Written by Stephen Moffat & Gareth Roberts
Directed by Paul Murphy
Starring: Peter Capaldi (The Doctor); Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald); Samuel Anderson (Danny Pink); Ellis George (Courtney Woods); Edward Harrison (Adrian); Nigel Betts (Mr. Armitage) & Michelle Gomez (Missy)
Here There Be Spoilers.
Back in the days when the Doctor wore a brown pin-stripe suit and shouted “Allonsy,” there was a brilliant two part adventure called Human Nature and The Family of Blood. In it, the Doctor is forced to change his physiology to mimic that of an ordinary human in order to evade some aliens tracking the Time Lord. That episode delved into the very real questions of whether the Doctor could not only pass as a human but whether he would’ve rather have had a human’s life. Since then, there have been several episodes that have had the Doctor trying to meld into the every-day lives of humans. Produced during Matt Smith’s era, these episodes tended to be more light-hearted than Human Nature. Two of those episodes, The Lodger and Closing Time (which featured the Doctor deputizing ordinary couch potato Craig Owens (James Corden) as a temporary companion), were written by Gareth Roberts, who is also the co-writer of this week’s episode The Caretaker (with the always-present Stephen Moffat). And that’s interesting because this means that Roberts is pulling yet another like-minded episode out of his imagination. The Lodger was a fair and fun episode, featuring the Doctor making a shambles of poor Craig’s life until he shows Craig how to be brave and makes him a more complete man, while Closing Time was good but suffered slightly from “More-Of-The-Same-itis.” So here we are again, with a new Doctor and companion ready to take on this well-established Doctor Who subgenre. How did it fare?
The Caretaker begins with a funny montage of the Doctor and Clara having several dangerous adventures intercut with Clara’s poor excuses to Danny why she’s suddenly tanned/soaking wet/exhausted. Clara has quite naturally been putting off telling Danny about her secret life as a time-traveler, but the issue is forced when, after telling Clara that he needs to go under deep-cover for a while, the Doctor turns up at the Coal Hill School where Clara works pretending to be John Smith, the school’s new caretaker. Clara is naturally thrown for a loop; the children may be in danger from some kind of alien menace and the Doctor won’t tell her what’s going on, insisting that he can take care of it himself. The episode is stuffed with moments of Clara being comically distracted from her work while she spies the Doctor doing something silly or humanly unlikely and through the entire setup, it is easy to see that the episode is gearing up for the moment when the Doctor and Danny finally learn the truth about each other.
These types of episodes are always more about the characters than the story or the alien threat. Although mostly played for laughs, it is easy to see that Clara is in a tight spot and neither the Doctor’s quirkiness nor Danny’s frustration with Clara’s lies are making it any better for her. Comedic tension still qualifies as suspense, although it is still difficult to see why Clara has been so reticent to tell the Doctor about Danny. This whole angle that the Doctor refuses to accept Danny because he was once a soldier stretches the credibility of what we already know about the character; yes, he has had bad experiences with soldiers before (episodes like The Sontaran Stratagem, The Poison Sky, The Doctor’s Daughter and Into The Dalek have made it quite plain, not to mention the rage behind his “Colonel Runaway” speech in A Good Man Goes To War), but one would’ve thought that re-experiencing his efforts to save Gallifrey alongside the War Doctor in The Day Of The Doctor would have given him an insight into the heart of a soldier. But no, the Doctor persists in treating Danny in a similar way that he (or rather, the Ninth Doctor) treated Mickey, Rose’s boyfriend, during their initial meetings; the Time Lord who persisted in referring to Mickey as “Mickey the Idiot” is now unable to grasp the fact that a former soldier could possibly be a Maths Teacher, continually calling him a “P.E. Teacher” and quipping that those footballs aren’t going to kick themselves. Or maybe there’s something deeper at the heart of the Doctor’s dislike for Danny: before learning who Clara’s true boyfriend is, he mistakenly believes that she is dating Adrian, a fellow teacher whose hair, face and fashion sense (specifically a bowtie) makes him resemble the Eleventh Doctor. The Doctor literally beams at the prospect that Clara may have fallen for a surrogate version of himself, unable as he is, in his new form, to show her much affection (the man can’t even take being hugged, for Christ’s sake). So then the truth is finally revealed and the Doctor is upset that Danny is a Maths teacher because, as he puts it, “I like Maths.” Is it simply the prospect that Clara might be throwing herself away on a man who isn’t good enough for her, or is it the realization that Clara has moved on from her infatuation with the Eleventh Doctor that has truly got the Doctor’s eyebrows arching furiously.
