Airdate: September 27, 2014
Written by: Gareth Roberts & Steven Moffat
Directed by: Paul Murphy
The Story So Far: It’s An Unearthly Child, remade as a French bedroom farce rather than theatrical drama.
The four words I’d use most to describe The Caretaker are: “Exhausting. In a good way.” The actual plot is slight, deliberately so, but the character moments and the dialogue fly by so fast and furiously that I felt kind of drained by the time it was all over. Drained, but also ready to watch it again, to catch everything that I knew I missed the first time.
1. The Highest Science
Like so many other Doctor Who scriptwriters today, Gareth Roberts got his professional start in the spin-off books; his first novel, The Highest Science, was written before he turned 25, and published as part of the New Adventures range in early 1993. It’s an interesting book, and basically sets for the format for the six Who TV episodes he’s written or co-written since the New Series debuted. It’s “about” a race of militaristic alien turtles called (of course) the Chelonians, but it also contains elements of broad social satire, and, in spite of the light tone maintained for most of the book, there’s an awful lot of violence and a surprisingly grim ending.
As you read the book, much of it will seem familiar to you; the “Bubble Shake” subplot was recycled for Invasion of the Bane, the first episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures; the rest of it served as the seed story for what eventually became Planet of the Dead, the first of the David Tennant “Specials” season in 2009 (bridging the gap between Journey’s End and The End of Time). In other words, for a somewhat uneven first novel, it’s had an outsized influence on modern-day Doctor Who.
2. Guns versus frocks
After The Highest Science, Roberts continued to write for the New and then Missing Adventures, finding his greatest success in a trio of Season 17 novels featuring the Doctor, Romana (Lalla Ward version) and K-9 (Mark II). Later on, he brought those same skills to bear in writing the official novelization of Shada, the unfinished Douglas Adams Season 17 story (from which Adams himself had already borrowed heavily when writing the Dirk Gently books). But Roberts’ biggest contribution to 1990s-era Doctor Who, beyond his books, was inventing the distinction between “frock” and “gun” stories.
In the world of online fandom in the mid-1990s, because the Classic Series was off the air and Big Finish was still years and years away, the only new Doctor Who output up for debate was the New Adventures. So, the frock vs. gun model, which Roberts was the first to describe, became a very significant debate for fans, who endlessly debated the issue on rec.arts.drwho. What was more important in the books: “frock” moments (character moments, humor, emotion, drama), or “gun” moments (violence, non-stop action, and, well, guns)?
That distinction has been mostly forgotten today, having been subsumed into (and later conflated with) the “rad” vs. “trad” debate, in which “rad” was shorthand for “good” and “trad” was shorthand for “terrible”. (Philip Sandifer, for example, slotted The Highest Science into the rad v. trad framework, but then thankfully blew that framework up as a distinction that misses the point).
But one key to “understanding” The Caretaker, is that Roberts isn’t setting out to write a gritty, cynical, hard-charging action adventure story. Yes, there’s a universe-destroying monster and one particularly violent death, but they’re not the point of the episode; they’re merely there as grist for the characters to react and adjust to. Back on rec.arts.drwho, we would have called this story a “gun-toting frock.”
3. “Fish people. Fish. And people. Come and see”
“Of course we won’t starve. The sand piranhas will get us long before that.”
The cold open to The Caretaker is really about as good as a cold open gets. A number of archetypal Who scenarios are introduced rapidly, and played for fun; the Doctor and Clara chained to posts in a the desert of a planet with twin suns; Clara drenched in brine after a visit to see the Fish People, with seaweed dripping from her hair; and the Doctor and Clara running down a metallic corridor pursued by unseen soldiers firing very Star Wars-y blaster bolts. In between each scene, Clara’s out-of-breath on dates with Danny Pink, lamely trying to explain why she’s so sunburned, or why she has seaweed in her hair.
And, I should point out, all of this happens in about 90 seconds, with a nifty visual transition connecting each mini-adventure. Paul Murphy’s direction just takes off and flies. This sequence is funny and can be watched just about endlessly; it’s very frock.
4. “Human beings are not otters!”
Picking up on a line from Remembrance of the Daleks, the Doctor is back at Coal Hill School, this time hired on as caretaker (or janitor, or porter, here in the States) rather than merely being mistaken for an applicant. His disguise consists solely of a castoff David Tennant-style overcoat, and a decidedly non-sonic broom. His mere presence in the school is enough to send Clara into fits, as she verbally assails with him questions; he deflects every one with what can only be described as genial smirks and non-responsive answers. This culminates in the following iconic exchange:
Clara: I hate you!
