Closing Time

TARDISNot really a huge amount to say about this one from DWM #440. Must… think… of… enough… text… to… flow… neatly… around… TARDIS… graphic!

This is a piece where I quite obviously show up with a conceit in my back pocket, unwrap the thing, then tidy it away again. Somewhere in the middle, there’s a review, too.

DWM #440I’m nursing an undeveloped theory about Gareth Roberts, writer of Closing Time. Not sure where I’m going with it, but it’s essentially this: Gareth Roberts is modern day Doctor Who’s Bob Baker and Dave Martin. Like them, he doesn’t often get to write the glamour episodes and as a result lives somewhere around the middle numbers in end-of-season polls. But, in much the same way the show’s script editors in the 1970s knew to rely upon ‘The Bristol Boys’, he’s all but the programme’s unknown stuntman today.

There’s a reliability about Roberts, and I don’t mean that as a sneaky synonym for mediocrity. You can be assured his stories will be very funny, very quotable, very well crafted and just solid Doctor Who. I imagine, even now, Steven Moffat is in his laboratory (c’mon, it’s not like he hasn’t got one) poring over Gareth scalp dust to culture little cell-sized Robertses he can inject into his writing team. Then they can get busy on the in-between episodes, while the nucleus of this swarm himself indulges in all the first nights and finales.

As I considered committing this thesis to print, the inevitable doubts crept in. But then I picked up my notebook and saw I’d jotted down the following, which is said during the first few minutes of this sequel to 2010’s The Lodger – “Oh, you’ve redecorated. I don’t like it.” The Eleventh Doctor quoting his second incarnation. His second incarnation from Baker and Martin’s The Three Doctors (1972), no less. Contact has been made!

In much the same way the Bristolians’ scripts felt as if they existed in their own continuum – populated by catchphrase-spouting scary monsters (and soliloquising super creeps) – Roberts’ Doctor Who takes place a couple of steps sidewise from the franchise. His Time Lord is more obtuse and alien than our regular Doctor, someone who continues to be mystified by Earth’s 21st century social mores, proffering air-kisses to babies and unknowingly winding up in a discussion with Nurse Gladys Emmanuel off of Open All Hours about acceptable nomenclatures for gay couples. He’s also guilelessly likeable – absolutely adored by everyone he meets.

One could argue this is a more ‘realistic’ interpretation of the character (should we ever beg for one), because in both The Lodger and Closing Time he’s arrived in a version of our world as close as Doctor Who ever gets to the real thing. Against that, the Time Lord is bound to seem weird. He is a man whose first mode of address when entering a bedroom is to declare: “Whoever you are, get off this planet!” and then take things from there. When the Doctor muses that he “gave it 110 percent” he does so as though experimenting with the unique linguistic tics of a bygone age, much as he might venture a “pip pip!” should he be hanging around the Edwardian era.

Roberts, a former soap opera script editor, is predictably fantastic at slipping nuggets of suburbia into the fantasy. What other writer would name an off-screen character something so deflatingly zeitgesty as Melina or convincingly evoke the parlance of Britain’s Got Talent (talk of Nina’s “emotional journey”) while handing us a plot reveal? Make no mistake, these episodes are really going to date – but that’s because they’re so good at evoking right now.

The Doctor’s mate, Craig Owens, embodies all of the above. Not only is he played by comic actor de jour James Corden, but he also bickers, frets and sulks as only modern man can. I particularly enjoyed his pouting, “Don’t have a go at me, just because I don’t know their names,” after encountering the Cybermat. Corden, it has to be said, continues to be terrific in this role. And Bonnie Langford beware, he’s a great little screamer. But more than that, he provides a convincing confidant for our hero. Craig’s someone who’s not especially smart or brave, but well equipped to go on his own – erm – emotional journey to save the day.

This time around, that means he ends up where perhaps too many Doctor Who stories have gone of late… In an expression of paternal love.

Let’s take a moment out, here, to ponder what’s with all the fatherly fretting? From errant dad Captain Avery in The Curse of the Black Spot, to hapless Alex in Night Terrors, via The Almost People’s Ganger Jimmy phoning home to junior. Perhaps all this is sowing the seeds for the next big plot switch, as Fathers 4 Justice come sploshing out of Lake Silencio, spraying silly-string over the Silence.

All this yakking, and nary a mention of the Cybermen. Truth be told, they’re not especially well served in the story and you’ll doubtlessly be docked points at your next ‘Fan Olympiad’ when you forget to list it as one of their adventures. Here, they’re men of Meccano, a generic build of a baddy. Even their grisly cyber-conversion process is rendered bloodless and reversible. Shame, cos of late the Cybermen have looked creepier than ever, lurking in the shadows and sporting funky rust and gnarled armour. However, over the last year or so the series has rather been treating them as crash test dummies. Their re-emergence as flagship felons must come, and soon.

It’s not a big hit on Closing Time, though. The monsters are neither here nor there. This is a tale of friendship and nostalgia, the Doctor coming to Craig so that he may revel one last time in memories of those days when he always won. Matt Smith’s performance as he says goodbye to his mate before signing off to those kids in the street – “I was here to help” – is quiet and sad and dignified. It feels like a swansong.

And then… off we go! We’re all getting kitted up for the big finale. Madame Kovarian finally making her play, River Song donning that impossible astronaut suit. A huge day is ahead for us all.

Thanks, though, Gareth, for taking our hand and guiding us so entertainingly along the road to this point. You looked after us, made us laugh and, I guess, you made us cry a little too (the Doctor clapping eyes on Rory and Amy, but separated from them across a shop floor as emphatically as a parallel universe separated him from Rose). Solid, sterling, stirring stuff. And, just like Bob and Dave, you even snuck a crappy robot dog in there too.


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