Doctor Who, Series 8, Episode 6, “The Caretaker”
September 27, 2014, 8:00 p.m. (EST), BBC
Over his last several Doctor Who scripts, Gareth Roberts has developed a fascination with the way the (very) alien Doctor intersects with mundane daily life. In his classic Eleventh Doctor story “The Lodger” and its less effective sequel “Closing Time,” Roberts examined what might happen if the manic, easily bored Eleventh Doctor was forced to approach a normal human on their level instead of whisking them away in the TARDIS and pulling them up to his. “The Lodger” is a great Who story, fun, funny, and sweet, a trifle that still manages to have some serious weight by its end. So when the trailer for “The Caretaker” aired last week and seemed to promise a similar story for The Twelfth Doctor, I was quite excited to see what Roberts (who co-wrote this one with Steven Moffat) would come up with this time.
“The Caretaker” is, in a lot of ways, a riff on “The Lodger”: The Doctor has to stay put in normal life while trying to make sure a defective piece of alien tech doesn’t kill anyone and simultaneously navigate the romantic situation of the humans who he’s stuck with. But what’s interesting about “The Caretaker” and “The Lodger” is that this frame is almost entirely insignificant to what they do well, which means that while they are functionally the same episode remixed for two different Doctors, they still play as fundamentally different hours with totally different things on their minds. “The Lodger” is content mostly to laugh at just how strange The Doctor is and to play with the idea of him being dropped into the middle of a fairly straightforward romantic comedy about two best friends who are secretly something more. While “The Caretaker” has its share of gags about how bad The Twelfth Doctor is at blending in, its about much more than that: this is a story about who The Doctor takes care of and why.
This makes it another episode centered on the particular dynamic between The Doctor and Clara, which series eight has done a great job of making both unique and compelling. Clara has quickly gone from being a cipher and exposition machine to being a fully formed woman, a passionate teacher, committed moralist, and The Doctor’s conscience. There have been many jokes this season, and in this episode, about how Clara serves as The Doctor’s moral compass when he might otherwise wander off course, but The Doctor also provides something to Clara. He doesn’t simply offer her a chance to see all of time and space. He gives her a chance to be a hero, to exercise her moral convictions, to put her ideas into action and make the universe a better place. The Doctor isn’t just the world’s greatest travel agent; he’s an existential express pass to being the best version of ourselves.
He’s also someone who cares, even though The Twelfth Doctor is prickly enough and oblivious enough it can be easy to forget that. Capaldi turns in another in an unbroken line of marvelous performances here, but perhaps my favorite moment comes when The Doctor sees Clara and Adrian together and assumes she has fallen for an analogue of his prior incarnation—a dashing, awkward guy in a bow tie. There’s such a weird mixture of pride and joy in the way he acts around the two of them, but not a sense that he is leering at Clara or viewing this as evidence she really loves him, the way The Eleventh Doctor might have. Capaldi plays the moment like a proud father who sees his daughter falling for someone similar to himself and assumes that means he’s done something right.
The episode could easily have mined The Doctor’s vain mistake for a lot more comedy than it does, but that’s because “The Caretaker” isn’t as overtly a comedy piece as “The Lodger” was. It’s a story about The Doctor going about, maintaining order and protecting the planet on the fringes of things while the people he saves live their lives. This is illustrated through the focus on Clara and Danny, two normal people living fairly normal lives when she isn’t “eloping” with a Time Lord to adventure throughout the universe. Samuel Anderson has been growing on me consistently with each appearance, and at this point, he has made Danny not just a satisfactory love interest for Clara to probably run off and marry at the end of this season, but a solid character in his own right, who I wouldn’t mind seeing as a companion. Danny’s presence irks The Doctor in fascinating ways, but he also does the right thing and for the right reasons. He doesn’t blindly follow orders like Journey Blue back in “Into the Dalek.” If this season’s (rather unfair) treatment of soldiers as immediately morally repugnant continues to be the default, then perhaps there is added significance to Clara’s assertion that “he’s not a soldier, he’s a maths teacher.”
