“The Caretaker” is Gareth Roberts’ final contribution to Doctor Who, which he co-wrote alongside the series’ showrunner Steven Moffat. His first story, “The Shakespeare Code“, was a surprisingly fun romp and one of the better historical episodes of the revived series. After that, he never really managed to match that level of quality again. “The Unicorn And The Wasp“, “The Lodger” and “Closing Time” are all the weakest episodes of their respective seasons in my opinion, while “Planet Of The Dead” was the most forgettable one of the 2009 specials. Gareth Roberts’ episodes are usually so focused on being comedic that they don’t have much substance to them outside of the humor, and as a result, they’re not very memorable. “The Caretaker” manages to avoid falling into that trap, because one, it’s a very character driven episode, and two, it’s very important to the overall story arc of Series 8.
The love triangle between the Doctor, Clara Oswald and Danny Pink runs throughout the entirety of Series 8 (even if it’s just acknowledged in the background of several stories like “Time Heist” and “Flatline”), but “The Caretaker” is easily the episode that’s the most devoted to it. Because of that, this is one of those stories (like “Rose“, “The Lazarus Experiment” or “The Bells Of Saint John“) where the B-plot concerning the villain is rather forgettable, because the character drama between the three leads is the primary focus of the A-plot. Now that we’re officially halfway through Series 8, “The Caretaker” is a pretty significant turning point in the season, which the last five episodes have all been quietly building up to. It’s time for Clara’s two biggest secrets to be revealed to her boys, in the most disastrous way possible, which will expose all three of our leads’ biggest personality flaws, force them to work together, and give them plenty of room to grow in the latter half of season.
The Twelfth Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) role in this episode takes a lot of inspiration from one of Gareth Roberts’ earlier episodes, “The Lodger”: the Doctor gets wind of a dangerous alien threat roaming around London, so he decides to go undercover and set a trap for it. He shows up at Clara’s school, pretending to be a janitor, and from there comedic hijinks quickly ensue: partly because he sticks out like a sore thumb compared to his co-workers, and partly because he’s a massive troll who keeps showing up wherever Clara is just to annoy her (including one hilariously snippy scene where he interrupts Clara’s class while it’s still in session just to correct her knowledge, and she can just barely conceal her vexation). He also shares a few quirky scenes with Courtney Woods, the school troublemaker, that are mainly here to set up the plot of the next episode, “Kill The Moon“.
Still, it’s not long before things start to get serious. “The Caretaker” pays off a lot of the material “Into The Dalek” set-up earlier this season, by taking the Doctor to task for his holier than thou and hypocritical prejudice towards soldiers. As soon as he discovers Danny used to serve in the military, he immediately starts to talk down to him, assumes he knows everything there is to know about him, and insists he must be a P.E. teacher, because he’s too stupid and weak-minded to be anything else. On top of being very petty, this is also very immature behavior for someone who’s two thousand years older than the rest of the cast. The Doctor’s snobbish attitude is really nothing new for him – David Tennant’s Doctor had several episodes where he got into a mood like this in Series 4 (“The Sontaran Stratagem“, “The Doctor’s Daughter“) – but it definitely seems to be cranked up a few notches in this episode, and the love triangle drama that he’s currently a part of certainly helps to exacerbate it.
The Doctor still has feelings for Clara, even though he was one who encouraged her to move on and start seeing other people in the season premiere. In “The Caretaker”, he’s initially pleased when he thinks she’s dating a Matt Smith look-alike (no doubt getting an ego boost from that), only to become mortified when he realizes she’s going out with his least-favorite type of person instead. He immediately starts to question her taste in men and insists that Danny will be a terrible influence on her, which shows a stunning lack of self-awareness on his part. Not only is the Doctor himself just as guilty of everything he’s judging Danny for in his head, but he’s also spent the last six episodes training Clara to follow his orders to the word and encouraging her to brush off other people’s horrible deaths for the greater good. For someone who claims to hate soldiers, Twelve slips into the role of a commanding officer extraordinarily well. Danny doesn’t waste any time calling the time lord out on his hypocrisy, which clearly strikes a nerve.
