TV Review: Doctor Who – The Caretaker (S8, E6)

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Director: Paul Murphy
Screenwriters: Gareth Roberts & Steven Moffat
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson, Ellis George, Nigel Betts, Chris Addison & Michelle Gomez

Oddly enough, this is the first episode confined solely to contemporary Earth since, by my reckoning, ”The Bells of Saint John” (please correct me if I’m wrong), so it feels like a bit of a culture shock at first. An episode that could easily have slotted comfortably into the RTD era, playing as it does with the idea that The Doctor must pretend to be human in order to “fit in” – a task Capaldi’s more alien Doctor finds more than a little difficult, unlike some of his predecessors – “The Caretaker” is a decent but somewhat forgettable entry into a series that is currently beating along nicely but still lacks a consistent structure or tone.

Set in the infamous Coal Hill School, “The Caretaker” sees the Doctor take on the role of, well, a caretaker, in order to go undercover and prevent “Killer Robot Template D”, aka Skovox Blitzer, from destroying the entire planet. Worried that the school – and thus the pupils – are in danger, Clara asks him to leave – a wise move, as something much more horrifying than the destruction of Earth itself is about to happen; The Doctor is about to meet Danny…

Skovox Blitzer – the “monster of the week” – is shit, and there’s no excusing just how lazy a creation he is, though he’s not really important in the grand scheme of things. For the first time this series, we have an episode dedicated to the characters – to their lives, their fears and their conflicts – and the inclusion of Blitzer simply provides a basic backstory against which all of this can be explored. Like Roberts’ previous two episodes – “The Lodger” and “Closing Time” – “The Caretaker” allows the Doctor to let loose a little, to explore his more human (though not necessarily “humane”) side and to learn some lessons, yadda, yadda etc. It’s all fluff, of course, but episodes like this are necessary now and then to remind everyone what the Doctor is all about.

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The main conflict at the heart of “The Caretaker” isn’t between the Doctor and Blitzer, who is only on screen for about ten minutes in total, but between the Doctor and Danny, both of whom spend their time trying to convince Clara that the other is no good for her. The Doctor’s anti-military credentials, which have been a staple of the series so far, are ridiculed for the hypocrisy they are when Danny chastises him for being an “Officer”, i.e. the person who stands by moralising and intellectualising while the soldiers put their lives on the line. These scenes, which seem to lay the groundwork for further arguments to come, are tense and intriguing, not least because they show us a side to this Doctor that we haven’t seen before and because they elevate Danny beyond the crude caricature that he has been up to this point.

Nonetheless, while this character development is all well and good, “The Caretaker” suffers from stodgy writing (again) and a few pacing issues. It feels like a thirty-minute story that has been stretched to fill the runtime, and though it deals with some nice themes and is probably Capaldi’s funniest episode to date, it enters a deep lull in the midsection from which it fails to recover. It feels like a filler episode – an episode in which certain ideas and characters are introduced and explored, so that they can be examined further at a later date – and though I have no problem with this, it needed, at the very least, a better villain to keep things moving.

“The Caretaker” is a stark improvement on last week’s duff offering, though it still feels like something is missing. The reintroduction of the series arc at the end, which has been conspicuously absent in the last couple of weeks, was a welcome touch as it gave the episode a purpose, but on the whole this is another one to mark under the “enjoyable but safe” banner. Still though, as long as Capaldi keeps delivering the comedic goods and as long as Clara is allowed to exist independent of the Doctor, I can just about cope with episodes like that once in a while.