The Caretaker

Story No. 268 Baby Dragon!
Production Code Series 8, Episode 6
Dates September 27, 2014

With Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Written by Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat Directed by Paul Murphy
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: An alien killing machine threatens Coal Hill School. Fortunately, there's a new caretaker on the job.


One of the Most Deadly Killing Machines Ever Invented by Hugh Sturgess 3/3/17

This episode held up a lot better on rewatching than I'd expected. On first viewing, I had a problem with its tone, its haphazard plot and a sense that we'd seen this all before. On rewatching, I still had a problem with the foregoing, just not so much as it make this an unenjoyable experience. As praise goes, I suppose that's pretty meagre. The Caretaker is part of a genre of Doctor Who story that didn't exist in the twentieth century, wherein the A-plot becomes the B-plot so we can focus on the characters. The problem is that nothing really comes from either plot, and there's a general layer of nastiness over everything.

This is Gareth Roberts's fifth script for the series, and I make no bones about my dislike for four of the previous efforts. He has been hopelessly trapped in the role of the comedic writer by now, repeating the fish-out-of-water situation comedy of The Lodger to diminishing returns. It's a challenge for any writer of comedy to be told to do what he did before without actually repeating himself. After all, if a joke's really good, why didn't he use it already? This is Roberts's third go at the Doctor trying to act normal for an extended period of time and comically failing, though mercifully the episode doesn't give us much in the way of Lodger-esque comic misunderstandings and changes course completely at the halfway mark. Arguably, this is the point at which the season decisively breaks from the Matt Smith era and begins to do its own thing, but it leaves the first half adrift. The episode begins with a montage of Clara attempting to juggle her Earth life and her TARDIS life, ending on the Doctor turning up at Coal Hill and crashing the two lives together. It's played like a farce or a sitcom, yet none of it is very funny. To put it charitably, it's whimsical. Less charitably, it's constantly gesturing at funny situations that it never bothers to actually create.

Part of this is the new Doctor. Peter Capaldi doesn't have the wide-eyed innocence that Matt Smith brought to his cluelessness. His Doctor is far too standoffish and misanthropic to provide the kind of jokes wrung from The Lodger and Closing Time. Instead, he's really nasty to everyone. The writers in Series 8 were trying their hand at a distant, unfriendly Doctor, and pushed it as far as they thought it could go. By Series 9, he's calmed down significantly and improved for it. At times in Series 8, he becomes so parodically unpleasant that it's hard to take him seriously. The tone of this is seriously misjudged. His refusal to accept that Danny is a maths teacher isn't funny or even Ricky Gervais painful awkwardness but simply unpleasant. Some viewers had a problem with the optics of a white man assuming that a black man is not smart enough to teach maths, and this is actually a case when I agree with this kind of reading. This unfortunate mistake is furthered by the Doctor later asking Courtney, a black girl, if she has "shoplifting class" to go to. Even the two boys playing truant are black. This was simply a mistake by the production team, but it is part of a general reactionary tone to the entire enterprise. Coal Hill looks like a nice enough school, yet it's talked about as though it's a hellhole. The Doctor comes across as a grumpy Daily Mail reader, and it's not like he doesn't have form when it comes to prejudice against state-school kids: the tenth Doctor assumed that the kids in School Reunion would be "happy-slapping hoodies with ASBOs and ring-tones".

How enriching! This gets at the point that making a difficult, spiky misanthrope a character you want to spend time with is not an easy task. In Kill the Moon and Mummy on the Orient Express, the Doctor is meant to be unlikeable and is criticised for his behaviour. But a lot of the time his spikiness is played for laughs. We're supposed to laugh indulgently at his rudeness and grumpiness, yet so little of what he does is at all funny. His treatment of Danny in the first half isn't funny but rather cruel and stupid. It makes the Doctor a prig and a bigot to boot. In a season that has problematised the Doctor's heroism so stylishly, what is gained by so crudely giving him a blatantly stupid prejudice against soldiers? A bit of foresight here will show that this thread to the season goes nowhere. Since it is such an obviously unreasonable belief, an explanation is expected, yet it never arrives. The Doctor does not get his comeuppance for his prejudice. Although he sympathises with and salutes the Foretold, and goes on to salute the Cyber-Brigadier in Death in Heaven, the contradiction is never addressed.

