Series 8, Episode 6
Posted by Sage
We’re well into the gushy mid-season center of series 8, where the light and sugary stories live. Earlier this week, guest recapper Graeme Burk wrote about the caper episode “Time Heist,” and reminded us that our collective impossibly high standards for Doctor Who have to allow for adventures that are just plain entertaining. “The Caretaker” continues the Twelfth Doctor’s “getting to know you” tour; this time, the fun is guaranteed right in the premise. Twelve is the most alien regeneration we’ve seen in decades. Let’s see how he fares when he tries to pass as just another adult who figures into the human experience nearly all of us have in common: school.
It’s Twelve’s first time taking “John Smith” out for a spin. This time, Smith is the fill-in caretaker at Coal Hill School, there to diffuse some a robot-alien threat (seen one, you’ve seen ’em all) and – let’s be real – to lay eyes and eyebrows on Clara Oswald’s other distraction. No dashing science substitute this time (“Physics, physics, physics, physics…”), this Doctor peaks curiosity from the moment he’s on the property. Basically, he just can’t human (and barely tries) and succeeds wildly in weirding everybody out. (Par for the course for Scottish caretakers in pop culture.) Clara’s just trying not to get fired.
I’m almost bored to be writing again about how likable Clara Oswald has grown to be. When the Doctor shows up at her morning staff meeting, she looks like she’s ready to pummel him with his own broom. (“So, you recognized me then?”) But her irritation takes a backseat to her concern. (“Doctor, is there an alien in this school?” “Yes, me!”) All Ozzie wants to know is if the kids are in danger. Once she knows that there’s a real (if thinly-written) menace to contend with, she’s on board. With reservations.
I also admire Clara’s determination to have it all. She craves the unknowable excitement – the “wonders” – of life with the Doctor. But she also wants the challenge of a wrangling 30 fifth-formers and experiencing all the firsts of a new relationship. She wants to be swimming with the fish people and her best friend one moment, and wrapped on up the couch with serious domestic hottie Danny Pink the next. There are shades of series 2 in the way the show keeps dropping hints that Clara can’t have it both ways forever. The storm is coming, though she still insists she doesn’t want to know exactly when.
Impending doom, blah blah blah, anyhoo, back to Coal Hill, present times. The Doctor is skulking around the place, intriguing children and placing anonymous sciencey-wiencey objects around the premises. It’s all part of his plan to send the Skovox Blitzer, an impossibly dangerous weapon, packing. Meanwhile, Capaldi expertly plays the Doctor’s base need to gleefully harass his pal Clara. He climbs up to her classroom window to correct her Jane Austen timeline (“There’s a bio at the back.”); listens in when she talks to other boys; and responds to her schoolyard scolding by dropping the best/only Pink Floyd reference in Doctor Who history.
Actually, to circle back to the impending doom for a moment: the Skovox was attracted to Coal Hill by its high concentration of artron energy. Maybe the kind of emissions that would be kicked up by, say, a TARDIS landing in the broom closet? Clara and The Doctor brought this thing here. Her insistence on straddling the everyday and the fantastic manifested in a very real danger. Symbolism, much? Luckily, Clara, the Doctor, and P.E. are here to clean up their own mess.
Remember Bowling for Soup? It’s totally okay if you don’t, even though “1985” is a fairly decent karaoke song. Dumb name or no, they spoke they truth when they sang that “High School Lasts Forever.” Even for Time Lords, it would seem. When the Doctor calls Danny, “P.E.”, he may as well be calling him a “dumb jock.” Despite all evidence to the contrary, Danny’s past life as a soldier paints him as a brute in the eyes of his girlfriend’s companion. So it’s fantastically telling when the Doctor latches on to the misconception that bow-tied, floppy-haired Adrian is Clara’s canoodling partner. We’ve never seen him smile so wryly. It’s a very unusual form of vanity. I don’t get the feeling that the Doctor would be so pleased with this prospect if the boyfriend he suspected were a tall, older, Scottish gentleman. As we saw in “Robots of Sherwood,” he’s ever so slightly uncomfortable knowing that he’s Clara’s hero. But his past self is another story. He’ll take her hero worship only if it’s one regeneration removed. Ah, Doctor Who: Where arrogance and self-loathing meet and make emotionally complex babies.
One would think that the Doctor would put less stock in first impressions, having read Pride & Prejudice and all. It’s true that he prides himself on identifying potential (“I never know why, I only know who.”), but he’s allowed himself to be surprised by what people who he’s written off are capable of in the past. (Mickey the Idiot. Jack.) Funny that a sizable amount of the people he’s grudgingly learned to trust have been competition for the attention, if not the affection, of his companions. Clara can’t live a double life forever, and guess who knows it? He also knows, when it comes down to it, which life she’s going to choose – or at least the one she should. So his instant affinity for Adrian is either a selfish hope that Clara won’t leave the TARDIS for good one day, or a confirmation that, even if she does, she’ll have essentially chosen to live out her days with one version of him. Probably both.
What’s troubling is that the show is again putting the companion in the middle between the Doctor and another man. Clara’s refusal to suffer fools and/or foolish behavior nearly saved this storyline. The Doctor’s need to approve of her “boyfriend” felt one 18 Kids & Counting marathon away from one of those icky “purity balls” where little girls dress up like brides and pledge their virginity to their fathers or whatever. And all that “space dad” business just made it worse. It’s sweet that the Doctor wants the best for his friend and that Danny wants to give that to her, but if Danny had pointed out that the only judge of whether or not he’s good enough for Clara should be Clara, then I’d really be all over him. The flip was still nice though.
For as dreamy as Danny is (and he is dreamy), I need more from him. The Doctor isn’t making it easy for him, but Danny is far too defensive for my taste. He gets right down to the Doctor’s level, tossing insults and questioning his motives. (This will now be the third Doctor Who recap this season in which we’ve used the term “dick-measuring contest,” and my god, this might be the most apt.) Worse, he questions Clara herself. Does she know what she’s doing? How, exactly, does she feel about this other person in her life? And I’m sorry, he had to see her with the Doctor to know what she’s really like? I’m annoyed that Danny asked her to prove herself to him and I’m horrified that she went along with it. She’s that girl? Since when?
“The Caretaker” was a collaborative effort by Gareth Roberts (“The Lodger,” “Closing Time”) and Stephen Moffat. So I’m assuming that Roberts handled the Earthbound-Doctor comedy and Moffat the creepy daddy issues. It was far from a terrible episode; I actually quite liked it. But it’s all the proof we need that Doctor Who needs a female in its writers room like, yesterday.
Timey Wimey Observations:
- “Why are you being nice? Because it works on you.”
- Was that a Bye Bye, Birdie reference I heard in there?
- The Doctor and Clara snapping the TARDIS door open and shut felt very “TARDIS, Timelord, yeah!””/”Donna, human, no!”
- Clara’s green rain jacket goes on my Oswald style inspiration board.
- The Doctor lived among otters with River, if you’re wondering who taught them that cute cup-stacking game.
- “What were they like? The others before me? Did they let you get away with it?” This feels like another dig at the RTD era. This is so boring.
- “‘My school’? Oh, that is telling.”
- “Oh my god, you’re from space…you said you were from Blackpool.”
- “Shut him up. Shut him down. up or down.”
- “Can I go in space?” “I’ll let you know, I may have a vacancy.”
- Anyone else get an Ariel/King Triton vibe in the auditorium scene? (“But Daddy, I love him!”)
We’re been hearing incredible praise for “Kill The Moon!” Kim will be bringing you a recap of that episode next week and then New York Comic Con will start and our heads will explode and we will die.