If Clara takes care of the Doctor, who takes care of Clara?
You notice it in the way the Doctor suddenly sees Courtney Wood as real when she proudly touts that she’s a “Disruptive Influence.” You know it in the way Clara and the Doctor now casually joke about how she’s his conscience. And once Danny Pink meets the Doctor and discovers the other half of Clara’s life, you see it in the choice he has to make. This is who Clara is, Danny, and if your life with her is to go forward then you don’t have to be a soldier, but you do have to be a caretaker.
I am a huge sucker for Gareth Roberts’ work on Doctor Who. The man has an uncanny knack for blending domestic drama with madcap otherworldliness while skewering the expectations of both approaches. Both “The Lodger” and “Closing Time” are highlights of the Eleventh Doctor’s run, and I consider “The Unicorn and the Wasp” to be one of my favorite episodes of Who ever. “The Shakespeare Code” is…well, not so great, but at least contains the golden line: “57 academics just punched the air.” When you’re throwing out lines like that every few seconds you can let your plot run away from you a little.
That’s what ends up happening in “The Caretaker” to some extent. When your episode is thin on actual events then it’s difficult to really pull together a satisfying ending. All of Roberts’ episodes share this aspect, from the car-chase-with-bee in “Unicorn and the Wasp” to the wrote-myself-into-a-corner-father’s-love-beats-cyber-conversion of “Closing Time.” Danny ends up flipping over a killer spider-bot while the Doctor talks to it to sleep and that’s supposed to signal the end of “The Caretaker”s action. It’s a little weird, especially when we were ready to stop thinking about This Week’s Threat the first time it gets disposed of, earlier in the episode.
But that’s the one cloud to what is mostly silver lining in “The Caretaker,” because even though the climactic action is weak it’s so much fun just getting there. Before the opening credits even start rolling, Capaldi is pretending to be a school caretaker, fending off Clara with a broom and promising a group of teachers that he is definitely human and totally boring, committing fiercely to comedic aspects of his Doctor, a guy who is unblinkingly unaware that no one shares his perspective on anything.
And yet, Peter Capaldi’s Twelve is tremendously aware of how much he doesn’t fit in with the humans, and this seems to encourage him to be actively antagonistic towards his similarities with the day-to-day of humanity. He chides us for our limited lifespans, counts the days until he can stop pretending to be one of us, and insists we fit into easy boxes that aren’t possibly bigger on the inside.
Danny Pink fits squarely into these crosshairs and all it takes for him to earn the Doctor’s disapproval is to offer his help while Clara hangs about nearby. The Doctor is fiddling with the electrics, which Danny can help with because the army taught him how to. The army? Bad move, Danny. This Doctor is borderline-enraged by soldiers and institutions of combat. Now you fit into a box, into a tidy equation ironically absent of variables. Danny = soldier = phys ed teacher = worthless. As if this Doctor needs another reason to devalue those around him.
Because oh yeah, the Doctor’s fiddling with electrics (and everything) because he’s seeding the entire school with mines. In order to draw in a war machine that has enough power to obliterate the planet. And even after saying this out loud the Doctor doesn’t realize how insane it is to use a school as bait. Sure, these are people, but the monster will come at night probably the Doctor has it all under control, don’t worry. Or maybe he doesn’t. Whatever. The point is that he doesn’t really want to debate this. His perspective is fixed. In his mind obviously he values everyone because why else would he be working to save them?
Clara tries to get him to see that his decisions don’t have to be a fixed line from point A to point B, that there’s a wild topography of choice and consequence in play here. There are variables here, not just in the school and the students but in Danny. But the Doctor won’t let her help. He thinks he knows how this all works, right down to Clara’s preferences in men. Look at her new boyfriend, he smiles (so so creepily). Why, he looks just like I did!
And the Doctor isn’t wrong about Clara’s preferences in men so much as he’s blind to variation in those preferences. Thus, he’s blind to the qualities in Danny that make him so much more than just a soldier and it’s probably no coincidence that Danny’s qualities satisfy needs for Clara that the Doctor cannot. Right after the big reveal, Danny asks Clara a very important question, a question we’ve been waiting for ever since Clara showed up lo so many half-seasons ago: Why does she stay with the Doctor?
