Tony Fyler takes care – again.
It’s very much the case that among Who fans, Gareth Roberts is a taste.
Not an acquired taste by any means – the kind of taste that either makes you go “Mmm, more please,” and steal the spoon, or makes you go “Holy Hannah, that’s evil, never ever let me order that again, blech, blech, blech!”
Full disclosure – I’m a Robertsian…
No, wait, that sounds way too stupid. I like the taste of Gareth Roberts. Ohhh dear.
You get the point – generally, if it’s a Gareth Roberts script, I’m a happy Whovian.
In his last few scripts, Roberts has developed a sub-niche of Who all of his own, the Doctor-passing-as-a-normal-human story. Starting in The Lodger, he wrote some genuinely fun bonkersness for Matt Smith’s elastic giraffe of a Doctor, allowing Smith a chance to bring his genuine footballing skills onto the screen and try and show the Doctor doing the ‘normal flatmate’ thing, covering for his friend in a call centre. He went back to the same group of characters for Closing Time, extending the Doctor’s work experience to ‘nuts bloke in a shop.’
The Caretaker pretty much puts it up there on the screen for you from the title on – this is the Doctor, doing a job as a school caretaker.
It’s actually much more fun than that makes it sound though, and for the first real time, it strives to actually give Clara some of the characteristics we’ve been told she has, particularly the control freakery. That’s mentioned several times, but there’s never really been any evidence of it till we come to the pre-credits of this story, where she’s desperately trying to juggle what Amy Pond described as ‘real life and Doctor life’ – largely by the usual expedient of keeping them massively, massively separate.
It’s important to note too that Clara’s life over the space of about a year or so is covered in the space of The Caretaker. We get some great minisodes in the pre-credit – sand piranhas, fish people, soldiers shooting at them in corridors, all showing the advance of the Doctor and Clara’s relationship, while Clara and Danny go on date after date, go running together, and generally become the kind of uncool that all the kids laugh about behind their backs.
And that’s before the Doctor turns up at their school as the Caretaker. So there’s actually plenty of story to be going along with – the Doctor and Danny are likely to meet and realise each other’s significance in Clara’s life, which she doesn’t want to happen, plus of course the Doctor’s undercover checking on and neutralizing some horrible dangerous alien nightmare, and trying to keep Clara and everyone else safe from it, which being the Twelfth Doctor means not telling her anything about it. Game on. Oh and of course the main thing which is amazing, given his pedigree on film and in television – by the time this episode came round, everyone was asking whether this Doctor could be funny. He’d proved he could with Robot of Sherwood, but it was a very different kind of funny to what we were used to. How would he deal with a Gareth Roberts script, which by the time of The Caretaker had a reputation for slamming the alienness of the Doctor up against the normality and banality of human life?
His last pre-credit line gives a hint. It’s almost cringeworthy, as he introduces himself to a roomful of teachers with “Yes, John Smith’s the name. But you know, people usually just call me…(pause for dramatic effect)…the Doctor.’ Annnd wink to Clara and camera. We’re in for some fun.
After the credits, Clara…well, pretty much says all this – the Twelfth Doctor is a spikier prospect than the Eleventh, he surely can’t pass himself off as human. But that’s his plan. There’s a weird moment that’s only relevant a year on – the policeman telling off the two Coal Hill kids, despite the fact that they’ve got a free period. Without getting deep and meaningful and fight the power on you, he’s white, they’re both black. Can only imagine the kerfuffle if they had a clock…
Needless to say, Mr Get-A-Life gets more than his comeuppance though, wandering in where he shouldn’t and getting zapped to something like death by the Skovox Blitzer. And when it first appears, it works. Shot from the right angles, revealed as a death-spitting robot, it really works.
What becomes apparent as the episode unfolds is that Capaldi’s kind of funny in Series 8 is basically rude with knobs on. His refusal to understand that Danny can be an ex-soldier and a maths teacher is dangerously close to closed-minded, though it is actually very funny, especially if you’re not that keen on Danny – and be fair, who is?
His assumption that Clara’s involved with Adrian, the man who looks like his own younger self is both rather sweet and hugely conceited, bringing a kind of Sixth Doctor side to the Twelfth. And as the arguments continue when he and Danny finally see each other for what they are in Clara’s life, there’s a breadth of misguided anger on all sides that turns the typical Gareth Roberts script – monsters, real humans, fun, danger – into something with a much harsher edge: for people who don’t like the ‘soapification’ of Doctor Who, The Caretaker’s probably not a great episode to re-watch, because there’s real emotional sturm und drang here that can leave you feeling a million miles from your fun little fantasy show with its adorable retro time machine and its thoroughly British whimsy and its hero who has spoonfights. Clearly if there’s a Doctor you don’t want to get on the wrong side of in an argument, it’s Old Scary Eyebrows, and the PE Teacher’s no slouch when it comes to dark comedy to reveal his points of protest. The thing is that in the middle of it all, you feel genuinely sorry for Clara, who, let’s not forget, has done nothing wrong to either of them. She has a male friend in the Doctor, not a lover, not someone she ‘elopes with.’ And who she then chooses to love is none of the Time Lord’s business either, but there they stand, these avatars of demanding men, making her feel bad and torn in the middle between them.
Oh and then there’s the Big Bad Threat From Outer Space, of course. Here’s the thing. Here, if anywhere, if the worth of rewatching episodes with a year or so of hindsight under your belt. Having seen it when it was broadcast, my abiding memory of The Caretaker was of a good story, ruined by a bit of a naff monster. But on rewatch, it’s actually not that naff at all – the shot choices are more intelligent than I remember them being, for the most part, and with a year of distance from my need for it to be the ‘Best. Episode. Ever!’ or not very much at all, it stands up pretty well as a villain. It’s never going to be a Dalek or a Cyberman, bless it, no matter how often you tell it there’s enough armament packed in it to destroy the planet. But Roberts does enough to make you speculate about the structure of the society from which it comes (Ooh, there’s a Skovox Artificer too – wonder what’s about that? I had a stab at dreaming it up here) and the direction from Paul Murphy keeps the focus on the Skovox tighter than you probably remember. Yes, sadly, there’s still the utterly naff, unbelievable, shoehorned-in bit where Danny somersaults over the Blitzer to create a distraction, but apart from that, The Caretaker stands up better on rewatching a year later – better than some other episodes which aired in the season, and better, actually, than you remember it being at the time.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk