Doctor Who series 8: The Caretaker review

Peter Capaldi is on top comedy form again, as he goes undercover as The Caretaker. Here's our spoiler-filled review...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

8.6 The Caretaker

“There has been a spillage”

For five weeks, the new series of Doctor Who has flung Clara and the Doctor from Earth, to inside a Dalek, to Sherwood Forest, to a room with a strange blanket in it, through to last week’s planetary bank heist. It’s been a real mix of stories and adventures, all the time gradually threaded with the growing romance between Clara and Danny Pink, and the mysteries of Missy.

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The Caretaker, another really good episode of the show (arguably one of the best of an impressive run), puts the brakes on just a little. And thus, while it returns to those two underlying threads, it also stops long enough so that people can actually have a chat. Crucially, the Doctor, Danny and Clara finally get to sort a few things out.

And heck, they need sorting too. The pre-credits sequence sees Clara – who again takes over from the Doctor in leading this episode (after the Doctor took charge last week) – pushing herself to breaking point. How can you easily jump in the TARDIS one minute, hold down a job the next, and build a relationship with someone you warm to in the midst of it all? Answer: you can’t. Something has to give, and at Coal Hill School, it does.

Not unreasonably, Danny wants to know what’s happening (Clara has a specific frown when she’s about to cancel on him after all), and why Clara’s behaviour is a bit odd. Not unreasonably, Clara wants some space to sort things out. Just a little unreasonably, the Doctor won’t leave them alone (although he does have the world to save, in his defence). And heck, The Caretaker has a hell of a lot of fun as Capaldi tries to quietly blend into the background.

“The alternative would be developing a conscience of your own”

After last week’s heist then, The Caretaker sees the Doctor attempting to go undercover. His required skills? Stealth, the power of disguise, and an aversion to showing off.

He never stood a chance.

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Predictably, the Doctor is useless at undercover work, which is entirely apparent to everyone except, well, the Doctor himself. It’s like a bad Clark Kent moment: he puts on Mr Griffiths’ old jacket from Grange Hill, and thinks that he becomes virtually invisible.

He does not.

Still, just in case Clara hadn’t guessed who the school’s new caretaker is, he, er, manages to tell people that he’s known as the Doctor. The title music hadn’t played by that point. By the end of the episode? He’s pretty much dressed as a Ghostbuster. As a consequence, there’s no shortage of really good comedy in The Caretaker, and Capaldi’s gleeful attempts to blend seamlessly into the fabric of Coal Hill are at the heart of much of it. Well, that and his barking quips to Danny, which we’re coming back to. 

Yet while he’s having fun (and trying to save the world), Clara is trying to sort her life out. Notwithstanding a slightly awkward (and arguably out of character) moment where she ponders coming up with an extravagant lie to put off telling Danny the truth about how she fills her days, she has to confront the idea of spending her time with one man, whilst falling for another. So, early in the episode, Clara and Doctor chat about how the latter is spending too much time being mysterious. Danny then throws the same accusation at her. Both accusations hit.

“Haven’t you got shoplifting to go to?”

Eventually though, two mysteries are resolved for the characters here. The Doctor learns who Clara’s real boyfriend is, and Danny learns about the Doctor (although Clara is reluctant, as the Doctor notes, to explain about him to Danny). Oh, and all the kids at the school know that Clara and the Squaddie are an item. Plus, graffiti at Coal Hill is really easy to clean off.

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It’s to the real credit of The Caretaker that so much comes across so effortlessly, even though the episode is actually shouldering a lot of work. Capaldi and  Jenna Coleman are excellent again – we’d argue it’s Coleman’s best performance of the series – but then so is Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink. He’s finally had a lot to get his teeth into over the past week or two, and he hasn’t disappointed. He balances a bit of mystery, some steel, and an innate reasonableness very well.

This is a far more difficult episode for Danny as well. He finds out about Clara’s other life in traditional Doctor Who fashion, by being shot at by a creation from another world. Then he has to wrap his head around a lot of things at once, before deciding if life with someone who’s not been entirely open is what he wants. There’s hugely efficient storytelling here, with a swift volley from the Blitzer negating the need for a conversation along the lines of ‘there’s no such thing as aliens or time travel’. It makes the bit about how the TARDIS is bigger on the inside easier for Danny to accept too.

