TV What kind of unholy hour is this to be writing about Doctor Who? Actually this is just the time I am usually writing about Doctor Who on a Saturday night but I’ve tended to have about an hour’s head start (two hours a year ago) and would be about four or five paragraphs in if I actually have an opinion. Yet thanks to the vagaries of scheduling and the BBC not wanting to receive nasty press from its rivals about god forbid scheduling a talented show opposite another talent show, here we all are having seen the first fifteen minutes of post-watershed Doctor Who since the broadcast of the TV Movie back in 1996 (barring Torchwood) (Updated: and well yes ok John McKerrell, Deep Breath). All of which should be seen as an apology for the upcoming ramble. I’m drinking coffee. This may have ill-advised side effects later.
Is there anything about The Caretaker that fitted the time slot? The first killing is pretty grim though the frazzled limb which drops into shot isn’t any less horrible that the charred remains of Luke Skywalker’s Aunt and Uncle in the U-rated Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, which as the BBFC case study notes, was for it’s “universal appeal and adventurous tone” and in the good old days when Han shot first in cold blood. Other than that the general action tone is akin to The Sarah Jane Adventures (cf, 50% of its writer) and for all the shouting no swearing. Like Our Zoo (so far) this is television out of time which will probably been seen by the majority of its audience on catch-up (not least because for its entire duration it was being broadcast opposite the aforementioned talent show).
Now hold on a minute while I think about how I’m going to structure the following. I think I have about four things to say but I’m not sure which order to put them in. No, wait, I know what I’m going to put out fourth, it’s the other three I’m not sure about. It’s that sort of episode, the kind which is itself doing about three or four different things and somewhat compartmentalises them until they end up smacking into each other like Raston Robots on a stag night. As with all of these previous episodes, they’re character studies masquerading as epic sci-fi action adventure which are supposed to tell us something about the life of a Time Lord or the life of the companion or the life of someone on the outside viewing all of that, in which the alien threat is nothing more than a mcguffin to give the Doctor a reason for being there.
The life of a Time Lord, then, or rather this Time Lord. Having had a couple of successes with the Doctor does domestic format, here’s Gareth Roberts in the familiar ground of The Lodger and Closing Time is how many of the reviews will have it as they entirely forget School Reunion and Human Nature existed. As with his earlier episodes, it’s about dropping this alien presence into the mass of humanity and making fun of his inability to really understand them, his innate alieness. As expected the best parts of the episode are this Doctor’s eyebrow raising misunderstandings of just who these people are that he’s supposed to be protecting and quite why they don’t seem to think on his wavelength. But in relation to this Doctor the results are far starker.
Future fan theorists may consider how previously when the Doctor infiltrated the school it was as a teacher but here he’s a caretaker reversing the power dynamic of those previous stories where Rose and Martha found themselves in the utilitarian roles. Which should put him in the same realm as the Eleventh Doctor in Roberts’s previous two stories ingratiating himself with humanity except he doesn’t. He’s not interested. The Caretaker is about telling us the person who was interested in the details of people's lives (“Street corner, two in the morning, getting a taxi home.” “Chops and gravy.”) utilising them as symbols of hope is gone. This new model still cares deeply enough about humanity that he wants to risk his life to save them but doesn’t seem to care about their feelings.
On the one hand this does indeed lead to some very funny scenes, but on the other it makes him an unpleasant shit to spend time with, the asshole who everyone in the office really hates but you tolerate anyway because you have to. This is were I reveal the rather interesting revelation I had this morning after finally getting around to watching the Extradental about Time Heist (an inertia which speak volumes). I like Peter Capaldi. I bloody hate his Doctor. There, I’ve said it. Phew. Which means that I can really enjoy his performance and I do, a lot, but he just doesn’t feel like he’s playing my Doctor. It’s difficult to describe but it’s almost like the Doctor is absent. The closest he’s come, for obvious reasons, is in Listen and possibly Robots of Sherwood, but apart from that, sheesh.
