Doctor Who Season 8, Episode 6 “The Caretaker”
Directed by Paul Murphy
Written by Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Samuel Anderson, Ellis George
Air Date: Saturday, September 27th, 2014
What happens when people you care about from two different parts of your life meet? Do they fight? Do they get along? Do they begin to see you differently? These are the questions that Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) faces this week on Doctor Who. She’s been dating Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) and traveling with the Doctor (Peter Capaldi). One thinks she’s only a teacher at Coal Hill School. The other doesn’t quite know that she’s dating. Both think (in different ways) that they are the most important man in her life. It’s a collision that’s seemed inevitable for a few weeks now. Finally, here it is.
The resulting episode is ultimately about character development and relationships. Yes, there’s a Terminator-like scary robot that’s the pretext for the two men in Clara Oswald’s life, but it’s just window dressing. The real conflict comes when Danny meets the Doctor and vice versa. It’s generally played for comedy with a fairly deft touch by all involved, though some sparks do fly. In the end, I’d call this a good episode without enough context to be a great one.
Doctor Who is a television program that is ostensibly about travel and outer space, and for many years that was literally true. People met the Doctor and were transported out of the realm of their ordinary lives to see different places and times around the Universe. They lived in the TARDIS with the Doctor. They disappeared from their ordinary lives and loved ones, except in the early 1970s when the Doctor was based with UNIT on Earth; at that time, people traveled with the Doctor because it also was their job. After a time, they left the Doctor, sometimes for better and sometimes for ill (though sadly a bit more of the latter than the former). The Doctor’s travels were aimless, even purposely random, and his control of the TARDIS was less than precise.
In more recent years, travel in the TARDIS has been as much about personal inner space as outer space. Starting with the mini-episodes called “Pond Life” in 2012, we see his companions begin to live two lives in parallel. There is an ordinary home life with middle class features and then there is the special life inside that one that is the time with the Doctor. Now the Doctor’s control of the TARDIS becomes more precise when he wants it to be, meaning that he picks his companions up, and then routinely returns them to their “ordinary” lives minutes to days later. That’s a premise pretty alien to the show in its original run, where (for example) the Doctor spent a whole season in 1981 just trying to get companion Tegan Jovanka back to her flight attendant job at Heathrow Airport.
Now the show has reached a tipping point in this transformation: current companion Clara Oswald truly is leading a double life. The Doctor sometimes gets distracted and disappears from Clara’s life, but for the most part, he comes in and out of her life in a way that’s transparent to everyone else. She holds down a regular job at Coal Hill School, date one of her co-workers there, and still be able to go off with the Doctor with no one being any the wiser… though some people are suspicious that something is going on.
With that, a question becomes inevitable: what happens when the two lives meet? This is where we find out and it turns out to not be an especially pretty thing in spots. Danny Pink says “You only really know what someone thinks of you when you know what lies they’ve told you” because Clara has lied about, or at the very least omitted, certain things about herself. For him, the ex-soldier, that seems too much like the life he’s left behind. The Doctor also seems to be someone he’s left behind; he’s either an aristocratic officer who will treat Clara (and him) like a tool to be sacrificed if the circumstances require it, or a capable motivator that will make Clara do amazing things… until one of them breaks her, just Army life broke him.
Covering all that, there is comedy. The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School as the janitor (or caretaker.) He mission is to stop a rather nasty robot that’s appeared in the area for some rather sketchy reasons. It lets Peter Capaldi play up some of the curmudgeonly aspects of the Doctor’s character to comic effect, and Clara gets to try out some screwball comedy as she tries to maintain the separation between the two parts of her life. We also get some social commentary about life in the school, as the Doctor interacts with one particularly headstrong student (played by Ellis George) and Clara and Danny interact with her parents. Finally, there is a resumption of the Promised Land story line, in which we see that Missy now has an assistant.
All in all, the real gold is in the more serious part of this dramedy. We want to know more about Danny Pink, and his back story. A reason for why the Doctor and Clara may part ways has now been uttered. The robot, well, that was just hurried window dressing. This was a strong cast, snappy dialog, and points for screwball comedy. It will likely be remembered for the exchanges between the Doctor, Danny, and Clara, but little more.