One of the the practices that the Doctor Who showrunners have done in most of the seasons since 2005 is introduce a few stories that feature more than one companion. “The Caretaker” is that kind of story, and while the action of the episode takes place around the Coal Hill Secondary School–place of employment for both Clara and Daniel Pink–the main focus is on Clara’s management of the two most important relationships in her life. This focus isn’t handled that well, and what we get at the end of the hour is Clara on the receiving end of a pair of emotionally-intense ultimatums that just don’t bring the wonder that the first five episodes of the season do.
It’s not that the story lacks suspense or intensity; it’s that for every attempt to bring the Big Bad Universe to Coal Hill, the writers feel the need to undercut it with some kind of reminder that Clara is leading a double life. An alien robot that looks like the awesome turian Garrus Vakarian (from the Mass Effect franchise of role-playing games) has become stuck near Coal Hill and is endangering not only the school, but also the entire planet. Check that with the Doctor’s internship as the caretaker of the school–a decision that is never clarified–and the fact that he spends half of the episode trying to guess who Clara’s boyfriend is. The murderous robot, a really cool-looking and Cyberman-like sort of killing machine that I found myself wanting to know more about, drifts benignly in and out of the plot, never mustering much suspense in its threat, while Clara lies and fights and glares at the two men, the centerpiece of a weird sort of love triangle that I found off-putting after the great, threat-responsive team-ups of the past few weeks. Basically, I wanted more of what wasn’t going on and less of what was.
Daniel Pink and the Doctor kind of hate each other for no reason, both functionally unaware of this emotion until a striking scene in the TARDIS. As good and dramatic as this scene is, it makes no real sense as neither character has ever behaved this way before. A robot is threatening to destroy the planet, but hey, that’s okay: let’s air our grievances about the chain of command and let that threat get ever closer. The solution, and the final confrontation with the robot, is super cool and really exciting, but watch for the slight of hand: the writers once again trick you into thinking that the Doctor and his two human charges are interested in saving the planet, but really what they’re doing is communicating wordlessly about how to relate to Clara best. There’s also a tangential subplot involving a disruptive student from the school that makes no real sense, either.
6.5/10 – A weird focus on Clara’s dating practices and guessing other people’s motives water down some really good-looking action pieces and a cool freak-of-the-weak villain. Muddy storytelling bogs this episode down to the point at which it’s the weakest episode we’ve seen in season 8, but it’s by no means a severe regression. Still, I get the feeling that what we’ve seen here will come into play again later, hopefully without all of the melodrama this script suggested. Next week: spiders, space suits, and the moon!