“The Caretaker” is only the fourth or fifth best Doctor Who story centred on a school… but given that three of the others are “Remembrance Of The Daleks”, “School Reunion” and "Human Nature", that’s no disgrace. Neither is it the best of Gareth Roberts’s trio of tales which place the Doctor in a very domestic setting: “The Lodger” is a bit of a modern classic, and had surprise on its side, so it remains, by a shade, the best of the three. Using the format a third time was a bit of a risk, but “The Caretaker” pulls it off, striking just the right balance between relationship drama, witty banter and extra-terrestrial peril.
The most intriguing thing about the episode is that it shows us yet another side of the Doctor: something you can only describe as bigotry. And no, that’s not a reference to the fact that the Doctor treated Rose’s boyfriend equally badly... (though come to think of it, that’s a tiny bit awkward, isn’t it?) The Doctor dismisses Danny Pink purely because he’s a soldier, as if he’s incapable of being anything other than a mindless killing machine (or, worse, a PE teacher).
Even though the revived series has repeatedly emphasised the Doctor’s disdain for the military mindset, this is still pretty shocking. Open-mindedness is one of the Doctor’s key credos: he doesn’t meet a strange-looking alien creature and automatically assume that it’s an evil monster, and he shouldn’t be judgemental about categories of people either. Has he forgotten about his decades-long friendship with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart? (Or, for that matter, the quiet courage of Father Octavian in “Flesh And Stone”?)
In the end, Danny hands the Doctor a get out of jail card, spinning his undisguised contempt as a kind of paternal concern for Clara’s welfare, but his behaviour is still pretty reprehensible. Not for the first time this series, the writers are pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptably “Doctorish”, and while it makes for dramatically interesting television, it also makes you feel uneasy. Pull out enough bricks from the stack that make up the Doctor’s character and couldn’t the whole edifice come toppling down?
The other notable thing about the episode is how funny it is. There are some cracking one-liners, and many of them are accentuated by the brilliance of Jenna Colman’s performance, who spits them out like a veteran of screwball comedy. This should be Capaldi’s season, but so far it belongs just as much to his co-star. She doesn’t even need good dialogue: the “I’m watching you, sunshine” looks she shoots the Doctor as he shoos her out of the TARDIS early on are equally hilarious. It's frustrating to think back to her year as “the Impossible Girl”, when Colman was lumbered with playing an enigma, never really fleshed out as a character. Now she’s being given better material, she’s batting it out of the park.
The Red TARDIS
The fact that the red doors to the Caretaker’s office resemble a Police Box is a neat touch. This works particularly well when the story cuts from Clara and Danny walking through the doors directly to them walking into the TARDIS interior.
Coal Hill's Motto
“A Spirit Of Adventure” is a nod to a line of Doctor dialogue from 1964’s “The Sensorites”. Looking back on his adventures, he says to companion Ian, “It all started out as a mild curiosity in a junkyard, and now it's turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure, don't you think?” This makes perfect sense, given that (according to a sign seen in “The Day Of The Doctor”) Ian is the Chairman of the governors at Coal Hill.
Wee Vee Adds To TV CV
The Skovox Blitzer was operated by a Doctor Who veteran: Scottish actor Jimmy Vee, previously the Moxx of Balhoon, the Space Pig, the Graske and Bannakaffalatta. Until regular monster-man Paul Kasey gets another gig, we reckon that makes him the actor with the widest timespan of new series appearances.
The Skovox Blitzer’s weaponry makes a hell of a racket. But noone seems to notice when it shoots up a school – twice! Or when it shoots up an abandoned building. And wouldn’t someone go looking for that dead policeman after he failed to return to the station?
Doctor Who airs on BBC One in the UK on Saturday nights and BBC America in the US on Saturday nights.