I like being taken by surprise and especially love being surprised by my favourite TV programme. I didn’t have great expectations for The Caretaker. Its writer, Gareth Roberts, had told me at the BFI press launch that this was going to be another of his “down-to-earth” adventures – I supposed in the same vein as The Lodger and Closing Time, his comedic Buddy Whos with Matt Smith and James Corden. The dismal Next Time trailer after Time Heist seemed to promise Waterloo Road meets The Sarah Jane Adventures (on a slack day) with a crummy robot. I should have had more faith.
Yes, The Caretaker doesn’t offer the scale and spectacle of the earlier Capaldi episodes, but it tells its comparatively simple tale with huge heart and gentle wit. That’s Gareth Roberts all over. The Caretaker made me chuckle (often), left me with a warm glow and is, on balance, the episode I’ve enjoyed most so far this series.
The script is credited to both Gareth and Steven Moffat. I wonder how this works. Obviously they don’t sit side by side elbowing each other over a sticky keyboard. I assume Steven has the idea, Gareth furnishes the narrative, then draft scripts go back and forth until the Moff gives it a final lacquer. But The Caretaker sings with Gareth’s lightness of touch and bonhomie.
In a straightforward plot, the Doctor has a secret mission, which is gradually revealed to Clara, the viewer and, only later, to Danny. The threat of the marauding robot is less important than the focus on the three leads. This is the first proper meeting, as adults, of the Doctor, Clara and Danny. The script outlines, then warmly colours in, their characters, their strengths and failings. I believe in all of them.
Clara struggles to balance and separate the three strands of her life: her Tardis adventures, her affair with Danny and work at Coal Hill School. Here at last all three collide. Jenna Coleman rises to the challenge with vitality and humour and shows how the Impossible Girl has become the most plausible companion in a long time.
Peter Capaldi broadens his portrayal too, which should appease those worrying that his Doctor was one-note: dour. There are flashes of warmth. He’s still condescending, impatient, downright rude, but also inventive, shrewd and eccentric. Like Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, he enjoys dressing up and is gadget-obsessed (“chronodyne generators”), eventually donning a bonkers backpack like a Ghostbuster. He is, in short, very funny. In his supposed “deep cover” as school caretaker John Smith, the 12th Doctor is, surprisingly, much more fun than David Tennant’s Doctor was when he posed as teachers in School Reunion or Human Nature/The Family of Blood.
This caretaker-Doctor is actually taking care of the Earth once again, rectifying a problem he’s caused. The Skovox Blitzer (a deadly robot but another kind of caretaker) is responding to high levels of “artron emissions” at Coal Hill School. It goes unexplained, but the Doctor’s own presence caused these emissions in An Unearthly Child (1963), Remembrance of the Daleks (1988) and in more recent times with Clara.
Despite his rudeness, the Doctor is also taking care of Clara. His antipathy to Danny isn’t triggered by jealousy. Like a proud parent, he glows in the mistaken belief that she’s chosen a suitor much like his younger self – the Matt-alike teacher, Adrian (awkward, geeky, bowtie). In the flurry of scrapes before the title sequence the Doctor asserted, “I hate soldiers!” so he’s aghast to learn that her boyfriend is an ex-squaddie, the “PE teacher”. “You’ve explained me to him. You haven’t explained him to me,” he scolds like a paternalistic Victorian.
The third caretaker of the piece is Danny. He helps save the world and shows how much he cares about Clara. “I could never stand not being able to help you.” He regards the Time Lord as an officer to his foot soldier and warns Clara: “I’m the one who carries you out of the fire. He’s the one who lights it.” Normally tongue-tied, Danny is suddenly articulate; a complex, believable man imbued with easy charm by Samuel Anderson.
Just as Clara asks Danny, repeatedly, what he’s thinking, he demands the truth from her. And, for the first time in our hearing, she’s forced to express her feelings for the Doctor and explain why she travels with him: “Because it’s amazing. Because I see wonders.” Clara’s failure, for once, to be articulate underscores the inexpressible allure and magic of the programme – and it’s peculiarly heart-warming.
The Tardis rarely warrants a mention in a review but director Paul Murphy ensures it looks fabulous here. The police box glows enticingly in the workshop and looms magnificently on the school stage; high-angle wide-shots of the control room confirm this as the most impressive design since they dispensed with the avant-garde “white” circles from the 1960s. We see the Tardis through the eyes of Danny (who senses the danger it holds for Clara) and through Courtney’s.
Stroppy schoolgirls quickly become annoying, but the Doctor spots a kindred spirit in this “disruptive influence”. “Good to meet you,” he says. “Now get lost.” And later: “I may have a vacancy but not right now.” On her first trip into space, Courtney chunders in the control room and is clearly unsuitable companion material – but she’ll play a key role next week.
Most importantly, Doctor Who’s current caretakers Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi have restored the Doctor to the man he once was. The man he should be. Not Time Totty. Not slack-jawed boyfriend material. He’s the grumpy “Space Dad” of my childhood. Caretaker of the cosmos.