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Doctor Who: The Caretaker (Review)

Why do I keep you around?

Because the alternative would be developing a conscience of your own?

It is interesting to look at the development of the way that the writers on Doctor Who have developed during Steven Moffat’s tenure as executive producer. Although the show does not maintain a “writers’ room” in the literal sense of the phrase, there is a sense that certain writers have recurred often enough to develop and distinguish their own voices on the show. There is enough precedent to firmly identify Robot of Sherwood as a Gatiss script, and Time Heist as a Thompson script.

As such, The Caretaker definitely feels like a Gareth Roberts script. It shares a very clear thematic throughline with Roberts’ other scripts for the Moffat era – The Lodger and Closing Time. The idea is that the Doctor has waded into the normal world and finds himself dealing with situations that normally affect normal people. In The Lodger, the Doctor rented a room. In Closing Time, the Doctor got job. In The Caretaker, the Doctor imposes himself upon his companion’s everyday life.

Watch the man...

Watch that man…

As with Roberts’ other scripts, there is a sense of fun to the adventure. Doctor Who is frequently a show about the Doctor wandering into different kinds of stories – from horrors to science-fiction to period pieces to westerns. Throwing the Doctor out of a more conventional story and into something resembling the real world is always a source of fun, even if the Moffat era has touched on this quite a bit. While The Caretaker is similar to The Lodger and Closing Time, it is perhaps closer in theme to The Power of Three.

However, Peter Capaldi’s performance is distinct enough from that of Matt Smith that The Caretaker never feels like a retread. Watching the Twelfth Doctor intersect with the real world is very different from watching the Eleventh Doctor, because he is a fundamentally different character. The Caretaker is one of the highlights of the season, marking a clear transition between the first and second halves of Peter Capaldi’s first year in the title role.



So, you recognised me, then?

You’re wearing a different coat!

But you saw straight through that?

Capaldi has managed to put his own mark on the character. There is a sense that The Caretaker is a story that would not easily be adapted for any of his recent predecessors. You could probably do Deep Breath with Matt Smith, Into the Dalek with Christopher Eccleston, or Robot of Sherwood with David Tennant. In contrast, while The Caretaker retains echoes of earlier stories, it is almost impossible to imagine it with any of the lead actors since the show came back.

The show has quite wily in its introduction of the new lead actor. Traditionally, the showrunner writes the majority of the scripts introducing the new Doctor. Russell T. Davies wrote eight of Eccleston’s thirteen episodes. Davies wrote David Tennant’s first three episodes. Steven Moffat wrote four of Matt Smith’s first five episodes. This helps to ensure a certain amount of consistency. Moffat is credited as writer or co-writer on five of Peter Capaldi’s first six episodes. All the writers credited on those first six episodes are Doctor Who veterans.

Dan the Man...

Dan the Man…

The Caretaker marks the end of this cycle. In many respects, it closes the book on the first half of the season. We are now past the point affected by the leak of scripts and workprints from the BBC’s Miami office. We are past the point of the season written by Doctor Who veterans and co-written by the showrunner. We are past the point where we do “the Dalek story” or “the celebrity historical.” From this point until Dark Water, new writers get a shot at telling more ambitious and creative stories, indicating that the series is completely confident that it has found its feet.

This transition presents itself in a number of different ways. Apart from Listen, Danny Pink and Coal Hill School had existed as background elements in the first five episodes of the season. They appeared as flashes and glimpses, almost as a counterpoint to the episodes themselves. Danny Pink did not appear in Deep Breath or Robot of Sherwood, for example. However, from here on out, the show commits more firmly to Danny Pink and Coal Hill School. The setting bleeds into stories like Kill the Moon and In the Forest of the Night.

The stage is set...

The stage is set…

After all, from this point onwards, Danny Pink is practically a regular character. He appears in every episode, with his presence keenly felt. The Twelfth Doctor firmly established, Clara’s arc for the second-half of the season takes a much firmer shape. The episodes become more firmly linked in continuity and theme. Courtney Woods establishes herself here, and joins an adventure in Kill the Moon. The consequences of Kill the Moon lead to Mummy on the Orient Express. Danny’s closing conversation with Clara haunts the rest of the year.

The Caretaker is very clearly a point of transition between the “relying on familiar writers and stories when defining the new Doctor” and “okay, now we’re just making Doctor Who starring Peter Capaldi.” Gareth Roberts’ episode is half-way between the two. It is packed with the familiar. It is a logical successor to The Lodger and Closing Time, with a healthy dose of The Power of Three and School Reunion thrown in. Peter Capaldi even wears a David-Tennant-style coat for a portion of the episode.

