Co-written by Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat, The Caretaker opens with a celebratory yomp through the kinds of sheer nonsense Doctor Who can sometimes bring us. An impossible, cliffhanging situation on an Alan Dean Foster panorama, with vibrocutters and sand piranhas. Vibrocutters and sand piranhas, I ask you! It then has the impudence to summon the dank spectre of The Underwater Menace‘s Fish People. Plus, later on, the Doctor talks of visiting the crocodile-worshipping locale of Crocodileopolis. “The name is a useful coincidence,” he says, shining a light on the Terry Nation planet-titling protocol that has served us all so well.
But there’s more to this than just playing with old motifs. In the Skovox Blitzer, we have a brand new baddie that’s absolutely classic Doctor Who. Classic in the sense it’s gloriously indicative of the programme when it’s operating at its most perfunctory. This is a Robot Wars creation with a name that will never trip off the tongue. The voice is set on ‘generic automaton’ and the head-up display does as little as it can get away with. Which is fine. The Blitzer seems happy with its lot as a mid-range mechanical monster, hailing from the same notional workshop as Drathro, trading spare parts with the Chumblies.
This distillation of pure Doctor Who daftness offsets the fact the story mostly takes place in Coal Hill School and something approaching the real world. Yes, this trick has been pulled before in The Lodger, but it’s instructive how differently the Twelfth Doctor plays the innocent abroad in comparison to his prior persona. There’s still the same disconnect with humanity – I love it that the Time Lord seems to think a janitor’s coat would provide sufficient disguise to fool Clara – but now he has no interest in trying to engage with it. Instead he wants to lay low and get on with Doctory stuff. That wristwatch of invisibility won’t build itself. Plus, there’s a pleasing subtext that, along the way, he’s probably also getting genuinely caught up in the caretaking too: “The walls need sponging and there’s a sinister puddle”.
However, there’s another aspect that unsettled me.
I haven’t really understood or enjoyed this Doctor’s animosity towards soldiers, and so I’ve resisted commenting upon it so far. I’m assuming, or perhaps hoping, it’s all working towards some kind of resolution that will make sense of what is otherwise a dispiriting prejudice on his part. Well, it needs to get there very soon, because in The Caretaker, this thread becomes horribly ensnared with something much worse.
Am I the only one who felt uncomfortable with the Time Lord failing to comprehend Danny Pink could possibly teach maths? The gag is, because of Danny’s military background, the Doctor presumes he’s only good for PE. That’s a reductive enough joke as it is, but the appearance is even worse. Here’s an educated white man telling an educated black man, “That ball isn’t going to kick itself”. Please, no.
The truth of the matter is, this scene has only come to pass because there is absolutely no racial undercurrent present in the show. There’s no quarter given for the Doctor’s treatment of Danny based around ethnicity, because in the world of Doctor Who colour is not an issue. Our hero can be rude to anyone in anyway. It’s all-inclusive rudeness, crossing all genders, sexualities and cultures. And yet… the visual is bad. It’s similarly bad that the kids we see playing truant are black and that the Doctor asks “disruptive influence” Courtney, “Haven’t you got shoplifting to go to?” The only child we do encounter who is revealed to be academically gifted – although her handwriting could be better – is Angelina, and she’s white. The person whom the Doctor assumes is Clara’s boyfriend (because it couldn’t be Danny), and approves of, is also white.
I tell myself: No, he’s calling Danny ‘PE’ because of the soldier thing (which is a bit iffy, and insulting for anyone in the forces or teaching physical education, but still), and next week Courtney’s going to become a companion for an episode which will be terrific and empowering. The depiction of Coal Hill as a multi-cultural school is great and actually it’s very witty to have the Twelfth feel warm about Adrian because he happens to look like his previous incarnation. I just hope everyone else watching was able to tell themselves the same.
Hacking my way through those misgivings, I can see that beyond there are some wonderful things happening for Danny Pink. Samuel Anderson continues to imbue him with humanity, and it’s a good writing decision to avoid the obvious route of his character seeing the Doctor as a romantic rival. Instead their dynamic is the distaste between a foot soldier and the officer class, which is new and exciting. We’re also privy to an emotional maturity in the depiction of Danny and Clara’s relationship. There’s something solidly lived-in about scenes with the couple watching telly together while also discussing where to go from here.
One of the glories about those adventures by Gareth Roberts where the Doctor temporarily sets up shop in our world is that there’s never ever any learning. Not for the Doctor, anyway. The Caretaker is absolutely not an exercise in humanising the Time Lord. He’s Teflon-coated when it comes to that sort of thing, bouncing on through to the end credits no wiser than before. It’s more about seeing how our world bends for him. How Danny is going to soldier on from this bombshell. And how (I hope) on the following Monday, kids all over Britain exhibited a new respect for the man in the fawn coloured coat who’s always doing something complicated with the school’s heating system and whose pockets are full of bits. He’s also the man who begrudgingly gets your ball back from the classroom roof, while, very possibly, setting up a secret, intricate plan to thwart an imminent alien invasion…