Review by Mark Bousquet
“CLOSING TIME” – Series 6, Episode 12, Story 222 – Written by Gareth Roberts; Directed by Steve Hughes – The Eleventh Doctor is apparently on a Tennantian closing lap, and he’s stopping in to see old friend Craig before he’s due to die at Lake Silencio in Utah. You remember Craig, right? The pleasant chap from last season whom the Doctor moved in with because someone spooky was building a TARDIS in the apartment upstairs? Only there wasn’t an apartment upstairs? Well, the Doctor pops in, sees Craig, gets a job at a department store, and ends up running smack into a Cybermen plot. And he proves/”proves” he can talk baby again. Which is a good thing. Because It Provides Some Levity And This Season Needs A Dash Of Levity.
After a largely disappointing Series 6, let’s hope that Steven Moffat and Co. learn something from CLOSING TIME, a completely enjoyable episode that plays to some of Matt Smith’s better acting traits, and gives us a simple story that offers plenty of laughs and real emotions. The always-solid Gareth Roberts doesn’t rewrite how to tell a WHO story – he reaffirms it. CLOSING TIME gives us a Doctor-centric episode that has the Doctor working through separate physical and emotional arcs that weave into and away from each other, going away to build drama and coming together to offer stronger resolutions. Importantly, it also gives us a real arc for the episode’s Companion, and a decent mystery and threat. I’m not suggesting this is the only way to do an episode of DOCTOR WHO, of course, because there is no one way to tell a story, but this is the standard, baseline storytelling formula that’s worked since 1963; it’s the general show that people want and expect to see more often than not, and there’s an infinite number of ways to balance these elements. CLOSING definitely tilts in favor of the comedic, but that’s exactly what this season needs – a bit of levity amidst all the gloom and timey-wimeyness.
After much of the dreariness and forced jocularity that has enveloped the Doctor this season, Roberts’ script gives us the Doctor in a bad place – he knows that tomorrow is the day he dies (tomorrow being a relative thing to a Time Lord, one supposes, meaning the Doctor has chosen for tomorrow to the be the end). Instead of being overburdened by his sorrow, however, the Doctor is very much himself, fundamentally enthusiastic about life and incurably curious, but always with a deep sadness lurking in the recess of his being.
The opening of CLOSING TIME definitely has a Tennant-era vibe to it with its contemporary, modern setting, focus on working class Britain, and the Doctor preparing for his death. It’s two parts of the Tennant era – the early contemporary adventures with Rose, Martha, and Donna blended with his final days as a solo-traveling adventurer – but Smith makes the story his own through his social awkwardness and bubbly smile. He stops in to see Craig as part of his goodbye tour (which thankfully does not have the “stand in the distance and take one final look” melodrama of Tennant’s final lap), basically says, “Hello. Goodbye,” and then the flickering lights and temporal energy in the air catch his attention and draw him in.
It’s wonderful acting by Smith, full of the kind of balance between insatiable, childlike curiosity and ancient weariness that made Series 5 such a joy to watch. I would love to know why Moffat chose to go away from this approach, and it may come down to nothing more than a failure to give clear direction to his writers or perhaps the opening storytelling salvo fired in THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT of the Doctor dying was one shocking moment too far for everyone to find the right balance. I think the real blame probably lies in the writers inability to fully develop a workable plot and execution of said plot for the Ponds, which then effected the Doctor’s attitude more than anything else. The main threats this season have been focused on Amy more than the Doctor; or rather, that to target the Doctor the Silence targeted Amy. The Doctor is fine with being the target but when the target is his friends, that can turn him sour.
That’s true storytelling but it can be not-fun-to-watch storytelling, too, and the writers (especially Moffat) dropped the ball on the entire baby plot this season. The whole resolution in LET’S KILL HITLER and then the follow-up (which is really a lack of follow-up) in the second half of the season has been painful in its absence.
Amy and Rory’s lack of concern for their baby is brought into even sharper context this week when we see how concerned Craig is about his son, Alfie, and the concern his wife Sophie and their relatives have over Craig’s ability to spend the weekend watching his child. Craig’s concern, desperate floundering and pleas for help from the Doctor regarding Alfie’s constant crying makes the lack of concern from Amy and Rory all the more damning. And we can blame the characters or the writers, but at the end of the day, there was precious little screen time given to showing Amy and Rory worrying about Melody. Part of that is certainly the uniqueness of Melody turning into River, but given that the Doctor has a time machine and given that Melody/River is turned into a psychotic killer, it begs the question why the Doctor hasn’t gone looking for that kid and why Amy and Rory haven’t been on his case to do it if he won’t.
