Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.
Back in 2010, I compared The Lodger with a certain brand of yeasty salty spreadable toast accompaniment. It will, I said, divide Who fans, even as a shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats. On the left will be the people who are in tune with with what the Matt Smith era is about; on the right will be the ones who are simply not.
The Caretaker is a similar pitch to The Lodger. I suspect it will divide fans for similar reasons.
The Lodger took the Doctor out of his TARDIS comfort zone and dumped him in an ordinary environment – as James Cordon’s flat mate. There was an alien, but we could all see that it was a Perfunctory Alien. The actual alien was Matt Smith. If you liked watching Matt Smith being alien — if you think everything that Doctor Matt did lit up the room, even when it wasn't a particularly interesting room — then the Lodger was the Bestest Ever Story about the Bestest Ever Doctor. If you found Matty Smith irritating, or if you were basically still sore that Jon Pertwee quit, then this was the episode that turned you off Doctor Who for good. Everyone knows which side I’m on.
So: this week the Doctor announces that he is going into deep cover and pretending to be a normal human for a while. (Two weeks ago he was trying to imagine what a critter that could hide perfectly would be like, and spooking himself out over it.) He gets a job as a Caretaker in Wonderful Clara’s school. He pretends to be human, which he is very bad at, and therefore oddly fits in as the Grumpy Caretaker. The Grumpy Caretaker is one of the stock clichés of school stories, along with the sexy English teacher (played here by Wonderful Clara) and the sadistic P.E teacher. Back in Remembrance of the Daleks, Doctor Sylvester pretended to go for a caretaking job at this very school and was told he was overqualified for it. There is a Harold Pinter play called the Caretaker. Harold Pinter almost certainly never played a Yeti. There is a Perfunctory Robot, but like the Lodger, this is mainly a character piece.
But it isn’t a character piece about us getting to know the Doctor. It isn’t a character piece about what would happen if the Doctor came to your school. (Imagine Doctor Matt as Caretaker! Rewiring the slide projector so that it showed 3D pictures; making champagne spew out of the soft drinks machine without quite intending to...) It’s a character piece about Wonderful Clara and Pink Danny. Clara has been keeping Danny a secret from the Doctor for no very good reason. This is a kind of obligatory episode which tells us how the Doctor finds out about Danny and how Danny finds out about the Doctor. Maybe you see it as a bit of a filler that we need to move the sub-plot forward. Or you may think this kind of rom-com scenario is what the series is really interested in, and it’s stuff like “the Doctor and Clara meet Robin Hood” and “the Doctor and Clara rob a bank for good and adequate reasons” that are the fillers.
For better or worse, I think that the latter is probably the case. Deep Breath, Listen and Caretaker feel as if they are part of one TV series, telling one story, filmed and acted in a mostly similar style. Robot of Sherwood and Time Heist feel completely different – both to this, and to each other. Yes, I know that Horror of Fang Rock isn’t exactly the same as Talons of Weng Chiang and Talons of Weng Chiang isn’t exactly the same as the Invisible Enemy but my point stands.
There are some good gags and some less good gags.
I thought it was quite funny that Doctor Peter takes it for granted that Clara is dating the Other English Teacher who looks exactly like Doctor Matt, and is perfectly okay with it. (I shouldn’t think that there is a single English teacher in England who talks or dresses like that and studying the Tempest is about knowing the key points which are likely to come up in an exam, not what Mr Chips feels about the “fascinating enigma of it’s fundamental non-finishedness.”) I quite like the long-suffering headteacher, the disastrous parents evening and the problem child’s awful parents. I actually even quite liked the problem child, although I don’t buy the Doctor giving her a ride in the TARDIS and sincerely hope that’s the last we see of her.
And in fact the mutual revelations about Danny, the Doctor and Clara are pretty well handled. I felt embarrassed for Clara and sad for Danny when it came out that she’d been deceiving him and pleased for both of them that he took it fairly well, and cross with the Doctor for being pointlessly jealous. Particularly him arbitrarily deciding that Danny must be a PE Teacher. Does anybody want to make the case that that was Ever-So-Slightly Racist? Does anyone else want to explain that PE teachers haven’t been like that for years? But the programme has gone off in a pretty weird direction when “I was cross with the Doctor” is a point in its favour.
I could have done without Danny doing a Matrix-style slow-motion leap over the Perfunctory Robot to save Clara. Not because I don’t think he should have saved Clara. As yet undiscovered tribes in New Guinea could see from the set-up that it was going to finish with Danny saving the day. But we probably don’t need to equate “soldier” quite so clearly with “action figure.”
