So, since it seems to be the standard opening rhythm for these things, twenty minutes past transmission we’re at 59.7% at 8-10, with 8 being the most popular pick at 29.25%. Thread titles include “this years arc sucks,” “A thing! again,” “Clara’s skirt!,” and “Peter C was on fire tonight,” which, really, seems so utterly standard it’s hard to draw any conclusions. Twitter seems positive. For my part, I liked this a lot, although it definitely took the second viewing for me to really grok it, because I was busy being surprised by its tone on the first pass. I suspect it will watch much more smoothly to people who weren’t foolish (or fannish) enough to have expectations, however.
Ah, yes. Expectations. You know what, let’s take stock of where we are. First episode of autumn proper, halfway point of the season. It’s a good time for taking stock.
In the UK, it’s well past night-time, to the point where this review is posting after people are largely gone to bed. Here, it’s a bit before sunset. My wife’s just left for her last night of work on the Oncology floor, before she transfers to a different floor to broaden her experience a bit. I’m up for a while yet, planning on writing some of the V for Vendetta chapter after this, after I walk the dog and grab some dinner. The episode’s not on for another three or four hours yet, so this is going to go out into the void to an extent, really playing only to the Americans who pirate it from the UK streams and late night Brits.
Based on the most current news, the program is on a ratings hot streak like it hasn’t seen in a while. All four episodes with final ratings have been in the top ten for the week, and there’s some high-powered competition on the air. This week is particularly dicey for ratings obsessives, as the BBC is confident enough to throw it up against The X-Factor. To be honest, expect a panic tomorrow when people start reporting the overnights, although it’s almost certainly going to stabilize out, whether through time-shifting (which always adds a healthy couple million to Doctor Who’s ratings) or through iPlayer (which doesn’t get counted yet in ratings, but adds another million or so).
There’s several ways in which the program feels like it’s genuinely in a different place than it was a year ago. This is worth noting explicitly in an episode that is, as much as anything, about reaffirming the end of the Eleventh Doctor era. This is the last episode of the half of the season where it was relatively easy to guess what you were going to get. It’s not that it’s been devoid of surprises – hello Listen – but the surprises have generally been within episodes. Every week after Deep Breath, you basically knew what you were going to get if you were paying attention to writers, episode titles, the Doctor Who Magazine descriptions, or, let’s be honest, the script and screener leaks, which vented an awful lot of spoilers into the atmosphere.
Which is to say that the central gamble of The Caretaker, which is that it’s not the remake of The Lodger that it initially pretends it’s going to be, is well-timed. As I said, this is an episode about reaffirming that the Eleventh Doctor era is over. It feels very conscious, as a transition point between Act One and Act Two of Season Eight, like it’s meant to relaunch the series.
It’s worth noting that Moffat did something very much like this with Matt Smith. Over-sized opening episode, a series of episodes that revisited past approaches to the show, all by Moffat save for one entrusted to Gatiss, and then an episode that serves as a jumping on point in which the companion’s boyfriend joins in the TARDIS fun, although that’s seemingly already being subverted as part of this transition into a string of six episodes we really don’t know a ton about. (Spoilers based only on information made public: scary space thing, scary mummy thing, weird-sounding one, really weird-sounding one, finale involving UNIT, Missy, and some Cybermen, and then Nick Frost at Christmas, possibly without Coleman. That’s a lot less than we could immediately infer from something like “Gareth Roberts is writing an episode called The Caretaker in which the Doctor takes a job as the caretaker at Coal Hill School.” We know exactly what to expect from that, much like we did from “Mark Gatiss does the Doctor meets Robin Hood, and it’s called Robot of Sherwood” or “Steve Thompson. Time Heist. It’s a bank robbery thing.”
But that’s how new Doctors work. You dress them in the trappings of what went before and let them steadily replace anything they don’t like. And what Gareth Roberts does is write an episode that confidently assumes that the program isn’t going to feel like it did under Matt Smith. And it doesn’t, but let’s put off why for a moment and start with Roberts. And I do suspect this is mostly Roberts – I think Moffat was probably mostly just nipping and tucking at the character bits for Danny. There’s almost two Dannys in the story, although this is largely deliberate – I think there’s a real extent to which Moffat is keeping the character to himself, and that’s worth talking about too.
But let’s note the first half of the episode first, for somewhat obvious reasons. It, at least, is a fairly straight remake of The Lodger. Except, and this is key, everything is played ever so slightly off. The Lodger was a series of jokes about how ridiculous the Doctor was in a number of situations. The Caretaker is a series of jokes about Clara’s desperate attempts to keep the Doctor from intruding on her normal life. It’s mainly cringe comedy, which is a perfectly viable strain and still fairly in vogue. (I’m not quite sure about the white Doctor assuming the black man can only be a P.E. teacher, though. I know it’s written and played as being entirely about how Danny is a soldier, and there’s a satisfying return to the consciously diverse casting in this story, and I think every given contributor ends up being blameless, but I still worry about the optics on that. Let me put it this way – it’s a scene where you end up accurately imagining the #moffat hate tag on Tumblr in real time, as it plays.) But there’s a subtle change to how it plays out, with the Doctor being a secondary character in a comedy about Clara.
But more importantly, this is only the first half of the episode. At the halfway point is a conscious change to a very different sort of story – one that’s basically a three-hander remake of An Unearthly Child in which Susan and Barbara’s roles are combined. I suspect this second part is the part on which Moffat earned his co-writing credit, although the only two scenes I’m confident were mostly him are the TARDIS scene where Danny accuses the Doctor of being an aristocratic officer, and the couch scene where Danny makes Clara promise to tell him if the Doctor ever pushes her too far. (I certainly don’t think this was a full Moffat-penned redraft in the way that I suspect Into the Dalek and Time Heist were.)
