Doctor Who reviews: The Caretaker

The Doctor Who episode “The Caretaker,” co-written by Gareth Roberts & Steven Moffat, jumps in feet first with a hectic pre-credit sequence. We alternate between glimpses of the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) on their various adventures through time & space, and Clara’s romance with Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson).  Very quickly it becomes obvious that Clara is having a very difficult time balancing her travels with the Doctor with her relationship with Danny, especially as the later is being kept completely in the dark about the former.

Then one day the Doctor announces to Clara that he wants to be alone for a while, that he is going “undercover.” Clara is unsuccessful at getting the Doctor to reveal what he is up to, and reluctantly shrugs it off, returning to her job as a teacher at Coal Hill School.  However she quickly discovers to her alarm & dismay that the Doctor’s “deep cover” mission is posing as John Smith the temporary caretaker at Coal Hill.  Much like Gareth Roberts’ earlier 2010 episode “The Lodger,” this latest entry sees the Doctor attempting to pose as a normal human & blend in to everyday life on Earth, only to fumble about with humorous results.  And all of that causes Clara to become increasingly exasperated, as the oblivious Doctor intrudes upon her personal life.

The Doctor is impersonating a janitorial professional so that he can locate an alien war machine that has become stranded on Earth and lure it into a trap, all without attracting any attention. This once again betrays the Doctor’s overconfidence and egoism.  On the one hand, it is understandable that he doesn’t want Earth’s military to engage the heavily armed Skovox Blitzer, as such a confrontation would no doubt result in a catastrophic loss of human life.  On the other hand, the Doctor is absolutely convinced that he is the only person capable of dealing with the threat, to the point that he keeps Clara completely in the dark about what is going on.  And when Danny Pink, who understandably has no clue that anything odd is going on, accidentally trips up the Doctor’s attempt to trap the Blitzer, the time traveler goes to town on him, hurling every insult imaginable at the poor teacher.

Truthfully, the Skovox Blitzer, although very cool looking, is something of a side issue. This episode could have featured nearly any alien menace.  The real focus of “The Caretaker” is the relationship between the Doctor and Clara, the romance between Clara and Danny which is being undermined by the former’s secrecy, and the tension between Danny and the Doctor.  Roberts & Moffat do a good job scripting these interactions, and the three actors play their roles especially well.

Doctor Who The Caretaker promo image

Once again, I was very much reminded of the Third Doctor by Peter Capaldi’s performance. It’s not surprising that Jon Pertwee is a major influence on how Capaldi has decided to approach the role.  Capaldi was a tremendous fan of Doctor Who back in the early 1970s when it starred Pertwee.  Much like his third incarnation, the Twelfth Doctor for all his bravery and genius is also an arrogant, condescending jerk.

When he first meets Danny, the Doctor simply cannot wrap his head around the idea that a former soldier now teaches math, instead becoming stubbornly convinced that Danny must be Coal Hill’s phys ed teacher (no doubt a nod to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s stint as a math instructor, and the Doctor’s accompanying surprise, in “Mawdryn Undead”). The Doctor incorrectly (and egotistically) assumes that Clara is dating someone completely different, another of her co-workers, one who bears more than a passing resemblance to his last incarnation, complete with bow tie.  When the Doctor finally learns that Clara is involved with Danny, he is disgusted.  In a display of appalling rudeness, the Doctor asks Clara, with Danny standing right next to her, “Why would you go out with a soldier? Why not get a dog or a big plant?”

Of course, we soon discover that Danny is no one’s door mat, and he can give as good as he gets. The next day, upon overhearing that the Doctor is a Time Lord, Danny gets right in the Doctor’s face in a blisteringly insightful exchange…

Danny: “Time Lord!”  Might have known.
The Doctor: Might have known what?
Danny: Well, the accent’s good, but you can always spot the aristocracy.  It’s in the … the attitude.
Clara: Danny!
Danny: Now, uh, Time Lords, do you salute those?
The Doctor: Definitely not.
Danny: Well, sir!  [Danny sarcastically salutes the Doctor.]
The Doctor: You do not call me “sir.”
Danny: As you wish, sir!  Absolutely, sir!
The Doctor: You, get out of my TARDIS!
Danny: Immediately, sir!
Clara: Doctor, this is stupid!  This is unfair!
Danny: One thing, Clara.  I’m a soldier. Guilty as charged. You see him? He’s an officer!
The Doctor: I am not an officer!
Danny: I’m the one who carries you out of the fire.  He’s the one who lights it.
The Doctor:  Out now!
Danny: Right away, sir?  Straight now?
The Doctor: Yes!
Danny: Am I dismissed?
The Doctor: Yes, you are!
Danny: That’s him.  Look at him, right now.  That’s who he is.