The Doctor: That’s fine, that’s a perfectly normal reaction!
[And, in case you hadn’t missed that Steven Moffat co-wrote the episode, there’s another “Silence” poster in the Coal Hill staff lounge. We saw one of those back in Let’s Kill Hitler, which you probably forgot it as soon as you turned your head.]
Much of the first half of the episode is taken up with the Doctor having a ball as an out-of-place caretaker, with Clara quite obviously losing her grip on her job with him around. In another funny bit where the dialogue goes by nearly too rapidly for human comprehension, the Doctor pokes his head into Clara’s English classroom (from a ladder) and starts fact-checking her lecture on Pride and Prejudice, dropping a David Tennant-like hint that he’s met Jane Austen. Clara starts ranting about the Doctor and Austen being “bezzie mates” and meeting Buddy Holly… this is interesting in retrospect, as Matt Smith was recently announced to be in the upcoming film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
5. Totter’s Yard
Doctor Who began in 1963 in a junkyard at 76 Totter’s Lane; a policeman on the beat ushered us inside. We came back there in 1985’s Attack of the Cybermen, and then again in Remembrance of the Daleks and The Day of the Doctor. Here, we again follow a police officer to the gates of — what is never said to be, but which clearly is — Totter’s Yard; he goes inside, right past the spot where the TARDIS was originally discovered (there’s now what appears to be a shrink-wrapped cabinet in its place)… and inside the building, where he’s quickly zapped by this week’s guest baddie …
6. The Scovox Blitzer
And here we come back to guns, and frocks, and gun-toting frocks. The Scovox Blitzer is the episode’s big red herring. As in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Zeppo”, The Caretaker is not about the big bad universe-destroying monster. Oh, the monster is there, played for laughs when, in other stories, it might be a tremendously menacing beast. It’s certainly scary enough when it zaps the arm off that poor policeman (of whom we haven’t seen the last). But really, the poor robot monster is just there to serve as a catalyst for humorous and occasionally touching character moments. You’re not supposed to be afraid of the Scovox Blitzer.
And why is the Scovox Blitzer stalking Totter’s Yard? “Probably homed in here because of artron emissions. You’ve had enough of them in this area over the years,” the Doctor tells Clara. In case you missed it, artron energy was first established in 1982’s Four To Doomsday as the TARDIS’ time-traveling energy signature. When the Doctor enters the yard in search of the Blitzer, he murmurs “Home, sweet home.” No doubt, Scovox is there because it’s been zeroing in on the TARDIS.
The 12th Doctor, characteristically, never apologizes for defeating the universe-destroying menace that’s there solely because of him.
[Unless you subscribe to the theory set forth by Lawrence Miles’ in the 1999 Eighth Doctor Adventure Interference, in which Totter’s Yard was itself a TARDIS owned by a Time Lord named I.M. Foreman.]
Coal Hill School seems to have a staff of four speaking roles, including Clara, Danny, the headmaster, and now Adrian, a floppy-hair’d cutie who affects a bow tie. While the Doctor, even after a long conversation with Danny, doesn’t even make the slightest connection with Colonel Orson Pink, he does take a shine to who he thinks is Clara’s mystery boyfriend — Adrian, who the Doctor finds to be quite familiar. In fact, the Doctor’s never looked so happy.
Adrian is another English teacher, studying The Tempest, and has familiarly loopy speech patterns (“What we have to get across, I feel, is that fascinating enimga, of its… not finished-ness”). The Doctor figures that Clara’s dating a younger version of himself, and he positively glows with pride.
8. “I used to have a teacher exactly like you once.”
If we’re at Coal Hill School, attention must also be paid to Ian and Barbara, the two “silly old fusspots” who served as the first companions between 1963 and 1965. But, beyond them, pay attention as well to all that needling the Doctor aims at Danny, the former sergeant, about being a PE teacher rather than a maths teacher. Sound familiar?
During the 20th anniversary season, in 1983, a story called Mawdryn Undead was supposed to take the TARDIS to a British public school (what we’d here in the States call “private school”), where a familiar-looking maths teacher was recovering from a sort of nervous breakdown. That maths teacher would have been Ian Chesterton. But, when William Russell wasn’t available for filming, the role instead went to Nicholas Courtney, playing Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (for the first time in about eight years) as a maths teacher. Even the script remarked upon this as a bit of a stretch: “I know how many beans make five, Doctor.”
Perhaps the Doctor’s endless needling of Danny as a PE teacher (“No, I can’t retain that. I’ve tried. It’s just not going in.”) is meant to recall the Brig’s precarious situation as a maths teacher?
