• 3rd October 2014 • Review by Pete Dillon-Trenchard •
As soon as Gareth Roberts’ “The Caretaker” was announced, many of us felt we knew pretty much what to expect. By his own admission, Roberts has carved out a bit of a niche in the world of Doctor Who, with this being his third ‘Doctor lives among humans for a bit’ tale in five years. “The Lodger” and “Closing Time” were both light on plot and heavy on hijinks, and there was little reason to suspect that “The Caretaker” would be any different.
Indeed, to begin with, that’s exactly what the episode delivers – blisteringly funny dialogue in a mundane setting, with an exasperated human becoming steadily more so. This time the stakes are higher, though, as it’s not a comedy guest star whose life the Doctor’s complicating – it’s Clara, a character who we’ve had five episodes to get to know and broadly care about.
The arrival of the Doctor at Coal Hill is like a bomb going off for control freak Clara, and in the space of a single scene the cool, collected and even cocky persona shatters to reveal a whirlwind of chaotic energy just desperate to keep her perfect life on track. It’s a classic farce, and both Capaldi and Coleman are clearly having a ball playing some tight comedic scenes for laughs as the Doctor and Danny Pink get ever closer to learning the truth and Clara’s composure becomes ever more cracked.
The inevitable confrontation between Danny, the Doctor and Clara has been quietly burning away in the background ever since “Into the Dalek”. It’s a big deal on a par with crossing the streams in Ghostbusters, which is perhaps why it feels like such a massive rug pull when it happens a mere 23 minutes into the episode.
It’s something of a tonal lurch; suddenly Danny Pink isn’t just there to be the butt of the Doctor’s PE teacher jokes – he’s a hurt, confused, angry human being. Suddenly, the Doctor isn’t just there to play with the idea of being a caretaker at Coal Hill – he’s a hurt, confused, angry Time Lord. Whether intentional or not, Capaldi’s performance during the initial confrontation is the closest the show has ever come to evoking the Doctor encountered by that other pair of Coal Hill teachers back in 1963.
Samuel Anderson, meanwhile, finally justifies the existence of Danny Pink with one of the most grounded, emotional performances the show has seen in recent years. We see Danny experience everything from denial and flippant defiance to betrayal and eventual acceptance of the situation, and thanks largely to Anderson’s performance it’s hard not to feel every one of those on his behalf.
While Anderson and Danny get a chance to shine, Coleman and Clara are strangely less well-served as events unfold. Her cringeworthy attempt to keep her play lie going notwithstanding, Clara quickly becomes a passenger on the back seat of her own ride, standing open-mouthed on the sidelines as the Doctor and Danny do battle. There’s an argument to be made that Clara is shocked and perhaps even slightly damaged by her sudden loss of control, but it’s still uncomfortable to watch as the Doctor and Danny come to their agreement at the end of the episode knowing she’s had no say in it.
After five episodes which have seen the Doctor send a lot of insults in Clara’s direction and not an awful lot else, it’s comforting to see him finally reaffirming that he genuinely does still care about what happens to her (And not just because he needs her help). That said, it’s a little frustrating that they’ve chosen to go down the surrogate father route now that they’ve cast an older actor as the Doctor, and it shows a certain lack of imagination. Could they not have just settled on ‘mates’, a la Tate and Tennant?
You may have noticed, dear reader, that I’ve gone for over 600 words without mentioning the name ‘Skovox Blitzer’. I suspect it wouldn’t be too hard for me to omit them from the review entirely, such is the creature’s limited role amongst all of the dramatic character work. It’s a necessary sacrifice, sweetened by some truly impressive design work that ensures its small time on screen is in some way memorable. There’s already talk of Skovox Blitzer toys being released in time for Christmas, and if I don’t find one in my stocking I’m going to be disappointed.
Another casualty of the episode is the Courtney subplot; while the couple of scenes she and Capaldi share together are strangely heartwarming, displaying a very different dynamic to that seen in “The Eleventh Hour”, there’s no real room for them to play out in a satisfying way and they end up feeling like an unnecessary distraction in the middle of what is, at heart, a three-person play.
In some ways, I’d like to have seen Gareth Roberts throw caution to the wind, strip out the alien menace and Courtney and just give us a three-hander. It’d be completely uncharacteristic of the show, of course, but the combination of Roberts’ script and strong performances from all three of the regulars makes me think most of us would be too busy laughing, crying and caring for the characters to lodge much of a complaint.
For the last few years, Steven Moffat has given us mid-season finales. Though there’s no transmission break this week, “The Caretaker” feels like every bit the climax that “A Good Man Goes to War”was. It brings many of the recurring elements from the first five episodes to a head in a satisfying manner, whilst reminding us that there’s more to come with the inclusion of Chris Addison, playing the part of Seb with so much relish he’s likely to get indigestion. With so many unanswered questions, it’s far from being all over…