If you’re an American, you have a pretty good chance of being able to watch Doctor Who with little or no context for the guest actors in it. Billie Piper can just be Rose (and not a teenage pop star), Catherine Tate can just be Donna (and not a standup comic), and Lynda Baron can just be the gossipy lady in the department store (and not a sitcom star, or indeed the over-the-top pirate Captain Wrack from top-notch classic Who episode “Enlightenment”). James Corden can just be Craig Owens, the Doctor’s most occasional companion — excuse me, “partner” — and not a multitalented performer who apparently irritates a lot of his fellow Brits, including, most prominently, Patrick Stewart.
He’s still charming this time around as Craig, though slightly less so than in “The Lodger,” if only because he spends so much time being tiresomely hysterical about his new baby Alfie, or “Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All” as the baby prefers to be called (according to the Doctor, whose claim to “speak baby” is dubious but still hilarious). Why should this episode center around a baby? It’s a relatively kid-filled episode, actually, in which the Doctor demonstrates a remote-controlled flyer to a group of fascinated grade-schoolers and later gives lifelong memories of himself to three more, and two familiar faces cameo to sign autographs for a young fashion-conscious girl. If the episode is about anything, maybe it’s about human life continuing on in domestic yet wonderful ways while the Doctor’s is about to be snuffed out.
His fate is somewhat mirrored by that of an ailing Cyberman ship, apparently buried and dormant in the Earth and barely managing to hang on by stealing power and bodies to replenish its crew. You almost feel sorry for the tin dopes, though, with their silly walks and their lazy dull personalities that make Twiki from Buck Rogers look like Sir Anthony Hopkins. They barely stand a chance even before the Doctor sorts them out, yet another classic monster that the new series has drained of all remaining life or purpose. Frankly, I’m prepared and happy to let them just die off at this point.
On the other hand, no one is seriously expecting the Doctor to die, or even regenerate. We all know Moffat has painted himself into a corner just so that he can then paint a door on the wall and turn the knob and make it seem clever. Most of us have theories about what color paint he’s going to use (there are at least two obvious shades), so the “I’m about to die, just making the rounds to say goodbye” routine can’t help but seem like crying wolf. We’ve been faked out like this before in “The Stolen Earth” (not to mention “Let’s Kill Hitler” and arguably “The Big Bang”) and we’ve seen Ten make these farewell rounds in “The End of Time,” and sorry, but we know Matt Smith is in the Christmas special. There can be drama without characters appearing to die and then surprise! not dying after all. Enough is enough already…except that once again Matt Smith does a superlative job of selling us the Doctor’s dread and resignation, and reminds us that what’s obvious melodrama and plot contrivance to us is still real to this character, never more so than now.
Even though I’m sick to death of Cybermen, I always liked Cybermats, deadly little monsters that can hide under your couch and give you plague when you least expect them to strike. Except that in this they’re mainly just “quite cute,” comedy teeth and all, and how in the world they could hold anyone pinned to the floor when they have the size and powerful limbs of a chinchilla is beyond me. There’s a moment where I almost believed Craig would really be converted into a Cyberman and we’d have a much more shocking ending, but nope. So the plot itself is paper-thin, and the ending is at least twice as saccharine and far-fetched as the one in “The Lodger” (and the Doctor preemptively making fun of the sentimentality doesn’t make it any better). I was squirming in embarrassment and I was watching it alone. On headphones.
All that said, I really enjoyed watching everything except that one squirmy scene. It’s all about the moments: if I were to make a list of all the best parts, it would look a lot like the actual script. There’s the Doctor’s ongoing “conversation” with Alfie/”Stormy,” who apparently is already old enough to want a “hot babysitter,” and his observations on the priorities of adults (buying lamps, apparently). There’s my favorite subtle joke, where the Doctor grinds pepper onto Craig’s shoulders before massaging them (instead of oil, getting his condiments wrong). There’s the Doctor forgetting human phrases and customs and tasting things that aren’t food, as though he’s just as confused as he was in “The Eleventh Hour.” This is Gareth Roberts’s own take on the character, with little relation to anyone else’s (remember, this is the same Doctor who knew what Twitter was two episodes ago), but it’s my favorite.
And of course there’s the running gag where people think the Doctor and Craig are “partners” (the Doctor, not picking up on the subtext, wonders if “partner” is a better word than “companion”), and a contrived but still enjoyable bit of shtick (the “Doctor, are you gonna kiss me?” moment from the trailer) where even Craig buys it for a few minutes. Lynda Baron’s character finds the Doctor/Craig couple so charming and sweet that at first it seemed over-the-top, but when I thought about the alternative — she’s unnerved or disgusted by them — I just felt lucky that this is what we got instead.
There are some equally amazing moments that aren’t played (entirely) for laughs. One has the Doctor walking away from the flickering lights toward his TARDIS, determined not to get involved, but unable to stop himself from staying and getting a job in the department store in order to investigate what might be haunting it. It’s hard to imagine another Doctor having this conversation with himself in quite the same way, and impossible not to once you’ve seen it. And then there’s a small but striking moment when the Doctor has just listed off the missing store employees and explained the threat to Craig, and he turns his face away from Craig toward us, and all of his features are turned down in pure gloom, halfway between a sad clown and a German Expressionist silent film star. It’s the episode’s best special effect, and it’s just Matt Smith’s face.
And speaking of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments: as much as the new show and this season in particular have played up the idea that the Doctor puts his friends in danger (much like another fictional Englishman in a long coat), the truth is that in the classic series only two of his companions actually died (or one, depending on how you count), and even in the new series they’ve fared better than his sense of guilt would suggest. In what seems like a throwaway line, Craig points out matter-of-factly that if it weren’t for the Doctor, Earth (to name just one planet) would be a scorched rock in space many times over. The Doctor thinks (and says) those days are long past, but to us there’s real hope that they’re just around the corner.