Danny, for his part, holds his own against the Doctor, acting out the role of a squaddie when the Doctor orders him out of the TARDIS, correctly spotting that the Doctor is not merely a soldier himself, but an officer. In fact, it might be fair to say that, despite their obvious differences, Clara may have picked up on some of the similarities between Danny and the Doctor: both were once scared little boys (as Clara witnessed in Listen) who grew up into soldiers traumatized by the battlefield, and are now endeavoring to find a new way to live their lives (the Doctor through traveling in the TARDIS, Danny through teaching Maths). Is it too much of a leap to say that Clara, still hurting from losing the Eleventh Doctor, may have spotted a few of his traits in Danny while at the same time recognizing that he is a stable force in her otherwise slam-bang life as the Doctor’s companion? As the episode ends, the Doctor and Danny forge a begrudging understanding of one another (although I must admit that Danny’s world-saving somersault leap over the Skovox Blitzer strains credibility – he might be in great shape, but he’s not a genetically-engineered human like Jenny in The Doctor’s Daughter, who somersaulted through a series of laser beams without a scratch). Maybe even the Doctor might see Danny as yet another Rory, reluctantly jumping into the fray to make sure the girl he loves is safe (will Danny ever travel on the TARDIS? That remains to be seen).
With all this character development to contend with, something certainly had to suffer and, like Robert’s own The Lodger and Chris Chibnall’s The Power Of Three (two episodes that have the Doctor attempting to live like a normal human), the downfall of the episode is the threat, specifically the Skovox Blitzer. It’s a clunky device that has an awful lot of fire-power and is on Earth because… well… of some quick techno babble uttered by the Doctor at one point and then never mentioned again. What does it want? Nothing except to kill everything it sees. So I guess it’s a major threat, although the Doctor dismisses it at one point, saying he can take care of it easy without Clara’s help. Indeed, the only reason the Doctor makes a such a debacle of his first attempt to rid the machine is because Danny moves one of his devices. Looking at it, it really adds nothing new the rogue’s gallery of Doctor Who monsters and it’s place in the episode could have been easily taken by a Dalek or a Cyberman (except we’ve already had Daleks this series and Cybermen are coming in the finale). I guess they had to come up with something and, considering that the episode was more about our three heroes, maybe Roberts and Moffat decided to fudge it a bit this week, but the Skovox Blitzer is such a knock-off of a Dalek that it feels like they weren’t even trying.
And finally we come to the comedy. The Caretaker is full of little moments at which we can smile and giggle. The aforementioned opening sequence has Clara revealing that the instrument that the Doctor needs to set them free of their bonds is currently in the pocket of her other jacket… back home. “Why do you need two jackets?” he asks. “Was one of them faulty?” This joke reveals the main thrust of the Doctor’s humor and an odd character trait: despite his long track record on Earth, the Doctor does not seem to understand humans. Although the Ninth and Tenth Doctors had their moments of insulting their human companions, they were perfectly capable of understanding their motives and desires, even if they didn’t share them. The Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors (or, in other words, the Doctors of Moffat’s era) seem to have been cast adrift in the sea of humanity without a compass or paddle. Little things the Eleventh Doctor did, such as not knowing how much rent to give Craig in The Lodger to his constant air-kissing new friends, has given way to the Twelfth Doctor’s not understanding anything about human life whatsoever; bedrooms (“You have a room just for being unconscious in?”), heeled shoes (“You need to reach something off a high shelf?”), books (The Doctor apparently looks for Wally in every book he opens) and every aspect of Clara’s personal life is ripe for a quip revealing that the Doctor just understand what the Hell is going on. Five episodes since his regeneration, he still seems a bit wonky, which is strange but does gives us some good jokes. My favorite is when the Doctor is confronted by Coal Hill student Courtney Woods in his office:
Doctor: “Can’t you read?”
Courtney: “Yes, I can. Read what?”
Doctor: “The sign; it says ‘Keep Out’!”
Courtney: “No it doesn’t; it says ‘Humans Go Away’.”
Doctor: “Does it? [He checks and sees that it does.] Never lose your temper in the middle of a door sign.”
The laughs die down in the second half if the episode, once Clara must tell the truth to both the men in her life about the other. And Danny’s inevitable question as to why Clara continually runs off with the Doctor is answered in the same way that so many other companions have answered it before: life on the TARDIS is amazing and wonderful. Of course, some of the other companions had other reasons for flying away in the TARDIS: Rose and Martha were falling in love with the Doctor while Amy was taking a last fling before her wedding vows and revisiting her childhood imaginary friend. Now that Clara’s role as the “Impossible Girl” has been fulfilled, does she have any other reason for remaining on the TARDIS crew? Is she keeping a promise to the Eleventh Doctor to keep Number Twelve safe and befriended? Is that all going to change now that Danny is in her life? At the episode’s conclusion, Danny makes Clara give him a promise to not allow the Doctor to push her into anything too dangerous (reminiscent of Rory saying that the Doctor was dangerous because he made people throw themselves into danger because they wanted to impress him) and Clara promises that she will, but can she keep this promise? This is an episode whose first lines were Clara’s “We’re gonna die out here.” True, they somehow made it out alive, but how much longer can this go on? And what’s going to happen on the moon next week?
According to the scuttlebutt, something bad.
P.S. – No need to address the “Promised Land” sequence at the end. All I can say is, this arc better be a good one, because I’m getting sick of the hints.