Doctor Who Season 8 Episode 6 'The Caretaker' Review: Go Away Humans Is Not Just A Sign, It Is The Key To Understanding Capaldi
For the last 50 years, Doctor Who has been the protector of humanity. He has gotten us primitive apes out of more world-ending disasters than we know what to do with. Hell, the Time Lord from Gallifrey looks like us, talks like us and, relatively speaking, acts like us. The Caretaker, the latest episode of the Capaldi era, proves something else: he may not exactly like us.
Sure, he likes certain individuals. Clara (Jenna Coleman) and uh, well, Clara. But I suspect he would find his job that much easier if we weren't around in need of protecting. One can hardly blame him. We tend to fumble into the right solution, only after mucking things up worse. Capaldi's doctor is a strong turn from the peppy optimism of Matt Smith, he is a character of considerable darkness and self-loathing, which is often turned outwards towards others. This season's highlight episode 'Listen' (indeed, one of the very best episodes of the entire Nu-Who series) shattered the veneer of the Doctor as infallible god; deep down, he may just be a scared little boy desperately searching for answers.
People, though, just get in the way. We're slow, messy, emotional, stupid. Past Doctors gave mankind the benefit of the doubt; Capaldi's Who starts you at zero, and the chance of you getting anything above that is nil. He's more patriarchal in his dealing with humanity; he'll make sure you're fed (sometimes you'll have to eat two dinners!) and sorta keep you safe, but it's much easier if you just stay out of his way. "Go away humans!" the sign on the outside of the shop door says, and you wonder if it should be hung outside the TARDIS instead.
The plot of The Caretaker is ostensibly wrapped around a killer robot named the Shovox Blitzer, who packs enough explosive to destroy the entire world and is conveniently occupying the space near Clara's school. The episode is less concerned with the nitty gritty of removing the robot than it is with showing us how the Doctor interacts with the people who get in his way. In the end, the Shovox is reduced to little more than a plot consideration because this is a sci-fi show and it needs some sci-fi elements. Show runner Steven Moffat's Who has always balanced the plot mechanics with the need for character; but 'The Caretaker' is very much out of whack towards the latter. Nor is that a condemnation; quite the opposite. Doctor Who needs the earth-bound, more character-centric episodes, lest we all forget what we're fighting for.
Capaldi's irritability is directed at humans, but his ire is focused on soldiers. From the beginning, the 13th Doctor has been a being focused on knowing, and one of the primary requirements for knowing is the ability to ask questions. Soldiers are the polar opposite. Theirs is not to wonder why; theirs is but to do and die. Thirteen's loathing is made manifest in Danny Pink, the soldier-turned-math teacher whom the Time Lord can't quite reconcile with. How can a soldier, a jarhead, unthinking being, teach the secrets of the universe? He insists on calling Pink 'P.E.' and to Danny's credit, he doesn't throttle the man from Gallifrey.
Danny and Clara have been seeing each other, a truth that she has been keeping from The Doctor during all of their adventures. When Who finally finds out, it's a betrayal on the most basic level: the Doctor and Danny are two opposing sides, a soldier and a scientist, and you chose him? Clara, of course, has chosen both. But she has kept the one from the other, as if she knew the two could never get mix in the real world. The Doctor provides an escape, and with him, she is someone capable, competent and good in a pinch; Danny provides the safe haven when she is back on earth. Unlike the other companions, most of whom were running away from this or that life, Clara seems perfectly content with her time on Earth. So, she goes with the Doctor because...? For all the wordsmithing Moffat can concoct, I still haven't seen a good answer.
Coleman and Capaldi have an excellent chemistry together. Their rapid-fire dialogue sizzles with the energy of an old married couple; the kind who have built up years of secrets (for her, about two seasons, for him, about 900 years). Clara's youthful vitality meshes well with the cantankerous hardscrabble of the Doctor and you imagine that Clara is around because the Doctor needs her. He would fall into darkness and misanthropy otherwise. The earlier half of the episode features some great comedy neither is always afforded ("Ooh, fish people. Tell me more." "They're fish, and people."), while the second showcases the cracks under the surface that neither wishes to acknowledge. Maybe they needed each other at one point, but that was, quite literally, another lifetime.
Like some old couples, perhaps they stick around because it's all they know.
The Caretaker is a solid episode in this new season of Doctor Who. There is wit, humor and a good amount of action, with some triumphant moments (Danny's frontflip rescue will have you soaring) but there is also a considerable 'darkness'. I call it 'darkness' but perhaps the correct term is 'more adult'. One aspect of being an adult is the need to face one's own issues., but a cons The 13th Doctor has spent five decades running from himself and in all the infinity of both time and space, it seems like this is the season that will show that, at last, he has run out of places to hide.
Background Noise is GameNGuide's TV column.