Holding it together...

Holding it together…

At the same time, this is an episode that feels unique to this iteration of the character. You could tell this sort of story with another version of the Doctor. In fact, the show has. However, it would ultimately turn out to be a very different story. The character dynamics would change, the interactions would shift, the tone would be radically different. The end result would be an episode that resembled The Caretaker in broad strokes, but which was quite different in mood and atmosphere.

The Twelfth Doctor is an interesting creation. In many ways, each take on the character is a reaction against the preceding iteration. Patrick Troughton’s cosmic hobo gave way to Jon Pertwee’s upper-crust dandy. Jon Pertwee’s refined and rooted gentleman became Tom Baker’s galactic bohemian. Tom Baker’s larger-than-life iconic iteration regenerated into Peter Davison’s underplayed outsider. More recently, the consciously cool David Tennant transitioned into the consciously uncool Matt Smith.

Driving force...

Driving force…

And so Matt Smith’s manic do-gooder fairytale wizard – defined by his final story as “the man who stayed for Christmas” – morphed into a version of the character who would perhaps more likely play the role of the grinch. Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor has an edge to him that the character hasn’t seen since Christopher Eccleston departed the role. There’s a lot of anger and frustration to the Twelfth Doctor, and a more conscious sense of his own worth and place in the universe.

The Twelfth Doctor is still fundamentally the same character, and is still a “great man” in the same sense that Moffat employed the phrase in Sherlock, but there is something distinctly inhuman about him. Even undercover in The Caretaker, he cannot mask his own alien nature. He doesn’t give himself away through revealing hidden knowledge or accidentally referencing things he cannot know. He is careful to remember he learned the details of Jane Austen’s life from the “bio at the back” of her book, rather than a crazy adventure with “Boggins from space.”

"Actually, I'm quite familiar with Coal Hill..."

“Actually, I’m quite familiar with Coal Hill…”

Instead, he explicitly identifies himself as distinct from all the humans around him. The strongest recurring joke in The Caretaker is that the Doctor is absolutely terrible at disguising himself. “Yes, John Smith’s the name,” he introduces himself. “But, you know, here’s a thing. Most people just call me the Doctor.” However, most of the school is completely oblivious to his eccentricities. It is quite a clever gag, one that accounts for how much strange stuff happens in the world of Doctor Who without breaking it; mankind is very good at ignoring the profoundly odd.

Capaldi is great in all his scenes, but he works particularly well with young Ellis George as Courtney Woods. The scene is a comedy highlight of the episode, from the Doctor’s decision to direct his “keep out” sign to humanity as a whole (“never lose your temper in the middle of a door sign”) through to his mediation on how short human life spans are in the grand scheme of things. “Frankly you should all be a permanent state of panic,” he reflects. Nevertheless, the scene is never too harsh – underscoring how alien the Doctor is without making him unlikeable.

Sign of the times...

Sign of the times…

In a way, Capaldi is playing that character in a style that evokes Tom Baker or Sylvester McCoy. Tom Baker will likely always tower over the franchise, to the point where nobody can really object to the decision to elevate him to the first amongst equals by giving him the only “classic Doctor” cameo in The Day of the Doctor. Playing the role for seven years at the height of the classic show’s popularity, as well as airing on PBS in the United States, there is an entire generation that will always think of Baker as the Doctor.

As such, it’s no surprise that Baker is a considerable influence on the show. The first episode of the revival written by somebody other than Russell T. Davies was The Unquiet Dead, a gigantic homage to Tom Baker’s collaboration with Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes. The show’s fiftieth anniversary season included two gigantic tributes to the same era in Hide and The Crimson Horror. Tom Baker’s performance was an obvious influence on David Tennant, who adopted a similar larger-than-life style as the lead.

Schooling the Doctor...

Schooling the Doctor…

However, Peter Capaldi has adopted the alien quality that made Baker such a fascinating lead actor. Actors like David Tennant or Matt Smith have emphasised the Doctor as a character who is definitely and clearly not human, but Capaldi goes further; there is a sense that the Twelfth Doctor stands firmly apart from humanity and human norms in the same way that Tom Baker and Sylvester McCoy did. He is an outsider, somebody who exists beyond human understanding.

When the Tenth Doctor referred to himself as “the Lord of Time” in The Girl in the Fireplace, it felt like bragging. When he declared himself “the Time Lord Victorious” in The Water of Mars, it meant that his time was fast approaching. In contrast, when Tom Baker boasted that he walked in history, it felt like a fundamental part of his identity. Here, when Capaldi offers the title of Time Lord, demanding that Clara explain Danny Pink to him, it feels quite similar.