Due to a mix-up, Danny blunders into the trap the Doctor set for this week’s alien antagonist and makes the whole plan a bust. Everyone else in the area is put in even further danger as a result, which only validates the Doctor’s belief that all soldiers are just useless, trigger-happy jarheads. However, Danny subsequently redeems himself a bit in the Doctor’s eyes, when he saves Twelve and Clara’s lives in the climax, so the Doctor is forced to begrudgingly admit that he perhaps he judged him too quickly. After this short-lived team-up, the Doctor and Danny keep a healthy and respectful amount of distance from each other. They still don’t like each other, and they never reach the point where they can actually be called friends, but they do find one thing they can agree on: they both care a lot about Clara.
Similar to how she was the main protagonist of “Listen” a few episodes ago, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) takes center stage again in this outing. “The Caretaker” is set almost entirely inside Coal Hill School, Clara’s workplace, which means we get to explore what she does for a living and what her relationships with her co-workers are like. Ever since she came onboard the TARDIS in “The Bells Of Saint John”, Clara has tried to balance two halves of her life – her personal ties back home and her travels with the Doctor – so that one big priority doesn’t overshadow the other. But ever since the Doctor’s last regeneration, it’s gotten harder and harder for her to compartmentalize things, since he keeps intruding on her personal life, whisking her away on more adventures when she least expects it.
Clara once described herself as a bubbly control freak who’s way too obsessed with keeping things neat and orderly for her own good, and that side of her personality certainly rears its ugly head in this episode. Despite how much she’s clearly overexerting herself, she does her best to convince herself that she’s got everything under control, just the way she likes it. Even though she has to tell Danny and the Doctor more and more lies to keep them ignorant of each other’s existence, and she’s concealing two big parts of herself from the people closest to her, which is not exactly a healthy thing to do. Eventually, Clara’s web of lies starts to untangle when the Doctor shows up at her school, pretending to be a janitor, and from there, she knows it’s only a matter of time before the truth comes to light. But she isn’t just concerned with maintaining the masquerade, she’s also worried about her students’ safety. She knows her friend well enough to know that he only appears in places where trouble is brewing, which means all her kids are in danger.
Like the Doctor, Clara shows an impressive lack of self-awareness in this episode. Early on, she calls the Doctor out for patronizing her and assuming she’s super gullible just because he’s really clever, but she’s ironically just as guilty of doing that herself. The lies she keeps feeding the Doctor and Danny are not even good lies at this point; in fact, they’re so blatant that she’s starting to insult their intelligence. Eventually, she crosses a line when she tries to straight-up gaslight Danny and convince him that his near-death experience (which happened only two minutes ago, mind you) was just part of a school play. Danny and the Doctor both tell her to cut the crap and demand the truth from her, so she’s forced to come clean at the worst time possible. And from there, both of her boys start arguing over what should be done about the alien threat, with Clara caught in the middle.
Clara has to deal with the Doctor’s judgmental attitude about her taste in men, Danny’s insecurity that she might have feelings for the Doctor as more than just as a friend (which he’s not entirely wrong about), and both men’s vitriolic pettiness towards each other. Eventually, she manages to patch things up with both of them. However, Danny has one condition for her if they’re going to move forward as a couple: that she be more honest with him in the future, which is a fair request. If they can’t be together without Clara feeling the need to constantly lie to him and hide huge parts of herself from him, then there’s really no point in them having a relationship at all. Clara agrees to this, but it’s a promise that she’ll soon go on to break. In theory, the events of this episode should have brought them closer together and given them a much greater understanding of each other. Instead, it feels like there’s still a pretty wide gulf between them: between who they are as people and what they both want out of life, which suggests that they might not be as compatible as they thought.
