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Written by Gareth Roberts & Steven Moffat
Directed by Paul Murphy.
BBC1. 8.30pm. 27.09.14.
The Doctor undercover as ‘John Smith’ in a London school, funny goings-on after hours, a deadly alien threat and an explosive climax in which the school gets blown up… If this sounds familiar it’s because we’ve been here before, in the Series 2 episode ‘School Reunion’. That episode, of course, was a vehicle for the reintroduction of a classic series companion, Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith, who would then get her own spin-off series with The Sarah Jane Adventures. The SF stuff, a race of time-travelling scavengers called the Krillitane, were secondary to the emotional drama focusing on the relationship between the Tenth Doctor and his present and former companions. Similarly, here, the alien threat, a sort of super warrior-robot known as the Skovox Blitzer, which has been reactivated after laying dormant, is secondary to the real purpose of the episode: Clara’s boyfriend Danny Pink discovering that his girlfriend is not just an English teacher but travels in time and space. Danny gets to meet the Doctor – and we know the Doctor doesn’t like soldiers…
It has been suggested that Steven Moffat is more interested in the characters he has created for Doctor Who than in the character of the Doctor himself. On the whole I don’t think this is really a fair criticism. Rather, Moffat has developed a theme already evident in the Russell T. Davies period to anchor the science fiction/fantasy adventure in some sort of reality through the character of the companion. It’s been refreshing to see the Doctor’s companions have their own social lives, and a recurring motif of this series so far has been the little vignettes of Clara balancing her developing romance with her extra-curricular, extra-terrestrial activities. This episode opens with a snappy montage sequence of Clara’s various dates with Danny intercut with moments of extreme jeopardy from otherwise unseen adventures with the Doctor. This being a Steven Moffat co-authored script, however, we never find out how the Doctor and Clara escape from the sand piranhas without the vibro-cutters.
The episode also served to reconfigure the relationship between the Doctor and the companion from potential romantic interest (suggested in last year’s Christmas episode ‘The Time of the Doctor’ where Clara introduced the Eleventh Doctor to her family as her boyfriend) to father-figure. Danny initially assumes that Clara is a “space person” and the Doctor is her “space dad”. The Doctor/companion romance – exemplified by the Tenth Doctor and Rose, and by Amy’s come-hither moment to the Eleventh Doctor at the end of ‘Time of Angels’/’Flesh and Stone’ – has been controversial in some quarters of Who fandom. At the risk of generalisation, my impression is that the Doctor/companion romance has been more acceptable to new and younger fans who have come to Doctor Who with the new series, whereas older and classic series fans have been more resistant. But now it seems that, occasioned by the casting of Peter Capaldi, Moffat is returning the Doctor/companion dynamic to something closer to the classic series. It will be interesting to see, perhaps at the end of this series, how the Doctor will react when Clara decides to leave behind her life of adventures in time and space to settle down with Danny. One of my favourite moments of classic Doctor Who is the bittersweet ending of ‘The Green Death’ where Jo Grant announces her engagement to Professor Jones, telling the Doctor he reminds her of “a sort of younger you”, and the Third Doctor rides off into the sunset in his trusty roadster.
If ‘The Caretaker’ is my least favourite episode of the series so far, this is due not to any particular weakness in the story and execution per se than to the fact that all the preceding episodes had set the bar very high indeed. This seemed more like a mid-season filler – which in a sense it was. The deadly alien threat was distinctly third division: the Skovox Blitzer was too reminiscent of the light-flashing box of tricks Arcturus from ‘The Curse of Peladon’ to be very frightening. Perhaps they should have brought back the Raston Warrior Robot of ‘The Five Doctors’ instead? Nevertheless there were many incident pleasures, not least of which the Doctor, in his guise of a grumpy school caretaker, subtly siding with the ‘disruptive’ pupils by whistling Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’.
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History, second edition, I. B.Tauris, 2013.