The Caretaker is the epitome of this absence of the Doctor syndrome. When he mentions River, I don’t believe for a second that he’s the man who met her which I know is in stark contrast to Graham’s Russian doll metaphor in his review of Deep Breath in DWM. When he’s in the TARDIS tinkering it doesn’t feel like his space. Clearly you’ll dismiss this as the usual problem of holding onto the past, of missing Smith, but honestly it’s not that and like I said it’s not necessarily about Capaldi whose working really much better with his line readings. But it’s definitely something. Perhaps it’s just a matter of taste. I have Pertwee and C. Baker issues too and the Doctor’s very specifically being steered in that direction away from the benevolent alien figure. It could just be that.
But it goes much deeper than that. It’s the feeling that I’m watching a series called Doctor Who, which is doing all the things that Doctor Who does and is, but there’s an emptiness that wasn’t there before. Compare The Caretaker to any of those previous storyalikes and it feels superficial, lacking in scale. Arguably, deliberately so in this case, but in making the new Doctor a grumpy reclusive personality utilising extrovertedness as a prop, the show has done the same. This could just be me reacting to the tonal change Mark Gatiss notes, of the shift from City of Death to the Horror of Fang Rock, but the sheer preponderance of corridors over exteriors is really, really obvious, especially when you consider the detrimental running order changes caused by the fear of such in season six.
Plus the threats are less impressive. In the drive to create new monsters, we’re in the realm of the early production teams chasing the new Daleks but not really since these one episode wonders deliberately don’t have the legs, literally in this case. There’s a thread right through Who of the incidental monster or alien in operation to remind us that we’re watching Doctor Who, but The Caretaker’s offering is an especially weak example especially in comparison to something like the Krafayis from Vincent and the Doctor or the ingenious creations that appeared in The Sarah Jane Adventures when Gareth Roberts was the writer. Unless I missed something due to being half asleep, the Skovox Blitzer is simply a thing to be destroyed. His thematic resonance is zero.
Perhaps I’m like Clara, holding on to what we have because of what used to be there. The teaser to The Caretaker is the final five Amy & Rory episodes in microcosm, the Doctor dropping in on a seemingly daily basis to take Clara on an adventure before dropping her off in time for a date. If only the TARDIS could have travelled with this accuracy when Rose was on board, her Mum wouldn’t have worried as much because she’d always be home for tea. That also grounds the show somewhat. One of the glories of the 60s series was that it was as much about being lost in time not knowing if you’ll see your own planet again whereas Clara is shown these wonders then seems perfectly able to continue to conduct her life back on Earth. It’s as though the life of the kids in the attic has be absorbed by the main series.
Jenna Coleman remains superb incidentally. In this three-hander, she’s the one who holds the episode together and is the audience’s point of view character. Despite everything I said, her and Capaldi sparring is purely pleasurable especially when she’s essentially acting now as his ambassador to humanity, caring so that he doesn’t have to, as he says. You see how conflicted I am on this? Making her a teacher at Coal Hill School suggest perhaps that Moffat et al are in fact trying to suggest what might have happened if the First Doctor had been in full control of TARDIS, allowing Susan to attend school and travel the universe, saving the planet now and then with the aid of a couple of her human teachers (assuming he hasn’t dropped them off on Vortis or wherever in order to preserve the secrets of his magic box).
What to make of Danny Pink’s reaction to all this, and please believe me when I say the caffeine’s just kicked in, I really don’t care because the gender politics of the episode are horrendous. Before I really go for this, here are some of the necessary qualifications. There’s a genuine attempt at interestingness in the approach to the companion/boyfriend dynamic which as is always the case stems from an attempt to contrast what’s gone before. Whereas both Mickey and Rory were dropped right in it from the off, Clara’s been keeping Danny in the dark, perhaps in an attempt to compartmentalise or shield him from it all, in a way which isn’t entirely unlike the approach taken by Martha and indeed Donna with their loved ones in previous series all of whom also reacted in a negative way after the revelatory moment.