The Brigadier ended up a maths teacher, so why does the Doctor have such a hard time believing another soldier could do the same? No doubt this contradiction was conscious on Moffat and Roberts's part, much like his failure to remember the events of The Girl in the Fireplace in Deep Breath. Nevertheless, the Doctor's love for the Brigadier combined with his contempt for soldiers in the abstract seems to confirm Danny's accusation that the Doctor dislikes him on class grounds. (Danny is a grunt while the Doctor is an officer.)

It doesn't make sense as a character flaw for the Doctor. Where does this sudden contempt for soldiers come from? Unlike (say) his hatred of the Daleks, it doesn't flow from what we know of him as a reasonable belief for him to hold. "Don't you hate soldiers?!" he asks Clara rhetorically in the opening montage, a line that is utterly artificial in any circumstances. I'm all for the Doctor as a flawed hero, but this is so stupid a flaw it's hard to see what purpose is served by "critiquing" it.

The genuinely good idea of making Danny invisible so he can see how Clara behaves around the Doctor gets killed off when the Doctor immediately realises what's happening. Instead we get a pointless scene of the Doctor being horribly nasty to Danny, just so Danny can accurately call him out on it. Danny has a sudden flash of insight about the Doctor as an aristocrat and an officer, explaining his dislike of Danny, but this is so wildly out of character for him (the Doctor as a snob who dislikes people who are subordinate to him in the hierarchy?) that it's hard to take it seriously. It's a con to criticise the Doctor for something that no one else would ever write for him.

The sort-of love triangle between the Doctor, Clara and Danny is poorly sketched and predictable. Of course the Doctor doesn't like Danny, because characters in that role never do. In a series that turns the Doctor/Clara relationship into something much more profound than the boyfriend/girlfriend analogies of previous neo-Who, this episode demeans that hard work by imposing a crude and cliched "these are the rules when you date my daughter" analogy. The trope of the father not liking his daughter's boyfriend, because he's no good/a sign of his daughter growing up is old hat and seems to assume that it actually matters in any way what an old man thinks about his daughter's love life.

Clara frets over whether the Doctor will "approve" of Danny, as though he's the capricious patrician he actually turns out to be. After taking an instant and deep dislike to Danny simply because he was once a soldier, the Doctor then seems to genuinely feel entitled to an "explanation" from Clara. He virtually sends her away with an order to come back when she'll tell him the truth about Danny. In short, who the fuck does he think he is? In Deep Breath, he told Clara he wasn't her boyfriend, yet is here clearly wracked with jealousy. He furiously denies being her dad, yet acts as though she needs his permission before she starts courting. Is this really what we're doing with the show in 2014?

Remarkably, the Doctor's biggest flaw - his assumption that Clara needs his approval when she's dating - is never criticised. There comes no point at which Clara tells the Doctor that he isn't her dad and, even if he were, it would still be none of his business. She never tells him to get back in his lonely bloody TARDIS and go far away. A categorical statement by Clara that she is not the Doctor's child could be a good lead into his decision to push her autonomy in Kill the Moon and thus further the Doctor/Clara character arc. But the authors prefer to indulge the sitcom stereotype of a jealous father rather than rattle it.

If this was just the B-plot and the main action was elsewhere, then the episode could get away with it. But this is the main action, and the science-fiction stuff is mainly a contractual obligation. The drama in which we're meant to invest is a totally artificial conflict between the Doctor and Danny as they fight over Clara like she's a piece of property, and Danny is implied to have proved himself worthy of the Doctor's approval by doing a gymnastics leap over the Skovox Blitzer to distract it.

I take back what I said at the start. I hate this episode even more now than I did the first time around.

Bad Education by Donna Bratley 8/4/18

At times, this show makes me want to tear out my hair by the handful. It can be magnificent, terrifying or hilarious. At its best, it's all three at once. It can also, on occasion, be the most infuriating bloody mess in the universe.

