Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Doesn't Care-taker

Doctor Who
The Caretaker
Series Eight, Episode Six

Oh dear.  This is a review I don't really want to write.

I was quietly expecting to like this one.  I've a soft spot for episodes by Gareth Roberts, as they tend to get overlooked by fandom – The Unicorn & The Wasp and Closing Time spring to mind.  He can do "funny" exquisitely well, which isn't something to sniff at, but he's also really great at juxtaposing the Doctor against normal people, not to mention smaller, less apocalyptic threats.  Here's another episode of The Doctor Undercover, and this one is set in a school – which has already been done in School Reunion, one of my all time favourites.  That doesn't automatically mean it won't work a second time; it's just a bit less special by default.  That's an annoying place to start.

The Caretaker is also concerned with Clara's "normal" life vs. her life in the TARDIS, which they highlight really well in a very funny opening montage.  But we've seen this theme before in The Power Of Three – another episode I'm fond of, so there's a feeling of "Oh, this again" here as well.  However, the main talking point is the Doctor, and his attitude towards Danny, which had been building up before they even met, and is clearly a theme for the series.  That's what the episode is – the Doctor meets the boyfriend.  We'll learn more about both of them in the process.  Is it a success?  Um.

Of course the Doctor thinks she's dating a Matt-Smith-alike,  and of course
he's okay with that.  What do you mean, "unspeakably creepy"?
(Okay, he probably views it as natural for her to fancy Matt Smith,
and has no feelings vice versa.  But I can't help thinking about it.)
You may have noticed that the Doctor, this year, is a bit of a git.  Well, a lot of a git.  He's mostly git.  He's rude, dismissive, difficult to like.  This is, broadly speaking, a good thing – you've got to keep the character interesting after fifty years and a dozen-or-so previous actors, and learning to love him all over again is an important part of that.  It's also important to remind us that he's an alien, and being a bit less likeable is a simple way to achieve that.  I totally get all of that, and I'm under no illusion that the way they're writing Peter Capaldi's Doctor is an accident.

Even so, I'm not enjoying it.  Your mileage may vary.  I don't enjoy the Doctor being rude to people out of reflex.  I don't enjoy him loudly telling people to shut up.  I don't enjoy him refusing to accept that an ex-soldier could have a modicum of intelligence, or that a PE teacher could either.  I think the Doctor is basically a good person and he's interested in other people, although he is different from them.  I think there's alien, and there's arsehole, and we are confusing the two, possibly due to an unfortunate cross-pollination with Malcolm Tucker.

The Caretaker does come up with reasons for the Doctor's rudeness towards Danny in particular – and states them all rather boringly out loud, which isn't a very subtle way to do things, but is how this series rolls.  The main one is fatherly disapproval, which could work, except he was being rude to Danny before he knew this guy was a boyfriend to be disapproving of.  (And to an extent, before they even met.)  The other reason is, you guessed it, the soldier thing.  The Doctor's dislike of soldiers is a massive issue at the moment, and I might as well throw my hands up here: I don't get it.  Yes, the Pertwee Doctor hated the military, partly because they blew up some life-forms behind his back, mostly because he was stuck with them for several years.  Yes, the Hurt Doctor did some soldiery things the subsequent Doctors are ashamed of – but Day Of The Doctor really ought to count as closure there.  Why's it such a bitter, personal problem now?   (Remember, he's aged 1,000 years since the John Hurt reunion.  That's ancient history.)

It's a thorny issue, because of course, the Doctor is a massive hypocrite.  (Which they also point out, because the audience might have cotton wool for brains.)  He's made use of the military any number of times since (and during) the Pertwee Years, and he's befriended a few of them.  He's quite capable of blowing things up by himself, with or without the handy caveat of "There should have been another way" or, as per The Next Doctor, "You made me do it."  The Caretaker examines that as well, positing that he's simply a higher ranking officer than the likes of Danny, and dislikes the lower ones out of snobbery or shame.  That's a new one, and it's not necessarily out of the question.  But it's yet another reason not to like this guy.

