‘Doctor Who’ Faces One of His Greatest Foes as Danny Pink Strengthens as a Character in “The Caretaker”
Doctor Who has always been a writer’s show. The opening credit emphasizing the author of each episode is our constant reminder, but we still might take that for granted. There are a lot of names who’ve written adventures for the Doctor and his companions, and they’re not most of them household names, nor are all of them consistent in their quality or genre. The two most recent episodes, however, need to have their authors acknowledged for different reasons. Last week, it had to be said that Steve Thompson is always boring. This week, with “The Caretaker,” Gareth Roberts has to be recognized as being a wonderfully clever yet down-to-earth voice who has been greatly missed for the past few years. Maybe it’s because he’s been writing Doctor Who stories, originally in novel form, since the early 1990s, but he just seems to get it.
There is a lot going on in “The Caretaker,” but this isn’t immediately apparent. Well, there’s a good deal of plot, what with the whole triangular rom-com situation going on between Clara (Jenna Coleman), Danny (Samuel Anderson) and the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) while also there’s a threat to the planet occurring coincidentally near and then in the school where the former two work. But this is not a plot-centric episode. Even the relationship stuff is just a vehicle for deeper levels, giving us more to chew on regarding the Doctor and Danny than the Doctor and Clara. Actually, no, strike that, because the very end of the episode is very important, when Danny shows a quick understanding of what Clara is to the Doctor and in saying so reminds the audience of all the past companions whose lives couldn’t quite be trusted in the Doctor’s hands. (Is Clara going to die this season?)
First, let’s look at the basic plot, which could very well be the situation for a wacky new sitcom, in which a young woman lives with an alien and is trying to get serious with a man while also trying to keep that other part of her life a secret. That sitcom would probably have the alien character look and act more like ALF or Howard the Duck, but the Doctor does have some of the behavioral beats of those non-humanoids. There is some really neat writing within this plot, particularly with a few set-ups that don’t pay off right away. One of these is where we see a teacher (Edward Harrison) who clearly looks like Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, but it takes a while before that intentionally familiar-looking guy is acknowledged as being an Eleventh Doctor lookalike, when the Doctor perfectly egotistically presumes that this is the co-worker Clara is going on dates with.
There’s also the easily incorrectly assumed reason for the Doctor going undercover at the school. We are surely supposed to think he’s there spying on Clara and trying to find out about her boyfriend. Yet there’s an actual task of intergalactic concern (which Clara rightly assumes, more than he’d be there to check up on her), and it winds up being Danny who later attempts to spy on the Doctor instead. Danny proves himself to be smarter in this episode than I’ve given him credit for, namely in my review of “Into the Dalek,” when I summed him up as being mostly just awkward and insecure, the usual wimpy companion boyfriend. He’s wisely onto the new caretaker, “John Smith,” as the Doctor pretends to be, for meddling with the school’s electrical system. He can tell that the Doctor knows he’s in the TARDIS despite being invisible. And he ends up saving the world as much as the Doctor does with his cool distraction and jump flip.
Most importantly, Danny sees the Doctor as being more of an “officer,” a commanding type of military person who sends others into trouble (a fear he now has for Clara), whereas Danny is a soldier, someone who actually takes care of business and people (is Danny the true caretaker of the title?). Funny enough, the Doctor also pretends to be a military superior for the episode’s Macguffin of a villain, the Skovox Blitzer, ordering it to shut down (and shut up – I loved the word play with these terms, by the way). I like to think that the Doctor actually got this idea from Danny during their exchange on the TARDIS, the other plan he’d been working on when interrupted being scrapped in its favor. Yay, another point for Mr. Pink. And another point against the Doctor: when he takes young Courtney (Ellis George) for a ride on the TARDIS, he’s pushing her beyond her safe zone – giving us yet another nice follow-through of an earlier set-up when the Doctor recalls the “spillage” from when he first met the girl.
The criticism of the Doctor’s character would have totally fit with my ongoing theory about the “Promised Land” background subplot of Series 8, too, except that with this episode we learn that that storyline is not necessarily concerning the suicidal deaths of characters who sacrifice themselves at the Doctor’s request (see the Clockwork Robot in “Deep Breath” and Gretchen in “Into the Dalek”). The police officer (Andy Gillies) who turns up in the afterlife, and barely encounters the mysterious Missy (Michelle Gomez), was simply killed by the Skovox through his own action and has no direct link to the Doctor. But then, maybe the fact that Missy isn’t personally meeting with the cop indicates that the other two were more significant, due to how they died. It’s worth noting that there is a kind of Doctor-assisted suicide in this episode, or there would be if the Skovox was ever alive.
If there’s anything to criticize about “The Caretaker” it’s maybe that with Danny built up as this stronger character and a terrific foil for the Doctor (more foe than companion moving forward, I think and hope – but not foe as in villain, foe as in rival), Clara is now sort of sandwiched between them with even more of an uninteresting pawn kind of existence, and I still believe that her death or near-death is imminent as a way for her two male counterparts to come to a head in their conflict. Hopefully Danny can help in keeping her from being a mere decoy or tool, but then it’s preferable that she get there on her own. She at least deserves to be wittier than recycling a joke about how the Twelfth Doctor’s look is magician-like.
I guess there’s one other issue I had with the episode, but it’s a little one: with the return of Roberts as co-writer of this episode (with Steven Moffat), there really could have been a cameo from James Corden as Craig, the Doctor’s pal in Roberts’ last two episodes, 2010’s “The Lodger” and 2011’s “Closing Time.”
Related Topics: Doctor Who