Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"The Caretaker"

"The safety word is my name."
It's the halfway point of the series and we've come to the last of Moffat's regulars, Gareth Roberts, writer of light-hearted fluff. Thus we have 'The Caretaker,' a hybrid of 'School Reunion' and 'The Lodger' with a little New Who Series 1 and 5 soap thrown in. I've accidentally watched this episode three times, rather than twice, which says a good deal about its entertainment value even if it is trite and representative of New Who's tedious devotion to small-minded angst-drama. It's well paced with some nice lines, although the plot is total arse and as usual it drives the 'characterisation' element home with a sledgehammer. We begin with New Who's regular conceit where we're shown a snippet of what looks like a far more interesting adventure, with the Doctor and Clara chained up in a mysterious desert which is either on another planet or California on a bad day depending on what the rocks in the background are meant to be. If I may dwell on this longer than I intended, it's actually a pretty striking encapsulation of New Who's over-reliance on postmodern self-referentiality, where the image of 'Doctor and Companion in peril in a hostile landscape' is used as visual shorthand, a 'sign' if you will (in the Baudrillardian sense) of what the average viewer thinks 'Doctor Who' is. This of course only serves to emphasise how removed New Who actually is from what it purports to be, and the programme's massive insecurity complex: New Who secretly hates that it is the continuation of that 20th century sci-fi show which New Who's writers were picked on in the playground as kids for liking. Thus it must lampoon that aspect (moral and practical challenges in hypothetical scenarios) to better establish or justify to itself why it gets to be what it is (a ratings-hungry comedy-drama 'flagship' under a thin veneer of science-fiction imagery).
Here to clean up your shit TV show.
It's taking him a while.
Anyway, this among other things shows us that Clara is struggling to balance her life with the Doctor and her life with Danny, although it seems like it's very one way: her plans with Danny never seem to get in the way of the Doctor, only the reverse. We get some clumsy foreshadowing when the Doctor says "I hate soldiers" while having lasers fired at him in a space corridor before we get a dubious shot of a glistening, sweaty Clara and the establishment of our current plot. We get some finger-clicking to open the TARDIS doors, which we haven't seen in a while, and which kind of has some of its novelty worn off with the perfunctory way it is done here: Tennant snapping his fingers to open the TARDIS in 'Forest of the Dead' is one of the only genuinely cool things his Doctor ever got to do. The Doctor tells Clara to piss off because he's going into 'deep cover,' conveniently enough at Coal Hill School of Susan, Barbara and Ian fame where Clara now works and where her romance with Danny, blossoming like so many stock film clips of rockets launching and trees falling down in reverse, is the hottest topic of gossip among the student body. Danny notices that Clara is always "in a rush." He's bringing that up now? At the staff meeting the headmaster introduces the new caretaker - as if they'd bother - and it's of course Peter Capaldi in a brown mack. I just looked up 'stereotypical workman coat' to confirm that this was indeed a mackintosh (I don't think it really is), and one of the first images that came up was a promotional photo for this very episode. Someone's ahead of me here.
The Secret Policeman's Disco Ball
After the titles, appropriately enough, all the teachers go on their merry way, 'cause no one would care about the caretaker, although Capaldi's dialogue draws a bit too much attention to this. Danny gets to make a lame remark about his eyebrows, which are clearly going to be the 'Matt Smith's chin' of this incarnation, and Clara makes an amusingly glib effort to portray his knowing wink to her as a "general welcoming wink." She confronts the Doctor, who reveals that he's hypnotised the regular caretaker into thinking he has a flying car (Harry Potter?) and three wives (smarmy writers?) and oddly tells her to "go worship something" at assembly. "I'm a caretaker now, look I've got a brush," is another line well-delivered by the big C here. The ongoing remarks are less palatable: the line about a 'sinister puddle' is a step too far (it'd be funnier if he just listed with satisfaction all the tedious odd jobs he had to do) and an anecdote about him (presumably as Smith, I can almost see it unfortunately) 'sulking' among otters after a fight with the hopefully-never-ever-to-be-seen-again River Song is very unwelcome. He's come to see to some convenient local danger about which he's not being too clear, but it's immediately revealed when in the next scene we discover a community police officer discovering some kids "playing hooky" as they say, lounging around in the street playing games on their phones, although the sounds and shots make it look like they're playing Tiger handheld games or something. After sending them on their way our hassled neighbourhood bobby investigates some suspicious noises coming out of the derelict building on the block, assuming it's another kid, whining to the darkness "Turn your game off, it's time for school, come on!" like he's about to burst into tears. It is of course not a kid but some kind of horrible killer robot that zaps him in a cheesy and surprisingly graphic death sequence, blowing one of his arms off.
"Can I come and talk to the rest of the cast?"