After the events of “Listen”, Danny Pink’s (Samuel Anderson) relationship with Clara is blossoming: they vibe with each other well and they always seem to enjoy spending time together, but they still have some problems that are starting to become obvious. As time goes by, Danny can feel Clara growing emotionally distant from him: she always seems to be stressed out for some reason, she’s acting really secretive and insecure, and she’s constantly feeding him obvious lies about what she’s really been up to when he’s not around. By a certain point, most guys would probably start to suspect she’s been cheating on them with someone else. When the Doctor shows up at Coal Hill School, the two men immediately dislike each other, since the Doctor makes no attempt to hide his contempt for him and is incredibly classist towards him because of his past as a soldier.
When Danny starts to suspect he’s up to no good, he decides to tail him one night and unwittingly ruins the Doctor’s alien-catching trap, earning himself the time lord’s ire as a result. Once the full truth of his girlfriend’s double life comes to light, Danny naturally feels hurt that Clara felt the need to hide such a large part of herself from him, and since she’s been lying to him on a weekly basis for months, he’s not really sure he knows who she is anymore. A long-term relationship cannot survive unless both parties trust each other, and Danny’s trust in Clara has just been broken. On top of that, he starts to feel more than a bit insecure about Clara’s relationship with the Doctor, now that he sees how close they are and he knows how much history they have. The Doctor isn’t the only one who lets his jealousy start to get the better of him in this episode, and it’s implied that this causes Danny’s judgment of the time lord to be a bit harsher than it normally would be.
He’s also legitimately concerned for Clara as well, since he notices some red flags between her and the Doctor. Like Rory Williams before him, Danny isn’t starstruck when it comes to the Doctor, which means he’s a lot more critical of him than his girlfriend. He doesn’t like the way the Doctor bosses Clara around or the way Clara follows those orders without question, like a soldier obeying their general. It dredges up some bad memories of his time in the military, since he has some unresolved issues with authority figures. He correctly assumes that the Doctor is an aristocrat because of his title as a time lord and grows even more hostile towards him in return, fighting fire with fire during their spats. Really, all three of our main characters are at their most flawed in this episode: Danny and the Doctor are being stubborn and projecting their issues onto each other something fierce, while Clara can’t stop digging a deeper and deeper hole for herself with her lies.
After Danny saves our heroes from the Skovox Blitzer and everyone has had time to cool off, he decides that he doesn’t want to come between Clara and the Doctor, because he wants his girlfriend to be happy, so he’s fully prepared to keep her time traveling secret. But he still has his concerns. During his time in the military, he learned that a commanding officer always pushes their cadets to their limits to try to get them to reach their full potential, and sometimes they push them too far. That happened to Danny not too long ago, which led to one of the biggest regrets of his life, and he doesn’t want the same thing to happen to Clara. He’s also noticed that Clara has a habit of emulating the Doctor’s behavior out in the field, to the point where she’ll throw all caution to the wind and disregard her own safety to get a job done. He can’t help but worry that that will get her into trouble someday, and in light of Clara’s ultimate fate in “Face The Raven”, Danny’s concerns were completely validated in the end.
“The Caretaker” is helmed by Paul Murphy, who previously handled “Robot Of Sherwood“, and he brings the same quality of work to this endeavor, pouring plenty of love and care into his vision for this episode. His direction is very lively, bouncy, and at times disorienting. The camera rarely ever sits still as it travels down corridors and hallways, giving us plenty of off-kilter shots and Dutch angles during Clara’s rapidfire date montage with Danny, Clara trying to run damage as she dashes around Coal Hill School, and the climax, where all three of our heroes manage to subdue the Skovox Blitzer. Principal photography for this episode was divided between a pretty wide variety of areas throughout the UK: like Bute Street, Cardiff, Lloyd George Avenue, Cardiff, Cardiff Bay, St. Llltyd’s Boys College in Splott, Holton Primary School in Barry, and Tony Refail Comprehensive School in South Wales.
