"The Caretaker" is my favorite episode of the Peter Capaldi era of Doctor Who thus far. And it's also probably going to turn out to be the episode where this season really "clicks" for me. Really great stuff, that puts the Doctor on the spot in a way we've never seen before. Spoilers ahead...
Parts of "The Caretaker" reminded me of the late, lamented "kid-friendly" Who spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures, in the best possible way. But it also packs a level of edgy personal conflict, and an emotional maturity, that we've seldom seen on Who.
In "The Caretaker," the Doctor goes undercover, sort of like in "The Lodger" (also from co-writer Gareth Roberts.) But this time, he's being the caretaker at the Coal Hill School, where Clara Oswald and Danny Pink both teach. He's trying to trap a monster, a Skovox Blitzer, and he's chosen to do it at their school — something Clara has a bit of an issue with. And Clara's strategy of juggling the Doctor and Danny finally implodes, as the two men in her life meet.
The running themes that get taken to a new level in this episode, off the top of my head:
* Clara standing up to the Doctor more, and serving as a check to some of his worse impulses. The scene where Clara asks him if the companions before him let him get away with railroading them, and then flat-out tells him that he needs her around, or else he needs to grow a conscience of his own, is fantastic.
* The Doctor's distaste for soldiers, and Danny's discomfort at everybody pigeon-holing him as an ex-soldier. When the two of them do meet, the Doctor instantly writes Danny off and decides he's a PE teacher, because he's convinced soldiers can never think for themselves. He actually keeps referring to Danny as "PE."
* The whole notion that Clara and the Doctor had something closer to a "girlfriend-boyfriend" relationship when he was played by Matt Smith. And now that the Doctor looks older and is mad in a more obnoxious manner, their relationship has shifted and has gotten more sparky. The lack of flirty banter between the two leads, along with a serious outside relationship, have actually helped Clara come into her own as a character.
* The whole question about the nature of heroism, and whether fear is empowering.
The magic of Capaldi's performance is that he's able to push the Doctor pretty far in an unsympathetic direction, without losing the Doctor's essential core. All of the stuff where the Doctor is belittling and berating Danny gets actually difficult to watch in parts, especially when Danny is raising perfectly logical ideas about evacuating the school that's about to be overrun by a monster. Matt Smith's Doctor was frequently rude too, but it usually came across as cute.
And just like in the Robin Hood episode a while back, this Doctor's not always right or perfectly astute — the funniest subplot in the episode involves the Doctor jumping to the wrong conclusion about Clara's boyfriend. He sees her talking to an English teacher named Adrian, who bears a striking resemblance to the Matt Smith version of the Doctor, and decides that Clara is dating a substitute for the Doctor she lost — when in fact, Adrian is "not her type."
Between the Doctor assuming that Clara is dating a slightly posh bow-tie-wearing bloke and his dismissive attitude towards her actual boyfriend, this episode gets into issues of class and race that are actually pretty uncomfortable and close to the bone for this show. (It's not that long ago that the Doctor was similarly rude and dismissive to Mickey Smith, and it was played off as a joke.)
So it's kind of a surprise, and electrifying to watch, when Danny gets the Doctor's number: he's a Time Lord, emphasis on Lord, and even with his Scottish accent he's still aristocratic. Danny might be a soldier, but the Doctor is an officer, used to being obeyed and sending others into danger — something he does with Clara in this very episode. The bit where Danny keeps yelling "Sir" at the Doctor is pretty intense.
I can't think of too many other times that someone's called the Doctor out like this — the closest thing that comes to mind is the bit in the audio/web drama "Scream of the Shalka," where one of the soldiers tells the Doctor, "We put the civilian death toll at 637. Our job is put ourselves in the way of that. While you get to be superior and eccentric."
Clara's first impulse is to manage the situation, keeping the Doctor and Danny from each other's throats. But where you'd sort of expect this to turn into a clichéd "relationship squabble" scenario, where Clara and Danny have a falling out, instead it goes past that into something tender and profound.
There are a pair of scenes between Clara and Danny, which together completely sell me on their relationship. In the first, Danny is still coping with the realization that Clara's been keeping a huge secret from him, and he says that you can tell what people think of you by the lies they tell you — so what is Clara saying about Danny by keeping her adventures with the Doctor secret from him?
And in the second scene, at the end of the episode, Danny makes a point that we've previously heard Davros make about the Doctor — he pushes his companions to do things they never thought they could, but he also turns them into weapons. And maybe Clara should be more afraid than she is, when the Doctor is putting her into life-threatening situations. Danny makes Clara promise that if the Doctor ever pushes her too far, she'll come to Danny — or if she doesn't, then she and Danny are over.
Meanwhile, to the extent that the Doctor has a point here, it's that he wants Clara to be with someone who can take care of her. And the Skovox Blitzer is a perfect example of why the Doctor distrusts soldiers — it's got enough explosive power to blow up the entire planet, so if the military attack it, the whole Earth will be wiped out. The Doctor's risky strategy for dealing with the Skovox Blitzer might well be the safest course, and Danny first mucks it up with his meddling and then immediately suggests calling in the armed forces.
But when the Doctor comes up with a second strategy for dealing with the Blitzer — one which takes advantage of the Blitzer's unquestioning soldier-like obedience to authority — it almost fails until Danny does something clever involving the Doctor's invisibility watch and some acrobatics, to distract it. Thus, possibly, starting to prove to the Doctor that Danny isn't just a PE teacher.
Of course, this episode plays completely differently for long-time Doctor Who fans than for casual viewers — because anyone who's watched the show for a long time will pick up on the Doctor's reference to "Artron energy" early on. The Doctor keeps insisting it's not his fault the Skovox Blitzer is here, but he also says it's probably attracted by all the Artron energy in London. And there's really only one source of Artron energy that we know of: the Doctor himself. So he's lying, and this is all his fault. In fact, that may be why the Doctor is being even more arrogant than usual and boasting that he's saving the planet — because he's actually cleaning up his own mess.
The question of the Doctor's blame for all this matters, partly because of the fate of that one policeman who's killed by the Skovox Blitzer, and then finds himself in the same Afterlife as Half-Face and Gretchen. Is the common element that all three of these characters died as a result of the Doctor's actions? Or something else? In any case, we meet a second character in this afterlife, a male receptionist who deals with the new arrival because Missy is too busy.
Oh, and the Doctor gets a potential new companion this time around — a girl called Courtney Woods, aka Disruptive Influence. Too bad when he takes her for a quick flight in the TARDIS, she winds up hurling or causing one last spillage for the Caretaker to clean up.