Reflection period...

Reflection time…

It is interesting to wonder whether this direction reflects the arc that Moffat had originally planned for the Eleventh Doctor before he cast Matt Smith. Moffat has been on-record saying that he originally considered casting an older Doctor to replace David Tennant, but that everything changed when he cast Smith. Smith’s first two scripts – The Eleventh Hour and The Beast Below – hint a more pointedly alien and detached version of the Doctor. The line “nobody human has anything to say to me today” feels more suited to Capaldi than to Smith.

As with Deep Breath and Into the Dalek, The Caretaker continues the appropriation of quite a few central themes from the Davies era. Having properly tidied away the largest lingering aspect of the Davies era – the destruction of Gallifrey – in The Day of the Doctor, it feels like Moffat is allowing himself a bit more freedom to put his own stamp on ideas and themes associated with his direct predecessor. Repeatedly, the eighth season has touched on concepts and themes that feel familiar.

A brush with destiny...

A brush with destiny…

This was most obvious with Into the Dalek, an episode that owed a rather conscious debt to the episode Dalek from the first season of the revived show. This season has shown an interest in the idea of the Doctor as a soldier; and particularly in the idea of the Doctor as a figure who inspires and causes destruction in the lives of those around him. This was one of the recurring concerns of the Davies era of the whole, one most firmly articulated during his final season. The show has made a conscious effort to emphasise the Twelfth Doctor’s mistrust of soldiers.

The Tenth Doctor spent a considerable amount of his final season complaining about soldiers. In The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky, he spent more time critiquing U.N.I.T. than trying to resolve the problem. In The Doctor’s Daughter, he rejected his daughter because she was engineered to be a soldier. In Journey’s End, Davros directly challenges the Doctor, accusing him of building his own army and his own followers – mirroring the Doctor’s companions to Davros’ army of invading Daleks.

Blown away...

Blown away…

However, that season didn’t quite manage to follow through on the inherent conflict in the Doctor’s character. Even when Davies and Tennant returned to the theme in The End of Time, everything got a little bit muddled up. Somehow it is wrong to use a gun, except in some cases where it is not. Moffat has touched on the idea of the Doctor as a man with an army before – Danny Pink’s fears in The Caretaker are similar to Rory’s concerns in The Vampires of Venice; in A Good Man Goes to War, we are explicitly told that the Doctor is raising an army.

However, this season has seen Moffat foregrounding the idea, building off of The Day of the Doctor. Danny Pink’s criticisms of the Doctor work very well with this iteration. They would arguably be true of the Tenth or Eleventh Doctor, but they feel particularly relevant to the Twelfth Doctor. After all, Into the Dalek and Time Heist revealed a somewhat disaffected attitude towards loss and causalities. Coupled with the pride that the Doctor takes in his Time Lord identity, Danny’s criticism lands.

Commanding presence...

Commanding presence…

There is a recurring sense that the Twelfth Doctor doth protest too much, trying to conceal this aspect of himself. “The accent’s good, but you can always spot the aristocracy,” Danny observes – and he is correct. The Twelfth Doctor has taken great pride in his Scottish accent, insisting that it gives him the right to be argumentative and subversive. It makes him seem like an outsider, instead of part of the establishment. It is perhaps telling that his most iconic costume resembles a suit without a tie. It feels like he is trying poorly to disguise his upper class status.

More than that, shows like Into the Dalek and Time Heist suggest that the Twelfth Doctor is more acutely conscious of class than his predecessors. In Into the Dalek, he notes that security is always weakest in the larder – where the servants work, where the food is stored and kept out of sight. In Time Heist, he cleverly surmises that the way to attack the bank is not through the proper channels, but through the service corridors. In The Caretaker, he infiltrates Coal Hill not as a teacher or inspector, but as janitor.

Everything's slightly askew...

Everything’s slightly askew…

There is a sense that the Twelfth Doctor is trying a little bit too hard, that he is hiding parts of himself that make him feel uncomfortable. “I hate soldiers,” the Doctor insists during one of the adventures in the prologue. “Don’t you hate soldiers?” In Into the Dalek, he firmly rejected Journey Blue as a companion based solely on her choice of profession. There is a sense that the Doctor is projecting his own guilt and insecurities on to other people. This is something that was implicit in some of Davies’ Doctor Who work, but never felt cohesive or consistent.

However, it feels quite consistent within Capaldi’s first season. Listen very effectively set up a contrast between Danny Pink and the Doctor. Both were young boys who had trouble sleeping; with the Doctor implied to have been raised away from home like Danny was. Both the Doctor and Danny faced the prospect of joining the army. The Doctor did not join the army, instead going to the Academy and becoming a Time Lord. As such, Danny Pink represents a path not taken.


