Doctor Who #953: The Caretaker

"The walls need sponging and there's a sinister puddle."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Sep.27 2014.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor goes undercover in Clara's school to find and defeat an alien killing machine.

REVIEW: Writer Gareth Roberts was responsible for The Lodger et al. and one of the principal writers on the Sarah Jane Adventures. The Caretaker is a bit of a cross between those two. It's got the bantery comedy of The Lodger with the Doctor seeming increasingly out of place posing as a human (except replace 11's eccentricities with 12's), while give or take a crispy-fried copper (the Heaven arc must be catered to, with Missy now expanding and farming the work out to Capaldi's Thick of It colleague Chris Addison), the school setting, kid companion, and puppet-ish monster give the episode a distinct SJA feel. Sarah Jane Smith WAS reintroduced in School Reunion, after all - another episode where the Doctor goes undercover inside a school. In a sense, I'm a little disappointed because the opening sequence, which was used in the teaser trailer, seemed to promise something we didn't get. Clara juggling her life with the Doctor and her affair with Danny, eating twice in a row, arriving to dates disheveled, etc. could have led to her actively doing something about her hectic schedule, forcing a meeting between the two men in her life, or even hit a wall from the exhaustion. Instead, it's merely prelude to a comedy episode with a very thin monster, also only there to serve the relationship stuff (not that there's anything wrong with that), while Danny and the Doctor meet with no help from Clara. The spark and wit of the dialog makes it very fun to watch regardless, but there are excesses that are less forgivable, from disruptive Courtney becoming the first "companion" to upchuck on the TARDIS, to the invisibility watch which will never be seen again (the device is well used, but ultimately, a cheat), to Danny's completely ridiculous somersault (maybe the point is that he becomes a P.E. teacher at that point, just as the Doctor's solution to the Skovox Blitzer is to become its "officer"; each man turning into what the other thinks of him).

Strong thematic underpinnings also make this episode more than another silly romp. Identity continues to be a big thing. The Doctor changes his - barely! - first to that of a cantankerous school caretaker (never get angry in the middle of writing a KEEP OUT sign, it'll turn into GO AWAY HUMANS), then as the Blitzer's general. It's not possible for him to see Danny as who he is, calling him a P.E. teacher or a soldier even though he teaches maths and is NO LONGER a soldier (because Danny is black, he wouldn't be wrong to take this as a racist comment from an old man, but obviously, the Doctor is oblivious to this kind of thing). And he thinks Clara's boyfriend is another teacher altogether, Adrian, who looks and dresses like the 11th Doctor. Doc12 gives her a great look when she claims that's not her type, and while he has no romantic claim on Clara, it flatters him. But the most important "identity crisis" in the episode is Danny rightly identifying the Doctor as an "officer". Soldiers carry guns and go to their deaths, while officers shout orders and survive to fight another day. Anarchic troublemaker or not, the Doctor still identifies as a Time Lord, and thus a member of an aristocracy slumming it - in this episode, LITERALLY - with us puny mortals, compassionate but dismissive of our short lives and petty concerns. [We've discussed this idea several times on this here blog, mostly thanks to frequent commenter and the coolest Welshman I know, Madeley. This was his thesis and it was really great seeing it addressed on screen after 50 years of silence.] So what if the Doctor is an officer type? What he's really telling the Doctor is that he's a hypocrite. Danny also thinks, for a minute, that Clara is a space girl and the Doctor her space dad, an amusing reference to the Doc1/Susan relationship (which also featured Coal Hill), but something ELSE the Doctor becomes over the course of the episode, protective of Clara in a fatherly way. And Danny asks Clara who she is when she's with the Doctor, and who she thinks HE is. Who we are, really, is very much at the heart of this post-regenerative series of Who.

