28 September 2014

TV: The Caretaker

Those who know me outside of this site will know that Gareth Roberts is one of my favourite Doctor Who writers across its various media. In my opinion, he's able to tell a really enjoyable story in a concise way, with a twist of humour to seal the deal. He's a master of craft, and among his best works for me are A Groatsworth of Wit, Only Human and Closing Time. So it was with delight that I learned earlier this year that we were lucky enough to be getting another offering from Old Roberts. 

And what an episode this is. Despite the fact that many of the Roberts tics are there, the tone and pacing are again markedly different to his earlier episodes, continuing the vein of Series 8. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's a drastic change though; there were slower scenes in previous episodes (compare the Doctor's chat with Alfie in Closing Time to Danny and Clara's conversation at the window in The Caretaker). The subject matter wasn't especially unfamiliar either, but I'm happy to say that it seemed to me to be a new take on it.

I think this episode's title is an especially fitting one. Although the Doctor might be the caretaker of Coal Hill, there is an alternative take on this. A lot of this episode is concerned with Clara trying to cope with both men in her life - but which is the caretaker? Is her real life in Shoreditch, and she just goes off with the Doctor as a holiday? Or is the reverse true? That's what The Caretaker seemed to be trying to get at, for me. This is one of the joys of Roberts' episodes for me: it might seem 'frothy' (for want of a better word) on the surface, but there is usually a more complex subtext considering some intelligent issues.

I'll quickly address what was quite a small part of The Caretaker: the Skovox Blitzer. First of all, that's a great name (especially for a band, as a certain prolific member of the Who fan community might say). Roberts, along with Clayton Hickman, is one of the most celebrated contributors to The Sarah Jane Adventures, and this villain does feel reminiscent of one of their adventures - but then that could be said of the whole setup, and not necessarily as a criticism in either case. This robot was brilliant, I thought. Its scuttling fury and relentless weapons were great. However, it has to be said that this is the third episode in six with robot-like antagonists. 

The meat of this episode, like with Listen before it, was in the relationships between Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman and Sam Anderson. The difference between the two episodes is that in the former, Orson and Clara were taken into the Doctor's world, whereas here he's taken into hers and Danny's. Or rather he takes himself. I loved that he thought he'd go unrecognised if he changed his coat. It was one moment of many that really made me love this Doctor. I don't think he really believes this (after all, Clara's the only one there who knows him) but it's little touches like this that remind us he's absolutely the same man as before.

For all the instances that endeared me to this incarnation though, there were nearly as many that served to ruin it. I get the impression that Roberts may have started the PE teacher gag, but his co-writer may have extrapolated it throughout the episode. It was relatively amusing at first, but I don't understand the need to take it as far as it went other than to create more tension between the Doctor and Danny. I get that the Twelfth Doctor hates himself, and so that's reflected in his dislike for perceived warriors, but surely he can appreciate that Danny's moved on and is trying to do good in a different way now? He doesn't have too much trouble accepting that Clara's no longer a nanny, so why this? He was actually a rather unlikeable figure because of this, and I just hope it's not taken to Colin Baker levels.

However, Danny doesn't exactly do his utmost to make the Doctor like him. He's perfectly charming around Clara and his colleagues, but the Doctor just seems to rub him up the wrong way. He keeps asking about the supposed new caretaker, indicating that he thinks there's more to him than meets the eye. This frosty atmosphere reaches its peak at the episode's climax and I really hope it was little more than the Time Lord not thinking Mr Pink was a worthy partner for Clara. Maybe now the pair will be more civil. I thought Sam Anderson once again gave a great performance, but perhaps underplayed it too much in places. His quiet knowing works in some places (such as when Clara lies about it being a play) but falls flat in others. I do look forward to the next episode to feature Mr Anderson though, which by my calculations should be episode 10, In the Forest of the Night - playing a significant part anyway.