The dynamic we’re being presented with of Clara seeking the Doctor’s approval of her boyfriend and seeking her boyfriend’s approval of the Doctor is a potentially psychologically richer concoction than what we’ve seen previously, perhaps trying to indicate the difficult choices some young women sadly do find themselves enduring even in this decade and the mention of Jane Austen earlier in the episode is perhaps supposed to suggest of how centuries old literature can still be utilised as a touchstone in these situations. In having Clara say she loves Danny so specifically, so romantically and contrasting this with her complicated feelings for the Doctor, it uncouples her totally from the ambiguity that dogged Amy time in the TARDIS and Rory’s esteem issues. As Dan says at The Guardian, "It’s a brave version of Doctor Who, where everybody is written so honestly and as brutally flawed..."
With all of that said, for goodness sake Doctor Who, are you fucking kidding me? It’s fair to say I have a deficit myself when it comes to relationships and an understanding thereof, but how is it we now have a companion, again in this decade who not only feels like she has to seek the Doctor’s approval of her boyfriend and seek her boyfriend’s approval of the Doctor? Why isn’t she asking what business it is of her friend who she goes out with and on the other hand what business it is of her boyfriend who she’s friends with? A companion (and yes I appreciate the irony of that term in this context) who is then effectively shamed and made to feel guilty in both directions by, for the purposes of this, a controlling father and a controlling boyfriend, just the sort of thing we’re supposed to be fighting against now.
The whole aspect of making this part of the Doctor’s character gives me the hoojibs. True, the Doctor’s been seen to give his tacit approval to the partners of companions across the years, usually when they’re leaving the series and with someone they only met four episodes before. The Time Lord usually offers a gruff acceptance that he’s up against humanity’s doings (“Aha.”) before driving off into darkness or a residency at Nest Cottage. The Green Death was partly about Jo replacing him with a younger version. Now we have a scene in which he actually seems quite pleased about it (even if by a strained misunderstanding its not actually the case), in a way, which makes the whole Russ/Ross business in Friends look like a comic masterpiece. Making Danny an actual Matt Smith clone is about the only way this could be worse, I suppose.
As with so much of this episode it could be that I have a disconnect between my own experience and real life, but what is all of this “you can tell a lot about how a person feels about you from the lies they tell” bullshit? Is this supposed to be a Doctor Who spin on Chasing Amy and if it is, shouldn’t Clara’s reaction be the same as Alyssa Jones sending Danny to the kerb because he doesn’t approve of her lifestyle choices? Similarly shouldn’t there be some measure of trust on both sides? But apart from all that, why the hell am I even going here at 23:43 (time check) in the evening after having watched Doctor Who? Well, because as the titles rolled I was genuinely feeling pretty good about the episode, then the gender politics processors in my brain overclocked and all I could see was the blue screen of death.
Perhaps as I intimated in my many qualifications earlier this is the show's writers trying to offer a more granular psychological depth than previous seasons or providing the alternative of actual soap opera to the perceived soap opera of previous seasons. Danny’s whole alpha male “you come and tell me if he doesn’t treat you right” (I’m paraphrasing) speech that she lovingly reacts to is just repellent. If the idea is that we're supposed to feel that way, it's worked. If I’m completely misreading all of this do please set me straight in the comments. The several reviews I’ve seen haven’t had this reaction at all seeing the Doctor and Danny’s behaviour as endearing protectiveness making the title literal, and perhaps it is, but I just didn’t see it that way at all. Clara’s behaviour here is weirdly written.
All of which post-midnight meandering just leaves room for Chris Addison’s cameo at the end and the introduction of a big white corridor, which is whichever writer on much safer ground. Since the policeman’s body is a cinder we’re now left to wonder how he’s able to exist in this space whatever it is. A reconstruction of a version of the Gallifreyan Matrix perhaps? The afterlife? The Restaurant at the End of the Universe? It’s a measure of how much I like Capaldi’s performance in the face of not liking his Doctor that I can’t wait to see him and Addison up against each other again. Perhaps I’d simply prefer this whole thing to improvised and shot on steadycam. Perhaps I wish that it had made full use of its timeslot. Perhaps I’ll look back at this post, as I do so often and wonder what I was on about. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.