So let's talk relationships for a minute, since that's what this episode is interested in. The arc we've been following is less about Clara falling in love with Danny Pink - though she lets that out of the bag here - and more about the Doctor feeling her slipping away. The amusing opening sequence has him popping 'round with an invitation to something cool and exotic every time she's about to go on a date. He's trying to sabotage the relationship so he doesn't lose his... I'm going to use the word "tutor". On the one hand, Clara must keep comparing her exciting life to the normalcy of a human relationship; on the other, it forces her to lie to Danny, a man who hates lies and further, "doesn't do weird". To his credit, he doesn't ask her to quit - though he's definitely a "nester", which can be a problem when one's significant other loves to travel - but simply to tell him if the Doctor pushes her too far, as HE'S been pushed (whatever happened in his military career, it would seem to feature an order he hated following; killing wasn't for him). The Doctor is right to be afraid. Danny's hold over Clara is likely to be what makes him lose her.

THEORIES: Not so much a theory as a connection... The Brigadier was also a soldier who retired to become a maths teacher (in Mawdryn Undead). Is this foreshadowing for ANOTHER connection Danny will have to the Brig by season's end?

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - In discussing themes rather than specific moments, I've downplayed just how fun the episode is - I love Capaldi's angry comedy, love to see those Malcolm Tucker moments creepy through - but I have to admit the story itself is pretty slim and includes elements I could have done without.


Madeley said...

Cheers buddy, I'm touched to get a mention!

Suffice to say, having the current Who writers confirm a pet theory is what I imagine it must be like to see a favourite couple from your fan fiction get together in your favourite show. THRILLING.

Needless to say, I loved this episode. The character interplay does it for me, even with an off-the-shelf RTD era plot. Continuing the theme of this season showing the reflection of the Doctor in the world around him, Danny throws back an image of the Doctor that he doesn't like to see, even as we continue to suspect that the Doctor is talking about himself as much as anyone else when he criticises soldiering.

Here's a thought- "Listen" suggested the Doctor was meant for the Army instead of the Academy, but he became a Time Lord anyway. Is denying Danny's identity as a maths teacher the Doctor working out his own imposter issues?

Really, the overall title of this series could easily be "Furious Mirror."

Anonymous said...

I find this episode endlessly rewatchable, primarily for Peter Capaldi's performance. Number Twelve trying to blend in will never not be funny.

In terms of advancing the season's themes, it did a fine job, so I don't particularly mind if the Blitzer didn't make me hide behind the couch.

This is also the point where my girlfriend started hating Clara for being such a liar. Myself, I find it more forgivable: how do you tell someone that you've got a secret other life as a cosmic traveler? And additionally that it's a life they may not ever get to share? Not that Clara is right, mind you. As is usually the case in relationships, honesty is the best policy; deferring the awkward talks until the last possible moment is usually a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, Danny is made of stern stuff and can cope with weirdness better than dishonesty.

The Doctor always seems to feel that he should be the most amazing person in his companions' life; in "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances" the Doctor had a competitive streak with Captain Jack not because of romantic interest but out of sheer ego. That's the heart of what's going on with Danny too -- plus there's the added aggravation of Danny being able to point out the Doctor's flaws with devastating precision.

As for Danny being a lunkhead soldier, let's see ... he sees through the Doctor's shortcomings, he uncovered the Doctor's plan, and he saved the earth by waiting until he was needed and then taking action with a surprise attack. That new sensation you're feeling, Doctor, is "grudging respect". You've gone through entire regenerations where the combined potential of all your companions didn't match Danny Pink. (Quick decision, Doctor: if you want to undo a Cyberman plot, would you rather rely on Adric, or Danny Pink? Pick exactly one math genius and get back to me.)

Siskoid said...

Madeley: I've had that feeling too, I just can't remember what pet theory was confirmed. You watch Doctor Who every day for almost three years straight, it does things to your mind.

And screw it, you're right, I've revised my rating to Medium-High.

And I LOVE the idea of naming the season that, like the way Babylon 5 named its seasons for DVD releases. Now I'll be puzzling out what the other seasons should be called. See what you've done?!

Siskoid said...

Anonymous: Haha, grudging respect, I love it!

Clara's lies are pretty transparent and comical. She's very bad at it when it comes to Danny. (It's a play?!) But she's lying the way superheroes do. It's about her secret identity (there's that word again), and with secret identities, you usually wait until your loved one could handle it, or when they discover it all by themselves. That's the trope being played out here.

Ryan Lohner said...

This is where I first realized that we weren't just automatically meant to take the Doctor's side about soldiers, with Danny constantly upending all his preconceptions. I wish there'd been more of this kind of thing throughout the season.