Here we further develop what is clearly a major theme of this season in the Doctor’s dislike of soldiers, although as mentioned, Danny complicates that a lot by pointing out that the Doctor is an officer, which is, you know, pretty much fair all told. The final scene is deft, using the shared experiences of Clara and Danny as having gone through psychologically intense experiences under amazing and brilliant officers.
But much of the credit for why this works is that Roberts has spun a spot-on adventure in which these plot points can be resolved. The trick to a Doctor Who story about relationships is that everybody has to solve their interpersonal problems by blowing up aliens. Roberts is more than capable of setting that up. Ultimately, the second half of this story is about Danny figuring out what it’s like to live in a Doctor Who story. Pointedly, he never does that badly. His initial guess that the Doctor is Clara’s space-dad was, notably, more or less the exact right guess the last time this sort of thing happened in Coal Hill School. His plan that the authorities should probably be contacted is sensible, if wrong-headed in this instance. He does well throughout, in other words – it’s just that he and the Doctor don’t get on. This is all well-structured, effective stuff into which the big emotional scenes can be inserted (and I include the “Danny and Clara at the window” scene, which I’m guessing Roberts as the primary author of). Roberts gets how this is played, with the Doctor as a slightly peripheral figure. His mixture of oblivious and clever is well-done.
But as I said, the focus is really on what’s different. The new visual style, with longer scenes and shots, is very much in play here. Watch how many dialogue scenes are done as long takes that shift the camera focus among the actors, as opposed to done with shot-reverse-shot cutting. Doctor Who is trying not to look like everything else on screen again, in a satisfying way.
And, of course, there’s Capaldi. In the lead-up to the season there was an absurd rumor that went around suggesting that Capaldi and Moffat were at loggerheads, or that Capaldi secretly hated the direction of the show and was trying to sabotage Moffat to save it, or that Moffat was on the way out and being replaced by Anthony Horowitz, or whatever. It was all very silly. But one increasingly suspects that there was a grain of truth in it, albeit one based on completely misunderstanding how collaboration works.
It’s not a terribly controversial statement to point out that Moffat is a very cerebral writer, whose work assumes a genre-aware and actively analytical reader. Not what you’d call surprising from someone with a graduate degree in English who taught for a few years before becoming a writer. But in Capaldi he has a very similar figure who’s an actor. Capaldi has directed, is very much a methodical, classical actor, and has a similar background to Moffat’s, including a degree of obsessiveness over Doctor Who.
I talked two weeks ago about how there’s a way in which Capaldi is Pertweeesque, in that he’s confident in simply playing the Doctor by picking an approach to the character for a given scene and just building it up out of the sorts of things Capaldi likes to do as an actor. A corollary to this is that he’s very much Troughtonesque, in that he dictates the tone of a scene by deciding how he’ll pitch his performance and requiring everyone else to respond to that, even if he doesn’t have a ton to do in the scene. (Watch the scene at the halfway point where the plot temporarily wraps up for a stellar example, particularly his “you can explain him to me,” which he delivers stunningly well. I quite like the decision to include all the emotional investment of a romance between the Doctor and Clara and none of the actual romance, and that line pays that approach off beautifully.) Such that in a real sense, every script gets one final rewrite from Capaldi, who redoes it via his performance.
And Capaldi does use this to pitch the entire thing slightly off kilter. He spends the first half, even when he does have comedic scenes, mostly underplaying them, with occasional bursts of excess, doled out carefully, so that they’re surprising and at times unsettling. It’s a good approach that so far has done a good job of making the show feel fresh and like it still can find new ways of doing its old tricks. Which, after fifty-one years, one sort of suspects can actually be done more or less continuously, but the fact that it’s possible doesn’t make it easy.
So there is a sort of tension between writer and actor, but I daresay that’s the point. That’s how collaboration works. I have zero doubt it’s why Moffat hired Capaldi – to get an actor who would do interesting things with his material and push him to write interesting things to do. Which is why the little touches of Smith – the River mention, the Lodger structure, Adrian, the frost fares – are all so apropos. Because they feel as much like a nod to what the show used to do as the tacit references to An Unearthly Child do.
It’s fresh and exciting, and I can’t wait to see what the next chunk of episodes are like. I expect a lot more like this – ones where the first watch is in many ways spent being surprised as to what sort of show it is. There’s a fair case to be made that surprising the audience with what show it is in a given week is what Doctor Who is for. I think this may be my favorite season ever.
- Love, love, love Courtney. “Disruptive influence.” “NICE TO MEET YOU!” That’s the Doctor in a six word scene. Really thrilled she’s back next week. I think taking her on a scary episode is a really interesting move.
- It’s not fair to say that Danny is a remake of John from Sherlock, but you can see the way that Moffat’s previous experience in fleshing out a character who’s defined in part by being a soldier informs the ways in which he’s sketching Danny quickly. He knows how to give this type of character a lot of depth very quickly.
- Allow me to in no way be the first to be sad that there’s no Ian Chesterton cameo. Still, it’s surely not the last visit to Coal Hill. Although I rather like the way the past is nodded to here, with a mention that there’s been rather a lot of artron energy through Coal Hill over the years.
- Deep Breath
- The Caretaker
- Time Heist
- Into the Dalek
- Robot of Sherwood