However you might react to “The Caretaker,” hopefully everyone will at least agree that, given the setup of the season so far, it’s a story that needed to be told, and halfway through the season seems a good time to tell it. We’ve been frustratingly teased with the Doctor-Clara-Danny triangle for the past four episodes, curious to know where it’s headed. Where opinions will differ, I imagine, is over the manner in which the story is told.
The bulk of the triangle’s tease has revolved around Clara’s deceptions, which crumble entirely in "The Caretaker," thanks to the Doctor covertly scheduling an alien invasion intervention in Miss Oswald’s backyard, Coal Hill Secondary School, and finally coming face-to-face with her boyfriend (and vice-versa). One of the cheapest-looking aliens the new series has unveiled, the Skovox Blitzer is attracted to the area because of all the artron emissions, which were likely left by the Doctor himself since the TARDIS materializes and dematerializes at the school regularly, not to mention his numerous other visits to the area in his past lives. The invasion story line is so rote and B-movie in scope that it must exist only to serve as a basic introduction for Danny to the world of Clara and the Doctor. In any case, the Doctor either hasn’t considered that he may actually be responsible for the alien’s presence, or he has and has chosen to take care of business and not mention that part (to Danny he outright denies it). Either is a real possibility with the Twelfth Doctor.
There’s a great deal of ensuing wackiness in this episode, and the first act often plays like an episode of Three’s Company. "The Caretaker" is the fifth script for the new series from Gareth Roberts, a writer whose previous Who work has largely not been to my liking (not a Craig fan, sorry). His last script, "Closing Time," was my worst Whovian nightmare come true — the Doctor having an adventure with a baby … and the whole Stormageddon gag is a low point in the 50-plus year history of the series. (Yet Roberts has penned some exceptional episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures.) Having said all of that, "The Caretaker" is stronger than anything else he’s previously done for this series.
All three actors rise to the character-driven occasion here — how could they not given how much fun the material must’ve been to play? — but Capaldi in particular is a marvel with the gamut of reactions and states of mind he’s called upon to showcase. The whole deep-cover gag is a funny even if not entirely original way to kick things off (“School Reunion” and/or “The Lodger” anyone?), which then segues into his suspicions about Clara’s boyfriend, then his beaming pride when he believes it to be Adrian (Edward Harrison), another teacher who bears a resemblance to a young Doctor.
The Doctor’s dismissive attitude toward Danny from even before he discovered that he’s Clara’s beau, and his massive ax to grind against soldiers is one of the episode’s more uncomfortable flourishes, even though the season’s been foreshadowing it for a while. Perhaps this is the Doctor reacting to the War Doctor, now that the War Doctor is no longer hidden. Perhaps he’s not as willing to engage the idea of war as he once was. Perhaps, as a result of the events of "The Day of the Doctor," he sees bravery in choosing not to fight. It’s a potentially bold stance for the show to take that will hopefully pay off further once the Doctor and Danny get to know each other better.
Early on Clara says to herself, "I can’t keep doing this. I can’t do it. [beat] Yes I can. I can do it. Of course I can do it. I’ve got it all under control." Until the moment she doesn’t — when the Doctor is right under her nose, and it’s impossible to keep her two lives (loves?) separate. Yet even when it all falls apart right in front of her, she attempts to perpetuate the ruse ("It’s a play for the summer fete!"). In "Listen," Clara’s lies were mounting; here they erupt, and it gets messy as it should. In one pivotal moment she even blurts out her love for Danny in front of both men, which makes things awkward for everyone.
There are things the episode doesn’t get quite right. When Danny demands Clara explain why she travels with the Doctor, all she can muster up is "Because it’s amazing. Because I see wonders." Likewise, Danny’s introduction to their world and the TARDIS was handled with minimal wonder and flash (can it be a golden moment every time, with each new person the show has to do this sort of stuff with?). In one scene, Clara wants to prove to Danny the person she is with the Doctor is no different, so she gives him the Doctor’s nifty invisibility watch so he can observe them, which makes no sense, because Clara knows that Danny’s there, and he knows that she knows. It’s silly and not particularly well thought out, and it’s probable that parts of the episode didn’t need to be played quite so broadly. The quieter, littler moments of "The Caretaker" often work better than the ones played on bigger canvases.
Of the three, it’s Danny who most easily wins viewer sympathy with revealing lines like, "You only know what someone thinks of you when you know what lies they’ve told you." Later on, in the scene when he starts mock saluting and calling the Doctor sir, I got actual chills: "He’s an officer; I’m a soldier." And yet in the climax there’s a danger of losing so much of the dramatic momentum due to what I dub the Pinkflip. He’s a soldier, not a gymnast, and that scene looked like Flashdance.
Yet at the close, Danny reflects on the seeming absurdity of those actions. "I know men like him. I’ve served under them. They push you and make you stronger until you’re doing things you never thought you could." That observation is similar to something Rory once told the Doctor, "You know what’s dangerous about you? It’s not that you make people take risks, it’s that you make them want to impress you. You make it so that they don’t want to let you down. You have no idea how dangerous you make people to themselves when you’re around." With Danny’s insistence that Clara must come to him should the Doctor ever push her too far, troubling times appear to be on the horizon.
Odds and ends
- Finally, a return to the Nethersphere! Missy is only seen briefly, looking quite displeased. The bulk of the scene belongs to the dead cop and new character Seb, played by Capaldi’s The Thick of It co-star Chris Addison (who these days also directs episodes of Veep). Little more is learned than before, though the setting this time is an endless, stark white hallway that looks like something from a Gilliam movie, and that big round window behind Seb looks an awful lot like a TARDIS roundel. If Missy isn’t the Master (or a Time Lord of some kind), then this has been an elaborate fake-out on the part of Moffat.
- Even though it’d be very cool to pay homage to first season classic Who by having an older Doctor, two young schoolteachers from Coal Hill, and their disruptive teenage student all aboard the TARDIS, I’m still not sure what I think of Ellis George’s Courtney Woods. Nobody ever puts Susan on their list of favorite companions.
- What, if anything, does it say about the Doctor that he does not recognize Danny as a relative of Orson?
- Maybe it’s not an accident that I invoke another sitcom by mentioning that in “The Caretaker,” the Twelfth Doctor’s insufferableness was at times reminiscent of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, in brilliant but overbearing/amusing yet awful sorts of ways.
- The pre-credits sequence’s cutting back and forth between Clara’s two lives was a delight, and another fine reminder that there are many adventures the Doctor and his companion(s) go on that we are not privy to.
- At one point, upon Clara scolding some schoolchildren, the Doctor whistles "Another Brick in the Wall Part II" by Pink Floyd, which really is the perfect sort of thing for the Capaldi Doctor to do.
- The Doctor mentions once getting into a big fight with River Song, and going to live with otters for a month.
- What was up with that crazy, life-size chessboard?
- I’m not going to list all of the instances, but with the addition of the cop’s sizzling, disembodied hand, this season may be the most gruesome since the series’ return in 2005. Mary Whitehouse would be mortified, yet we should all be throwing weekly viewing parties.