You have to feel for Clara. She’s trying to balance her life with the Doctor with her teaching job and her relationship with Danny Pink, while trying to keep two of those things as far away from each other as possible. It was all going to topple in on itself at some point, and, in The Caretaker, that’s exactly what happens. So here it is. The big bust-up with Danny Pink we could see coming from a mile off. The Doctor goes under “deep cover” in Clara’s school (basically he puts on a different coat) to tackle the threat of the killer robot that has inexplicably decided to make its base there, and, in the process, comes across Clara’s boyfriend. This is a typical Gareth Roberts script. This episode seems to pitch itself as the Capaldi era’s answer to The Lodger, Roberts’ successful Matt Smith script. Indeed, there’s fun aplenty to be had in this episode with the Doctor’s awkward job in passing himself off as a normal human being, but the focus of this episode, distinct from The Lodger, was the character drama between the Doctor, Clara and Danny.
I thought the first meetings between the Doctor and Danny were entertaining, the Doctor’s inability to comprehend that Danny, a former soldier, could be intelligent enough to be a maths teacher cringeworthy in the best possible way (i.e. in the “Oh, God, you can’t say that, Doctor!” kind of way). Equally cringeworthy was Clara’s valiant but entirely unconvincing attempt to explain away to Danny all the fantastical things he’d just seen, the harried, slightly manic look of a person whose whole world was crashing down around her on her face as she did so. It was the eventual conflagration between the two men in the Tardis that was the dramatic high-point of this episode, though: the furious dialogue was electric, and Capaldi and Anderson both injected their performances with due intensity (it was frightening watching them, to be honest, especially Capaldi). The two men’s eventual reluctant truce, when they prove themselves to each other, felt like the appropriate resolution.
For all this episode’s dramatic qualities, though, it’s rather ruined for me because of how contrived it all feels. The conflict between the Doctor and Danny is totally contrived, based, as it is, on the Doctor’s baffling new-found prejudice against soldiers. I know I’m not the only one who watched this somewhat bewildered by why the Doctor seems to loathe soldiers all of the sudden. The answer, of course, is that Steven Moffat started with the idea that there should be conflict between the Doctor and Danny, and made up this laboured reason afterwards. It doesn’t feel natural, though. We’ve never seen anything like this intense loathing and pre-judgment on the Doctor’s part before. Even if we were asked to accept that the Doctor inexplicably detests soldiers now, the Doctor’s presumption that a soldier like Danny couldn’t possibly be intelligent enough to teach maths was just unnecessary, especially given that one of the Doctor’s oldest and dearest friends, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart — a soldier — became a maths teacher. I’d like to be able to focus on the engaging drama of this episode, but it’s difficult to see past the genuinely baffling elephant in the room that is the absurd prejudice of the Doctor that’s behind it all.
One thing that’s definitely worth watching this episode for, though, was the comedy. Gareth Roberts’ previous scripts, The Lodger and Closing Time were full of it, and this one is no different. I loved the Doctor’s frankly hilarious assumption that Clara’s love interest was the Matt Smith lookalike in a bow-tie with the floppy hair, and his brief expression of genuine hurt when Clara told him the guy wasn’t her type. I loved that the Doctor’s idea of “deep cover” was changing his coat and carrying a brush (Sherlock Holmes he is not), and that he assumed Clara wouldn’t recognise him. Capaldi also got another classic line: “Human beings have incredibly short life spans. Frankly, you should all be in a permanent state of panic. Tick tock, tick tock.” Say what you like about Capaldi’s Doctor, the guy at least knows how to make you laugh. Unfortunately, while the comedy and the novelty carried over from The Lodger, the plotting didn’t: The Lodger was genuinely creepy, had a compelling mystery and an engaging plot, while everything about the Skovox Blitzer felt like an afterthought, even its name.
Some final thoughts. It’s probably most noticeable here than in any episode so far in Series 8 that Clara has benefited from much better writing this series. No longer the cardboard cut-out with a series arc where her personality was supposed to be that she had become by the end of Series 7, she’s written like a real, believable character here, with strengths, flaws, quirks and idiosyncrasies, and a proper, fleshed-out personal life. Finally, I know this was partly the point, but the Doctor was not written very flatteringly here in his scathing contempt for Danny Pink. In his disbelief at Clara over her choice of boyfriend, he comes across as a bigoted grandparent upset his granddaughter has brought home a Catholic (or a Muslim, or whatever). In his disdain for Danny Pink he comes across as a cantankerous, irritable old man, which is an impression the writers should really be careful to avoid, as it’s a characterisation that can tend to alienate viewers, and one the writing of Capaldi’s Doctor can very easily fall into. I’m sure Capaldi doesn’t want the identifying feature of his Doctor to be “grumpy”.