A pointless scene ensues where the Doctor interrupts Clara's class on Pride and Prejudice through the window. We get some satire of the typical "joined a band with a historical figure" jokes the show likes to do when Clara speculates on how the Doctor knows when Austen wrote the novel (apparently some of it probably was written in 1797, making him wrong), and then Clara very professionally calls one of the students an "amateur" for asking for homework - another cheap gag. It's odd watching this episode and noting how it probably only works because of Capaldi. The previous two Doctors could never have passed off in this kind of role. Out in the playground, ridiculous Murray Gold 'comedy' music plays as Clara pointlessly picks up a watering can in a strange effort to disguise getting closer to the Doctor talking to Danny. The Doctor keeps going on about how Danny must be a PE teacher because he was a soldier, implying that he's an idiot. His line "No, sorry, I can't retain that," when Danny insists that he's a soldier and a maths teacher is pure contemporary 'blank refusal is funny' sitcom shite that Moffat would probably have chucked a laugh track onto if he was allowed. He fails to compare Danny to the identical Orson from 'Listen' two episodes ago despite Clara's suggestion, and instead assumes that her boyfriend must be a different teacher, the floppy-haired, bow-tie-clad Adrian. "Don't mind this old man," he tells them, another arguably ageist line well-delivered by Capaldi, but the moment really emphasises once again how much the shadow of Matt Smith's Doctor is hanging over this series. I'm also not sure what the episode says by in this way suggesting that the Doctor is hubristic enough, or sufficiently reductive of his companion's personality, to think the Clara would simply go for a guy who looked a bit like how he used to look; the idea is certainly never raised in the episode.
Ooh err missus.
After this we get a goofy montage of Capaldi going into full Kryten mode, bustling around the school rubbing out graffiti about Clara and Danny, unsubtly whistling Pink Floyd and sticking little sci fi gadgets everywhere while more generic Murray Gold comedy music tinkles inanely in our ears. In the caretaker's shed Courtney the troublesome kid first seen in 'Deep Breath' shows up looking for some paper towel after a "spillage in geography." Couldn't it have at last been chemistry? The Doctor has a 'Go Away Humans' sign on the door, which seems more like something Moffat's comedy Sontaran would do. Capaldi informs Courtney that the TARDIS is "the caretaker's box, every caretaker has their own box" and that it says 'Police' because "there's a policeman in there." Again Capaldi's delivery redeems a lot of this, although he can't salvage the comment about the sign which is pure Moffat forgotten-how-to-write-comedy excrement (unless Roberts wrote that one). He asks Courtney "haven't you got shoplifting to get to?" Is he asking that because she's a kid? 'Cause it kind of sounds like he's asking it because she's.... never mind, Clara comes in, although the cutaway to Capaldi as Courtney leaves makes it sound as if Courtney's turned around and walked straight into the door. The Doctor tells Clara that he's rigged up a scanner to detect the local danger, wondering why he keeps her around. Clara tells him that "the alternative would be developing a conscious of your own." It's an awful piece of Moffat telling over showing. He makes a reference to a teacher he used to know, which is possibly a reference to Barbara I guess, and then reveals that the danger du jour is an arbitrary gun laden robot called the 'Skovox Blitzer' which has seemingly come to East London due to "artron emissions" which have occurred in the area over time. Is that our tiny piddling concession to 'An Unearthly Child' and 'Remembrance of the Daleks' (and arguably to a lesser extent 'Attack of the Cybermen')? That's about as much effort as Roberts and Moffat are willing to invest in setting up their totally arbitrary dilemma. Remember, kids, only nerds and losers like plot. All the cool kids are into fictional characters talking about their invented relationships.
Ask for Alfonse.
Clara's brilliant idea for dealing with the killer robot is that the Doctor "leave it alone," which seems very defeatist of her. The Doctor, however, can't risk that it might be provoked by "some military idiot," returning to our touchstone of this series. He's built an invisibility watch to lure it to where he can trap it. That'd be handy in other scenarios, wouldn't it. Shame he's never made one before. He also claims that the school is the "only suitably empty place in the area." On what basis? It's just the writers dismissing any need for the plot to make real sense. His trap is that "chronodyne generators," the handy sci-fi gadgets that he's suddenly been able to make, will send the robot safely into the far future. Isn't that just fobbing the problem off onto someone else? The most amusing bit in this sequence is his suggestion to Clara that after defeating the Blitzer they visit Crocodilopolis: "They worship a big crocodile there." That'd be fine as the entire line, but the sentence goes on to him saying it's a coincidence, which is too clever-clever, as usual. He drops hints about recognising her boyfriend, comparing him to a "certain dashing young time traveller," but the ensuing conversation where Clara says "I underestimated you" and so on is written in a way that seems to really overemphasise what they're discussing. Why would the Doctor figuring out who Clara's boyfriend is (even though he's actually mistaken) be such a big deal? It's a weird moment. It's also weird how approving the Doctor is when he thinks Clara's boyfriend is Smith-alike Adrian. Again, it comes across as kind of hubristic.
