The middle of a season of Doctor Who usually involves a pivot of some kind. The Tenth Doctor’s outing with the Cybermen in The Age of Steel heralded Mickey Smith’s (temporary) departure and foreshadowed tragic payoffs for the season’s end. The Eleventh simultaneously answered one set of arc-related questions and opened another in A Good Man Goes to War. Lest we forget, Series 7’s middle-ish episode The Snowmen put the question of life after the Ponds to bed and introduced us to a young woman named Clara Oswald.
Consequently, this pair of episodes – The Caretaker in particular – had a fair bit riding on them. We’ve got a fairly good understanding of our new Doctor, and Clara’s place alongside him. Time for the pivot.
Truth told, this’ll largely be a look at the latter episode; Time Heist is definitely good fun, a bit of a return to the slightly more popcorn days of The Lazarus Experiment and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS where a good concept is executed competently. It’s more of a ride than a study, and while the brevity coming off the harrowing Listen is good it would’ve been a little better if the supporting cast had had a little more substance rather than being walking plot coupons. If nothing else, the very idea of breaking into an insanely secure bank to grab something of unknown value while pursued by a knockoff Ithorian who feeds on guilt is pretty great all on its own, and you’d need a terrible writer to really do it injustice.
Fortunately, bad writing is in short supply both in Time Heist and much more in The Caretaker. This, I believe, represents a giant blinking arrow that aims confidently towards the rest of Series 8’s unfolding plot. It’s clear now that Steven Moffat has a much
better handle on things than he did last year or during the debatably poorly-handled Series 6. Since this will hopefully result in fewer fans on Tumblr threatening Moffat with a lynching this time round, I’d say that’s a definite improvement.
My biggest fear going into The Caretaker would be a similar scenario taking place as in The Vampires of Venice when Rory joined Amy and the Eleventh as a fulltime TARDIS crewmate after a narrative in part devoted to relationship drama. In contrast Danny Pink seems to be staying planetside for the time being, but not without having a discernible impact on things going forward. There is no sweeping under the rug or easy forgiveness in exchange for a TARDIS key that permeated the Ponds’ tenure last time around.
Ironically enough, the biggest achievement The Caretaker manages happens to be diametrically opposed to how the Doctor sees himself in his 12th(ish) body: he seems a bit more human now. Granted, he’s still gliding merrily around Coal Hill High like a cross
between Albus Dumbledore and one of the Ghostbusters trying to solve the issue of the week, and he’s still gleefully insulting anyone not lucky enough to be born with a double-ventricular system – “It says ‘GO AWAY HUMANS’.” But beneath that, we see some heart(s). The Doctor reacts to Clara’s relationship with Danny as a disapproving father would to his daughter dating a bikie. He takes recalcitrant problem child Courtney Woods to the stars, perhaps in the hope it’ll give her some perspective once he cleans the vomit from the TARDIS console room. Hell, even as Time Heist comes to a conclusion we see the good man writ large as the Teller and his companion wander off into the sunset. Despite his protestations otherwise – rather than being heroic, he tells us in Robot of Sherwood he’s simply “Just passing the time,” – the Doctor has just a bit of compassion beneath that gruff veneer.
Compassion also seems to be something Danny has in good supply, which was a relief following several scenes where I was all but positive it was splitsville for Clanny (Dara? Pinswald? Osnk? I dunno, whatever shipping name you prefer). It’s nice to finally see a male partner in the modern Doctor Who relaunch who isn’t largely needy (Mickey), omnivorous (Jack), submissive (Rory) or oppressive (the Doctors, to a degree) towards the reigning companion. Having Danny as a kind of rational, “only sane man” that is the rock within the turbulent seas of Clara’s time traveling not only grounds everything in a bit of realism but also gives him something to do besides being nice eye candy or handy at backflipping over alien menaces. Of course, the praise I give to both the character and actor Samuel Anderson largely depend on where we go next, and whether Moffat will stick to his guns or cave and get Danny his own key to the big blue box cut.
It’s invigorating that the romantic and emotional heart of the narrative no longer relies on unresolved Doctor/companion sexual tension or the tired “will they, won’t they” trope. Of course, having a Doctor continuously determined to needlessly insult Clara for the simple reason of “I’m mostly a grumpy old guy now” does bring its own set of problems. Remember, Moffat, moderation is key.
We’re still on track for a much better, more memorable season of Doctor Who. The pivot might not have relied on a big plot element or copious foreshadowing this time around (though that last scene with Clara and Danny on the couch raises a bit of a thundercloud), but if the trade-off is a story – and, by extension, a series – more rooted in an emotional catharsis and solid engagement with its audience, I’ll take that over all the BAD WOLFs anyday.
ON ITS OWN: Time Heist
– Probably the best opening sequence for 12 thus far.
– Am I the only one who thought Clara was, at first, intending that suit-and-tie combo to be a roleplay outfit? Or am I just a sick deviant who spends too much time on the internet?
– I once stuck computer chips to my head to pretend to be a cyborg too. Unfortunately, they’re not as easy to remove as Psi makes it look.
– “Shut up. Shut up shut up shut up shuttity up.”
– While the Teller ended the episode on a fairly heartwarming note, that’s one alien I’ll have stuck in my nightmares for a while to come (I guess that’s a plus for Moffat?).
EPISODE SCORE: 6.5/10
ON ITS OWN: The Caretaker
– “He can’t be a Math teacher. I like Math.”
– While ultimately perfunctory to the story, the Skovox Blitzer does look appropriately scary (and also a little like this guy).
– For one wonderful, glorious moment of fanboy-induced hysteria, I was positive that brown Caretaker’s coat might turn out to have once belonged to the Tenth Doctor.
– Where the hell has Samuel Anderson been before now? That’s one acting talent Britain’s kept up its sleeve.
– “Oh, yes. There’s been a spillage.” Well, he did warn someone beforehand not to be sick in the TARDIS.
EPISODE SCORE: 8/10
NEXT TIME ON TARDIS 8:
An innocent spider-thing might be the titular victim in Kill the Moon, and a bandaged, Egyptian knockoff of “The Ring” causes death within 66 seconds in Mummy on the Orient Express.