“Some military idiot will try to attack it. The world is full of PE teachers.”
9. The Disruptive Influence
We first meet Courtney Woods as one of several students hindering Clara’s pursuit of the Doctor; she taunts “Ozzie loves the Squaddie”. Courtney also is a bit of a tagger, evidently; the Doctor later finds that same phrase graffiti’d on a school window (causing him to quote Paul Lynde from Bye, Bye Birdie: “Kids! What’s the matter with kids today?!”… but don’t worry, he doesn’t sing).
Courtney then spends a bit of time in the Caretaker’s shed, clearly suspicious about what goes on inside the TARDIS. The Doctor doesn’t help, warning her away with a sign that reads “Go Away, Humans.” (“Never lose your temper in the middle of a door sign,” the Doctor reminds himself). She’s only there to fetch a roll of paper towels to clean up a little bit of “spillage”, but there’s wonderful chemistry to be had, as the two quickly recognize one another kindred spirits:
Courtney: I’m a disruptive influence.
The Doctor: Good to meet you. Now, get lost!
it’s quite clear where this is going: Courtney is going to be the next sassy Unearthly Child who winds up a passenger aboard the TARDIS.
10. “You said you were from Blackpool!”
Hilarity ensues when, all in the same single scene, Danny meets the Scovox Blitzer, finds out about the TARDIS, and briefly accuses Clara of being an alien, with the Doctor as her “space dad”. This is the Doctor Who equivalent of the French bedroom farce. It’s bonkers and only Gareth Roberts — who previously turned James Corden into the Matt Smith Doctor’s unlikely roommate — could have carried it off. This is also, of course, the moment where Clara decides to declare her love for Danny. Danny’s eventual response is the wonderfully profound: “You only really know what someone thinks of you, when you know what lies they’ve told you.”
11. Unhappy Endings
But the final few minutes then take a sharp turn from Gareth Roberts zany to Steven Moffat heavy. First, the Doctor tries to turn Courtney into a companion. There’s what is by now the establishing shot of the Doctor and companion-of-the-week framed in the open TARDIS doorway, the Doctor showing off an ineffably glorious vista of space. Courtney does not respond as expected; our sassy little disruptive influence, instead, runs off and pukes in the corner; the Doctor sighs about more “spillage”. Gareth Roberts originally intended a pun on Courtney’s emesis sounding like the “wheezing, groaning sound” (as the Target novelizations used to describe the TARDIS dematerialization noise), but, alas, that line got cut.
Based on this unfortunate reaction to space-time travel, one would think that Courtney was one-and-done as a TARDIS traveler; as I finished the episode, I wrongly assumed that we’d never see her again. However, she then shows up in the trailer for next week’s episode, so maybe her vomit will actually introduce a new story arc — in space.
After Courtney’s being ill, is a rather troubling scene between Danny and Clara as they try to process their experience with the Scovox Blitzer. Clara takes the audience perspective – she had a wonderful time and it was lots of fun. Danny, however, takes the Marvel Comics approach; he was disturbed, and didn’t quite like the dynamic that he saw between Clara and the Doctor; he makes noise about ending the relationship if Clara lies to him about the Doctor pushing her too hard. There are all sorts of parallels — in Danny’s mind, but pretty invisible to this viewer — about Danny being a solider and the Doctor being an officer, and officers are bad, etc. Hopefully developments will happen over the second half of Series 8 that will render all this material poignant rather than clunky and out-of-place.
12. Welcome to the Nethersphere… again
But we finish not on Courtney puking, or on Danny behaving like he’s in an indie art-house movie about lost love and not in a fast-and-furious madcap escape flick. Rather, we end on that policeman who met his demise in Totter’s Yard, being greeted by the afterlife’s receptionist. Missy makes only a silent appearance (“Sorry, she’s a bit, uh, busy today,” explains her underling).
We’ve now been to the promised land, or Heaven, or the Nethersphere, or whatever you’d like to call it (“There’s a range,” the receptionist says) three times in the first six episodes of this season. There’s no momentum or oomph to this story arc, so far. In fact, it’s not even an arc at all, as the term “arc” implies movement. This will change in time for the two-part season finale, of course, but, for now, all this Nethersphere material is a bit meaningless for me. It’s a mystery, yes, but it’s not exactly driving the season.
13. Next Time
It’s Alien on the Moon, with H.R. Giger-esque spiders. Looks properly scary and urgent, and thus a bit more The Impossible Planet than The Caretaker. All guns, no frocks. But, then again, everyone knows how misleading trailers can be …