There’s been a touch of schizophrenia about Doctor Who so far this series, and if we hadn’t been aware going in, then the pre-titles sequence of The Caretaker ought to have alerted us to the fact that these two distinct personalities were about to meet. I’m talking, of course, about the science fiction series in which the Impossible Girl helps her near-immortal alien friend defeat menace and injustice in whatever far corner of the universe it resides, and the unfolding domestic drama in which the nice girl from Blackpool falls head-over-heels for the maths teacher who once took up arms in the name of his country. These two discrete stories have been running in parallel so far this year with the kind of dexterity only Steven Moffat’s series is capable of, and the first two minutes of tonight’s episode took the notion that they were two entirely distinct entities to an extreme and wrung it for all the comic potential it could supply – and then left it for dead.
For the big question is: when Doctor Who meets Coal Hill, when the Doctor meets Danny Pink, will the series as we know it survive? And will the resulting story manage to be as witty and as nimble as the five episodes of preamble we’ve had leading up to it?
Fortunately, the answer to the latter of these two questions is resoundingly yes. And because of that, the answer to the former is a resounding yes too – because often it’s when Doctor Who isn’t trying to be Doctor Who that it’s at its most inspired and successful.
The main thrust of the story here (and we can pretty much ignore the plot about the Scovox Blitzer, which existed only to provide an excuse to bring everyone together) is for Gareth Roberts to finally go all the way with the story he’s been repeating since The Lodger; if it’s a fish-out-of-water story you want to tell, then you’re only going to beg comparison with School Reunion anyway, so why not go like for like and set your latest Doctor-goes-undercover story in a school? And not just any school (although sadly I don’t notice any references to the Chairman of the Board of Governors), but the school at which this all began: Coal Hill. It’s an audacious undertaking, but Roberts and co-writer Steven Moffat are more than up to the task.
The real assessment of how The Caretaker would work comes in the moment Coal Hill’s new caretaker is introduced to the staffroom. In a scene that might have repeated the beats of School Reunion’s most famous moment but without any of the attendant sentiment, Roberts and Moffat could easily have flunked the test. Instead, they manage to banish any thoughts of reckless repetition by imbuing the sequence with some proper comedy and genuine tension, broken by Peter Capaldi’s hugely endearing wink. It’s the kind of scene that arrives with inbuilt apprehension, and leaves you grinning from ear to ear.
Thankfully thoughts of the overly curmudgeonly Doctor of Robot of Sherwood, always a risk in an ostensibly more comedy-orientated episode, are forgotten almost immediately, the character we see here managing to complete the task of turning his previous grumpiness into a uniquely begrudging charm. The snipes about Clara’s appearance somehow manage to stay fresh, even as they proliferate; it must be Capaldi’s performance that is creating this alchemy. And in spite of the hoops the story sends the Doctor through, whether it be his offhandedly humorous caretaker, his infelicitations around Clara or the more sombre side that comes to the fore in the showdowns with Danny Pink, Roberts and Moffat – and Capaldi – manage to make each of them feel like a natural part of the same person. It’s some feat, and one that means you can’t take your eyes off him for fear of missing his next unpredictability.
Samuel Anderson must have baulked at the character description for Danny Pink when he first read it – “tough yet vulnerable” isn’t the most stimulating of motivations – but the character is written with a lightness a touch and with little of the wisecracking indelicacy of some recent companions, he feels a lot more real even before he’s been inhabited by the actor. And Anderson brings something extra to the role, taking Pink off the page and onto the screen with a genuine plausibility, making his every misgiving and conviction feel absolutely real.
The last five years of Doctor Who have foregrounded child characters in a way the series has never attempted before, and The Caretaker had the potential to flounder in this in the way that Nightmare in Silver did last year. But Ellis George gives an ardent and memorable performance as Courtney Woods, discreetly contrasting with Clara in a clever piece of writing that emphasises the current companion’s strengths without undermining the Doctor or either of the two girls. When we see that it’s Courtney the Doctor has taken with him to dispose of the Scovox Blitzer at the end of the story, initially the scene appears to exist in order to surprise the audience that it’s not Clara in the TARDIS and provide a chuckle at Courtney’s expense, but the scene also serves to underline Clara’s value to the Doctor – and it highlights the division that the arrival of Danny Pink has caused between the two of them, by allowing the Doctor to make the choice of taking Courtney with him in the first place.
And this is, once again, Jenna Coleman’s episode. In spite of the richness and the pyrotechnics in the performances of the two male leads, the crux of The Caretaker is in how the collision between the two powerful but distinct influences on Clara will impact upon her, and Coleman – in spite of already impressing beyond all expectation so far this series – gives her absolute best in this episode. Without ever once upstaging Capaldi or Anderson, instead she quietly steals every scene as we follow her progress through the chaos of confrontation that envelops her. There are moments on the screen, whether by deliberate directorial choice or not, when she bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Elisabeth Sladen (the actress her character was named for), and Coleman too manages to be funny and vulnerable and determined and real, often all in the same moment – and, crucially, without upsetting the balance between the characters around her. She’s sensational. They all are.
That The Caretaker can exist within the same series as produced Into the Dalek and Listen is cause enough for celebration in itself, that it can feel so of a piece with them – something that, despite it being so entertaining, Robot of Sherwood failed to manage – is a minor miracle; it might have been as big a fish out of water as the Doctor was. Gareth Roberts has this knack of writing something completely different and yet that fits perfectly, and that while it might threaten to undermine the Doctor, ends up reinforcing him. He’s achieving a synergy with Steven Moffat’s version of Doctor Who that he never quite reached with Moffat’s predecessor, and by being a team endeavour, The Caretaker effortlessly succeeds in being Roberts’ finest Doctor Who work yet. It is a thoroughly enjoyable episode from start to finish, and also one that forms a crucial intersection in Series 8 – and neither achievement is accomplished at the expense of the other.
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