With ‘The Caretaker’ we reach the halfway point of Doctor Who’s latest run.
It’s a good time, then, to take a quick look back at the first half of Season 8. You’d probably agree it’s been pretty strong so far, though there’s bound to be an individual difference of opinion among where those strengths lie.
What we can surely all agree on is that Capaldi has been terrific as a cruelly enigmatic Doctor; that Clara now has an actual personality, and it’s allowed Jenna Coleman to show both tremendous comic and dramatic range; that Danny Pink has become a three dimensional male character in about half the time it took Rory to be one (we do love Rory, by the way); and – and this is a big one – that, The Teller aside, the monsters have been pretty forgettable. And not in that Silence-y way.
It’s fitting then that at the midpoint we get Gareth Roberts’ ‘The Caretaker’, an episode which embodies all that we have come to expect of Season 8 so far – and one which will impact on the rest of the season to come.
There’s trouble at Coal Hill School and The Doctor is going undercover as the eponymous take-carer to sort it out. Not that it should take much sorting. As with several recent episodes, monster of the week Skovox Blitzer is little more than a Christmas toy to-be. Apparently attracted to the area by Artron energy, it just wanders around, pew-pew-pewing anything that crops up in its Predator-vision.
That would be a massive, episode-destroying problem, if the episode was actually anchored to the villain in any major way. But stand down, Blitzy. ‘The Caretaker’ isn’t your show. This is a laser-guided character piece of great humour and surprising emotional depth.
More than any other Who writer, Gareth Roberts is very good at domesticating The Doctor without trivialising him. ‘The Lodger’ and ‘Closing Time’ showed how The Doctor interacts with and judges humanity while knee-deep in saving it, and ‘The Caretaker’ is no different in principle.
Except that this time it’s not Matt Smith’s Craig-hugging chummy Time Lord. Twelve is far more arch and cantankerous, but for the first time since he put his pre-creased face on he seems like he’s actually enjoying what he’s doing. Even if what he’s doing is disrupting Clara’s breathless TARDIS/boyfriend balance (seen in a brilliant pre-titles sequence) more than saving the day.
It’s all fun and games until Clara’s two men meet, like two parts of space and time that should never have touched, and then there’s greater pyrotechnics than any robot alien could produce, as they rattle through Roberts’ crackling dialogue.
As Samuel Anderson beautifully balances shock, anger, and confusion, Capaldi reminds us of a Doctor not seen since two very different Coal Hill staff barged into his life. It’s Jenna Coleman who really stands out though as Clara is forced into being the intermediary between the earthly and alien, the dramatic and the comic.
The comic especially. ‘The Caretaker’ is funny. Funnier than ‘Robot of Sherwood’, in fact. But don’t confuse that with flippancy. This is the episode that gives us the greatest insight into the newly-reorganised head of The Doctor since his regeneration. And we reckon you’ll like what you see.
Airs at 8.30pm on Saturday 27 September 2014 on BBC One.
What are your hopes for the episode? Let us know below…