So it’s 2011 and we still haven’t had a Doctor Who story where the Cybermen have really been used in an effective way since 1969. We had a couple of decades of stomping robots with bad attitudes, and then the Cybusmen, who were at least an attempt to do something interesting, but ended up looking feeble in comparison to the Daleks in Doomsday and then, having robbed them of their credibility, with subsidiary monsters to beef up the concept in The Next Doctor.
In Rise of the Cybermen there was a sense of reaching back to the Sixties for the reasons why they worked so well back then, and doing a greatest hits, all conversion and tunnels. In Closing Time we get the same impression, with the Cybermen used as a creepy underground threat, Cybermen converting humans, and the Cybermats brought back again. These are still Cybusmen with the “C”s removed, but we are finally getting somewhere, and we are definitely on a curve to a point where the Cybermen will be fabulous and terrifying once again. This episode does a lot to rehabilitate them as a convincing threat, and they really did need rehabilitating. In A Good Man Goes to War we saw an entire army of Cybermen dispatched with ease, as a sideline to the main story. Here a handful of Cybermen pose a genuine danger to the Doctor.
This new Bigger Badder approach to the Cybermen is helped by a strong contrast between the cold fear of the underground Cybermen and the family warmth and humour of Craig’s life. Once again the Doctor storms into his life and is fabulous and exciting and turns it upside down. This bookends (if you can have a bookend with only one episode in between) nicely with The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, both of which feature the Doctor as a kind of Willy Wonka figure, and with one episode looking at the power of fatherhood and the other the power of motherhood. Like The Lodger, this is about helping Craig enter a new phase in his life, one in which he is struggling to take that crucial next step. Previously he didn’t know how to embark on a relationship that was clearly waiting to happen. Here he doesn’t quite know what his role is as a father, something that can be overshadowed by motherhood. The focus on this issue is kept in the forefront of the episode, with Sophie now sidelined as an incidental character rather than playing any kind of prominent role in the plot.
The Doctor’s own approach to parenting is interesting: he ramps up the silliness and awesomeness to the max. This is what the “Stormageddon” stuff is about – it makes zero sense but it is all about the Doctor dealing with babies by being as Doctorish as he can. It kind-of works, in the same way that his pseudo-relationships kind-of work, but he fails to engage on any meaningful level with what fatherhood is all about. Being heroic and impressive and protective is a tiny part of it, if indeed it is any part of it at all. This plays into a theme that has been around as long as Doctor Who: he sidesteps familial ties. He never really understands what it is to be a parent any more than he understands what being a husband means. He confused being a grandfather with being an owner, and he never could bring himself to fully commit to either Rose or River. But that doesn’t stop him being brilliant at helping other people to learn what those things are all about. He can help others, but he can’t seem to help himself.
The last few episodes this series have been pretty intense, and we are nearing the resolution of an extremely intense season arc, all wrapped up in the Doctor’s death, his relationship to River Song and his companions, and the kidnapping of a child. When a season gets into this kind of deep territory it is often a good idea to have an episode that is lighter in tone, and this is something genre series do regularly towards the end of a season (recent examples in Doctor Who are Boom Town and of course The Lodger itself). The trick is to avoid making them feel like filler episodes, and this is especially difficult because they tend to be comedies by their very nature. A good way to avoid the problem is to have some real emotional depth, and Craig learning the meaning of fatherhood is a perfect way to do this. And it’s not just about fatherhood. He takes on the traditional companion role here, and like many of the best companions he is an ordinary human learning how to be amazing. As is so often the case, the key to that is simply to remain true to who he is, and to step up and be brave in the face of difficulties and fears. As a metaphor for fatherhood, that’s spot on. RP
The view from across the pond:
This review picks up from where my previous review for The Lodger left off. This time, James Corden’s Craig is back and the Doctor is dropping in for a visit in Closing Time.
The Doctor drops by right after Craig’s wife, Sophie, has gone out leaving her husband with their new baby, Stormaggedon. Or Alfie, as humans call him. And little does she know when leaving, her neighborhood is under threat from Cybermen. In a department store…. (It could be worse; it could have been a grocery store!)
The thing is, this episode is utterly “filler”. It falls right before a highly anticipated season finale and does nothing for the big build-up. So much so, that even regular cast members Amy and Rory are absent (short of a brief onscreen moment). That doesn’t mean it’s not a good episode. Since 2005, Doctor Who has been aiming for epic, season-spanning stories; something linking all of them (Bad Wolf, Torchwood, Mr. Saxon, The Doctor/Donna, the mystery of Amy…). This story doesn’t help the latest arc, but it does give us a fun episode. And I’m not naïve; I know it’s because I thought Craig was an amazingly fun pseudo-companion! I admitted it in my previous review: he reminds me of one of my very best friends (go on, look to the side of the website; see that name? That’s our guy… Paul Roeber! [I realize if we ever get printed, people are going to look to the side and think he’s at their window; forgive me future-readers!]) And, like Paul, Craig is a blast; he’s hilarious and great. And like Paul, in the real world, he’s dealing with his own Stormaggedon, stumbles through events, and still managing to help save the day. And that’s the beauty of Craig; he actually does save the day, the Doctor and the planet. Aren’t I lucky having a friend like that! (Sometimes, the lines do get blurry…)
But all of this comes at a price. Gareth Roberts wrote this story and in it, Craig does save the day. His love of Alfie, who he hears crying through the speakers in the cybership, causes an emotional overload even as the Cyber-conversion begins. And, I can’t lie, I love it. I feel this overwhelming sense of joy when this happens. (I can’t help it! It’s the Italian blood; we feel things deeply!) But it doesn’t hold up in the context of what we know about the Cybermen in Doctor Who. Beyond Yvonne Hartmann in Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, and Mercy Hartigan in The Next Doctor, love simply isn’t enough. Yvonne loved “Queen and country” and she was still converted, albeit with a glitch that allowed her to retaliate against the Cybermen. (Maybe it’s about having “hart”…) The problem is that it implies that all those other people who were converted, like Sally on her wedding day in Age of Steel, did not love enough to overcome the cyber-conversion. And that I don’t accept as easily.
Furthermore, there’s a whole lot of silly going on! The Doctor makes people stop talking by saying “shh”, which is funny, but just a bit sophomoric. And the whole “I talk (fill in the blank)” is tiresome. Whether baby or dinosaur, the TARDIS is supposed to translate, so if baby can be understood, everyone should be hearing it. Same with the dinosaur in Deep Breath. But then we remember, this episode is written as a comedy. We can’t take it too seriously.
I know what you’re thinking: how can you complain about such things when you’re ready to accept a man who travels through time and space in a wooden box? Ok, so let’s dish this out here and now. Fiction works when there is an established order; there is the “ask”. You ask the audience to believe this traveler can do X, Y and Z. Once established, to suddenly throw V and W into the mix feels like a copout. (Anyone see The Last Jedi yet? Case in point without spoilers!) You have to create an order and once established, any building you do can’t contradict what came before. When the series started, it could get away with it far better than now, because now audiences are demanding better storytelling. Splurging on a “funny idea” may do more harm than good.
So the trick with Closing Time is to simply acknowledge that this is a fun episode; a comedy which, like its predecessor, is all heart and a lot of laughs. Enjoy it because Craig, complete with baby and stroller, add exponentially to the fun. And Smith relishes in it; he is so much fun in this episode, just like he was in The Lodger. It’s a fitting end to a season before things get heavy.
Oh, and this episode also demonstrates why it’s better ordering clothing online. No one has ever been abducted by Cybermen when sitting at their own computers, now, have they? ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Wedding of River Song