After the crowded convolution of last week's "Time Heist," and the quiet dream logic of the previous week's "Listen," it's a nice change of pace to get a relatively straightforward piece of storytelling like "The Caretaker," written by Gareth Roberts & Steven Moffat. There are no mind-bending twists, no timey-wimey loops, and no deep, overarching metaphors at play this week: this is about as simple as a Doctor Who plot gets. The threat this week is an alien piece of technology called a Skovox Blitzer—basically an artificially intelligent tank—and that means there's not even a secret plan to thwart. This is the TARDIS crew as bomb-disposal unit, rounding up unexploded ordnance before it hurts someone.
But that doesn't mean there aren't important things going on in "The Caretaker." Roberts and Moffat go with the bare minimum of plot here in order to deliver some comedy, advance some themes, and do some character development. This is an excellent idea at this point in the season, and largely works. "The Caretaker" delivers the laughs—something at which the current cast excels—and some important themes are developed, but I'm growing concerned at how Moffat and Co. are once again (as they did in "Deep Breath") compromising the character of Clara in pursuit of their overall points.
So let's focus on the good first. "The Caretaker " is funny, and probably the best marriage yet of Peter Capaldi's particular comedic skills with the Doctor Who tone. At various points in the Twelfth Doctor's short run so far, there have been times when Doctor Who seemed too silly for Capaldi (like some physical comedy moments in "Deep Breath," and pretty much the entirety of "Robot of Sherwood") and there have also been moments when Capaldi seemed too dark for Doctor Who. (There have been several line-readings this season in which the Doctor's constant insulting of Clara—and everyone else he encountered—felt a little too acerbic and mean-spirited.)
Here, however—thanks to a well-balanced screenplay and a more relaxed, settled-in performance from Capaldi—the tricky alchemical mixture works: the Doctor's misanthropy comes across as amusing, not abusing. "I hate you!" Clara yells in frustration. "That's fine, that's a perfectly normal reaction," the Doctor replies, calmly summarizing his attitude towards human interactions. He continues to insult nearly everyone he meets, but there's a gentler tone to it this week, as if he's not so much hating everyone as he is just enjoying screwing with them. I liked the Doctor's assumption that floppy-haired, bow-tie-and-tweed wearing teacher Adrian (Edward Harrison) was where Clara had transferred her affection for the Eleventh Doctor, and his funny (if terribly patronizing) response when he discovered he was wrong. "You've made a boyfriend error." His interactions with Courtney (Ellis George) show that this Doctor still relates to children, albeit in a very different way than Matt Smith's Doctor: as he did with young Danny in "Listen," this Doctor talks to children like they're adults, refusing to handle kids with kid gloves. ("Human beings have incredibly short lifespans: frankly, you should all be a permanent state of panic.") Even his throwaway comments about his caretaking duties are amusingly skewed: "The walls need sponging, and there's a sinister puddle." This might be the most I've liked this Doctor since Capaldi took over.
Jenna Coleman, too, gets some decent lines. "Why do I even keep you around?" the Doctor asks. "Because the alternative is developing a conscience of your own," she replies. Though I prefer Coleman's performance when it's given room to be a little less manic, Clara is developing into a perfect partner for the Twelfth Doctor, smart enough to keep up with him and strong enough to stand up to him: it terms of power parity, she's probably the most formidable companion of the new era after Donna Noble (Catherine Tate). ("The others, before me," she asks. "Did they let you get away with this sort of thing?")
Of course, "The Caretaker" is largely designed to formally introduce the complication of Danny Pink into the Doctor-Clara relationship. I like Danny so far, and we get a better sense of who he is this episode than we've had before: Anderson is delivering a remarkably internal performance—especially within the broad and busy atmosphere of Doctor Who—and he shows here he has the potential to be a more adversarial supporting character, not just standing up to the Doctor but actually challenging him. (There are deliberate echoes of the First Doctor's era all over this season, and they're becoming more direct: here we once again have two teachers from the Coal Hill School, at least one of whom doesn't trust the Doctor at all. If Courtney enters the TARDIS as well—as previews indicate she will next week—parallels for all the original TARDIS quartet will be in place.)
Steven Moffat has always been interested in exploring what I've called the "Companion Conundrum": the dangerous, potentially destructive influence the Doctor has on the people with whom he chooses to travel. This problem was at the heart of the Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) story. "Trust me, I'm the Doctor," he said to her, when she was very young, and she did trust him, and both she and Rory (Arthur Darvill) paid a very high price for that trust. (Season Six was nearly all about how irresponsible it is for the Doctor to pull ordinary people into his life.)