The Caretaker fits the latter category. It's got a potentially interesting central idea (Clara's two worlds colliding should be fun, and you can't go wrong with the Doctor going undercover - can you?), lots of smashing one-liners and a great main cast, yet it still contrives to muck the whole lot up.

Gareth Roberts can write amusing Doctor Who; The Unicorn and the Wasp is an entertaining bit of froth I always enjoy going back to. This time, he's sharing writing duties with my favourite modern Who writer, and if Steven Moffat's input could work towards a Steve Thompson episode I find watchable in Time Heist, there had to be hope for Roberts' contribution too.

Together they make full use of Peter Capaldi's exquisite comic timing, and it's especially unfortunate that the glorious moment when he whistles a snatch of Pink Floyd's biggest hit to his stroppy teacher friend should come in an episode I can't bring myself to sit through too often. The innocent expression on the Doctor's face is a delight, and, whenever he's given a good line, Capaldi turns it into a better one. They probably sound even funnier than usual amid the general burble that constitutes the rest of this script.

The alien threat may have looked great on paper: it's so absurd on screen as to provoke a peal of laughter from me the first time it moved out of the shadows. The characterisation of the main players is awful, and the timeline of Clara's love life becomes ever more tangled and confused.

I gathered from reading reviews after broadcast that I'm supposed to root for her beau throughout The Caretaker. Sorry; not going to happen. Danny Pink comes across to me as thoroughly unlikeable, by turns possessive and clinging, bristling with resentment or whining to suite the scene. Not that his girlfriend or her space dad fare any better.

So, Clara's been involved with him for some time - several months I assume, although the show itself doesn't seem entirely clear. Yet he's as gobsmacked as the Doctor (and by the look on her face, the woman herself) when she blurts out "I love him!" Given that she's been treating him like an especially dim toddler for the whole of the story so far, I imagine he's not wholly convinced.

I've mentioned in an earlier review that the Twelfth Doctor's disdain for soldiers doesn't sit well with me, and it's unbridled to the point of being vicious here. Danny's resentment toward the officer class (it'd be difficult to get anything done in any walk of life without someone putting themselves up to take responsibility, but that's by the by) is certainly a provocation, but it simply contributes to a scene that puts Miss Oswald at the point of an absurdly improbable "love" triangle; makes all three characters look like self-absorbed idiots; and diminishes each one in turn despite the conviction Capaldi, Coleman and Anderson put into their performances.

The Doctor's a peevish curmudgeon with jealousy issues (although he still manages to make me laugh, so I'm more inclined to forgive him than the others); Clara comes off as a self-centred, crassly insensitive liar; Danny's a petulant whinger with a chip evenly balanced on each shoulder. It's like being hurled back into the Eleventh Doctor and Amy's era, trying to convince myself I should care about characters who actively invite me not to give a toss.

Then there's the Skovox Blitzer - a supposedly terrifying threat that looks as if it was designed by a marketing committee as a cheap piece of plastic tat for a kiddie's Christmas stocking and displays all the persuasive menace of a blind kitten; a gobby schoolgirl perfect for a "Don't Get Into Teaching!" career poster (the prospect of Courtney coming back in the next episode did nothing to raise my spirits at the end of this one); Clara going doe-eyed over her man's improbable intervention at the saving-the-day point; and a script that makes the Grand Romance look more contrived, convoluted and even less credible than it had been before... overall, the first dog's breakfast of the Twelfth Doctor's era.

Its saving grace (a common theme in their few really weak stories together) comes in the performances of Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. Their scenes always crackle and their scattered duets are the only things that make The Caretaker worth enduring. The Doctor's entertaining shiftiness as he tries to hide his intentions from his sceptical companion; his blithe assumption that a different coat counts as a convincing disguise; Clara's exasperated "Human beings are not otters!"; their exchange at her classroom window; and those gleeful few moments when the invisibility-cloak-in-a-watch makes me feel I'm really watching the Twelfth Doctor and his best friend rather than a couple of lookalikes.

Series 8 has a pair of wonderful actors who bring out the best in each other at its heart, and in a story like The Caretaker it needs them. It's no Nightmare in Silver or Curse of the Black Spot (those two are utterly irredeemable in my eyes), but it remains one of the few disappointments of this run for me.