This series of Doctor Who is shaping up to be one of my favorites, which is particularly shocking considering I usually only prefer the odd-numbered series (it’s weirdly true. Inexplicable). I’ve mostly enjoyed all of the episodes this year so far, and some of I’ve downright loved. This week’s episode, “The Caretaker”, falls somewhere in the middling range for me. I didn’t hate it by any means, and I’m generally a big fan of the Earth-set sitcom episodes by Gareth Roberts, but for some reason this one didn’t really do it for me, and I think it may have something to do with the Doctor himself. More accurately, the Doctor’s prejudice against soldiers, which began in “Into the Dalek” but seems particularly sour here.
Most of the episodes this year have had to do with Clara’s burgeoning relationship with her coworker Danny Pink. Well, I guess half of them at this point. After “Listen” established that she was going to try to make it work, despite her crazy time travel lifestyle, we needed an episode to show the two sides battling against each other. We’ve seen this before in other episodes. And there seems to be know easier way to force Clara to deal with her situation, and to reveal it to Danny, than to have the Doctor insert himself into her mundane school-teaching life. Oh, the Doctor; what a goon.
Cowritten by Roberts and Steven Moffat and directed by Paul Murphy, “The Caretaker” is an episode that exists for overall narrative purpose and not so much for individual story purpose. Roberts’ two previous episodes, “The Lodger” and “Closing Time,” were both toward the end of their respective series and were companion-lite episodes. This type of fish-out-of-water comedy, where the Doctor attempts to fit in, clearly doesn’t, yet is beloved and accepted regardless, works when drama isn’t the main thrust. These are, as I said before, sitcom episodes within the confines of Doctor Who; light, easily-digestible, and without much impact on the overall story arc. Can an arc-heavy episode work within a sitcom-style episode?
Clara thinks she finally has a week to spend with Danny and at school without any interruptions when the Doctor tells her (after complimenting her “because it works”) that she doesn’t need to come with him on a particular adventure, that he’s going undercover. Deep cover. This is good. Danny’s starting to get suspicious and it’s the week of parent conferences, so she needs to focus. Unfortunately, the Doctor is introduced as being John Smith, the new caretaker (he’s got a coat and a brush and everything) who is under deep cover in order to stop a thing. He won’t tell Clara what the thing is, but he swears it’s easily handled. Danny, being not a moron, sees that Clara and this new caretaker seem to have some kind of connection.
The threat, it turns out, is a robotic killing machine that looks a bit like a crab-legged centaur robot. This thing has a name, but I didn’t bother to learn it because its name and what it’s doing a mere couple of blocks from Coal Hill School aren’t important at all. What’s important is it’s there and the Doctor wants to send it a billion years into the future using these little devices to create a time vortex. Danny pokes around, thinking the Doctor’s up to something (which, be fair, he is) and messes up the configuration, causing the robot to be sent only a couple of days into the future and not a billion years. Which means it’ll be back before the end of the story. This is all a way to let Danny realize who and what the Doctor is and how Clara relates to him. (Sidebar: Did Clara REALLY think she could convince Danny that it was all a play? Talk about last ditch effort!) Danny sees the TARDIS and Clara explains as much as she can, but the Doctor needs some convincing about Danny. After all, Danny’s a soldier, and not the bow-tied geek who the Doctor thought Clara was dating.
This is perhaps my biggest sticking point with this episode. The Doctor has such fervent and unsubstantiated disdain for soldiers. Where did this come from? In the past, he’s made no secret of his negative feelings toward the institution of the military and of the bureaucracy therein and even the use of unnecessary violence the military often employ, but he’s never said anything about individual soldiers being the problem. He seemed to quite like Sgt. Benton and Capt. Yates most of the time as people. And it’s one thing to callously say all soldiers are just single-minded thugs, but to constantly deride Danny, before he’s known him at all, and think just because he’s a former soldier he must be a P.E. teacher and couldn’t possibly be a math teacher is something much more troubling. Once is a joke, twelve times is a prejudice. It just really struck me as odd. This guy served his country; he must be an idiot, under-biting mouth-breather.
At any rate, Danny dishes it out just as well as he takes it and derides the Doctor for being an elitist officer-class numpty and says “Yes, suh! No, suh!” to him and salutes him and what not, which makes him quite angry. Why Clara would allow this to go on is pretty strange, but hey. Eventually, and wouldn’t you know it it’s during the conferences, the robot comes back earlier than expected and Clara has to help the Doctor quickly. He angrily tells Danny to go away but Danny ends up saving the day, much like we probably all thought he would. Danny finally says that it doesn’t matter if the Doctor likes him, and the only thing the Time Lord really cares about is if he’s good enough for Clara. Buuuuuuuut him being a soldier seems to be something he doesn’t like either.
Also in this episode is the character of Courtney, who is the troublesome student we’ve seen a few times during the school things. Here we see her sort of figuring out what the Doctor is, then getting shown the TARDIS, and then, if that weren’t infuriating enough, she gets to go up into future-space with the Doctor in the TARDIS. Why does she get to do all this? Courtney pukes due to the awesome awesomeness of the trip, which sort of says “Okay, not everyone is cut out to be a companion. Ha ha ha.” But then…THEN… Courtney is in the next time trailer in a damn space suit on the moon! Why in the name of anything are we bringing ANOTHER kid onto the TARDIS? Kids are dumb. I know a lot of children watch this show, and that’s perfectly great and they should, but children ruin any dramatic tension because this show’s not going to kill off a child. Peril gone. This same thing happened in last year’s “Nightmare in Silver”. Anyway, that’s next week, I’m just filled with dread about it.
The denouement featured the cop who got killed by the robot in order to establish it as a threat in the Nethersphere talking to Missy’s underling (played by Chris Addison also of The Thick of It). So, we’re getting the idea that this is heaven, or a heaven-like place. Probably sinister in origin, because that’s how these things work. Surely, it will end up having something to do with the Roman Capaldi from “The Fires of Pompeii” seeing as that alley scene in “Deep Breath” made a point of mentioning he’s seen the face he has before.
If it seems I’ve been unduly harsh on “The Caretaker”, it’s perhaps because I was hoping for an episode as fun as “The Lodger” or “Closing Time”, which are just two good 45 minute morsels of sci-fi candy. This one, while not unfunny by any means (and the Twelfth Doctor still has some funny scenes), didn’t feature enough of him being weird to normal people and too much him yelling at Danny for the hundredth time. It felt like a “we have to deal with these characters” episode more than a “here’s a clever story for the characters to be in” episode. Again, didn’t hate it, but just was decidedly un-bowled over by it. I was also, if I’m honest, sort of disappointed that there were no references to Coal Hill School’s history in the Doctor’s life. No Susan reference or even an off-handed “I knew some people who taught here before,” or anything. We get a throwaway River Song reference but that’s it. *shrug*
Next week, the aforementioned Courtney returns for “Kill the Moon,” written by Doctor Who first-timer Peter Harness and directed by another first-timer Paul Wilmshurst. Let’s take a look!
And feel free to tell me how wrong I am in the comments below. Respectfully, please.