Doctor Who XXXIV(8).6: The Caretaker

Caretaker_RTIt’s been pointed out to me on Twitter that Clara’s love affair with Danny is odd, as all we see is negativity and argument. I don’t think this is how the depiction of the relationship is conceived by those writing and performing it; there’s enough in the performances and the dialogue to infer that between the conflicts we see there is something more enriching going on this series, much as we necessarily only see the crises in the lives of the Doctor and Clara. I do think that there is a problem in that this is meant to be a complex relationship between complicated people and we are not being given enough to properly evaluate it. Doctor Who sometimes seems desperately to want to emulate twenty-two episode runs when it doesn’t have the space to do so, and Steven Moffat’s signature style, a comedy of gender role crises which assumes men and women spend too much time talking past each other, doesn’t always rub along well with the potentials of Doctor Who and can seem to inhibit them; and the pressure works in reverse too.

This being said, I found The Caretaker a more than decent episode of Doctor Who, even from its opening scenes where I suspected I wasn’t the only viewer wishing we could see more of the adventures Clara and the Doctor have had. It’s set on familiar ground. As Doctor Who Extra reminded us with forced bonhomie and synthetic film scratches, the Doctor has gone undercover in schools before, pretended to be or been transformed into a human being, even been Craig Owens’s Lodger and been a shop assistant so he could be around at Closing Time. If there is a progression, the Doctor has been less self-aware every time, and here he denies being responsible for the arrival of the Skovox Blitzer at Coal Hill even as he comments that the school has attracted a higher than usual amount of artron energy over the years. He seems to compare Clara to Borusa at one point, but Borusa might actually have commended this Doctor for making advances in detachment. He shares and expresses the prejudices of a particular section of the Doctor Who fanbase – those with a loathing for PE teachers – and is too focussed or too driven by his working assumptions about who is worth considering and who isn’t to question himself until much later. Danny recognises the attraction the Doctor’s life has for Clara, and he recognises that he has seen that in her without knowing it, but he knows the Doctor’s type of old. However much he cloaks himself with eccentricities and a caretaker’s coat, the Doctor is Time Lord and officer class, harking back to Christopher Eccleston’s ease in commanding UNIT soldiers back in Aliens of London. I hope and expect an arc which gives the Doctor and Clara a kind of comeuppance for their self-deceptions which end up entangling other people and which can’t be erased by just saying “Shut up!” a lot.

Those who complained about series one and two being Rose’s story more than the Doctor’s had not seen anything yet. This series is so far very much Clara’s. This episode sees the Doctor disappear with his soulmate and fellow disruptive influence Courtney to despatch the deactivated Skovox Blitzer and enjoy showing her the wonders of the universe (she is, appropriately for the compromises which have unspooled in the lives of the other regulars, sick) while Clara and Danny evaluate their relationship while still curling up on the sofa after the fashion of domestic harmony, because real domestic bliss isn’t something this Doctor Who has confidence in believing in. Like the Brigadier (after whose portrayer Courtney is presumably named) in an earlier era and in another context, we just do the best we can. There’s something saintly about Danny.

Cultural allusions abound as often. The invisibility watch is surely a nod to short-lived 1976 US series The Gemini Man, shown in full on BBC1 despite having been pulled from the schedules in its native land by NBC. The Doctor whistles a couple of bars or so of Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ as Clara struggles to rescue the giant chess set with its vaguely Lewis Carroll and Prisoner associations, as well as with pub gardens. The Doctor tries to correct Clara about the origins of truths usually acknowledged, but even so there’s a sense of walls closing in in this story; those of us who have to deal with short life spans can’t share the Doctor’s condescensions for ever. Meanwhile the Doctor himself may be chased by the ghost of Capaldi past in the shape of Chris Addison as Seb.

The Skovox Blitzer is in a tradition of Doctor Who monsters I suspect is beloved of Gareth Roberts, a kind of more efficient and robotic space chicken than the Ergon from Arc of Infinity, with a dash of the spider-Daleks from unproduced versions of the TV Movie and a storyline in the Threshold sequence of DWM comic strips in the 1990s with a charming line in lethal problem-solving. Another pleasing nod was Clara’s flat number being ’63’, carrying forward the suggestion from her Impossible Girl days that the numbers in Clara’s life have real world significance.

Those who predicted that Doctor Who was moving from one romcom parallel to another seem to have been right. The Doctor is now a Space Dad with an adoptive space daughter, evaluating his potential earthly son-in-law while a candidate for space granddaughter looks for her space legs. He’s tried to dismiss Danny as Dave, much as Mickey was Ricky to his similarly abrasive Eccleston persona, but can’t maintain it. We’ve just got a few more weeks to see how this is going to be explored and deployed now it’s been set up. The Barbara-Ian-Susan parallels have been trailed in pre-season gossip, but they are open to question too. As the series continues to revisit its past and other genre staples, with next week’s trailer promising a touch of The Waters of Mars with a dash of the Alien franchise, I worry a bit that so many roots are showing that they might obscure the plant, fun though it all is.

Publishing and then reading the post led me to revisit it and say yes, I did like the episode. The production of the TARDIS from behind its curtain again brought out the dichotomy of this Doctor, who seeks to be unobtrusive and minimalist but can’t hide that he’s a showman, more a member of the Brotherhood of Magicians than that of Logicians. There’s a plausible innocence to the Doctor, someone who can see so much information but isn’t always adequate to the emotional impact of his actions on other people. Adrian doesn’t just remind us of the geography teacher jibes about Matt Smith’s Doctor’s costume, but that the Doctor was not so long ago much more of a teacher figure than he has now become. Capaldi’s Doctor would like a classroom audience, but would not know how to connect though instinct might see him through. His awkwardness with Danny is presumably not just Steven Moffat’s understanding of the Doctor’s need to be the “alpha male” (see Doctor Who Extra) but also because Danny might just be further ahead at sorting out comparable issues than the Doctor is. For all his insults about little human brains, the audience is reminded regularly that the Doctor has deep problems living with his own experiences, and while we may well have been here before, it’s fascinating to see how it’s restated and Capaldi plays it.

Oh, and otters! A joke about the Benedict Cumberbatch internet meme, surely…


Posted on 28 September 2014, in doctor who reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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