VOD TV review: Doctor Who Season 8, Episode 6 (The Caretaker)
Simon Kinnear | On 28, Sep 2014
“Crocodopolis,” The Doctor suggests to Clara as their next destination. “They worship a giant crocodile there, so that’s a useful coincidence.” Here’s another – The Doctor has hung around this particular London neighbourhood four times now on-screen, and each time he’s been at his grouchiest. What exactly are they teaching the kids at Coal Hill School?
That establishment was, of course, where the First Doctor’s granddaughter was being educated in 1963, when two of her teachers stumbled into the TARDIS, beginning not only the series we know and love but also the lead character’s transformation from isolated recluse to saviour of the universe. In 1988 story Remembrance Of The Daleks, an ultra-manipulative Seventh Doctor returned to complete the task that the teachers interrupted by helping to bring about the destruction of the Daleks’ home planet. And, in between, the newly regenerated, emotionally unstable Sixth Doctor paid a visit to Totters’ Lane, the junkyard where he’d been living in 1963.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that The Doctor’s latest visit to Coal Hill comes with him at his most irresponsible, judgemental and downright misanthropic. This is a hard story to watch for long-term fans, given that Peter Capaldi’s incarnation has seemingly imbibed all of the darkest impulses of his predecessors. He’s been prickly and bad-mannered many times in the past, but has he been quite so eager to tell people to shut up?
In a lesser story – in a lesser series – it could be construed as poor form to be so out of character. In Doctor Who, it’s a blessing. The show is taking real risks this year and The Caretaker represents the biggest tightrope-walk to date. Forget the MacGuffin about the killer Go-Bot; this episode is designed to probe the limits of the new Doctor’s persona and, judged as such, is fascinating.
It’s a smart, unsettling decision to frame such a story as a typical Gareth Roberts-scripted lark, reprising the ‘ordinary surroundings’ premise of his previous hit, The Lodger (as well as the setting of School Reunion). As in Robot Of Sherwood, Capaldi has been dropped into a familiar genre in order to highlight what’s changed. The schism is even more pronounced here; it’s the first co-written story that feels as if its creators’ pages have been bolted together. So, while Roberts’ influence is obvious in the knockabout humour – “Go Away Humans!” – the laughter becomes tougher, borderline-nasty, in the acidic barbs the Doctor sends in the direction of Danny Pink, which bear the traits of Steven Moffat’s other scripts during the current season.
Doctor Who has had its love triangles before – Nine, Rose and Mickey being the obvious template. But Russell T. Davies’ optimism didn’t allow Mickey to stay an “idiot” in the Doctor’s eyes for long. Here, Danny is a more mature and assertive character, and Clara is more into him than Rose was into Mickey, which makes the threat to the Doctor’s status all the stronger. Moffat, with his background in sitcom, enjoys this kind of alpha-male contest and so the dynamic is tinged with pettiness, jealousy and the Doctor’s supercilious attitude.
As Danny observes, for all his avowed pacifism, the Doctor does love to play the general and it’s crucial that Danny is an ex-soldier, somebody who has grown out of the habit of taking orders. Very intriguing seeds are being sown for the end of the series, not only in the ‘Heaven’ stuff but in the potential for future clashes between Clara’s two fellas. Bold stuff – but what are the kids gonna make of it? (Incidentally, thank goodness for iPlayer because, with its 8:30pm start time, The Caretaker surely finished after their bedtime.)
They say Doctor Who always reacts to its cultural context and Capaldi’s Doctor has been forged in an era where flawed heroes dominate – Walter White, Don Draper and, of course, Moffat’s own take on Sherlock Holmes. The Caretaker is the most overt demonstration so far that this season is aiming to be the Breaking Bad of Doctor Who, and that serious attention is being paid to characterisation in way it hasn’t for years. Yet the awkward, sometimes jarring lurches between the emotionally post-watershed arc and the sillier, tea-time story-of-the-week stuff suggest that Moffat hasn’t quite figured out how to resolve the tension between the show’s predominantly optimistic heritage and his plans to take the dark Doctor back to school. Somewhere, there’s been a spillage; only time will tell if Moffat has remembered to clean up the mess afterwards.
Doctor Who Season 8 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. Want to keep Capaldi’s Doctor for longer? You can download Doctor Who on blinkbox and Amazon Instant Video, or on iTunes – where buying a season pass will also give you all of Doctor Who Extra.
Where can I buy or rent Doctor Who: Season 8 online in the UK?
Photo: BBC/Adrian Rogers