Hooray for character development and everything, but I wish this episode went some way to resolving these issues, rather than just highlighting them.  For the first time this series, I felt at arm's length from the Doctor.  He's still funny, because it's written by Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat, and Peter Capaldi can do put-downs like nobody else.  He's still compelling, because he's Peter Capaldi and he's intensely interesting to watch.  But the whole rude, dismissive thing is getting in the way, for me.  Christopher Eccleston was like that in his first episode – saving humanity out of irritated obligation, not massively fussed about the individuals.  And fair enough, but he learned.  That's what Rose was for.  Is Clara helping this guy, or not?  (They point out that she's his external conscience, because of course they do.)  Why is he calling us "little people", like David Tennant's Doctor during his nervous breakdown?  What happened to the Doctor actually quite liking humans?  It just feels like rude is the new bow tie: it's cool, apparently.

None of this goes unnoticed by Clara or Danny, and again, it's obviously no accident.  He's not meant to be likeable, we're not supposed to be enthralled by this behaviour.  There's even a cheeky line: "I hate you!"  "That's fine.  That's a perfectly normal reaction."  The fact that it's making me want to punch iPlayer, or switch it off, or run crying back to Matt Smith, is merely an unfortunate side effect.  It's a gamble.  We've yet to see the pay-off, but at this stage, I can understand a less patient fan giving up, at least until they're done with the monotonous I Hate Soldiers thing, or the equally monotonous I Hate Boyfriends thing.  (Oh good, this again.)

First time through, The Caretaker set my teeth on edge.  Second time, its charms became more apparent.  The Doctor is terrible at undercover work, and that can be hilarious.  It's not quite the same as Matt Smith's brand of undercover terribleness – Capaldi is more grumpy old man than charming eccentric, and he manages to embody an alien superciliousness, as well as exactly the cantankerousness you'd expect from a school caretaker nobody wants to talk to.  The way he refers to himself as "a man of mystery" is, hilariously, to die for.

Some of the really funny stuff is Clara, just generally, or failing to cover up her trips in the TARDIS.  ("Nice frock.  Bit wet..."  "Freak shower."  "Is that seaweed?"  "I said freak!")  There's a brilliant moment where the Doctor name-drops Jane Austen, which is a ridiculously annoying habit Clara rightly calls him on, except this time he's just read the bio at the back of Pride And Prejudice.

Of course, The Caretaker isn't just a Funny Episode.  It's a character-developer for Clara and Danny, and it's a low-key, patient episode in order to accommodate that.  I don't mind – Clara's character only improves if you heap some layers on it, and she grew more interesting just by meeting Danny in Episode #2.  They are inevitably rushing things a bit, thanks to the time-jumps between each episode.  A moment where she says she loves Danny feels awkwardly unearned.  Danny spends most of the episode either losing patience with, or being bluntly pissed off with her, which leaves her trying to make excuses for the Doctor and herself, which isn't the best window into their relationship.  Sam Anderson is very good as the very patient Danny, but we don't really see what it is he likes about Clara.  Doctor-issues get in the way of any genuine chemistry.  I appreciate slowing down to examine characters like this; I'm just not sure it worked this time.

As for the monster plot, including the Doctor's puzzling decision to lure it to the school because "This is the only suitably empty place in the area" (WTF?), the Skovox Blitzer must be one of the most irrelevant "threats" in Doctor Who history.  A marauding robot thingummie that shoots people and needs to be got rid of and that's it, it's so underdeveloped it's almost off-screen.  Of course it's really just a starter pistol for the character stuff, but plots should always try to be interesting, and this one struggled to keep my attention even while I was looking at it.  (Although it did make me laugh, as it's inadvertently quite similar to Mitchell & Webb's Numberwang robot, Collosson.)  Still, unless my ears deceive me, that's Sam Anderson doing the voice, which bounces us back to the theme of officers and soldiers, what with the Doctor pretending to be the Skovox's boss in order to shut it down.  That's pretty nifty, although I still hate the soldier theme and want it to die, which does get in the way a teeny bit.