If the idea is that they don’t want to rescue Melody because that would prevent River from happening, well, they didn’t show that concern for Older Amy back in THE GIRL WHO WAITED, did they?
If the idea is that Amy and Rory don’t want to raise their child because they got to grow up alongside Mels and then met River later, then the show should at least address this issue. We should get a deeply emotional scene where the Ponds discuss these scenarios. But we haven’t gotten that scene and the Fall of the Ponds from fantastic Companions in Series 5 to dreary Companions in Series 6 continues to baffle. And now in CLOSING TIME we get the completely likable, if scattered, Craig, who is deeply concerned and troubled about his own abilities as a father. He knows everyone thinks he can’t even watch his kid for a weekend but he’s determined to do it, even if you probably should ask for help when it comes to the well-being of your kid.
Also, you should probably not take your kind an go running after the Doctor when there are Cybermen and Cybermats (CYBERMATS!!!!!!) about, but Craig’s ability to actually have two competing desires in his head at the same time makes what the writers have done to the Ponds even worse.
And I’m thinking all of this as the episode is progressing and then … gah, and then the writers make it worse by having Amy and Rory stop by and Amy … Amy is some kind of celebrity because she’s the ADVERTISING FACE OF A PERFUME. (The perfume is “Petrichor,” a nod to THE DOCTOR’S WIFE.) Are you f*cking serious? One of the big complaints about Amy is that she’s often an unremarkable Companion whose far too-often “just a pretty face,” and here we have on-screen confirmation of that idea. If this was after Amy had saved the world or something, it might seem like a cheeky tweak at Amy’s critics, but instead it just comes off as Amy falling back on her looks, which is the situation we first encountered her in, when the Doctor first returned to her life to find her working as a kiss-o-gram. It’s an incredible knock on the character and the writers who had failed to properly develop Amy and, here at “the end,” (really, “an end”) we find her still trading on her looks.
There’s a bit of a nod to character development in the perfume’s tagline, which is, “For the girl who’s tired of waiting,” but this same exact scene could have been used if, instead of the Doctor turning around to find Amy’s face hawking perfume, he’d found it on the cover of the local paper in a story about her and Rory rescuing someone or being rewarded for some kind of charitable work. Even if she made a ton of money from modeling, even if this is her own business, they could have allowed us the inference of not only Amy and Rory moving on from their time in the TARDIS, but becoming better people.
And that’s not a dig at modeling. I’m all for people making cash of their physical appearance (it’s your body, do what you want with it), but since it’s all we see from Amy in this episode, the fact that she’s gone from a pretty face who kisses dudes in fetish gear at parties to a pretty face who tries to convince you to buy perfume … well, that’s not much in the way of character development, is it? (And certainly the little girl asking for her autograph isn’t asking for it because of Amy’s sharp business acumen; she’s asking for it because there’s a giant picture of Amy in the store.) That’s not exactly Sarah Jane using her skills as a reporter to make a difference, or Rose going on to try to save the world, or Mickey going on to try to save the world, or Martha going on to try to save the world, or Captain Jack going on to try to save the world, is it? No, it’s much more like Donna, but Donna only reverts back to pre-Doctor Donna because her brain (and thus development) is wiped.
Amy and Rory deserve better, and I’m hoping we eventually see it, because I like the Ponds, even if their characters haven’t been much fun to have around this season.
Craig, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of Companion that’s fun to have around every now and then because he’s like a palette-cleanser, allowing us to take a breath from the larger, season-long story and here offers a chance to step away from the frustration with the Ponds. I worried that CLOSING TIME would be little more than a redo of last season’s excellent THE LODGER (also written by Roberts), where Craig was introduced, but CLOSING is much more of the “next step” sequel than the “let’s do it again” variety. Lamentably, we don’t get to see much of the lovely Sophie, but we can see her effect on Craig. A natural worrier, who will always be fretting about something, Craig has transferred his fears and anxieties about his worthiness to be with Sophie to his worthiness about fatherhood. That’s progress, and it still gives us the chance to have more of the great, playful back-and-forth between Craig and the Doctor.
The Doctor does his whole, “I speak baby” routine again to great effect.
Craig tells the Doctor his son’s name is Alfie, but the Doctor tells Craig that Alfie refers to himself as Stormageddon. Whether the Doctor actually speaks baby or, in all probability, just says he speaks baby in order to use the child to play psychiatrist with the father, the effect for the audience is a lot of fun and provides a real, honest-to-goodness self-contained character arc for Craig. At the end of the episode, when the Doctor tells Craig that Stormy now prefers to be called Alfie, the look of joy and pride on Craig’s face brings with it more honest, touching emotion than all the sturm und drang fireworks of THE GIRL WHO WAITED.
