Contains some mild spoilers for the episode.
I confess, I really wasn’t looking forward to this episode of season eight of Doctor Who, mainly because it seemed it would be very much in the same vein as Gareth Roberts’ previous contributions to the show during Matt Smith’s tenure, “The Lodger” and “Closing Time.” Both of these had milked comedy from making the Doctor a fish of water in a contemporary urban setting – the first in a flat share, the latter by giving him a job in a department store. This weekend’s instalment seemed to offer a retread of much the same ground, with the Doctor this time having to assume the identity of a school caretaker, once again proving how incapable he is of going ‘undercover’ and remaining remotely inconspicuous in any normal setting.
As a one-off concept in “The Lodger” this sort of thing worked perfectly well, giving Smith a chance to indulge in his most clownish comedy playing alongside James Corden and Daisy Haggard. While it avoided poking fun too directly at the show it was still too much Doctor Who: The Sitcom for my personal taste especially as the plot of the story was largely missing in action. The follow-up episode “Closing Time” tried to compensate for this by having a heavyweight threat in the form of the Cybermen, but that just resulted in the story going all over the place with lots of different influences pulling this way and that before a painfully mawkish and rushed ending. I was, therefore, resigned to “The Caretaker” continuing the downward trend and had little doubt that I would be writing a review that said “not my sort of thing, rather hated it, let’s hope for better next week.”
I’m as surprised as anyone to report that instead I rather loved this episode. Yes, the same things that had irritated me in those two earlier stories were still present to a degree, but this time they had been refined and finessed and actually worked – very well at that. The big difference between then and now is that the series lead has changed in the interim: I liked Matt Smith well enough as the Doctor but his core strength in the role was using his natural comedic talents to undercut highly charged dramatic situations, whereas if you put his Doctor in a pure comedy outing then it runs the risk of becoming as insubstantial and as sickening as a massive helping of candy floss at the funfair because of the lack of contrast. But if you have a Doctor who naturally skews to the much darker, dramatic end of the spectrum – yet portrayed by someone who can still seamlessly turn his hand to comedy when it’s called for – then you immediately have the necessary light and dark to pull off the trick with aplomb.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Peter Capaldi!
It’s Capaldi’s portrayal – angrier, fiercer, more dismissive and scathing – that anchors “The Caretaker” and makes Roberts’ script (co-written with showrunner Steven Moffat) a huge success this time around, thanks to the way that the 12th Doctor introduces deeper, darker flavouring to the rest of the superficially sugary-sweet confectionary on offer. Nor does Roberts make the mistake of having either a too-vague or too-heavy threat this time around, as the Skovox Blitzer battle machine with its proclivity towards diagnosing the solution to any problem as being the use of deadly explosive force is both a simple but effective plot device, one that delivers the necessary level of upfront physical jeopardy without needing to be further analysed or explained in a way that will impede the rest of the story.
And the rest of the story is where the real drama of the week lies: the Doctor finally coming face to face with Clara’s new boyfriend, Danny Pink. We knew from the ending of “Into the Dalek” in which the Doctor showed an unexpectedly sharp visceral hatred of all things military that this meeting would not go well, but the scene inside the Tardis as Danny (Samuel Anderson) accurately characterised the Doctor as “officer class” while the Doctor in turn dismissed and belittled Danny as “PE” fair crackled with electricity, thanks to some unexpectedly sharp and almost vicious dialogue hurled with real skill by both performers. It’s fair to say that there has seldom before been any potential future companion who has engaged in an initial confrontation with the Doctor that has been anything like this bitter.
Naturally much of the way forward for the two men to be able to work together in the future lies in Danny being able to prove himself as being worthy on multiple levels. To start with there’s his relative calm reaction after encountering the Skovox Blitzer and his quick uptake on who the Doctor is and also on the Tardis’ unique dimensional properties. He shows perception and intelligence, such as being very quick to realise that the Doctor is onto him when he’s ‘undercover’ using the invisibility watch (“I am so going to confiscate that watch!” says Clara); and he correctly diagnoses that the only thing that really matters to the Doctor is that any potential suitor is proved to be good enough for Clara. It’s very well handled, the only off-note being Danny’s super-ninja forward somersault to distract the Skovox Blitzer when a more realistic move grounded in Danny’s soldier training would have been better.
It was once again a standout episode for Jenna Coleman as Clara caught in the middle of this confrontation between the two men in her life – by comparison, the chance to act as a lure for the Skovox Blitzer seemed almost a relief versus having to deal with the fallout from her two emotional worlds colliding so violently. There was also a very impressive turn from young actor Ellis George as troublemaker Coal Hill School student Courtney Woods, who with her outspoken lack of tact and social graces was an immediate hit with the like-minded Doctor; and a nice cameo from Edward Harrison as bow-tie wearing English teacher Adrian whom the Doctor initially mistakes as Clara’s secret boyfriend largely thanks to his being the spitting image of Matt Smith – narcissism, much, Doctor?
All of these ingredients – comedy, relationship drama, science fiction action – were combined in almost the perfect relative proportions and the script itself was overall written with the lightness of touch that “Robot of Sherwood” had cried out for to make it a success but which was sorely lacking. It’s certainly Roberts’ best riff on the ‘fish out of water’ theme for the show to date, and by far his best episode for Doctor Who as a whole since the delightfully intelligent and playful celebrity-historicals “The Shakespeare Code” and “The Unicorn and the Wasp” for David Tennant in 2007/8.
I was so impressed (or maybe relieved!) by the episode that I didn’t even mind when the last couple of minutes were hijacked by another Missy-related epilogue; mainly because this latest scene actually added something new to the series arc in the form of Missy’s office aide Seb, played by Capaldi’s former The Thick of It co-star Chris Addison. He provided just a little more information on what’s going on such, as the first mention in the show of the ‘Nethersphere.’ Having the scene (and the episode) finish with Seb then asking “Any questions?” – as if the audience didn’t have about a thousand of them by now – was a cheeky nod and a wink that just had to leave you with a smile on your face after such an entertaining and rewarding story as a whole.
Which is just as well, because judging from the ‘Next Time’ trailer for “Kill The Moon” that’s the last levity we’ll get for a while. Never mind the small children, if those giant spiders on the moon are anything like as terrifying as they look then it’ll be me behind the sofa come next Saturday evening…
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings, with episodes repeated on Sundays on BBC Three and also available on demand on BBC iPlayer. A ten minute ‘behind the scenes’ feature is also available on the iPlayer and on the red button. Series 8 will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on November 17 2014, and series opener “Deep Breath” is already available as a standalone release.