When I saw the preview for “The Caretaker,” my first thought was, “That looks an awful lot like ‘School Reunion. Watching the episode, that feeling didn’t necessarily go away. And that may be part of the point.
Each episode this season has seemed echoed a previous installment from the first seven or so seasons of modern Doctor Who. It’s almost as if Steven Moffat want to show us what the new Doctor is like (and attempt to answer the question of whether or not he’s a good man) by putting the character into situations similar to those we’ve previously seen. Yes, this time around he’s masquerading as the caretaker of a school instead of a teacher, but the premise of battling an alien menace in the familiar surroundings of a school is similar enough.
But where “School Reunion” was about the conflict between the current companion and the previous companion, this story centered on the tug of war taking place in Clara’s life as she tries to keep the two men in her life unaware of each’s other presence. The interesting thing is that no matter how hard Clara tries to lead this double life (eating two dinners, arriving in the cab soaking wet with seaweed in her hair), she isn’t necessarily hiding anything from either party involved. In both cases, she’s making Danny and the Doctor more suspicious about what’s going on and that much more eager to solve the mystery.
Having the Doctor show up as going “deep undercover” at Coal Hill School is, at first, mined for laughs and plays out like an episode of Three’s Company with wackiness ensuing because one character doesn’t want two others to meet and exchange notes. But despite her best efforts, Clara can’t keep the paths of Danny and the Doctor from crossing and the two eventually begin to compare notes with each other. It all leads to Clara’s revelation that she loves Danny and that she wants the Doctor’s approval of Danny in her life. While the Doctor hasn’t quite given it yet, you can tell that he’s coming around to see Danny as more than just a solider.
Of course, the Doctor’s antipathy toward soldiers this year is something that I’ve been the most curious about, especially given his long friendship with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. I wonder if part of this general antipathy toward those who choose to be soldiers stems from the Doctor discovering that the Brigadier has passed away and some feeling of guilt that he wasn’t there for his old friend in his final days or that he’s not fully said farewell to his old friend. I’m not sure this is a threat that Moffat will necessarily pick up on as the season plays out, but it could be interesting.
“The Caretaker” seeks to give us a slice of Clara’s life as she tries to balance the running around on fantastic adventures across space and time and her life on Earth — from teaching English, to the day to day trappings of being a teacher to her relationship with Danny and her students. It all makes for an interesting study, especially when these two worlds collide at several points. Clara seems much more able to slip into her role as the Doctor’s companion when presented with strange circumstances (Danny notes as much when she helps lure the alien robot to the Doctor’s trap in the final fifteen or so minutes) than she is when the Doctor invades her normal life — as seen with the various promises she makes to get out of conversations with people in order to see what the Doctor is up to.
As for the alien robot threat, I felt like this wasn’t the most compelling or interesting that we’ve seen this year or really in the long history of the show. It’s an alien who is programmed to respond in a certain way and the Doctor has to stop it. But the robotic threat is really there to provide the catalyst for other elements of the story.
As for the continued deconstruction of the Doctor as a character, that comes courtesy of Danny this week, with his observation that the Doctor is used to being in command of situations and giving orders. It’s interesting that in light of this observation, we see Missy crop back up in the episode’s final moments, though she’s not quite the same Missy we’ve seen up until now. A policeman who is killed by the robot is sent to wherever Missy is and is being processed into …well, wherever they are. And the Missy wanders out and its observed that she is busier than usual. The look on her face seems to tell us she’s not quite as carefree as she was in her previous appearances. Whether this is because the number of people who are coming to wherever she is because of the Doctor is increasing or that her plan has hit a snag, I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those seasons that could be very rewarding to watch again once we see all the elements in place and what Moffat is doing with them.
And while I liked “The Caretaker,” I can’t say that it’s my favorite episode of this current season. It’s good and it gives us some nice character work, but something about it never quite clicked for me.
A few random thoughts before I wrap things up:
— I like the idea of Courtney as a companion for the Doctor. Her relentless questioning and then her reaction to seeing the wonders of the universe worked well and I think a younger companion could be a nice contrast to the older, slightly grumpy Peter Capaldi.
— The fellow English teacher with the bow tie was a nice nod to Matt Smith’s Doctor.
— Of course, there’s evil brewing on parent’s night. It just makes sense.