For the most part, I’ve been enjoying season 8 of Doctor Who. That’s mostly due to Peter Capaldi in the role. He elevates the scripts considerably, which admittedly haven’t been as bad as they were for the last few seasons, although they still share some of the same weaknesses. But to me, “The Caretaker” felt like the first serious misstep of the season.
You won’t find any spoilers here, because there’s nothing spoil, really. There’s only the barest minimum of a plot to be had: the Doctor poses as the caretaker (or custodian, for those of us in the US) of the Coal Hill School, where Clara and Danny teach, in order to find and neutralize a killer robot from the future that’s hiding somewhere on the premises. In truth, though, the episode is really about the Doctor and Danny finally meeting after Clara has worked hard to keep each a secret from the other for reasons that are simultaneously unexplored and overstated.
It’s because Danny used to be a soldier, you see, and the Doctor once mentioned to Clara that he doesn’t like soldiers. Unfortunately, since then, the not-liking-soldiers trait has turned into the equivalent of beating a dead horse, repeated so often and so pointlessly that it becomes grating. Besides that, it doesn’t even make sense in the history of Doctor Who. The Doctor is against the use of force, sure, but some of his best friends are soldiers. What about the Brigadier? Sergeant Benton? Captain Yates? Hell, even Wilf used to be a soldier in World War II, and he and the Doctor got along famously! Mickey and Martha became soldiers. Captain Jack Harkness is a soldier of sorts. But now, suddenly, the Doctor can’t stand soldiers and assumes Danny must be a P.E. teacher because a soldier could never be a math teacher? For goodness sake, in the 1983 serial “Mawdryn Undead,” we find out the Brigadier became a math teacher after he retired! So the whole hating-soldiers trait just comes off feeling random and forced, as if it exists solely to cause strife between the Doctor and Danny. It’s lazy writing.
Speaking of lazy writing, why in the name of God would they have the Doctor return to Coal Hill School and not mention the fact that his granddaughter Susan was a student at that same school in 1963, when she and the First Doctor were hiding on Earth after running away from Gallifrey? How could they not mention that the Doctor’s very first companions were Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, two of Susan’s teachers from Coal Hill? How could they not mention that the Seventh Doctor and Ace returned to Coal Hill School in the 1988 serial “Remembrance of the Daleks” to fight a Dalek invasion? Daleks once landed in Coal Hill’s fucking schoolyard, and it’s utterly ignored or forgotten in “The Caretaker.” In fact, the Doctor’s entire history with Coal Hill is, except for one throwaway line about there being a lot of Artron energy emissions in the area, which could be a reference to how many times his TARDIS has parked nearby. But that’s it. For God’s sake, the whole reason they had Clara teaching at Coal Hill School in the 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” is because of that long history. (In fact, Ian Chesterton is mentioned on the school sign in “Day of the Doctor” as Chairman of the Governors of Coal Hill now, but that’s ignored here, too.) To have that long history completely ignored feels like a monumentally wasted opportunity.
There’s a lot of comedy in “The Caretaker,” and those bits work well because Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat, who co-wrote the script, are comedy writers at heart. (I kind of loved the Doctor whistling “Another Brick in the Wall” in the schoolyard.) But everything else feels off. It plays like an episode of a sitcom about Clara and her romantic complications, with the Doctor as the wacky neighbor who’s always messing things up. Everybody acts wildly out of character for much of the episode, but most especially the Doctor. I don’t mind a prickly Doctor — Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, my favorite, was frequently prickly — but when he spends the majority of the episode acting like an asshole to everyone for no good reason, it becomes tedious. Danny Pink, whom I liked in every other episode in which he appears, comes off as mentally unstable in a nonsensical scene where he keeps yelling “Sir!” at the Doctor. Of course, the Doctor doesn’t sound much like himself in that scene, either. Everyone is out of character for the sole reason of trying to create strife, when really Danny and the Doctor ought to get along just fine, considering they are both decent men with tortured pasts. Both did things as soldiers they regret. The Doctor got to rectify one of them in “Day of the Doctor,” but Danny doesn’t have that ability. Imagine if we’d seen that conversation instead of the forced conflict we got instead.
There’s a brief mention of River Song that had me rolling my eyes. It’s a reminder of a period in the show’s history that I really didn’t like, as well as a reminder of how poorly the Doctor can be written under Moffat’s watch, considering how terribly he treated a woman he was supposedly in love with. Missy’s “afterlife” shows up again at the end, for only the third time, but it already feels invasive and stupid. Part of the problem is that I don’t trust Moffat to come up with good season-long arcs. (I still can’t figure out how the Doctor faking his death with a shapeshifting robot was enough to prevent all of time and space from going wonky in season 6. Or what the fuck the Great Intelligence was even trying to do in season 7.) So all this stuff with Missy and the Promised Land already feels, to me at least, like I’m just being set up to be let down again by something stupid. And don’t get me started on Clara now being able to open and close the TARDIS door by snapping her fingers, the way the Doctor can. Just last season the TARDIS didn’t like Clara and tried to get rid of her. I’m still waiting on an explanation for that, as well as how and why that behavior stopped.
I miss the days when the TARDIS would take the Doctor and his companion to some distant time or place for an adventure, and then when things were sorted out, they’d get back in the TARDIS and be off to the next time and place for another one. That doesn’t seem to happen anymore. Now everyone’s on missions, or the Doctor is asking Clara where she wants to go. It’s nowhere near as interesting or engaging. Hell, there’s a montage of what appears to be actual adventures at the start of “The Caretaker,” all of which look far more interesting than the story we get. But there’s a lot of that in Moffat-era Doctor Who, I’ve noticed. Things are frequently told instead of shown (like the majority of the Doctor’s relationship with River) and a lot of episodes seem to take place after far more interesting ones are hinted at (remember the fun that was happening in all the scenes between scenes that we didn’t get to explore in “The Power of Three”, only to have to sit through a terrible, boring episode instead?).
Ah well. The next episode, “Kill the Moon,” looks like it might be a return to form, what with it being the future and not taking place on Earth and scary space monsters. Of course, it also looks like a carbon copy of the 2009 Tenth Doctor episode “The Waters of Mars.” Given Moffat’s penchant for recycling story ideas, I guess we’ll have to wait and see.