Outside, we get more dreadful Moffat lines where characters use the phrase "a thing" in lieu of explaining themselves. Parents' evening is coming up, because as usual there has to be some event on when the plot kicks up a notch. Danny argues that the Doctor "doesn't seem like a caretaker." What does he seem like then Danny? That evening the Doctor lures the big robot to the school but Danny, having postponed his date with Clara, is going around investigating all the Doctor's 'chronodyne' sci-fi gadgets, which apprently become 'deactivated' simply by pulling them off the wall. Presumably he thinks Capaldi's trying to blow up the school. Clara bursts into the Caretaker's shed, telling the Doctor that her date is off. Wasn't that hours ago? It looks like it was. Why is she still here? So all our pieces are in place. Danny absurdly calls out "Hello?" after just missing the Blitzer, which is stomping around on its noisy metal feet and barking directives in a harsh electronic voice, as if he's expecting that all the commotion is just someone loitering around the corridors. In the hall, the Blitzer's about to turn Capaldi crispy because Danny fiddling with the gadgets has meant they've all deactivated, but then Danny bursts in and the Blitzer attacks him instead. Why doesn't it kill the Doctor first? He somehow gets one of his gadgets back on and uses the sonic screwdriver like a magic wand to get the Blitzer sucked into the time vortex or whatever. What follows is a rather long scene where the Doctor rags on Danny for interfering, which means the robot will now return soon and won't be fooled again by the same trick, Danny susses out that it's a "space thing" (why does everyone share the same vocal tics in Moffat land?), Clara pretends it's a play in a moment of pure sitcom and Danny thinks the Doctor is Clara's "space dad."
"Get in here so we can cut your throat and dispose of the body."
The funniest moment here is probably when the Doctor says "You've made a boyfriend error." He asks her "Why would you go out with a soldier?" I'm glad they emphasised the soldier aspect here, 'cause it kind of sounds like he's asking it because he's... never mind. The answer of course is (in Clara's accent) "Because I loov him!" Whoa there, steady on. Because I'm the kind of deeply repressed Old Who fan to whom public displays of emotion are about as welcome as a face-full of human refuse, I of course vomited loudly into a bucket I keep on hand at all times upon hearing this line. When he asks her about bow-tie Adrian, she replies that he's not her "type." Sure he's not. Needing to convince Danny rather than bothering to lie, the Doctor rather over-dramatically reveals the TARDIS, which he has for some reason moved to the stage in the school hall. Danny thinks they need to call the army to stop the Blizter, but the Doctor insists that he must find a new solution. He ominously informs Clara that "You haven't explained him to me." Why does she need to? More interpersonal angst, as ever. It'd in many ways have been more effective for them to have done this with Smithy, although it'd run the risk of seeming like even more of an Amy-Rory rehash. Clara and Danny have a big long chat, the best line probably being Danny's "So there's an alien, that used to look like Adrian, then he turned into a Scottish caretaker." I wonder why she bothered mentioning the regeneration to him? She assures him that she doesn't love the Doctor "in that way." "What other way is there?" he asks. "You know what I mean." "I don't know what you mean." Is Danny being deliberately dense here? I wonder how this would have played out with our previous younger, more 'dashing' Doctors. Danny asks her "Why do you fly off in the box with him?" Why wouldn't you go time travelling if you were offered? When Clara asks him "What are you thinking," he should have replied "I think I need a drink."
Get Courtney in here and it'll be just like
the original 1963 team, right? Same show? Same show?
Danny complains that Clara's keeping of secrets from him raises the question of what she thinks of him. We're in full-blown soap opera angst mode now, with trite, stock 'drama' lines like "I just want to know who you are." Who cares? All this crap about keeping secrets is just humdrum 'human drama' shite that gets trotted out on TV all the time. There's nothing left to be said on this topic in any medium. To show him the truth, Clara sneaks Danny into the TARDIS with the invisibility watch. "Not even a ring," he remarks. Tolkien reference? It's hardly going to be Plato, is it? Capaldi offers that they piss off, which actually makes sense. He claims he needs 24 hours to finish his new contraption for defeating the Blizter. Couldn't he just nip into a different time period and take as long as he wants? As he himself says to Clara, "It's a time machine, we can get back straight away." He's also quite aloof with her, which is a bit dull, but it turns out it's a ploy to annoy Danny. Danny reveals that he can spot the "aristocracy" of the Doctor after hearing that he's a Time Lord, declaring that he's an "officer." It's an interesting idea, I suppose, and Capaldi lives up to the accusation very well in his performance in this scene, but they're going to need to take this idea further than they do in this episode if they expect to achieve anything with it. The question might be: what is an officer, an aristocrat, who turned his back on the privileged society which made him that way? If they don't take this further, or take this angle, I think they'll be missing a serious opportunity to actually do a far more potentially interesting take on the Doctor's characterisation than has been attempted previously in New Who with the usual simplistic rigmarole of him being a "lonely god" or a "good man" or having a "dark side" or whatever. As usual, Capaldi's delivery elevates a lot of this stuff, although I wonder if his "On balance, I think that went quite well," would have been delivered with more sarcasm by other incarnations - I'm contemplating Paul McGann's performance of Moffat dialogue recently, for instance. Now that I think about it, as interesting as it would have been, I don't think this script would have worked with the last couple of more facetious Doctors.