One aside: we should award bonus points too to everybody who spotted the Matt Smith lookalike in the trailer for The Caretaker last week: Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat’s script has great fun with what could have been a traditional mistaken identity cliche, as the Doctor assumes that Clara fancies someone who looks like Eleven. The Doctor – egotistical? Nah.

“You weren’t even scared. and you should have been”

What’s still tricky to accept, for the Doctor at least, is Danny’s soldier background, and that inevitably bubbles to the fore. It’s one of the key themes of the episode. The Doctor makes no effort to hide his inherent distrust and dislike of the military, and Danny in particular.

Hilariously dismissing Danny as a P.E. teacher (after all, a former soldier could never be a Maths teacher again in the Doctor’s eyes) for chunks of the episode, what he does manage to hide is that part of this is cover for him being so protective of Clara (the Doctor has rarely been more paternal). It’s really well handled, and leaves things set up for Danny to head off on a few adventures of his own.

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But we shouldn’t overlook what else was happening in The Caretaker. For there’s an alien threat weaved throughout, not always in the foreground, although that arguably helps its impact. Introducing, then, the Skovox Blitzer a beast that, as my colleague pointed out, is the first monster we’ve had in weeks that can sell on the toyshop shelves this Christmas. Well, that red blanket aside.

But if someone somewhere had one eye on the toy market, it doesn’t make said Blitzer any less impressive. It’s relentlessly brutal. We don’t get much time with it – it looks really expensive when it’s firing stuff for a start – but terrific director Paul Murphy (who injects real excitement into his corridor chases in particular) makes it count. Blasting out red laser whatsits and chanting “problem, solution, destroy”, it’s got the aim of a Stormtrooper, and its parentage seems to incorporate a mix of The Terminator and Predator. But it works. We shall shamelessly be asking Santa for one.

“Hello miss! Love to the squaddie!”

The Caretaker‘s not a monster episode though, and in the end, the Blitzer – for all its bluster – seems to be comfortably beaten. What’s more interesting is where Roberts and Moffat leave their characters at the end.

Capaldi’s Doctor gives the impression of having defrosted a little by the credits, but we’d wager it’s temporary. Just because Danny and Clara are out in the open now (and Clara has declared her love for him), there are still secrets here. Danny, too, seems to be able to see right through the Doctor (the scene where Danny says to Clara “that’s who he is” was one of the real highlights here). There are still fractious times ahead, we’d wager. “If he ever pushes you too far…”, warns Danny, also iterating that Clara needs to promise to tell the truth. Hmmm. There are still six episodes left of this series. It’s not going to go well, is it?

Oh, and there’s another passenger who could temporarily mix things up: Courtney Woods (played confidently by young Ellis George) will be back. If she’s stopped feeling sick.

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“You haven’t explained me to him

Doctor Who hasn’t been able to do many talky, down to Earth episodes in recent times. Hopefully this will change, and hopefully, Gareth Roberts will get to write them. As The Lodger and now The Caretaker have proven, it’s a real skill of his. The character work in The Caretaker, at its best, was brilliant.

Yet we should address what the internet might just be having a chunter about right now: that ending.

After a few weeks where the world of Missy took a back seat, it’s back with a vengeance, and we now know she’s got Seb (St Peter?), played by Chris Addison (reuniting with Peter Capadi!) working for her. In Seb’s words, the nethersphere (that’s the specific word that Seb injects, and may be a clue), the promised land, the afterlife… they all lead to the same place (Addison says all this to a man who looks like Hank from Breaking Bad). It certainly seems to have a very firm dress code. Missy, he tells us, is busy (she has a big long white corridor to walk up). Heaven knows what she’s up to. So when Addison ends the episode with “any questions?”, the answer is clearly “bloody loads of them”.

No answers just yet though. And next week? Well, spiders are back in Kill The Moon (the Doctor and spiders haven’t always got on). Early signs? Another creepy one…

Our review of last week’s episode is here.

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One slight update popped in at 21.45, regarding a former maths teacher!

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