Rory was often the voice of doubt on this point. "You have no idea how dangerous you make people to themselves when you're around," he said during his first trip in the TARDIS in "The Vampires of Venice." And, in "The Girl Who Waited," he chastised the Doctor again for what he does to his companions. "This isn't fair," Rory said. "You're turning me into you." By "The God Complex" the situation had come to a head, and the Doctor seemed to accept his own culpability:
"I brought them here. I'd say it was their choice, but offer a child a suitcase full of sweets, and they'll take it. Offer someone all of time and space, and they'll take that too. Which is why you shouldn't. Which is why grown-ups were invented."
That episode ended with the Doctor saying goodbye to the Ponds for their own good. But he never really changed, and, by the beginning of Season Seven, both he and the Ponds had—frustratingly—forgotten everything they learned in Season Six. Moffat, I think, was interested in exploring the Companion Conundrum, but he could never figure out how to resolve it. (Because it's ultimately unresolvable: taken to its logical conclusion, this thought process strikes at the very heart of the show itself by suggesting that the Doctor should never travel with anyone ever again.)
Now Danny Pink promises to take up this theme again, perhaps with a little more force. Rory questioned the Doctor, but was also very fond of him (and very much in the thrall of Amy, who was very much in the thrall of the Doctor). Danny, so far, seems to be a stronger, more worldly personality: he doesn't seem to be buying the Doctor's shtick at all, and may never grow fond of him. As a former soldier, one who ended up doing things that still haunt him, he recognizes the Doctor as a natural born commander—the kind who can be dangerous.
(I won't belabor the obvious point that the Skovox Blitzer is the perfect soldier—basically a dumbed-down, order-following Dalek—or that the Doctor ultimately deals with it by becoming its commander. What's more interesting is what goes un-said: that it's the Doctor's fault this thing is here in the first place. The Doctor explains to Clara that the machine probably honed in on Artron emissions, the background radiation from time-travel. But he conveniently leaves out the part where its his repeated trips to the Coal Hill School over the years that left the Artron emissions in the first place.
"You weren't even scared, and you should have been," Danny says to Clara, after she has followed the Doctor's barked instructions without hesitation. This is a slightly different perspective on the Companion Conundrum: following orders blindly is not something the Doctor respects—which is why he's charmed when Courtney introduces herself as a "disruptive influence"—but he expects his companions to do exactly what he says at all times? "You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons," Davros—creator of the Daleks—accused him once,
I'm genuinely pleased to see Moffat pursuing these themes again, even if they're ultimately unresolvable. Doctor Who's formula, structure, and protagonist can never be changed too much—that is part of their charm—but the Moffat era has found ways to tease out and explore these essential, unchangeable elements in ways that have been rewarding. I like questioning the things we take for granted: the nature of the Doctor, his relationship to his companions, the ethical ramifications of his adventures and the company he keeps. It's a way of moving deeper within the limiting confines of a show that can never move too far forward.
Where I'm having a little trouble with "The Caretaker," however, is in what it seems to want to do with Clara. One of the things that this episode sets out to establish is that the Doctor's relationship to Clara is now more paternal, as opposed to romantic. (Where once she might have wanted him, now she wants his approval for her boyfriend; previous Doctors might have been jealous of a new suitor, but now he just worries over whether Danny is good enough for her.) This is a good move—the unrequited love thing was played out—but does paternal have to mean patronizing?
There's a slightly sexist undertone to the basic setup of this episode—Clara's two men fighting over her, and fighting over how to keep her safe—just as there sometimes was with Amy and Rory. And Roberts and Moffat don't quite figure out here how to introduce Danny's power and authority without undermining Clara's. Danny and the Doctor save the day, and Danny characterizes Clara's one contribution to defeating the threat not as her being brave, but as a mindless and foolish following of the Doctor's orders. "If he ever pushes you too far, I want you to tell me, because I know what that's like," Danny says. "If you don't tell me the truth, I can't help you, and I could never stand not being able to help you."
