Doctor Who may have reached the mid-point of season eight with The Caretaker, but there was very little to get excited about in an episode that served to gently reintroduce some of the bigger plotlines (Clara’s trust issues re-emerge and we finally return to the Promised Land) without offering any of the thrill and sparkle one would expect from the sci-fi favourite.
Despite the shift to a later time-slot as of this week, this is by far the most child-friendly episode this season. It finds the Doctor returning to his old haunt of Coal Hill School under the unconvincing guise as the new caretaker as he tries to prevent yet another robotic threat against the Earth in the form of the Skovok Blitzer.
Co-writer Gareth Roberts has often polarised opinion with his previous five episodes due to his tendency to eschew the traditional whiz-bang sci-fi action in favour of character motivated stories. And that is all well and good when it works – the James Corden-starring The Lodger and Closing Time have a certain warm-hearted charm – but sadly things don’t gel quite as nicely here resulting in a rather bland adventure.
What’s really missing is the presence of a compelling and fearsome antagonist. The Skovok Blitzer is never able to build upon its menacing introduction, creeping out of the shadows to roast an unfortunate PC, because it is forced to play second fiddle to the Doctor, Clara and Danny’s tumultuous love triangle. As a villain it comes across as dated and ultimately harmless, and without this threat there’s simply no urgency or momentum to carry the plot forward.
The episode also struggles to find the humour in its situation. The writers aim to draw laughs from Clara’s frenzied attempts to explain her sudden absences to Danny and from Capaldi’s flailing attempts to appear normal: “The name’s John Smith… but people always call me the Doctor.”
While seeing Capaldi’s misanthropic Time Lord grumble through his encounters with humans is at first funny, it quickly becomes a one-note joke and you can never quite escape the feeling that Capaldi is much more comfortable during the dramatic scenes that makes better use of his powerfully fierce persona.
The Caretaker is not without its good moments, though. This mostly stems from the tempestuous dynamic between the Doctor and Danny Pink. The two men in Clara’s life finally meet this week and take an instant dislike to each other – the Doctor dismissing the former soldier as a PE teacher; Danny viewing the Doctor as a flat-track bully like his former officers.
Initially, this comes across as the bickering of two prospective suitors, but the writers smartly flesh it out to reveal the paternalistic side to the Doctor and Clara’s relationship. Capaldi can’t hide his pride when Clara seeks his approval on her new boyfriend and it becomes increasingly clear that he wants to protect his companion and see that she is happy – just as long as it’s not with a soldier.
This also affords Samuel Anderson the time to show a greater range to his character than we’ve previously seen. He gets his big heroic moment towards the end and clearly revels in the fiery confrontations with Capaldi, but the most touching moment is the look of genuine heart-break and betrayal Danny gives when he discovers the truth behind Clara’s mysterious absences. Yet more proof that Danny could eventually become an excellent companion.
Impressive performances aside, The Caretaker is a largely disappointing episode that labours through its plot with little in the way of pay-off. It’s telling that the highlight of the episode came at the end when we return to the Nethersphere to meet a mysterious Chris Addison and his boss Missy as they prepare to meet the Doctor – a faint glimmer of hope, then, that there are more exciting stories to come in a season that is currently on the wane.
Next week on Doctor Who… the Earth is once again under threat when the Doctor and Clara crash-land on the lunar surface and face a terrible dilemma that affects the rest of humanity. With a mining base full of corpses and deadly spider-like creatures spitting venom, Kill The Moon looks to be a return to the frightening storytelling at which Capaldi’s incarnation excels.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: The Caretaker on BBC iPlayer