I admire the things this episode tries to do.  Some of them will make more sense in the fullness of time, and they probably make perfect sense now, to people other than me.  Good for them – you, even.  I really, really wanted to like this, and I take no enjoyment in not enjoying The Caretaker, but that's where I'm at: arms folded, frown in place, wondering when it's all going to come together.  Hurry up.


  1. i do get exactly where you're coming from. Although i enjoyed the ep i *was* expecting far more of the Dr/Dany 'conforntation' than the sniping and unresolvedness we did get. I'm HOPING we get more meaty confrontations between them soon...

    1. Well, six eps to go, it's probably on the cards. Fingers crossed!

      As for Danny making Clara promise not to let the Doctor push her too far - I *think* that may be going somewhere, but it's difficult to be certain... ;)

  2. The best lines in the episode were when the Doctor asked Courtney what people called her, she answered “Disruptive influence,” and he happily exclaimed “Nice to meet you” and shook her hand. The 12th Doctor is a Disruptive Influence. (One of my dearest friends is also a man hated by almost everyone else at my work and among my friends, so there really is such a thing as a crusty curmudgeon with a toffee centre.) I also personally understand the Doctor’s antipathy toward soldiers (as well as his easy forgetting of that in the company of the aristocratic officers), however I safely live in a country where soldiering is a very rare thing.

  3. You certainly like Gareth Roberts more than we do, but that's a very perceptive summation of his strengths.

    What do you mean, "unspeakably creepy"?

    Of all the things we had problems with in this episode, this, amazingly, wasn't one of them. We see his relationship to the previous Doctor as kind of distantly avuncular, therefore nothing much to do with him. And of course he's also accidentally right, because Clara did fancy the Matt Doctor.

    You've articulated a lot of things here which we agree with completely, yet didn't dwell on in our own review because there were things we liked even less. For us, this episode is The One That Nearly Put Us Out Of Business. We're so sick of being negative this season, especially when so many people seem to like the new direction. Some of it's about what you say here, some of it's other things. We were so depressed about it we were seriously questioning whether we should throw the towel in and leave it to people who actually like it as it is.

    1. Hi guys.

      I find the whole Matt/boyfriend thing creepy. It just doesn't sit well with me. I don't think there was ever anything "going on" there, in either direction, despite the occasional (I felt) insubstantial fancying ref. It feels wrongish to me. Then again, I don't mind the degree-of-separation thing with Capaldi. (Maybe it's a nervous reaction to love triangles, as you said in your review? I think that alarm bell rang in my subconscious...)

      I get a bit upset me when they remind me about Matt. I joke in the review, but god, I do actually miss him. Clara's better with Peter, but still.

      I felt like you here - on the brink. I don't think it's terrible, but I'm struggling with CapalDoc - not the actor, obviously - and the show is him. Worrying. And they're making big motions about Danny and soldiers and I think they're bending the Doctor out of shape to do it. And there's an arc, but I'm conditioned just to ignore them now.

      Glad neither of us has quit yet, but it's making me frown a bit too often.

      I am exaggerating my Roberts love for nice effect. I don't like The Shakespeare Code, and Planet Of The Dead is shite. Still, he can make me laugh when he's on form...

  4. We miss Matt too. It's so very very disappointing.

    The only thing that dragged us back from the brink was getting an email from someone who thanked us for saying what we had as she was going slowly insane wondering if she was the only person in the universe disliking it. So we felt there was a point to keeping going, but we can't say we're bubbling with anticipation. We hope you keep trudging too. You know what they say about misery.

  5. Let's all run crying back to Matt Smith! Or at least stop telling me about this guy who's pretending to be the Doctor now. I haven't forgiven Troughton yet so it'll be a while before I accept Capaldi.

    Also that bow tie is rubbish. It looks like it came off the end of a Christmas cracker.