5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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We really, really weren’t fans of the James Corden parts of The Lodger. So imagine our rapture when he looms into view at the beginning of Closing Time. Especially when Sophie, the one we’d actually be happy to hang out with, swiftly recedes over the horizon. Come back, Soph! Don’t leave us alone with him! But she does.
Fortunately, there’s then a knock at the door, and thank God, it’s the Doctor. And just as in The Lodger, things suddenly get most excellent. Even Corden isn’t as teeth-gnashingly irritating as he usually is. In fact, he makes a very good straight man to the Doctor, which is kind of a shame given that he’s actually meant to be a comedian, but never mind, we’ll take it.
Yes, we have to say it. Again. Matt Smith is incredibly, fantastically, wonderfully wonderful in this. Again. Gareth Roberts’s script is fine, other than a little too much reliance on jokes repeated till they squeak for mercy, but it’s in the performance that things totally catch fire. “So what did you call him? Will I blush?” “No, we didn’t call him The Doctor.” Not a stunningly hilarious exchange on the page, but an utter gigglefest in the hands of Matt Smith and (yes) James Corden. Even material which could have fallen flatter than a concrete pancake in the wrong hands (“He prefers to be called Stormageddon, Dark Lord Of All”) is sold so beautifully by Matt that we’d buy it by the crateload. Even one word - one eeny, teeny little word (“Nnnothing”) - is comedy gold in Matt’s hands.
We could watch him do that stuff all day. And that’s why Closing Time works. It’s what makes it survive being a retread of The Lodger, it’s what makes it rise above the plot we’ve seen far too many times before of Alien X trapped beneath the surface of the world and plotting conquest, terror, etc. It even makes it survive the dreaded Cybermen. Who cares about any of that stuff when we can watch the Doctor in his element in the toy department?
And there’s tons o’ fun for classic series fans. “The robot dog - not as much fun as I remember”? Nice. (Although to be honest we mostly recall him being a fairly moist blanket.) “Have a go at me just because I don’t know the names” - take that, fans! And we squealed as one as a silvery blur zipped across the floor of the toy department. Cybermats! Our very favourite part of the Cyberworld and adorable as ever. (They’re supposed to be adorable, right? Even with the teeth?) OK, they sort of undermine the fear and majesty of the Cybermen, but then we’ve hardly ever taken them seriously anyway.
And speaking of that: does plonking a few rogue Cybers in the middle of what’s more or less a comedy ep ruin said fear and majesty? Well, yes, a bit, we suppose. Granted, these Cybermen are a bit rubbish anyway, but making it so easy to deCyberfy someone does hack away at the horror they worked hard to establish earlier in the new series. On the other hand, Closing Time could hardly defang them more than the classic series managed to. Podgy Cyberleader? “Excellent"? Bonnng? Dear oh dear.
Of course, it’s not all guffaws. Matt Smith can turn on a 10p piece from hilarity to seriousnesses of various stripes, and he does that here without disarranging a single hair. From the way he says “Cybermen” (handing them back a bit of much-needed gravitas) to his face when he watches Amy, it’s all. Utterly. Perfect. He even manages to wring pathos out of what are actually some pretty routine and repetitive musings on his supposedly approaching mortality.
So what’s wrong with it? If we had to sum it up in one go, we’d say too many clichés. The underground aliens, like we said. The man blundering around in the lingerie department (only Father Ted could get away with that one). The misunderstanding about the Doctor’s “partner”. The ever-so-cutesy “speaking baby”. Some molto tedioso guff about Craig believing in himself. “Make it stop!” Worst of all, the Cybermen losing their heads (ha!) when confronted with emotion.
And as well as the clichés, there’s the judicious use of the sledgehammer. The Doctor walks alone, except he really needs someone with him. Craig overcomes Cyberfication by hearing his baby’s cry - and in case that isn’t obvious enough, the Doctor has to narrate it. And in case that isn’t obvious enough, Craig has to say “I blew them up with love!”. Nrrrggh.
So that’s that, then. Pretty good, eh? Thanks to Matt, at least. Then all of that stuff ends and the Moffat-penned arc kicks in. Poor, poor Alex Kingston gets some near-unactable scenes in which she’s required to be all eager about the Doctor and all scared of the Silence - until she suddenly completely ignores them to listen to Madam Kevorkian. (We know you’re supposed to forget the Silence, but not when they’re standing right next to you.) And then they stuff her into an astronaut suit. Of which the less said the better, because we’re going to have to tackle that next time and believe us, we’re not looking forward to it.
But the bit before that, with the Doctor and his elegiac musings, made us cry. No credit whatsoever for the impact of this to Steven Moffat, because everybody knows the Doctor isn’t actually going to die at Lake Silencio, making all of that end-of-life stuff a complete waste of energy. But it worked for us on another level completely. We know the Doctor’s not going to die this time, but we also know that, in the nature of things, the time approaches closer and closer with every episode that Matt Smith is going to leave the franchise. And we honestly don’t know if we can bear it. There have been good Doctors, great Doctors, OK Doctors, bad Doctors, but of all of them, Matt Smith is far and away the best of them. Even more than Tom Baker (and we never thought we’d say that), it’s as if the part, almost fifty years old though it may be, had all along been written for him. He is complete perfection in the role and transforms every single scene he’s in. We never want him to leave, and we’re already dreading the day he does. Can’t somebody handcuff him to the console?
MORAL: World domination’s tough when you haven’t got the parts.
The Cybes have a tunnel, right? So why the hell do they need a teleport?
“Petrichor. For the girl who’s tired of waiting.” Yes, yes, we already got the point about Waity Amy. Do we have to shovel it on with a trowel?
We like the way, after all the Doctor’s technofiddling, the Cyberman just squashes the Cybermat with its foot.