These interpersonal dynamics are where “The Caretaker” excels, while the stuff about the Skovox Blitzer is really just a half-formed alien threat because this is Doctor Who, a show too often afraid to leave out half-formed alien threats, even from episodes that fundamentally don’t need them (see also “Vincent and The Doctor”). The Skovox Blitzer is essentially a Dalek only, by the episode’s terms, seemingly even worse (The Doctor predicted the lone Dalek in “Dalek” could wipe out Salt Lake City, but the lone Skovox Blitzer here is a threat on a planetary scale), but it’s best not to pay much attention to the stakes here. The alien doesn’t matter. What matters is that The Doctor is here to protect us from it. What matters is that Clara takes orders because she trusts her madman in a box. What matters is that, when push comes to shove, Danny Pink would face fire to make sure Clara was safe.
“The Caretaker” doesn’t have a big idea like “Listen,” or a big monster like “Into the Dalek.” It’s a more subdued look at the maintenance man who keeps the universe in good working order, the guy you barely notice who is actually fighting a millennia-spanning battle against the forces of evil to protect the planet. I’m not sure I like it as much as “The Lodger,” but what I find so impressive is the fact that this is a quintessentially Twelfth Doctor story (which will be interesting to juxtapose with next week’s “Kill the Moon,” an episode initially written for The Eleventh Doctor). It requires a prickly, detached, unaffectionate Doctor who quietly goes about his business saving the world. The world doesn’t always need a mad man in a box. It doesn’t always need a swashbuckling action hero, or an earth-shattering speech about the awesome potential of its hero. Sometimes, the world just needs a caretaker, someone with a brush to clean up the spillage and make sure everything keeps running smoothly. The Doctor can be that, too. The Doctor can be anything.
- “Why have you got two jackets? Is one of them faulty?”
- “Fish people.” “What are they like?” “Fish. And people. Come and see.”
- “Why are you being nice?” “Because it works on you.”
- “So you recognize me then?” “You’re wearing a different coat!” “You saw straight through that.”
- “I lived among Autons once for a month. Well, I sulked. River and I, we had this big fight…”
- The Doctor hasn’t traveled with Jane Austen. But he has read Pride and Prejudice.
- “I teach maths.” “Well how does that work? What if the kids have questions about maths?” “I answer them. I’m a maths teacher.”
- “Cant’ you read?” “Read what?” “The door. It says ‘Keep out.’” “No it doesn’t. It says ‘Go Away Humans.’” “Oh, so it does. Never lose your temper in the middle of a door sign.”
- “What’s that?” “It’s a scanner. I’m scanning. Why do I keep you around?” “Because the alternative would be developing a conscience of your own.”
- “I used to have a teacher exactly like you.” “You still do. Pay attention.”
- “It’s dead easy. Tiny bit boring. I’ll need a book and a sandwich.”
- “Sorry. I underestimated you.” “It’s easily done. There’s a lot to estimate.”
- “He’s not the caretaker. He’s…your Dad. Your space Dad.”
- “How can you think I’m her Dad when we both look exactly the same age?” “We do not look the same age.”
- “It’s a mistake. You’ve made a boyfriend error.”
- “He’s a soldier. Why would you go out with a soldier? Get a dog, or a big plant.”
- “Look, take him away. Shut him up. Shut him down. Up or down, doesn’t matter to me.”
- “It’s funny. You only really know what someone thinks of you when you know what lies they’ve told you.”
- “On thing, Clara. I’m a soldier, guilty as charged. You see him? He’s an officer.” “I am not an officer!” “I’m the one who carries you out of the fire. He’s the one who lights it.”
- “You’re using her like a decoy?” “No, not like a decoy, as a decoy. Don’t they teach you anything at stupid school?”
While “The Caretaker” has its share of gags about how bad The Twelfth Doctor is at blending in, its about much more than that: this is a story about who The Doctor takes care of and why.