One thing I did think was prevalent was that Courtney Woods' mother referenced a comment made by Danny "last year". Considering we saw his first day in Into the Dalek, across four episodes we've spanned roughly twelve months in Clara's timeline. From her perspective though, it's more because she elopes with the Doctor between real life, rather than missing portions of it as previous companions (notably in the RTD era) did. I thought Clara here was written much better than normal. She was given an emotion to play with other than smug, and seeing her conflicted (and even doubting herself - a first for the character?) made me invest finally. This is a massively different character to the girl we met in The Bells of Saint John and I hope this version of the character is kept on. She's amiable and flawed, something I've not said much about her previously.

We did also get to meet Ellis George's Courtney Woods properly in this, of course. I liked how her personality was filled in in scenes that didn't feature her, particularly the moment before Parents' Evening began. My assumption prior to this episode was that in future episodes, the Doctor would only allow Danny along if he could bring Courtney, but seeing as Mr Pink doesn't seem to be in the next few, that's obviously not the case though. She was supposed to provide an alternative viewpoint on joining the TARDIS though, it seemed. I have to say, from this episode alone I might be more inclined to take her along too. Props to Andy Pryor (CDG) for finding a child actress who isn't atrocious, after some more recent examples might have been. Watching Doctor Who Extra, it's clear that George is humble and nervous, proving what a good actress she is already; I was totally convinced by her portrayal of Courtney. Whoever named her (after the brilliant Nicholas Courtney) deserves a round of applause too. I look forward to seeing more of her next week (and hopefully beyond).

I thought it was really nice to see Doctor Who back in contemporary surroundings again, in a real place. Moffat's take on modern-day locations, be they villages or cities, seems tinted by fairytale spectacles and that element of realism that was so predominant through Russell T Davies' years survives through Roberts' writing. Just look at any of his last three episodes for evidence of this. It was lovely to have the PCSO (named after - and inspired by? - DWM reviewer, and blue guard, Matt Michaels) get some screen time, and it makes me yearn for a series of stories with an Earth-bound Peter Capaldi. 'CSO Matthew' was also given the best (and only) death in the story, with his charred hand falling to the ground. It was both hilarious and nightmarish.

I must complement Paul Murphy's direction. I thought this was actually a step up from Robot of Sherwood; interiors seem to be where Murphy excels. Everything about his production was slick and the visuals suited the story right down to the ground. He was the perfect fit for The Caretaker and I thought his work was outstanding. Probably more so than Douglas MacKinnon in Listen and a large portion of Time Heist. I'd love to have Paul Murphy back again if he can repeat this level of quality. Murray Gold's score played a greater part in this episode, and at times I got a distinct feeling of Hustle, unusually. It was more than competent, but a bit less impressive than last week. Good to know ol' MuGo's still got fire in his belly though (anyone else really missing the interviews with him?).

To summarise, I thought this was a really, really strong episode. I wouldn't go so far as calling it 'great', but it was certainly on the way. The Skovox Biltzer was a highlight, as was the Doctor and I loved his improvisations throughout. The invisibility watch is another device that makes you question why he hasn't used it before. The lead foursome were enjoyable, occasionally invincible, but never terrible. The Doctor and Clara both craft their own companions, and I know which I preferred. This was an episode that I just loved watching, and one of the strongest of Series 8 so far. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman have such a strong relationship now, it's enticing to watch. This is a wonderful production with just a few slight flaws that took me out of proceedings. Gareth Roberts can come back every year for all I care - he's clearly still got it! Everyone's on fire here, but the prize must go this week to Paul Murphy. Interesting development of the series' arc, but not really worth me discussing yet. You may remember a few weeks back, I predicted that Into the Dalek, The Caretaker and Kill the Moon would be my favourites of the season. Two out of three so far. No pressure, Mr Harness.

In a Nutshell: A fun episode that goes beyond its harmless remit to bring the show into the real world, in more ways than one.

Shades Of: School Reunion, The Lodger, Aliens of London, Attack of the Cybermen.

Top Three Lines:
  •  "We do not look the same age!"/"I was being kind."
  • "I'll see when I see you."/"When will you see me?"/"When I see you." (this exchange is played perfectly)
  • "Sorry, she's a bit busy today."

Larry's Line: "Daft, but good fun and easy to follow. I liked it a lot."

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