Saturday, 15 April 2017

The Caretaker

Chapter The 50th, a Capaldi episode, but probably not the one you were expecting today.

Clara is frantically juggling her adventures with the Doctor, dating Danny Pink, and teaching at Coal Hill School, when - suspiciously - the Doctor calls a sudden halt to their travels, and turns up posing as the new school caretaker. He's secretly trying to trap a Skovox Blitzer, which sounds like a cheap food processor exclusive to QVC, but is actually a dangerous war machine thing. He manages to defeat it, but only with help from Danny. The Doctor and Danny each find out simultaneously all about Clara's secret life with the other one, and size each other up. With hilarious consequences.

After work one night, during the early part of the Easter hols, I stuck on the Blu-Ray of the episode, and - for the first time in a while - the whole family watched together: me, the Better Half, and all three kids (boys of 10 and 7, girl of 4). Everyone enjoyed it, and there were quite a few moments that got big laughs from the whole room, e.g. when the  Doctor says "Is this part of the surprise play?" which doesn't sound like much out of context but is hilarious and delivered with precision.

First-time round:
At this point, the family had got into a rhythm with new Doctor Who episodes: I would timeshift the BBC1 broadcast and screen, usually accompanied by The Better Half, on the evening of the Saturday; then, if it wasn't too scary - and quite a few were in 2014, but not The Caretaker - we'd watch again with the kids on Sunday morning. No anecdotes particular to this story, but it was the first time in a long time I'd found six Doctor Who stories in a row (the run from Deep Breath to The Caretaker) an unqualified success. Capaldi's first was a very strong series to my mind.

From the opening moments of The Caretaker, I was reminded of a theory I've had at the back of my mind for a while: the shorter Capaldi's hair, the better his performance. (I'm sure it also applies to all the other Doctors whose lock length fluctuated.) We're in the pre-bouffant period here, and the close-cropped, snarky Capaldi is perhaps counter-intuitively much more charming than he later became. In an early exchange he tells Clara she's looking lovely, "Have you had a wash?". In reply, she wonders why he's being nice, and without missing a beat he says "Because it works on you". Instantly, you just love him. Put away the sunglasses and guitar, Granddad, you're trying too hard; you had us at "pudding brains". Apart from laughs, the opening sequence also has crackling energy, and a lightness of touch in dealing with the inter-personal drama; Gareth Roberts' script and Paul Murphy's direction combine to keep these levels of excellence going throughout.

Danny Pink, who's been gradually cemented into this series with extensive cameos in previous episodes, as well as a large dose of backstory in Listen two episodes back, finally arrives into a full supporting role. He makes a welcome addition to the dynamic, keeping both the Doctor and Clara on their toes. Twenty-first century Who often did this, using the addition of a second, male companion to provide a different type of conflict, prevent the central Doctor-female companion team from getting complacent, and to give more colour and depth to that primary companion's home life. Though they all developed in different ways, this was the initial function of Adam, Captain Jack, Mickey and Rory. The latest in line is ably played by Samuel Anderson, an interesting new spin being his suppressed guilt at actions from his previous life as a soldier. As with the later 'Pond Life' period Rory, Danny also brings a domestic counterpoint to the far flung time travel adventures. Clara, like Amy before her, has to balance her two lives. I've always thought this approach was the most effective for Doctor Who, and 2014's arc is well thought through and satisfying.

One point where I disagree with a recent Guardian piece that has upset a few people online - I do think Danny Pink is a classic character, but the rest I broadly agree with. The timing is a little nasty: two days before Doctor Who relaunches itself, when the journalist has even seen the first new episode and is positive about it, the headline wonders when the show will stop being "smug" and "stale". Thanks a bunch. But some of the comments about Steven Moffat's two leading ladies to date are spot on; in a misguided attempt to make them special, he makes them unrelatable. Rory and Danny are much more interesting and performable characters than Amy or Clara, because they're down to Earth but can still be extraordinary because of the otherworldly adventures they are thrust into; until now, it hasn't occurred to Moffat to cut out the middle man (literally) and just have the main female companion be down to Earth and relatable but still extraordinary, with no time cracks or time splinters to overcomplicate things. With Bill Potts, though, according to the same article, he's finally managed it, and hurrah for that.

Also grounding the action in The Caretaker is the backdrop of Coal Hill School, a refreshing reminder of what is was like before it disappeared down the rabbit-hole of darkness and angst in Class. Courtney Woods is a fun recurring comedy character, and it's great to see Nigel Betts' Mr. Armitage, the Headteacher, alive and well. There's loads of other good stuff too: funny lines and situations, the whole strand with the Doctor thinking Clara's in love with a dead ringer for his previous incarnation... I know I haven't said much about the defeating the alien bits, but they are only a minor subplot; sorry to any emotionally inarticulate fanboys - this one is all about the relationships. 

This is a tough one: what links The Caretaker and The Massacre? Aside from the old faithful that both the actors playing the Doctor are the same age, they are both tales where the Doctor and companions pause their usual travels for a few days and nights to stay in a European capital city. That's about it.

Deeper Thoughts:
The stories so far. The blog has now covered its 50th story; had I been working chronologically, that would mean I'd have finished the black-and-white stories by now. I'd have completed all the missing ones, and put recons and soundtracks behind me. It's tempting to think that would be preferable, as they can be a slog, but they're even more of a slog if done one after another. There are stretches in the Sixties where sadly you get a few scant moments of moving image every two hours on average - I'm glad to stick to hopping about. Another benefit of viewing in a random order is that it highlights that the themes of Doctor Who run consistently through its many eras. Historical stories, which were thought so out of place in the show as it became increasingly about the monsters, in fact resonate well with those running themes: The Massacre (like The Aztecs which I watched early on) is all about intervention - the rights and wrongs of meddling, or failing to meddle, and the lives that get impacted in the crossfire of the decision-making.

When the Doctor talks of this, after being criticised by his companion for refusing to involve himself in the history of The Massacre, he is clearly conflicted: it's something he's scared to do, not dead set against. When he mentions in the same scene that he can't go back to his home planet, he's inadvertently chiming with the reasons given later for his leaving there: his people are even more unwilling to get involved than he is. As such, The Massacre and The Deadly Assassin (another recent watch) are linked by a chain of consistency, the latter showing the atrophied, corrupt society that results from Gallifrey shutting itself off from the rest of the universe, even though that's done for the universe's own good. How wonderful is that in two stories, years apart, without planning, made by a completely different set of people? There may be superficial inconsistencies (Atlantis has been destroyed two different ways so far in the stories I've covered, with another one yet to come) but ultimately, majestically, this is an adventure - singular - in time and space.

And this goes for the new series stories too, up to the current era. Although by the time of The Caretaker the Doctor seems to have become reconciled to interfering, the plot still draws from the same thematic well: the Doctor - perhaps for a greater good, or perhaps out of an arrogant single-mindedness - puts Clara and her whole school in danger by his actions, and Danny Pink calls him on it. At the time of writing, just before the start of a whole new series of Peter Capaldi episodes, it's fun to anticipate where the story - singular - will go next. Mixing in my random viewings of old episodes does present a challenge when new episodes are being made and shown, though; I could have just blogged the opening show of the series, as I did in 2015, but that's not in the blog's spirit of  'any old order'. So, I have decided that the best method would be to pick one random episode of series 10 in advance. The random number generator didn't come up with the opener, so you'll have to wait for any report on The Pilot, but I'm very excited to see it tonight. Hope you are too - have a happy Who and a happy Easter!

In Summary:
In a class of its own.

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