Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Best So Far: “The Caretaker” Balances Plot And Character Wonderfully For The New Doctor Who!

The Good: Great character moments, Decent performances, Good special effects
The Bad: Somewhat simplistic plot
The Basics: “The Caretaker” finally blends the talents Peter Capaldi brings to his incarnation of The Doctor with a story that allows him and the supplemental characters to truly grow and develop!

On the surface, “The Caretaker” seems to be in danger of treading where Doctor Who has gone (recently) before. Doctor Who fans seem to give a free pass to the writers when they recycle elements from prior episodes which, to be fair, has to be a real hurdle for fans who have been watching the show for fifty years. There is only so much new stuff the writers can come up with. However, in the case of “The Caretaker,” writers Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat tread very close to episodes they have already done since Doctor Who returned to the air in 2005. Steven Moffat takes a page from Toby Whithouse (who wrote “School Reunion”) and Paul Cornell (writer of “Human Nature”) by placing the new regeneration of The Doctor on Earth as John Smith where he has the chance to interact with his companion, Clara.

“The Caretaker” affords The Doctor the chance to interact directly with Clara’s boyfriend, Danny Pink as well. Smartly, the episode does not neglect the recent interactions with Pink’s descendant in “Listen” (reviewed here!), though fans who watched that episode to get the most out of “The Caretaker” will also be left minorly underwhelmed by the heroics of Danny Pink in the newer episode. In “Listen,” Orson Pink refers to being a time-traveler as a “family tradition.” The implication within the episode was that Clara and Danny not only hook up and start a family, but that they have time travel adventures together. As a result, attentive viewers have a pretty strong reason to believe that no harm can come to Danny Pink (at least, not for quite some time!). That guts a bit of the suspense from “The Caretaker.”

That said, “The Caretaker” is the best-yet episode since Peter Capaldi took over as The Doctor.

Opening with The Doctor and Clara on a desert planet, chained up and waiting to die, the dizzying life of Clara Oswald is exposed. Clara is trying to balance daily adventures with The Doctor that take her to the outer limits of time and space against mundane days at Coal Hill school and evenings with Danny Pink, who observes the extreme variations in how Clara appears between the times they see one another (getting a sudden deep tan, appearing wet and with seaweed in her hair for a date, etc.). But then, a day comes where The Doctor does not want Clara’s help with anything and he insists she leave. Suspicious, Clara does not have to wait long until she sees The Doctor again . . . as he arrives at Coal Hill under the alias John Smith working as the new groundskeeper for the school.

The Doctor is at the school to draw out and thwart the alien robot, the Skovox Blitzer. The simplistic, weaponized alien is prepared to hunt and kill anything it finds, though the Doctor is developing a plan to deal with it. The Doctor’s focus, however, is a bit divided because he believes that Clara is romantically attached to a fellow teacher who vaguely resembles his previous incarnation. Soon, though, Clara sets the record straight and The Doctor is butting heads with Danny Pink because he was once a soldier. Pink, however, does not simply lay down and take the crap the Doctor shovels his way and when he starts investigating The Doctor, he inadvertently influences the Time Lord’s attempt to send the Skovox Blitzer a billion years into the future, where it will be harmless.

“The Caretaker” is a wonderful episode that develops the entire recurring cast of Doctor Who. The Doctor has been crabby and disoriented and while he is compelling in a way that has not been seen since the first new season of the continued Doctor Who (reviewed here!), there has been a danger that the show was moving toward retreading that character. “The Caretaker” makes Peter Capaldi’s Doctor as insulting as Eccleston’s Doctor, but he starts to truly define himself in this episode. Eccleston’s Doctor was a wanderer, Capaldi’s Doctor is a helper and he explicitly references in “The Caretaker” how he is muddling through the universe trying to help people and save the world, with Clara whenever possible.

Clara, unfortunately, continues her character’s backward development in “The Caretaker.” While Clara has withheld information before and certainly lied by omission in “Listen,” in “The Caretaker” she repeatedly makes overt, direct lies to The Doctor, usually about her relationship with Danny Pink. Smartly both The Doctor and Danny Pink call Clara on her sudden dishonesty (albeit more the specific lies as opposed to the overarching trend). Clara develops in “The Caretaker” mostly by making a choice to let Danny Pink in fully and share both halves of her life with him.

Danny Pink develops nicely in “The Caretaker.” While The Doctor starts to treat him just as Eccleston’s Doctor treated Mickey, Pink is an adult who does not stand to be treated so shabbily. In a delightful scene, Pink calls The Doctor out on his aristocratic nature and starts to treat him like a general, mocking him by presenting himself as a hyperbole of a soldier. Pink is more than just a former soldier and while The Doctor refers to him as a “P.E. teacher,” he is quick to correct the Doctor with the truth: he is a math teacher. That level of detail, the resistance to being steamrolled by The Doctor sets him apart from several of the male Companions or male friends/spouses of prior female Companions. While “The Caretaker” might simply be continuing the past trend that has whomever the Doctor’s Companion is dating slowly brought into the fold, Danny Pink might well be the first boyfriend/spouse who is a strong enough character that we want to see him more and see how he might react to The Doctor and his adventures.

On the plot front, “The Caretaker” is a little predictable. The Doctor disdains soldiers, so the obvious solution to the problem of the walking doomsday machine in the Doctor Who Universe is anything but a military solution. The episode progresses as one might expect; the Doctor does not quite fit in on the Earth setting, but “The Caretaker” is clever enough to not focus on that. Instead, the episode truly is about exploring a new dynamic where The Doctor has to accept that Danny Pink is a legitimate part of Clara’s life.

That makes for a character-centered episode that allow Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson to truly stretch their abilities as performers and toy with a new sense of chemistry. And it works, making for an episode that may well be the first one of the new season I was excited to rewatch!

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Eighth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor here!


For other movie and television reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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