Taking care of business…

The season has made a conscious effort to compare the two. In Listen, the Doctor lamented the fact that Orson Pink was the first man to reach the end of the universe. In Time Heist, the Doctor bragged about his ability to keep Clara on her toes. As Clara joined Danny for an evening out, the Doctor quipped, “Robbing a bank. Robbing a whole bank. Beat that for a date.” There is a sense that the Doctor sees Danny Pink as a rival in Clara’s affections – maybe not romantically, but in terms of general affection.

The Caretaker makes this contrast between Danny and the Doctor quite explicit. At one point in The Caretaker, the Doctor assumes Clara is dating Adrian. Adrian is a charming teacher with a bow-tie who vaguely resembles Matt Smith and discusses Shakespeare. The Doctor responds to this favourably. He acknowledges that he likes the idea because he sees himself in the teacher – presumably the parts of himself that he likes. He refers to Adrian as “the handsome one, the one with the bow tie.”

It's like he's not there...

It’s like he’s not there…

It makes sense. The Eleventh Doctor presents a somewhat idealised version of the Doctor. The Day of the Doctor defined the Eleventh Doctor as “the one who forgets”, the character free from the angst associated with the Time War. The Eleventh Doctor is the version of the Doctor who plays the loveable old wizard, who babysits children, who manages to remain best friends with a married couple even after they stop regularly travelling with him in the TARDIS. At his best, the Eleventh Doctor perhaps represents the kind of person the Doctor wishes he was.

In contrast, Danny Pink serves as a reminder of the aspects of the Doctor that he most dislikes. Danny Pink is in many respects the man that the Doctor might have been if he had not gone to the Academy. For all that the Twelfth Doctor stresses his sympathy for the working class, Danny is a reminder of the type of life that the Doctor might have enjoyed if he did not join the upper class, enrolled in the Academy and stolen the TARDIS. Far from the idealised memory of the Eleventh Doctor, Danny reflects aspects of the Doctor that the Doctor would rather forget.

Out of the Woods...

Out of the Woods…

After all, the Doctor is understandably concerned about Clara dating that side of himself. At the end of the episode, Danny acknowledges that the Doctor is only trying to protect Clara in his own strange way. “I need to be good enough for you,” Danny explains to Clara. “That’s why he’s angry. Just in case I’m not.” There is a sense that the Doctor’s dislike of Danny is a reflection of his own self-loathing and insecurity, much like his anger at “the Architect” in Time Heist.

Of course, it is interesting to wonder about the relationship between the Doctor and Clara. Certainly, the romantic tension between Doctor and companion has been downplayed this season, for the first time since the show came back. However, there is a lingering romantic tension. After all, the Doctor seemed to consider Clara’s date as a romantic rival at the end of Time Heist and Danny seems similarly anxious about the Doctor’s presence in Clara’s life. Using the word “elope” to describe her trips in the TARDIS, Danny pointedly asks, “Do you love him?”

Voicing his objections...

Voicing his objections…

Still, the show seems to be pushing a more familial relationship between Clara and the Doctor – that of a father looking out for the best interests of his daughter. “Oh,” Danny gasps upon catching his first glimpse of sci-fi technology. “Oh, my God, you’re from space. You’re a spacewoman. You said you were from Blackpool.” When Clara desperately tries to cover for all this, he continues, “I’m not a moron, Clara. And he’s not the caretaker. He’s your dad. Your space dad.”

This idea of a more firmly platonic relationship is relatively fresh for the revived show. The relationship between the Doctor and companion has been a recurring joke. Even the Tenth Doctor and Donna were frequently identified as a married couple, leading to “the Doctor-Donna” in Journey’s End. It continued through to Clara’s interactions with the Eleventh Doctor. In The Time of the Doctor, the Eleventh Doctor appeared naked before Clara, and the truth field suggested that Clara might have had a bit of a crush on him – despite her protestations in Deep Breath.

"For what it's worth, Rory was much easier to get along with!"

“For what it’s worth, Rory was much easier to get along with!”

As such, it seems quite fresh to present a rather paternal relationship between the Twelfth Doctor and Clara. Indeed, the pairing of the Twelfth Doctor and Clara harks back to more classic dynamics like the Third Doctor and Jo Grant or the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane. It is amazing how casting an older lead actor has opened up an entirely fresh set of options for the show, reinvigorating classic dynamics and tweaking them ever-so-slightly. This season, Doctor Who feel surprisingly fresh – despite opening with so many classic staples and familiar writers.

