“You can’t do this. You cannot pretend to be an actual person among real people.”
When an episodic TV series has been running (on and off) for fifty years, it’s hardly surprising that some episodes instil a feeling of déjà vu. Terry Nation, notoriously, wrote the first Dalek story again several times, changing a few names and locations but keeping the same basic plot. That same feeling of déjà vu was very much present in The Caretaker. The concept of the Doctor trying (and comically failing) to fit in with everyday life on contemporary Earth has become a bit of a trope in recent years, most notably in the work of Gareth Roberts, who set the template with The Lodger and revisited it with Closing Time.
The Caretaker had, initially, the feeling of retreading very much the same ground – and revisiting a few more old episodes besides. The idea of the Doctor infiltrating a school as one of the staff happened in 2006’s School Reunion; the setting of Coal Hill School in particular, being menaced by an alien threat drawn there by the Doctor, is the premise of 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks.
So, when The Caretaker was trailed last week, a number of people were heard to sigh that it was just Gareth Roberts rewriting The Lodger, for the second time if your opinion of Closing Time isn’t high. I’ll certainly concede that we’ve been here before – but with a different set of characters, and, crucially, with a different Doctor. Because the point of this by now established trope of the show isn’t to come up with a devastating new take on it (although that might have been nice), so much as to explore the relationships between the characters involved. And while Gareth Roberts may well have been here before, a better comparison would probably be with Chris Chibnall’s The Power of Three, which similarly placed the Doctor in a mundane setting, but used it as a way to comment on his relationship with his companions.
Because the real point of this story wasn’t the alien menace (which was slight) or the comedy value of the Doctor in an everyday setting (which was played well). The real point was to properly introduce Danny Pink, whose subplots have been bubbling away in the background, and most importantly to introduce him to the Doctor. Which, predictably, did not go too well.
In hindsight (and somewhat obviously even at the time), previous scripts have been sowing seeds for the two most important men in Clara’s life to not exactly get on well. Into the Dalek seemed very much at pains to show us this new Doctor’s pathological distaste for soldiers, while also informing us of the fact that Danny used to be one; while Listen showed us that Danny is very sensitive about his military past, and particularly prone to annoyance when anyone passes ill-considered judgment on it.
Their meeting, then, predictably saw them almost instantly at loggerheads. Once Danny had recovered from the shock that “space stuff” was real, and happening in his school anyway. Despite the Doctor’s typically sniffy belief that an ex-soldier couldn’t be anything but a PE teacher (which will clearly become a running gag) Danny’s assessment of the situation was pretty astute, especially his characterisation of the Doctor as Clara’s “space dad”. In fact, one of the episode’s themes was set out early on, when Clara pointed out that the Doctor, “like most clever people” assumed everyone else was stupid – and then proceeded to treat Danny in exactly the same way throughout. Putting up with that, and coming to terms with the knowledge that his girlfriend has been persistently lying to him about some fundamentally important aspects of her life, actually makes Danny seem something of a saint.
Not only that, but his recognition of the Doctor as not only a fellow soldier, but a member of the officer class, hit home very hard for the Time Lord himself, giving us more insight into his current military-phobia. The Doctor’s always tended to be impatient with soldiers, but it’s only in recent years that he’s seemed to actively dislike them. The concept of the Time War, as shown in The Day of the Doctor particularly, plays into this – not only did the Doctor have to become a warrior, but ultimately the most important one in the War. He may now know that he didn’t destroy Gallifrey, but that survivor guilt is obviously still there. For all their apparent dislike of each other, Danny and the Doctor have a great deal in common – and as we were repeatedly told in Time Heist last week, if there’s one person you really don’t want to see in front of you, it’s yourself.
Samuel Anderson played the part well, avoiding the obvious pitfall of making Danny a comedy stooge. In part, I suspect this was due to Steven Moffat’s input to the script; I note that he’s been co-credited as writer for the last two weeks. With depths we’ve still to discover, and a clear distrust of the Doctor, Danny’s a complex character for a companion. And his gradual introduction to the world of the Doctor reflects that. He’s only this week seen the TARDIS, and has yet to travel in it. I’m guessing the promise he extracted from Clara – to tell him if life with the Doctor started becoming too much – is going to pay off later in the series.
Because if there’s one defining aspect of this new Doctor – apart from his rather forbidding nature – it’s sheer recklessness, and a lack of consideration for the consequences of his actions. Clara was absolutely right – the alien threat was there because of him (as a result of the artron energy saturating the area from his frequent visits). And he’d chosen to confront it in a school of all places, because it was the only suitably large space in the area; with barely a thought for the risk to the school’s population of children.
That’s all pretty serious stuff for what appears to be a lightweight comedy episode, and gives The Caretaker more dramatic heft than, say, Robot of Sherwood. But there was plenty of laugh-out-loud comedy here, which suited this new, sterner Doctor probably better than his predecessors – and Capaldi, no stranger to comedy, played it perfectly. The comical misunderstanding over the identity of Clara’s boyfriend was straight out of Shakespeare (no surprise from the author of The Shakespeare Code), and it was an amusing, if obvious, touch for the Doctor to assume she had fallen for someone who looked like his previous incarnation.
And the scene of him interrupting Clara’s English class was not only well-judged comedy, but also further served to demonstrate the recently established aspect of her character as something of a control freak. Her exasperation, while comically expressed (“Boggons?”) made the point that she really didn’t like the Doctor treading on ‘her territory’, ancient and knowledgeable though he may be. Capaldi’s comic timing was perfect as he endured her exasperated, hyperbolic rant, left a beat, then told her he’d never met Jane Austen but had read the author bio in the book.
While we’ve seen that this Doctor doesn’t have the easy touch with children of his predecessor, that made for an entertaining bit of bond-forming with “disruptive influence” Courtney Woods, appealingly played by Ellis George – “nice to meet you! Now get lost.” It was nice to see her display perhaps the most human reaction ever to being shown the wonders of the Universe – to throw up. “There’s been a spillage.”
As an alien menace, the “Skovox Blitzer” was pretty lightweight stuff (and oddly cumbersome for the most fearsome killing machine ever invented). But as ever in this kind of episode, the sci-fi plot is almost incidental to the character drama and comedy. Gareth Roberts got a lot of stick for using the more memorable Cybermen in such a throwaway fashion in Closing Time – perhaps that was a lesson learnt, which is why the school wasn’t cursorily menaced by, say, the Master.
Mention of the Master leads us inexorably to this week’s appearance of ‘Missy’ – the current favourite online theory being that this is her identity. That’s as may be (though it seems a little obvious), but we got a bit more detail about her mysterious ‘afterlife’ this week, courtesy of a nicely officious performance from Chris Addison as her PA Seb. Interviewing the hapless policeman who was very obviously killed by the Blitzer, he was the first to refer to the realm as “the Nethersphere” onscreen – and it was notable that, of the various names he ascribed to it, “Heaven” wasn’t one of them. The policeman’s death was far less directly connected to the Doctor than those we’ve seen previously, though I suppose the Blitzer was only in Shoreditch because of him. Still, maybe that’s why this ‘victim’ wasn’t greeted personally by Missy, who was “a bit busy”.
On the face of it, The Caretaker was a very formulaic episode; it even seemed self-aware of that, offering us an opening montage of very established Doctor Who clichés. But formulaic doesn’t necessarily mean dull, and within the formula, Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat presented us with a well-played comedy which had more than a bit of dramatic depth. We may have been here before, but it was entertaining to visit again with a new gang and all the possibilities that afforded.