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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review: Doctor Who, "The Caretaker"

For his first few years as a Doctor Who writer, Gareth Roberts largely focused on historical adventures featuring popular writers, and his earliest episodes ("The Shakespeare Code" and "The Unicorn and the Wasp") never quite cohered in a meaningful way. But with season 5's excellent "The Lodger," however, Roberts seems to have found a winning formula by essentially turning the ever-malleable show into a straight-up sitcom. He repeated the trick in the almost-as-good "Closing Time," and he's back a third time with "The Caretaker." And while it doesn't quite manage the quick wit that defined "The Lodger," he still manages a clever, character-driven story that treats its characters smartly.

Something is amiss at Coal Hill School (... again), where Clara and Danny Pink work as teachers, so the Doctor decides to go undercover as the school's janitor and investigate. In between bouts with a murderous robot trapped on Earth, the Doctor deals with an inquisitive student who wants to know what's in his police box, and, most frighteningly of all, Clara's love life.

Capaldi's Doctor, like Smith's, is... not very good at passing for human. Tennant was able to hold down a job as a teacher in "School Reunion," but Capaldi can barely go two minutes without giving the game away. But where Smith's Doctor was undone by his whimsy - fitting, given the frequent fairy-tale nature of Smith's run - Capaldi's darker Doctor is revealed by constantly underestimating the people around him. He doesn't dislike them, I think, or he couldn't have taken Courtney out to see the stars at the end of the episode, but he does see himself as innately above them, and he has little interest in hiding that fact.

Which is to say, there might just be something to Danny Pink's assessment of the Doctor, this Doctor, as being particularly aristocratic. He knows more than the people around him, he's better educated and has more resources at his disposal, but when push comes to shove, he needs people - Clara, Journey Blue, Sabra, and Psi - to get their hands dirty for him... and perhaps even die for him. The Doctor may hate soldiers, but as we've seen time and time again, he has a habit of turning his Companions into impromptu soldiers in his name, like it or not, and it takes someone who isn't terribly impressed with his power to point that out.

Which is to say, Samuel Anderson's Danny Pink finally gets a real showcase in "The Caretaker," and he does some very solid work. Danny Pink is a far more grounded character than either the Doctor or Clara, and Anderson's semi-mumbling line-readings turn him into a stabilizing presence on the TARDIS. But that's not all he does, thankfully, as Danny gets to show a little steel too when he finally comes face-to-face with the Doctor's true nature - and calls him confidently on his bullshit. Anderson comes alive there, a sleepy man roused when he sees something about the Doctor that he recognizes, something few others see.

"The Caretaker" mostly avoids the easy pitfalls in an episode like this, particularly in the way that Clara is never asked to 'choose' between Danny and the Doctor. That said, there were some uncomfortable moments, and a few things that just didn't quite work. I get that the Doctor is being prejudiced against soldiers by continually insisting that Danny is only qualified to teach physical education, but having an old white dude continually insist that a black guy couldn't possibly be smart enough to do basic math was still cringe-worthy at best. And I thought the pacing was a bit off, too. I get (and like) that the episode wasn't about the monster, too much of the episode's climax involved, well, an incredibly anti-climactic conclusion. Despite barely doing anything and having no real connection to the episode's emotional core, the episode still tried to force a rote showdown with the monster as the climax, and it just didn't work.

While "The Caretaker" doesn't quite match "The Lodger" for me, it does cement Roberts as one of my favorite writers of the Moffat era. His stories tend to be pleasantly low-key, which is a welcome change of pace for a show that can and often does get bombastic on a universal scale; despite ostensibly being a world-destroying threat, the Doctor barely pays any attention to the Skovox Blitzer here, focusing much of his energy arguing with Danny Pink and judging Clara for her relationship with him. And for a season that is heavily focused on defining who both Clara and the Doctor are, having a character-driven writer like Roberts makes a lot of sense. It lacks the creepy world-building of "Listen" or the high-concept sci-fi drama of "Into the Dalek" or "Time Heist," but that's one of my favorite things about Doctor Who. It can go anywhere in time and space, but it never forgets that sometime, the most interesting place in the universe is with your friends.

Notes & Quotes

Michele Gomez's Missy is back tonight in another mysterious stinger that posits her as a god looking on over various afterlives. There's not a ton to say here, since the show is deliberately playing coy with the character, except that the arc this year is staying pleasantly out of the way in the build-up to the season finale two-parter. The 6th season pushed its overarching plot way too hard, and its lackluster, confused finale hurts the rest of the season for me. The 7th season was just a mess, half pointless genre exercises and half confused, dull overarching plot. Thus far, this 8th season reminds me of nothing so much as Moffat's best, season 5. Even if the eventual reveal of Missy's true nature underwhelms, this is shaping up to be a solid season for me.

"Is this part of the surprise play?"

"There is no surprise play."
"Oh, it's just a rollercoaster with you tonight."
- The Doctor and Clara, illustrating why I think Danny Pink will be an invaluable addition; he cuts through the loopy half-logic that can sometimes distract the other two.

"No, it says 'Go Away Humans.'"
"So it does. Never lose your temper in the middle of a door sign."
- Courtney and the Doctor, whose new incarnation's relationship with humanity is well defined in a single sign.

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