Her answer highlights the positives. He’s amazing. When she’s with the Doctor she sees wonders. Danny can’t provide that, but he’s been around men like the Doctor before. Officers, generals really, that push people to be more than they think they are. The Doctor hates soldiers and Danny realizes immediately that it’s because leading soldiers comes so naturally to the Doctor. He really puts the “lord” in Time Lord and we see a snippet of why Twelve hates soldiers so much. Because they see right through him. And that’s what borderline-enrages the Doctor, that he’s been running from the expectations of others for millennia (or however old he really is) and yet he’s still somehow right where he started.
Which, somewhat relatedly, means that this is not a man eager to seek out Gallifrey.
Danny sees who the Doctor is and even though Clara has carefully selected the positives of being around this man (Fish People being/not being one of them) Danny knows that achieving those positives is a process that wears you down. In a sense it can be an addiction; the more that this wonderful unobtainable adventure offers up negative aspects, the harder you try to chase the positive ones. So even though Clara thinks the entire episode is a bad idea, she still helps the Doctor pull off his plan. Because she trusts him, because he requested it. Even though it means putting herself directly into harm’s way.
Danny is ultimately pushed to do this himself, although not for the Doctor but for Clara. Once the adventure is over they have a talk. Danny is not going with her in the TARDIS, even after having earned the Doctor’s begrudging respect. Someone needs to be there for Clara. Because, as Danny points out, Clara might see wonders with the Doctor, but she keeps those wonders a secret. And the more she does that, the more it separates her from others.
Episode writers Moffat and Roberts are at their best here, using the events of the episode to continually throw the characters at each other, and it culminates in an understated but important closing scene. The relationship between Danny and Clara, so weak and awkward only two episodes ago, is now deep and strong. Clara needs someone who’s willing to take care of her, to take her secrets seriously, to be truthful towards, once the Doctor is gone. And now Danny has chosen, really he insists, on being that person.
And that’s the kind of loyalty you just can’t get from a man in a blue box.
- Nice touch on making the Caretaker’s shed doors like the TARDIS’, but red.
- Speaking of subtle set design, the interior of the TARDIS gets messier and messier in each episode. Small touches to show that Twelve is settling in.
- Heh, “Space Dad.”
- Samuel Anderson, the actor playing Danny, doesn’t seem to be listed in the cast of any forthcoming episodes so I thought he was going to get sucked into the time vortex along with the killer robot. I actually kind of wanted that, but thankfully the episode had a better ending in mind for Danny!
- I thought it was a nice touch to include the Doctor actually following up on his conversation with little Courtney Wood. It’s not overt, but after seeing her parents in the episode you realize that every supportive system she has in her life, namely her parents and school, is completely conditional, and that her disruptive bratty nature probably stems from trying to please both to no avail. Nice of the Doctor to give her a moment of wonder disconnected from all of that.
- You don’t expect it, but considering this episode and “Listen,” Twelve seems to want to be just as nice to children as Eleven was, even if he doesn’t quite get it right.
- Is this the first time the Doctor has actually been inside Coal Hill School? Even though his granddaughter attended it? One wonders if Ian Chesterton would have recognized the new “caretaker” had he been there.
- It’s possible that Roberts and Moffat are cheekily pointing this out with the cast-off line about there being a lot of “artron energy” in the area and that being why the killer robot was lured there. I love the idea that Doctor, being the one who delivers so many time travelers to the school, is just making sure to sweep up his own mess. He’s got a broom and everything!
- It’s been a while, so we get a near-post-credits scene with the policeman who gets killed by the robot. He’s in the afterlife, wonh wonh, and Missy looks at him for a second as her subordinate refers to her as God and the afterlife as the “Nethersphere.” I think my theory still stands. She comes to check the policeman out but then sees that he would have been killed whether or not the Doctor was around, so she realizes he’s not responsible for his death and keeps on going. Sorry, mack, you’re not good enough to get into Doctor Judgment Heaven.
- Sorry about the delay on this, folks. We were all at a wedding of one of our own (I climbed a tree!) and weren’t around things with screens. Hopefully next week should be more on schedule, although the weekend after that is New York Comic Con and things might get dicey again. Fingers crossed!
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and is the person who made that mess in geography for which Ms. Wood needed napkins. He’s sorry. He’ll never drink whiskey in class again. If you like, he writes about other things on the site and you can see them by clicking on his name there.