Gareth Roberts, love him or hate him, has a style quite unlike any contemporary Doctor Who writer. In fact his work is most reminiscent of Russell T. Davies, the former showrunner, who’s been notably absent since his writing of The End of Time. Both writers just gravitate towards modern day stories that incorporate science fiction elements, and both deem character-driven stories more their hue than plot/monster/setting-driven stories, but Roberts is perhaps just a tad better at delivering effective comedy into the mix. The Caretaker, his fourth episode for the program, is an almost effortless example that he is just so good at his craft.
The Doctor makes his way to Coal Hill School (now much more than just your passing nod to An Unearthly Child) going undercover as the school’s caretaker, the English equivalent of a janitor. The episode has two minor issues in my opinion, and the first for me lies here. The scene in which the Doctor is introduced as said Caretaker… When are caretakers/janitors/custodians ever introduced to the staff? They’re like taxi drivers. Hidden, but never hiding. Always there to do their job, but unless they’re being sought they remain undercover to begin with. But I concede that it may be necessary to the overall episodes integrity. And it does offer a fantastically hilarious interactive scene for the Doctor and Clara. (Side note – apparently the Doctor and River once went undercover as otters. This needs to be fleshed out in some fashion. Please!)
The whole theme of the episode is just so ironically perfect for the entirety of the season. Clara needs the Doctor to meet Danny, but is worried about the fact that he’s a soldier. The Doctor needs to stay undercover to find and eliminate the Skovox Blitzer, and he’s also curious to meet the boyfriend, and this version of the Doctor actively dislikes soldiers. Danny needs to find out about the Doctor, as it directly affects his budding relationship with Clara. It all sorely needed to happen, and the irony of each contradiction was the perfect recipe for Gareth Roberts’ unique talents.
The monster of the week was my second and slightly greater qualm. The Skovox Blitzer didn’t quite work as well as, say, the antagonistic shapeshifting ship(?) from The Lodger did, but it served its purpose to the degree it needed. It was just a reason for the Doctor to go undercover long enough to eliminate its potential threat. I just wish it looked as threatening as it was meant to. Going through the hallway with a closeup of it skulking made it seem as if it were simply on a track while its legs flailed about. And when we do get a full body shot of the Skovox, it’s totally a laughable matter, watching it attempt to move on top of its own legs. But again, it can’t be stressed enough – This monster served its purpose, and the story did not hinge on its presence entirely.
The Doctor’s interaction with Danny is exactly as we’d expect. As he’s made clear more than once this season, his ability to accept that soldiers are also good, reliable people/companions is entirely nonexistent. It’s not until Danny miraculously saves the day, literally vaulting over the monster (which was too cool), that the Doctor concedes he is capable of being worthy of Clara. But up until that point he angrily dismisses him as nothing more than an ex-soldier/current PE teacher – despite Danny’s insistence that he’s actually the math teacher. Which grew to be a thin joke after overuse, but I completely enjoyed its awkward hilarity for the most part. I also really enjoyed the scene where the Doctor knows Danny is in the TARDIS, invisible, but pretends he doesn’t simply to teach Clara a lesson. I though that was written quite well.
Courtney Woods, the disruptive influence, has sneaked her way into several episodes at this point. You may remember her from a brief flashback during Deep Breath, or as the bawdy schoolgirl teasing the school nurse in Into the Dalek, and she was even mentioned during Listen. Her presence being something we’re used to by now, a proper introduction to her character during The Caretaker seemed only appropriate. And being that she’ll have an even greater role as a companion in the next episode, it was all executed very nicely.
Being that this is the third episode co-penned by Steven Moffat, I was expecting the ending in “Heaven”. But at the same time I still found myself eerily surprised about the whole situation. The overarching theme this season is, as far as we can tell up to this point, exceptionally well planned. Whether it delivers in the end is a review for another day. But interestingly we get a new character in Heaven, outside of Missy. What could this all mean? I’d also like to note that Murray Gold’s composition of said scene was just chilling – perfect freakishly mysterious tone and a total homage to the sounds of Dead Can Dance.
I really did appreciate the fact that this was all done in a modern day setting, with minimal usage of time travel. We need an episode like this every so often, as it grounds the show a bit. Yes, it’s still ridiculous, it’s still nutty. But for many who came into the series during the era of Russell T. Davies, it was his ability to ground the characters, particularly the Doctor himself, that made it all seem viable, and heartfelt. For many of today’s NuWho fans, it was more than just good stories that drew us in – it was the ability to make realistic characters that we could relate to and love that ultimately gripped us. It’s during these modern day stories we are allowed the most breathing room in regards to the character interaction. Less running about, less technobabble, more humor – and humor we can relate to. And that’s why this episode works so well, at least for this reviewer.