This is way condescending, especially for a character as strong and resilient as Clara has been. (What's worse, Clara accepts this belittling as sweet.) In fact, there are several places in the episode where she's written as softer, sillier, more childlike than she should be. For example, Danny asks her why she travels with the Doctor, and she doesn't seem at first to know how to answer that. "Because it's amazing," she finally says. "Because I see wonders." That's one answer, certainly—and a valid one—but it shouldn't be the only one: that's the answer of the child who can't refuse a suitcase full of sweets. Compare this to the speech Rose gives in Season One's "The Parting of the Ways," when she thought she was stranded on Earth:
"But it was…it was a better life. I don’t mean all the traveling and seeing aliens and spaceships and things: that don't matter. The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life […] You don't just give up. You don’t just let things happen. You make a stand. You say 'no.' You have the guts to do what's right when everyone else just runs away."
That's the answer of a Doctor Who companion, and it bothers me that Roberts and Moffat don't give Clara some version of it here. And because I get to help people: that's all she would have had to say, and denying her that line here infantilizes her a little bit, and robs her of some of the power and agency the character has earned. What worries me is not her overall characterization—there have been plenty of times in other episodes when Clara did show her strength and independence, and where she did save the day—but what it suggests about where this season is going. "The Caretaker" ends with the suggestion that Danny is able to see something she herself cannot: that she's just in the thrall of the Doctor, and in love with sightseeing, and that she's going to get hurt because she doesn't really know what she's doing.
It's possible that this is all intentional, and Moffat intends to do something interesting with this: after all, I've already commented this season that the Doctor himself seems less motivated by a desire to do good than he usually is, and perhaps his new attitude is meant to have rubbed off on Clara to the point where they've both forgotten, a little, what it's all supposed to be about. But it's also possible that this is another example of Moffat's occasional weakness in writing and developing female characters. I'm a fan of Moffat's work in general, but the frequent accusations of sexism are sometimes hard to refute. (Amy Pond was a strong—if sometimes problematic—character. But River Song [Alex Kingston], for example, started out as an independent, kick-ass adventurer, but was later revealed to be someone whose entire identity—her literal reason for being—was defined by her desire to be with the Doctor.)
One of the nice things about Clara—especially this season—is that she is not defined by her relationship with the Doctor, or any other man: she's not in love with him, and she has her own career and life (something Amy never did), and she's able to see the Doctor objectively. This episode felt like it was losing some of that hard-gained ground, however: putting her back in a competitive triangle as the hypotenuse between two men, framing her as something to be protected, and denying her her own agency by implying that the choices she makes are naive, deluded, or foolish. It risks making her an innocent at best, and a victim at worst, and that's a real problem.
I'm aware that I'm being hard, and perhaps taking too seriously, what was essentially a very light episode of Doctor Who. But—unlike "Robot of Sherwood," for example—this episode was light for a purpose: it was light in order to have space to develop these characters, and to solidify some themes for the rest of the season. "The Caretaker" was enjoyable on the surface, but I'm not entirely sure I like some aspects of the character development it accomplishes, and I'm growing increasingly nervous about some of the themes it seems to be pursuing.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Insert the usual apologies for the late post here: this is a very busy time of year for me in my real job, so things may be a bit behind for a few weeks. Please bear with me.
- As you might have noticed, I'm experimenting with a new endnote system to handle some of the references and asides. (If people find it annoying, I'll stop.)
- A few reviews ago, a commenter by the name of "Dinoshark Gabenewell Robopope"—undoubtedly his real name—speculated that Clara might die (at least temporarily) this season. I admit, I didn't think too much about it one way or the other at the time, but "The Caretaker" makes me wonder if Dinoshark wasn't onto something: the Doctor's being responsible for getting Clara killed seems like a possible, even likely extension of the themes we're seeing developed this season.
- This episode, and the inherent gender imbalance in Doctor Who—the all-knowing male hero and mentor whose companions/assistants are almost always younger women—is one of the reasons I am an unapologetic proponent of a female Doctor. The stories we consume as children matter greatly, and Doctor Who as an institution could stand to stand the gender imbalance on its head for a few years. It's canon now that Time Lords can change genders when they regenerate: I'd love to see that happen when Moffat leaves the show.
- The sign on the caretaker's shed doesn't read "Keep Out," but "Go Away Humans." "Never lose your temper in the middle of a door sign," the Doctor says.
- Pedantic Note from a Former Lit Major: Actually, Jane Austen wrote First Impressions, the story that would later become Pride and Prejudice, in 1796–7. Only after substantial revisions, more than a decade later, was it finally completed under that title, and it wasn't published until 1813. So it's a stupid thing to argue about.