Pre-judging this episode by the next time trailers and assumptions based on Gareth Robert’s previous episodes (generally consisting of stand-alone comedy pieces on Doctor Who) meant it would not be unfair to expect a slightly unimportant and flimsy, if still moderately entertaining effort this week.
A pleasant surprise then is ‘The Caretaker’, which manages to transcend forgettable romp status, as this time Roberts (sharing a co-writer credit here with Steven Moffat) is given the chance to have his mid-series tale firmly entrenched within the series. This allows his script to challenge these characters, building meaning based on previous events and setting up dynamics which will have clearly have consequences, a key element lacking in the previous few years of ‘fairytale Who’.
And at the heart of this is firmly establishing the world of Clara as we get to examine the now relatable impossibilities of her double life through a pacy, inventively-shot opener. Here we can see the shift Clara’s character has made from the buoyant impossible girl of last series; her world now weighted with marking to do, students causing trouble and keeping unbelievable secrets from a fledging romance. Focusing in on her life also allows Coal Hill School to no longer be simply a throwaway tribute to the origins of the show by being woven with believable details of school life: the awkwardness of parents’ evening, students gossiping about teachers and the generally accepted viewpoint that PE teachers are the real monsters.
And while the title could be seen to refer to Clara’s role as the ‘carer’ in the Doctor’s life, it’s the surface level humour of the Doctor’s “deep cover” that provides most of the episode’s most entertaining moments. Unfortunately, sometimes Capaldi’s Doctor dips here from morally ambiguous into nasty territory when it comes to Danny, though the relationship feels more comfortable than previous companion boyfriend antagonism because Danny can give it as good as he gets. These moments are also balanced out by sweeter elements to Capaldi’s Doctor like his assumption than a bowtie-wearing colleague is Clara’s boyfriend and his brief companion-ing of “disruptive influence” Courtney Woods.
It would be easy to pick on the monster-of-the-week aspect of this episode (it is a stretch to call it weak when it was practically non-existent) but within a 45-minute episode it avoided the all too easy problem of a high concept idea of an episode overpowering any of its contents. Even if Danny’s heroic somersault to save the day feels like a slightly silly way to end the episode, it emotionally hits the right beats and like the rest of the story, drew from these relationships established in first half of series, ready to launch it into the latter half. The greatest gift of ‘The Caretaker’ is taking time to make sure that the audience have characters to care about.