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.
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.
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.