Some questions answered, other questions raised. That’s more or less par for the course as we approach the end of a season with our favorite Gallifrey ex-pat. So River is the impossible astronaut. The Silence have succeeded in their plot against the Doctor. And, most importantly, we finally discover where the Doctor got his cowboy hat.
What a relief.
For an episode suffused with the dread of a coming cataclysm, Closing Time (written by Gareth Roberts and directed by Steve Hughes) has to be one of the jauntiest, most delightful hours of Who in ages. For a start, we have the return of James Corden as Craig, last seen in The Lodger. The Laurel and Hardy act returns, and if anything it’s better written and more beautifully timed than before.
Corden gives a performance that can comfortably be placed in the post-Pegg-and-Wright genre world. You know the one I mean. Starting with Spaced and continuing through each of their collaborations thereafter, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg specialized in placing wry, offbeat character voices within high-stakes genre storytelling (it’s the same thing that has given Who a license to be a little bit more post-modern than ever before). The laughs never defuse the tension, they actually ramp it up. It’s a neat trick, and it’s one that Corden has down to a science. Craig, now a dad, is so exasperated by the demands of living in a science fiction world that his predominant response to things isn’t panic, it’s irritation. He’s also a devoted, if easily rattled, father whose concern for his newborn son Alfie underscores everything he does. The lovability factor is through the roof, and Craig’s tenderness drives the episode in more ways than one.
Of course, this is a double act. And Smith is on fire this week, imbuing the Doctor, who has resigned himself to an imminent death, with a lightness of spirit and spryness of touch that we haven’t seen for a while. It’s still our Doctor, but perhaps the inevitability of his own demise has lifted a weight rather than crushing him. Either way, he’s an absolute scream, whether he’s offering children terrible advice about their parents’ money or talking with Craig’s baby. In a gag that magically manages not to be insufferably cute, the Doctor has an ongoing one-sided conversation with Alfie, who makes it clear that his preferred name is Stormageddon. Also, Stormageddon issues frequent unflattering evaluations of Craig’s parenting, which the Doctor is happy to share. Smith plays it with his signature touch of queer, distracted vaudeville and it works. In fact, his every line, every abstract bit of physical business, works. It’s funny to reflect that many imagined there was no way to replace David Tennant.
The plot? Oh, Cybermen want to invade the planet, blah blah, you know the drill. It’s a perfectly serviceable story, but the real percentage is in the margins. This was an episode just drenched in good humor, warmth and fun. After a few weeks of watching the Doctor get deconstructed and broken down, this was just the ticket. Every moment between Smith and Corden is gold, and they even manage to take what is on the page a fairly standard gay panic joke and make it sweet. There is much talk of Craig as The Doctor’s “companion,” and they’re often forced into a close embrace. At one point, The Doctor even tries to misdirect Craig by issuing an unambiguous gay come-on. Does Craig freak out and start going “EEWWWWW TEH GAYZ”? No, he does not. He starts giggling. And the shopkeeper who is convinced that these men are lovers doesn’t sneer; she smiles and offers discounts. What a pleasant surprise. And the “love conquers all” ending is resonant rather than cheesy, a real character moment and not one of the show’s many “YOU WILL CRY NOW BECAUSE IT IS REQUIRED” music-swelling crescendos. Which I happen to like, but still.
Terrific Amy and Rory cameo, too. Amy has become a model (or perhaps a perfume magnate, it’s unclear), and the revelation of her scent’s tagline is a bittersweet kick.
See, it’s so easy to just get lost in the details. It’s easy to forget the darkening picture that’s still being painted. The Doctor tosses off several mentions of his impending demise, and there’s that coda with River Song. The image of Melody Pond, stuffed in that spacesuit and waiting in the clear waters of Lake Silencio, is bleak, haunting stuff. Also, in case you forgot…
THE SILENCE ARE FUCKING TERRIFYING.
It’s odd that the penultimate ep of Season 6 would be a standalone story, and a breezy one at that, but I appreciated that Moffat didn’t want to ratchet the pomp up to unbearable levels. It’s gotten so that in a way I dread the season closers, because I know that every single time, the scale and stakes are going to get blown up to proportions that make last year’s model look positively ordinary. Not so this year. The coming confrontation is as personal as it’s ever been, one Timelord’s reckoning with mortality.
Geronimo, old boy. Let’s see what happens.
P.S. Craig gave him the hat. He didn’t get it for giving Wyatt Earp dating advice or something fucking stupid like that.