The latest installment of the BBC’s Doctor Who is a pretty typical episode. There are actually several types of “typical” episodes in the long-running franchise, and this week’s entry, “The Caretaker,” is the one in which The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) inserts himself into his companion’s life to find out something about her or push her to do something, while also defeating a malevolent alien that coincidentally happens to be in the area. This happens approximately once per companion, so the story in “The Caretaker,” while feeling very familiar, probably won’t be repeated again for awhile.
The benefit of an episode in this mold is two-fold. One, we get to learn a bit more about the current companion, who is much more often seen flitting around the universe or through time with The Doctor, away from the main component of their life. And two, it puts The Doctor secondary in a situation, the rare instance where he is less familiar and comfortable with what’s going on around him than the companion is. Thus, “The Caretaker” and its ilk feel different from other Doctor Who episodes, even if this standard has been repeated many times.
Looking at “The Caretaker” specifically, The Doctor infiltrates Clara’s (Jenna Coleman) school by posing as the substitute caretaker (or custodian, for you American viewers). His stated intention is to stop a killer robot that may have already claimed at least one life, but he also wants to learn who Clara is dating and feel out the guy to see if he’s good enough for her. As one might expect, neither goes quite according to plan, but at the end of the day, all is pretty much right with the world.
We know The Doctor doesn’t approve of soldiers, and since Clara’s beau, Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), was formerly a solider, he’s not someone The Doctor wants to see Clara with, or even expects her to go for. The Doctor can be somewhat forgiven, then, for assuming a bookish boy who loves literature is Clara’s dating partner, while dismissing Danny as a physical education ape, going by first impressions and prejudices. These impressions are mistaken, but there they are, and at least’s they’re humorous.
What’s interesting in “The Caretaker” is that The Doctor’s judgments on Clara’s man are as much about himself as they are about Danny. The Doctor sees himself as a studious observer of life primarily, not a fighter or defender at his core, though he may be called upon to do those things. He sees himself as that bookish type, identifying with the other teacher, and thinking Clara will go for someone like him. The truth is, Clara is attracted to many qualities of The Doctor, but she sees through him to the hardened soldier he is, not just the surface persona he tries to project. The Doctor despises this part of himself, hoping Clara won’t notice it, and so rejects Danny as he rejects the parts of his own personality he doesn’t approve of.
Danny sees this right away, more quickly than either Clara or The Doctor. He recognizes a kindred spirit in The Doctor, and also the loathing The Doctor has for himself. Danny doesn’t like the way The Doctor handles himself, but is willing to put up with The Doctor because Danny truly does care for Clara, and he feels she needs protecting in the Doctor’s presence. Danny may just be right.
The Doctor doesn’t intentionally harm others (Dalek War, aside), but his actions do sometimes have dire consequences. Just ask some of his past companions who didn’t make it home. Or those departed souls that are now with Missy (Michelle Gomez), whom we glimpse again in this episode, still without a clue as to her purpose. The Doctor has grown especially cold and callous as of late, and while he places more value on Clara than he does on most people, he could do something stupid, such as luring a dangerous robot into her school, that could end in pain and suffering. His presence also risks her job, distracting her and making trouble that she must deal with, which he doesn’t seem to care about. The Doctor isn’t cruel, but he can be careless.
Contrary to The Doctor’s wishes, this adventure actually brings Clara and Danny closer together. They can finally be honest with each other, and start to build a real relationship based on truth and trust. It is worrying that Danny sees Clara’s secret-keeping as selfish (she’s not the first companion to be so), and he may have a point; he’s turning out to be quite the perceptive individual. But they end up on the couch together, and things certainly look cozy between them for now. Plus, there’s that descendant we meet in an earlier episode that certainly implies Clara and Danny will have offspring together.
Besides Danny, another recurring character is introduced to The Doctor this week. He takes one of Clara’s students, mouthy Courtney Woods (Ellis George), up into space. Again, this shows The Doctor’s lack of consideration, as revealing himself to a student and allowing her to leave Earth, presumably without parental permission, isn’t a good thing. What if something happened to her? I do hope Courtney gets a quick memory wipe, though, and her subplot ends here, not because I don’t like her, but because I feel like her presence on the TARDIS could seriously complicate things for Clara and/or Danny, who are supposed to be responsible for her well-being, at least during part of the day. She makes a good comic relief bit part; I don’t see her as a traveling companion.
I enjoyed “The Caretaker” because it has some very interesting character revelations, even if the story isn’t particularly original. It serves as a season-filler better than most recent installments, and while it continues the trend of Doctor Who not quite meeting expectations this season, it isn’t half bad.
Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00NI2CGFO][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00IT3KQWM][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00DYAE2IY]