It’s a very deft script by Roberts, who continues to deliver excellent work on DOCTOR WHO. This is his fourth script and in each of them both the Doctor and his Companion feel like individual people and not simply a generic “The Doctor” and “The Companion.” His use of Martha in THE SHAKESPEARE CODE is very different from his use of Donna in THE UNICORN AND THE WASP, which are both different than his use of Craig in THE LODGER, which are all different from his use of Craig here in CLOSING, where it’s the Companion that recognizes that the Doctor needs help, even if he won’t ask for it.
“He needs someone!” Craig shouts to himself and Alfie. “He always needs someone, he just can’t admit it.”
That’s such good, simple writing, delivered in such an earnest manner by James Corden, that it helps to elevate CLOSING TIME into something more than just this season’s “funny episode.”
Time and again, Gareth Roberts has proven that he knows how to put a show together that both works on its own and works to reinforce the whole of DOCTOR WHO history, and it makes me think that the Doctor has, perhaps, not fully realized the effect that he has on his Companions. He’s constantly worried about putting them in danger (or before Ten turned away from Companions after STOLEN EARTH/JOURNEY’S END, when Davros convinced him that he’s turned all of his Companions into soldiers and weapons), but maybe that just proves he’s now picking the wrong Companions. Instead of constantly seeing only the potential negative end, perhaps the Doctor should go out of his way to select someone in need of redemption next time around. That idea is certainly in the air with the numerous appearances of River Song (who’s also a grown up instead of a lovesick girl, something else the show needs to do, as I explained in an earlier post). But maybe, just maybe, instead of someone like Gwen Cooper or Martha or Rita from last week’s GOD COMPLEX, maybe the real Companion model the Doctor should be looking for (whether consciously or subconsciously) is someone like Michelle Ryan’s Lady Christina from PLANET OF THE DEAD, someone who’s both a capable grown-up and working on the shady side of the street.
Given that the Doctor is, himself, largely morally ambiguous despite his good intentions, it would be nice to have someone around who is morally ambiguous with less than good intentions.
Oh, wait, there’s a villain this week, and it’s the Cybermen!
I love the Cybermen, and here we’ve got a couple interesting things going on with them, even if they are really no more than “anonymous villain of the week” in CLOSING. What’s nice (and feeds both into Roberts’ love of WHO history and Moffat’s use of the Cybermen in A GOOD MAN GOES TO WAR), is that these are the old-timey, classic, space-born Cybermen and not the Cybus Industry model from RISE OF THE CYBERMEN and THE AGE OF STEEL. These Cybermen are buried underground, having crashed on Earth centuries ago and only reactivated now because the department store above them was doing some electrical rewiring. These Cybermen are in bad shape, using Cybermats (CYBERMATS!!!) as scouts, and scrounging for human parts in the store above them as they look for a new Cyber Leader.
They select Craig, and Craig defeats their programming because of the love he has for his son, and while it’s a bit of a soft, touchy-feely ending, it works in the context of the episode well enough. It does point out that the Moffat/Smith era often struggles with how to defeat threats, however, and there’s little difference between the “think it to stop” solution here and what we’ve seen in the last few weeks in GOD COMPLEX and NIGHT TERRORS.
I love the soft tie-in to IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT here at the end, too, as the Doctor takes the blue envelopes that we knows he delivers to Rory, Amy, River, and his past self from Craig’s kitchen. And when Craig asks him where he’s going and the Doctor brightly responds, “America!,” Craig gives the Doctor his Stetson hat as a parting gift. It’s all well-constructed and played.
CLOSING TIME finishes with a set-up to next week’s season finale, THE WEDDING OF RIVER SONG. At the end of CLOSING, just before the Doctor gets in the TARDIS, three kids take note of him. We then hear their adult voices telling someone what they thought was happening and then we see that River, on her graduation day where she, too, becomes a Doctor, is researching the Doctor. Madame Kovarian (Eye Patch Lady) enters and tells River that she belongs to the Silence, and that she’s nothing more than a sleeper agent waiting to be activated. Now’s the time, and her minions bring in the astronaut suit from IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT, signalling that it’s this Just-Turned-Doctor River Song that’s in the suit and will kill the Doctor on the shores of Lake Silencio.
Good stuff all around. CLOSING TIME isn’t an all-time great episode, but it is a really well-made episode that both works on its own and as part of a larger story.
Originally Published September 25, 2011