So. Which side are you on?
There are going to be people who are going to say that Doctor Who has no right to be doing stories about the relationship between the Companion and the Doctor and the Companion’s Boyfriend because Doctor Who is about monsters and saving the world and relationship-stories are not allowed. On this view, the whole idea of Companions is deeply suspect. When Old Who was still New people openly complained that Rose had no right to exist because the title of the show was Doctor Who as opposed to The Amazing Adventures of Chav Woman. (They really, really did.) A friend of mine recently said that he had attempted to re-frame season 5 - 8 as The Adventures of Amy and Her Time Travelling Friend to see if that made him like it any better.
This seems to be the same kind of thinking (though not, obviously, to anything like the same degree) as that of J.C Wright and his canine buddies, who see the intrusion of a lady or a black person — any lady or any black person — into any story as evidence that no one is allowed to be white or male any more. It is obviously true that Rose and Clara have more agency than companions did in the olden days. I myself have complained that there is a tendency for New Who to over-sell companions, starting with Rose’s transformation into Dark Phoenix and ending with Clara accidentally creating the entire franchise. But it’s not a zero-sum game. Presenting the companions as people doesn’t mean that the Doctor is now less of a person.
If you are on this side of the divide, then presumably you hate the whole idea of the Caretaker and are not reading this.
On the other hand, there are always going to be people who say that Doctor Who always was about the relationship between the Doctor and his lady friends, that fans had sexual hangups that prevented them from seeing this, that memory plays tricks and that the Caretaker is not really that different from tons of stuff in the Old Series. If you are on that side of the divide, then presumably you think that the Caretaker is what Doctor Who was always like and are not quite sure why I am making all this fuss about it.
I guess my position is this.
It doesn’t matter what Doctor Who “ought” to be. It is unfair to continually compare a new programme with an old programme; and definitely unfair to compare a real programme with an imaginary programme you’ve made up in your head. The true definition of Doctor Who is whatever happened in Doctor Who last week, and always has been.
On the other hand; you have to play to your strengths. A cop show probably should mostly be about a cop solving crimes. The cop is allowed to be cleverer and more observant than any one real policeman could ever be, and “forensics” are probably allowed to produce plot devices that no real forensics team could possibly produce; but if a fairy pops up and tells Frost whodunnit; or if Morse discovers the murder was committed by a ghost, well, that’s cheating. It’s also cheating to sell us a fairy story and then have a cop turn up and fob us off with a perfectly rational explanation on the last page. Unless the whole point is a big twist about what genre we are in mumble mumble Sixth Sense mumble mumble. But you have to do that sort of thing awfully well for the audience not to feel cheated.
So it is probably not a good idea to sell us a series about explosions and robots — to show us trailers involving explosions and robots — and then reveal that really, it’s not an exploding robot story, it's a kissing story.
On the other hand, and this being science fiction I am quite entitled to have three hands, by now, everyone knows that Doctor Who is, or partly is, or sometimes is, a romantic comedy about the Doctor, Clara and Danny (or the Doctor, Amy and Rory; or the Doctor, Rose and Mickey, and no, until I started typing this sentence I hadn’t realised that human boyfriends all have names ending in a Y.)
I don’t really buy the premise. I never have done. I don’t accept that someone would be exploring the universe with the Doctor and at the same time worrying about whether or not she made a date with a colleague who she only met a couple of weeks ago. I don’t think that the kinds of people who worry about keeping appointments become explorers and adventurers.
There are people who, offered the chance to spend two years living among the aforementioned previously undiscovered tribes in New Guinea would reply “No, I don’t want to do that, I would miss my kids’ birthday party.” And there are ones who would say “Yes: I will sacrifice everything, even family and friendship, for the sake of Adventure. I would walk naked into a live volcano if it meant I could learn something that no other man knew.” Me, I don’t specially care if I die without seeing the Taj Mahal. I’d like to go to New York some day. But as Sam Gamgee spotted; the people who stay at home don’t get stories written about them.
But I am happy to accept the premise. The big question is: is Steven Moffat? Is this definitely the story he wants to tell? Are Clara and Danny real grown up people who are in love? Is their relationship going to proceed to a plausible ending, happy or tragic, and are we going to properly deal with the consequences of that ending? If this answer is "yes" then this was an installment of a very good unfolding story. The problem kicks in if next week, they stop being grown up characters and become action figures again.
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