Like “Listen”, “The Caretaker” is another low-budget episode that’s purposely designed to save up money for some of the more flashy adventures in the latter half of Series 8 (including “Kill The Moon”, the very next outing). Aside from a few quick shots of alien worlds, the Blitzer firing off its laser, and the time vortex in action, there is little to no CGI used in this episode. Instead, the Skovox Blitzer is primarily created through practical effects, with an actor named Jimmy Vee (who previously played the Moxx of Balhoon in “The End Of The World” and Bannakaffalatta in “Voyage Of The Damned“) piloting the robot suit. Murray Gold’s score is light and breezy this week but also gleefully chaotic in his suite for “The Caretaker“: embracing the sillier side of the show while still having a bite to it. I also appreciate the nice bit of musical continuity he slips in at one point: “The Mad Man With A Box“, the theme that represents the Doctor’s relationship with his TARDIS, is given a quiet reprise when the Doctor and Clara decide to introduce Danny to their mode of transport.
Considering how much of a mixed bag Gareth Roberts’ previous episodes have been, I’m glad to see his last contribution to the show was one of his better ones (which may or may not have something to do with Moffat co-writing it). “The Caretaker” certainly gives the viewers a lot to chew on when it comes to how the Doctor, Clara and Danny are portrayed, and it does a commendable job of setting them all on a new path for the latter half of the season.
* “Clara, you look lovely today. Have you had a wash?” “Why are you being nice?” “Because it works on you”.
* “It means that you are a very clever man making the mistake, common to very clever people, of assuming that everybody else is stupid”.
* “I lived among otters once for a month. Well, I sulked. River and I, we had this big fight-” “Human beings are not otters!” “Exactly. It’ll be even easier”.
* “I hate you!” “That’s fine. That’s a perfectly normal reaction”.
* “Oh, What? I suppose she was your bezzie mate, was she? And you went on holidays together and then you got kidnapped by Boggons from space and then you all formed a band and met Buddy Holly!” Man, the salt is real.
* “Miss, what about our homework?” “Who asks for homework? Amateur”.
* “Next class, jog on, I need to talk to Mister Pink” “Ozzie loves the Squaddie!”
* “Don’t mind this old man. You two kids just pop off together” “Why are you talking like an idiot?” Ouch, Clara.
* “Well, cut along, you’re running out of time, for everything. Human beings have incredibly short life spans. Frankly, you should all be in a permanent state of panic. Tick tock, tick tock” Well, that got dark fast.
* “I’m a disruptive influence” “Good to meet you” “And you“.
* “Hello, miss. Love to the Squaddie”.
* “So you’re leading the thing here? To a school? My school?” “My school? Oh, that is telling”.
* “Sorry. Stupid. I underestimated you” “It’s easily done. There’s a lot to estimate” Modesty.
* “How stupid do you think I am?” “I’m willing to put a number on it”.
* “How can you think that I’m her dad when we both look exactly the same age?” “We do not look the same age” “I was being kind”.
* “But he’s a PE teacher, you wouldn’t go out with a PE teacher. It’s a mistake, you’ve made a boyfriend error”.
* “Why would you say that? Is this part of the surprise play?” “There is no surprise play” “Oh, it’s a roller coaster with you tonight, isn’t it?!”
* I would have paid good money to see Clara explain the Impossible Girl arc to Danny, and how there’s currently a thousand different copies of her scattered across the universe.
* “I’m serious. I’m trying to save this planet” “It’s the end of the world for me tonight, whatever you do. It’s parents’ evening”.
* “I’m afraid Courtney is a disruptive influence” “Yeah, but last year you said she was a very disruptive influence. So, I suppose that counts as an improvement”.
* “I need to be good enough for you. That’s why he’s angry. Just in case I’m not” “He did just save the whole world” “Yeah, that’s a good start”.
* “I saw you tonight, Clara. You did exactly what he told you, you weren’t even scared… and you should have been” Oof. Again, once you know how Clara’s character arc pans out, that line is a bit chilling.