employment, it's just right that Amy should have become a cosmetics model with a brightly metafictional advertising slogan. There’s a running theme this series of episode titles turning up in the actual scripts, and here it is again in a knowingly modified form. But I’m analysing rather than reviewing again.  Is there a difference?  I'm beginning to wonder.  Sorry. I’ll stop.  Steve Hughes’s direction was proficient wasn’t it?

Oh sod, I can’t hold it in any longer. That final scene. THAT FINAL SCENE. Even if its surprise existence was rather ruined by the cast list in the Radio Times. The fact of River Song’s appearance in the astronaut suit is a shock to no one other than that it is actually River Song and that her confession that she killed “a good man” wasn’t a clever misdirect but for once actually the truth. As far as we can tell. Unless there’s another astronaut in the drink with her. You have to love Doctor Who’s ability to leap from a fairly straightforward domestic romp (stop it) straight back in the mythology with what amounts to a teaser for next week.

Stand alone or not, Closing Time is a brave choice for a penultimate episode, especially considering the sheer weight of mythology which is currently in a holding pattern. Funny when it needs to be, heartbreaking too, it’s a demonstration of just how carefully though through even the pacing of the season has been. The forums are already filling up with people criticising it for not being the epic lead in to the finale but sometimes drama needs to be unexpected, needs to try something weird just to stay fresh and Doctor Who’s no different and if you don’t realise that by now … well … you’re just not paying attention.

Next week: Two years plus worth of mythology tied up in forty-five minutes. No, this is where it gets complicated.

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