Over recent years, DOCTOR WHO has created a new type of episode where, essentially, The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) lives amongst normal people in an everyday setting. The first example was series 5's "The Lodger" (where The Doctor became the wacky tenant of a present-day household), followed by its its series 6 sequel "Closing Time", both written by Gareth Roberts. He continues to cleave deeper into that self-made niche, aided by Steven Moffat in this instance, and "The Caretaker" is series 8's iteration—where The Doctor goes 'deep undercover' as a school janitor, to the alarm of Clara (Jenna Coleman).
I was occasionally reminded of series 2's "School Reunion" throughout this hour, for obvious reasons, but this episode had better character interplay... and 100% less K-9. The threat with the Skovox Blitzer was secondary silliness, and not exactly satisfying overall. It was just a generic sci-fi problem for The Doctor to fix, in his characteristically dangerous way. I was glad Danny eventually asked why they don't just evacuate the entire school until the danger's passed—but, maddeningly, there was no real answer for why The Doctor chose to endanger lives by ignoring that advice. Unless we're supposed to just accept he likes to live on the edge? Or that this twelfth incarnation is less enamoured by humans?
What worked about "The Caretaker" wasn't the inevitable comedy larks of The Doctor running around Coal Hill Secondary School wearing brown overalls and holding a brush, but how the story dealt with the pivotal meeting of Danny and The Doctor. The seed had already been planted about this Twelve disliking soldiers ("Into the Dalek"), and here he couldn't even comprehend an ex-squaddie deciding to teach maths. His dislike of Danny was interesting, although I wasn't best-pleased with how they hand-waved the fact The Doctor met Danny's heroic great-great-grandson just a few weeks ago.
Still, seeing Clara living a double-life at the beginning was very amusing—arriving late for dates because she's been on a TARDIS adventure, with tell-tale clues like an inexplicable tan from the sun of an alien world. The way this episode handled Clara dealing with the two most important men in her life was very cool; keeping Danny in the dark about her true passion for intergalactic thrills, and concerned this fatherly Doctor wouldn't like her lover. It wasn't a coincidence this episode revolved around a Parent's Evening, either.
This new Doctor is still difficult to pin down at times, and I must admit there are occasions when I'm not entirely sure Capaldi's vinegary approach fits with nu-Who's established tone and style. But he was more of a crackpot Professor here, and I enjoyed his scatterbrained energy. He also seems to be developing a love of crazy gadgets, which is very Jon Pertwee—who seems to be the closest actor from the original series this Doctor's a loose update of. Capaldi even re-enacted a Pertwee pose with former-companion Katy Manning just recently, as if to credit this belief.
One interesting aspect of "The Caretaker" was something unexpected: Danny's subdued and hesitant reaction to The Doctor. He likened him to an officer in the military; casting a spell over his subordinates so they'll do as they're told in the heat of battle, and often the instigator of the trouble he fights to end. "I'm the one who carries you out of the fire", Danny tells Clara. "[The Doctor's] the one who lights it."
Overall, despite an underwhelming mechanical threat and a few comedy skits that didn't work for me, the bulk of "The Caretaker" was an entertaining confluence of series 8's core trio (a darker approach to the Doctor-Amy-Rory dynamic, really). Even better, it confirms once and for all that The Doctor harbours no romantic feelings for his comely companion, and is once again more of a father figure it's difficult to get approval from. An old-school approach to the character, rooted in the pre-Tom Baker era, but one it's nice to see dusted off and given new life.
Incidentally, this marks the halfway point of the latest series, so how are you enjoying it so far? Is Capaldi's approach growing on you, or do you find it hard to connect to this flinty Doctor? Has there been a bad episode yet, or have they all been no worse than decent? Are you disappointed by anything at all? And look, can we all agree Clara's bloody amazing now? She has the girl-next-door warmth of Rose, the sassiness of Amy, and is rapidly developing the humour of Donna.
- Interesting that The Doctor mistakenly assumed Clara's boyfriend was the nerdier teacher in a bow-tie, who had a certain Matt Smith-like vibe to him.
- The mytharc was finally returned to, with a denouement where a cop unfortunately killed by the Skovox Blitzer appeared in the white offices of the so-called Promised Land, which was also referred to as The Afterlife and The Nethersphere. Missy (Michelle Gomez) made a brief appearance, too, but we actually spent more time with her assistant Seb (Chris Addison, Capaldi's The Thick of It co-star).
- I was beginning to suspect schoolgirl Courtney Woods (Ellis George) was very clever foreshadowing of the next companion when Clara leaves the show (if that rumour is true about her Christmas fate), but perhaps not because of her TARDIS sickness. However, Courtney will feature in next week's moon-set episode...