"Edward, can you waggle your fingers about and say 'Geronimo'?"
Courtney has been lurking nearby and Capaldi gets another good line where he states "It's a time machine! It also travels in space!" Her parents arrive on the forefront at parents' evening where they're used as a cheap joke. Meanwhile the robot has of course reappeared right now during a major event, and Clara and Danny leap up to speak to 'the caretaker' right in the middle of their parent teacher interviews. Somehow I doubt you'd get away with that. Clara has to lure the Blitzer to the Doctor's shed with the sonic screwdriver. I don't get why, if it's so dangerous, once again it doesn't shoot immediately upon seeing a target, instead chasing Clara around the school. To be fair to them, as generic as this alien menace is they do a reasonable job of making it look like it's actually moving on its robot legs, which might be the one thing you could say this episode does better than Fifth Doctor serial 'Kinda.' The Doctor's built a weird sci fi backpack to let him imitate the robot's general, the 'Skovox Artificer,' which is a pretty handy fit with all this stuff from a few minutes ago about aristocrats and officers. He needs more time to stop it self destructing however, but right on cue Danny runs in and manages to somersault completely over it, which is apparently a thing people can do. The Doctor then proceeds to yell at it and thus shut it down. The world apparently saved, Danny realises that the reason the Doctor dislikes him is because he needs to be "good enough for her." So they're kind of saying the Doctor is like her disapproving space dad? The Doctor takes Courtney with him while he dumps the deactivated Blitzer in space, and she proceeds to spew into the TARDIS. I'm surprised they didn't write it so that she spewed in space, it fell to a planet and then a few episode's later they go to "the planet evolved from Courtney's spew." Back at Clara's flat, Danny compares the Doctor further to officers who push people and make them stronger. When she says she trusts the Doctor, he weirdly starts imposing rules on their relationship, making her promise to tell him if he ever pushes her too far: "If you break that promise, Clara, we're finished... if you don't tell me the truth I can't help you." Why would she need him to help her? Why does he need to help her? I don't know which relationship ends up seeming more problematic here, although I suspect they didn't intend for this one to seem that way.
New Who - where all the comedy actors go.
Meanwhile in Heaven the policeman from earlier has a chat with Chris Addison and his discomforting gaze fresh from Mock the Week. We saw this guy get blown into pet-friendly chunks, which certainly disrupts my 'Heaven is a TARDIS which catches people just before they die' theory. We'll see where that goes. So ends 'The Caretaker.' As I say, entertaining enough as they go, and with some interesting ideas, but there are some pretty clunky lines scattered throughout and as usual it's frustrating to see how enslaved the writers are to this model of characterisation: conflict, crisis, confrontation, repeat, repeat, repeat. And it's all there is. Even though I found 'The Caretaker' to be reasonably diverting by New Who's standards, I simply can't avoid the frustrations it raises for me. I've been watching and re-watching a bit of Real Who lately, 'Kinda' and 'The Talons of Weng Chiang' for instance, and working my way through 'The Sea Devils.' Say what you like about any of them, but that's Doctor Who. 'The Caretaker' isn't something awful, but it sums up New Who more or less to a tee: puppeteering the imagery and vocabulary of Doctor Who but in a format and style which is completely unlike the show of which it is supposed to be a continuation. Why do plot and discourse only exist in this show (New Who) simply to enable characterisation? Characterisation is not an end in itself. It's really worth considering the fact that the issues contemplated by Doctor Who, like morality, power, scientific responsibility and the like are not of particular interest to New Who on a regular basis. New, if it does contemplate issues, deals with domestic 'human interest' ones like impossible and unrequited love, jealousy and secret keeping. Is this really the best way the premise of the show can be put to use? By these standards, 'The Caretaker' is arguably a success, and it raises some interesting ideas about the Doctor as a character, but it really emphasises how little vision New Who has beyond ruminations about these fictional characters whose own fictional lives are not meaningful or relevant in isolation. If Moffat and co are able to conjure something impressively intelligent from the concept they establish here of the Doctor as an aristocrat and officer, which is by far the most interesting statement that has been made in New Who for years, let alone in this episode, then fair play to them, but personally I would take care of my expectations.

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