Indeed, The Caretaker seems to suggest that the Twelfth Doctor is not particularly interested in physical appearances. One of the nicer regeneration gags in Deep Breath was the idea that the Doctor was not really that good at differentiating people based on appearances – a clever way of contrasting Clara’s pointed reaction to a much older lead character. Here, the Doctor does not notice any similarity between Danny and Orson Pink, despite being played by the same actor.

That's just littering...

That’s just littering…

In fact, the Doctor takes offence to being described as Clara’s “space dad.” He protests, “How can you think that I’m her dad when we both look exactly the same age?” It is a nice gag that recurs throughout the season, building to a delightfully heart-warming pay-off in Last Christmas, where the Doctor is completely unable to see how the years have changed Clara. “Can you really see no difference in me?” she ponders. He replies, “Clara Oswald, you will never look any different to me.”

The Caretaker also finds room or more development of Danny Pink. Danny is an interesting character. He is one of very few major and recurring characters never to join the TARDIS crew. The show has a tendency to introduce potential companions and then either kill them off or abandon them in the same episode. The Davies era was particularly fond of this storytelling trope, with characters like Lynda in Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways or Astrid in Voyage of the Damned.

Family time!

Family time!

However, Danny’s relationship to the TARDIS arguably most closely resembles that of the Brigadier, which feels appropriate; after all, both characters are soldiers who became teachers. In fact, they share similar fates in Death in Heaven, becoming protectors of the people they love. As with the Brigadier, Danny is a character who is not afraid to call the Doctor out. He is just comfortable enough in himself and his place in the universe that he does not need to go adventuring across time and space.

The Caretaker goes out of its way to introduce Danny to the Doctor in such a way that it feels like the introduction of a second companion. He saves the day; he saves the planet. He also gets the obligatory guided tour of the TARDIS. “It’s called a Tardis, but it’s disguised as an old police phone box,” Clara explains, presenting the TARDIS like something from show and tell. “And it’s bigger on the inside than the outside. And we travel the universe in it.” It is a very good sell.

Yes, yes she does...

Yes, yes she does…

However, Danny is not tempted by the freedom that the TARDIS offers. He never asks to travel with Clara. The Doctor would probably refuse, but it does not seem like that might be the reason. It just seems like Danny is happy in his life, settled. He never tries to prevent Clara from travelling, but just offers his own advice. He serves as a counterpoint to Rory, the boyfriend-and-later-husband who is eager to share the experience with the love of his life. In contrast, Danny is comfortable to let Clara have something that is entirely hers, even though he is wary.

The Caretaker also leans towards the second half of the season in its characterisation of Clara. As with Listen, there is a sense that Clara’s relationship with the TARDIS may not be entirely stable and healthy. She is pushing herself to the limit to prove that she can maintain both lifestyles. “I can’t keep doing this; I can’t do it,” she moans in the teaser. However, she quickly tries to reassure herself that she can. “Yes, I can, I can do it, of course I can do it. I’ve got it all under control.”

Watch out!

Watch out!

More than that, The Caretaker has Clara lying repeatedly about her two lives in order to avoid the obvious confrontation or the tough choices that would come with full disclosure. Rather than admitting the truth to Danny or the Doctor, she makes up a variety of lies that allow her to keep living the double-life. It is a wonderful example of the sorts of storytelling opportunities presented by the new formula proposed in The God Complex – the idea that it is healthy for companions to have lives outside the Doctor.

As with Time Heist before it, it is interesting to note that we have reached the point where time-travel within an episode has become something that needs little context or justification. The idea of sending the weapon a few hours forward into the next day is a clever way of generating a high-stakes climax – a very effective piece of set-up and pay-off – but it is remarkable how casual the show has become about these sorts of narrative hijinx. It is a wonderful testament to Moffat as a writer.

Killer robot from outer space!

Killer robot from outer space!

The Caretaker is a fun little episode – but one that fits quite comfortably within the themes of the season. It is a comedy episode that finds a sweet spot for its lead actor, offering a script that echoes previous stories, but feels very much like a script specific to Capaldi. It is one of the highlights of the season.

You’re using her like a decoy?

No, not like a decoy. As a decoy. Don’t they teach you anything at stupid school?

You might enjoy our other reviews from Peter Capaldi’s first season of Doctor Who:

2 Responses

  1. Funny thing is, in the ninth season, Capaldi’s characterization is almost exactly like Smith’s. Also, please review Sherlock and The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang! I’d love to read your thoughts on them!

    • Thanks Kyle! If I can find the time, I’d love to. I’ve meant to find the time and go back and fill in the gaps in my Doctor Who reviews, but time keeps getting away from me!

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