Doctor Who The Caretaker Danny salutes

The Doctor does not like Danny because he associates soldiers with people who do not use their intelligence, who believe that the answer to every problem is violence. Danny, in turn, does not like the Doctor because he reminds Danny of his former superior officers, and of the politicians, the ones who start wars and then send people like him into the battlefield to fight and die in order to do the dirty work of cleaning up those messes.  And, yes, I do think that there is some truth to Danny’s comparison.  I was once again reminded of the scathing observation made by Davros in “Journey’s End” concerning the Doctor, a line I’ve quoted before:

“The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons.”

In the end, though, the Doctor is not able to stop the Skovox Blitzer on his own. Without a much-needed assist from Danny, the Blitzer would have engaged its self-destruct device, obliterating the Doctor, Clara and probably a good chunk of London.  The Doctor is forced to acknowledge a grudging admiration for Danny.  As for Danny, he doesn’t care what the Doctor thinks of him.  All that matters to him is that the Doctor recognizes that Danny is good enough for Clara, and stops questioning their relationship.

I am interested in seeing where things develop from here. How will this affect the relationship between Clara and Danny going forward, and between Clara and the Doctor?  Will Danny be joining the Doctor and Clara on any of their travels in the TARDIS?  If so, how will that turn out?  It could lead to plenty of interesting drama.

Another aspect of “The Caretaker” I enjoyed was the interaction between the Doctor and Courtney (Ellis George), one of Clara’s students at Coal Hill. The inquisitive, headstrong Courtney keeps prying into the Doctor’s affairs, attempting to learn why the new caretaker is hiding a police box in the supply room.  We are told that Courtney is referred to as a “disruptive influence” by the school staff.  It makes sense that the Doctor simultaneously is annoyed by and fond of Courtney.  They are probably very much alike.  I would not be at all surprised to learn that many centuries past, back on Gallifrey, the teenage Doctor had also been labeled a “disruptive influence” by his elders.  The Doctor does eventually let the persistent Courtney take a trip on the TARDIS, although she ends up quite unsettled by the experience!

Doctor Who The Caretaker Courtney

I was initially skeptical of the character of Danny, and of his relationship with Clara, upon his introduction earlier this season. However, after the developments of “The Caretaker” Danny is definitely shaping up to be an interesting, assertive, likeable figure, and his romance with Clara seems real & natural.

I do think that the Doctor’s blatant disdain towards soldiers was heavy-handed, and I hope that before Series Eight concludes Moffat will delve into the specific reasons for his feelings. I’ve suggested before that it could be rooted in the Doctor’s involvement in the Time War.  His present aversion to the military, which is much more pronounced that it ever was in most of his early incarnations, is perhaps a reflection of his self-disgust at the acts he committed during that apocalyptic conflict, and his fears concerning his continued capacity for violence.  That’s something worth exploring.

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10 thoughts on “Doctor Who reviews: The Caretaker

  1. Agree almost entirely (even right down to the obvious allusion to “Mawdryn Undead”). In Pertwee’s first season, in a story called “The Ambassadors of Death”, the Doctor starts behaving like a parade-ground officer, in order to get a sergeant to ‘fess up to his military connections; naturally, he has the man saluting him within seconds. The Doctor is indeed a very good officer. Doubtless we’ll find out later on this season why Danny resents them so much …

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  2. I agree with you about the Pertwee influence on Capaldi’s Doctor. I feel like his Doctor shares many characteristics with Pertwee’s. I’m also curious to know about Danny’s backstory, and I’d like to see the Doctor’s blinding hatred of all soldiers this season explained.

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  3. I think the Doctor’s potshots at soldiers are undoubtedly related to his struggles with his own identity as “soldier” in his War Doctor incarnation–something that, judging by the 50th anniversary story line, his 9th, 10th and 11th incarnations were trying to distance themselves from. I think that the question he first posed to Clara, “Am I a good man?” is something we’ll see Capaldi’s Doctor struggle with for some time. I’m glad you brought this “soldier” issue up, Ben. Many of the podcasts and blogs I’ve been reading and listening to on the current season seem to be perplexed by the Doctor’s apparent disdain for soldiers–and I think you hit the nail on the head–I definitely read it more as the Doctor coming to terms with his own history and his own actions rather than a blind hatred of soldiers–who in many ways are often only pawns of the powers that be.

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