One thing that has eluded Doctor Who in recent years is consistency.
Matt Smith’s final season was let down by clunkers like ‘The Rings of Akhaten’ and ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’, but the gilt edges of the previous season were certainly rubbed off by ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ – and the less said about 2010’s ‘Victory of the Daleks’, the better.
Peter Capaldi’s first five episodes, however, have been uniformly solid: not a dud among them. Trouble is, there’s been no standout instant classic. The spooks of ‘Listen’ captivated many; the LOLs in ‘Robot of Sherwood’ impressed others; Capaldi himself has been bloody marvellous throughout. But he has yet to be blessed with an ‘Empty Child’, a ‘Midnight’ or a ‘Doctor’s Wife’.
No surprise, then, that ‘The Caretaker’ is very good; funny, sharply-written and engaging throughout. But the nagging sense that has dogged Season 8 since the beginning remains: that the next episode will be the one.
There’s plenty to enjoy nonetheless. To prevent the laser-happy, alien-android-on-castors Skovox Blitzer destroying the world, the Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School as the new, wild-mannered janitor, John Smith: part Grange Hill’s Mr Griffiths, part Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons.
Yet despite the threat of global annihilation, the main thrust of the story is Clara’s attempts to keep the Doctor from finding out that Danny Pink is her boyfriend and Danny from finding out that the Doctor takes her off on jollies through time and space. Keeping Earth safe from an intergalactic robo-bastard pales in comparison.
The Doctor, intent on identifying Clara’s suitor, dismisses Danny Pink as an ex-soldier and PE teacher (despite Danny’s area of expertise being mathematics), his attention falling instead on another of her colleagues: a bow-tie wearing, floppy-haired ponce reminiscent of the Time Lord’s previous incarnation. ‘Oh Clara …’ he coos wistfully, bursting with misplaced pride.
Danny, meanwhile, is suspicious of the new caretaker (whose whistling of ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ is doubly appropriate, given the educational environment and Danny’s surname). After narrowly avoiding being fried by the Blitzer, he realises there’s more to Mr Smith than meets just a brown coat and a sparkly sweater. He also twigs that his girlfriend has been more than a little economical with the truth.
‘You’re a space woman,’ he protests. ‘You said you were from Blackpool.’ And the Doctor? ‘He’s not the caretaker. He’s your dad. Your space dad.’
The Doctor is equally unimpressed. ‘You’ve made a boyfriend error,’ he snaps, aghast that Clara is dating someone with an army background. His contempt for the military has been made clear throughout this season – ‘I hate soldiers … don’t you hate soldiers?’ – but it’s only now, thanks to Danny, that we get an idea why.
The onetime Sergeant Pink sees the Doctor as a soldier himself: a commanding officer who expects absolute obedience from those who travel with him – even to the point of putting their lives on the line. This is clearly too close to the truth for comfort.
For the first time, we get a glimpse of the Doctor’s guilt, doubt and perhaps even self-loathing that haunts his latest incarnation. His rage at Danny addressing him as ‘Sir’ is naked; ugly, beyond doubt – something rather new for modern fans of Doctor Who. But it’s a measure of Capaldi’s brilliance how quickly and fully his acerbic, snarky performance had been accepted.
Aired at 8.30pm on Saturday 27 September 2014 on BBC One.
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