Back in series 5, Vincent and the Doctor was originally written as just a quiet character piece where the Doctor and Amy hung out with Vincent van Gogh for a few days with the only conflict being his mental illness, until the BBC forced them to put in a monster. And this episode feels the same way, with a quite perfunctory alien as an unwelcome intrusion into the character bits. Luckily, those bits still work quite well enough to make the other part worth sitting through.

Elementary actually did its own take on this kind of issue just this week, with Joan suspicious that Sherlock arranged for her new boyfriend to take a job overseas so he could have her all to himself again. Sherlock rebutted that the guy completely got her, and her relationship with Sherlock, in a way few others would, so he would never do anything to jeopardize that. It was a quite moving scene and something I'd like to see from the Doctor sometime after his development this season. By the way, check out Elementary if you haven't; it's very much the substance over style counterpart to Sherlock's style over substance with 100% less of Moffat's women issues, and features easily the best take on Irene Adler I've ever seen from the magnificent Natalie Dormer.

Madeley said...

I imagine Tom Baker's first season would be called "The Definite Article".

Anonymous said...

"This is where I first realized that we weren't just automatically meant to take the Doctor's side about soldiers, with Danny constantly upending all his preconceptions. I wish there'd been more of this kind of thing throughout the season."

If it helps, I thought the Doctor was being a big stupid jerk at the end of the Dalek episode, insulting the soldier girl just because she was a soldier. There are all sorts of reasons a person might take up arms, and Daleks are a pretty good reason. You remember the Daleks, mister Doctor sir? The species you could have wiped out once and for all in an early Tom Baker adventure?

Siskoid said...

Ryan: I might take a look, Ryan, based on your recommendation.

Madeley: I love it. Man, smells like an article in the making...

Anon: Daleks must be fought! "But," the Doctor would say, "with ingenuity, not brute force!" And that's where he parts ways with the common soldier. He'd much rather resolve a situation peacefully if he can (i.e. make a Dalek good rather than destroy that Dalek).

Anonymous said...

Sure, I do get that the Doctor would rather avoid killing if possible. But seeing as not everyone has a TARDIS, a sonic screwdriver, and a superadvanced Time Lord brain, some folks may be required instead to use force, and that doesn't make them monsters.

I suspect Moffat sees that, and is deliberately writing this as a character flaw of the Doctor's. The Doctor has always had a problem with the military mindset, but I don't recall a single bad word he had for Corporal Benton or Captain Yates, soldiers who behaved honorably and were not given to cruelty. A few bad words for the Brigadier, though, as their commander (not that the Doctor didn't count on the Brigadier to save his bacon time and again).

LiamKav said...

"And I LOVE the idea of naming the season that, like the way Babylon 5 named its seasons for DVD releases."

Just to be that guy for a minute, the naming of Babylon 5's seasons wasn't new for the DVD releases... they were all given names during the original airing of the show.

Andrew Gilbertson said...

"Sure, I do get that the Doctor would rather avoid killing if possible. But seeing as not everyone has a TARDIS, a sonic screwdriver, and a superadvanced Time Lord brain, some folks may be required instead to use force, and that doesn't make them monsters."

Here, here, Anon! This has always been at the heart of my fury at this Doctor-hypocricy... he gets angry at the humans for 'not being better,' but also doesn't give them any of the advanced tools, abilities, and knowledge he has that allow him to 'be better,' or recognize that the only means available to them to do what he does don't always include the nonlethal options he has at his fingertips. Essentially, he has an unreasonable expectation that they solve problems in the ways he does even though they don't have the tools he uses to do it. Instead, they've got guns- and sometimes, guns are the only option open to them besides 'stand there and let innocents be slaughtered.'

Plus (in terms of the end of the Dalek episode, where I strongly agree with you), this is the man who had one incarnation that was devoted solely to killing Daleks with a gun, who committed genocide against them (as far as he knew) and bragged about it, who unleashed a biological weapon on Earth to commit localized genocide again, and purposefully tricked them into blowing up their own planet. So he really doesn't have much of a leg to stand on. (Which, fortunately, the series comes to point out is exactly the case.)


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