5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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This week, we were treated to some really quite spiffing Doctor Who.
No, not The Caretaker, obviously. We’re talking about the Fourth Doctor audio adventure The Renassance Man by old Who hand Justin Richards.
So why are we bringing that up? It’s meant to be a review of The Caretaker, isn’t it? Well, in the manner of Steven Moffat teasing us with enigmatic glimpses of the Promised Land, we’ll talk about that a bit later.
Meanwhile, The Caretaker. It’s a really terrific beginning. Of course, it makes no actual sense, given that with a time machine there’s actually nothing to stop Clara getting back for her dates in plenty of time to wash the starfish out of her hair, but never mind, it looks good.
Then the Doctor turns up at good old Coal Hill. Hilarity ensues. The Doctor finally meets Danny, and a joke about Danny being a PE teacher is beaten ruthlessly and methodically to death. All very DW Lite. Then it takes a darker turn as Danny and the Doctor clash head to head. Things are yelled. Wisdom is spoken. Much is learned.
In amongst the raillery and stuff, there’s an alien. It’s called Skovox Blitzer, but like the Doctor, it actually has a true name. Which would be McGuffin.
It’s weird. We can’t quite believe they would do this, and yet we can’t shake the feeling that they have. It’s like they’re shouting it: this so-called villain is so generic, so rubbish, so without any feature that would make it in any way interesting, that it’s almost as if they’re daring us to realise they’ve only thrown it in there because they need something to move the plot and because they must have some kind of SFy element.
Because this story is not about an alien who is going to (we can barely keep awake even thinking about it) destroy the earth while chanting silly slogans. Instead it’s about Steven Moffat’s current favourite thing: Explaining The Doctor.
It’s kind of ironic, really. Moffat started the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure with a distinct snipping around the edges of his cuddlier side. The Doctor was more selfish. He was more interested in satisfying his own curiosity than saving everybody. There was even the possibility that he wasn’t quite as fussed about his companion’s safety as he used to be.
Spooky. Also, intriguing and within the established range of the Doctor’s personality, so fair enough. It seems a shame, therefore, that in The Caretaker Moffat seems so anxious to clear up the ambiguity he had created only a few episodes prevously. And when we say clear up, we mean definitively. Oh yes.
Remember that Fourth Doctor audio adventure The Renaissance Man we mentioned? Okay, we’re going to talk about it now. (We hope you’re admiring our Moffatian subtle foreshadowing.)
It was tempting during the Matt Smith era for us to wonder whether Matt had overtaken Tom Baker as our favourite Doctor. After all, Matt was right there, being brilliant, and Tom was last on screen in his own episodes as the Doctor in the early eighties. But after many years away from the character other than the odd surprise appearance, Tom is finally back in Big Finish’s audio adventures (thank you, universe). He’s still got it. Oh, yeah. Which makes him and Matt first equal Doctors for us.
It’s not enough to have a great Doctor, though. Like a sparkly jewel, the character needs a great setting to make the most of it. And The Renaissance Man is that in spades. We thought we’d guessed the plot early on, but we were only partly right, as it went on to have twists and turns we definitely weren’t expecting. Louise Jameson is flawless reprising Leela, too, which is a bonus. But the thing we like the most about it is the way it goes about portraying the Doctor. It’s all about what he does. For example, there’s a lovely moment in which the Doctor assumes that something’s gone wrong with some, you know, machinery type stuff (no spoilers). He’s wrong, though: the thing that’s happening is deliberate on the part of the villain. This is delightfully like him: after all, we know that the Fourth Doctor can’t help but think the best of everyone until proven wrong. And how do we know this? Here and in other episodes, we’ve seen him do it.
And that, surely, is how it should be done. If you want to define a character, don’t for God’s sake have them spin round and tell the audience who they are. And don’t get another character to tell the audience either. Instead, let the character do stuff, and let the audience work it out from that. Show (we say for the millionth time), not tell. Not only does it give the character more depth, it makes the whole thing a hell of a lot more interesting.
That, however, is not how Steven Moffat wants to handle things. Here are some things Moffat wants to reassure you about re the Doctor: he is a trustworthy and inspiring leader who although he sometimes may rely on his companions to act as his conscience does in fact care deeply about their welfare. And how does he make sure you know these things? He does it by saying them. Out loud.
“I’m a caretaker.”
“Because the alternative would be developing a conscience of your own.”
“I need to be good enough for you. That’s why he was angry. Just in case I’m not.”
“I know men like him….they push you, make you stronger, till you’re doing things you never thought you could.”
“I trust him. He’s never let me down.”
We’re fiends for a psychological drama, us. That’s why we rated Amy’s Choice so highly. We’d rather have a good plot as well, but better not reach too high, right? So we’d be okay with throwing away an entire episode on adventure by numbers if what was sacrificed was in the interests of some great meaty intrigung psychological stuff. But not like this. Especially since so much of this season has been focused so myopically on who the Doctor is.
And another thing: why, why, why are they taking us down the triangle road again? They seem to assume we’ll see it as totally different from the Amy/Rory one, or the Rose/Mickey one, because it doesn’t involve romantic intent on the Doctor’s part. Wrong. As one of us said despairingly, “There are so many ways to get it wrong, and Moffat’s trying every single one of them.”
What's more, insisting on a triangle bends Danny out of shape, and not to his advantage. We'd really liked him up to this point, but here he's forced to act like a complete prat. Space travel? Being invisible? Pfui. Who cares about them compared to getting all huffy that your new girlfriend hasn't disclosed every detail of her life to you? Also, aliens? Well, obviously the mnost important thing about the first one you meet is that he reminds you of the officers you used to serve under. Which, apparently, is a heinous crime. Until you admit that actually some of them were really good, like this guy actually, so what was that all about anyway? Poor Danny. This entire angle seems to be in there solely to reflect the Doctor's hatred of his own past as a soldier. As a result, to make sure he addresses this Danny has to come across as tunnel-visioned, jealous and controlling.
There’s not a lot we can say about the rest of it, because there isn’t much of it to say anything about. The plot’s a total waste of time. As well as Generic Alien, the entire thing hinges on the Doctor completing some technowankery in time. Yes, in time. It takes some genuinely spectacular stupidity to show the Doctor musing about whether he can finish something in time while standing in a time machine.
The performances are fine. All the leads are excellent: they are in no way part of the problem. If you ignore all the context, it’s quite funny. If you ignore all the context, it’s quite entertaining.
And that’s all. Except for one thing. Well, two things, actually. The first is the Promised Land segment. Although we’re more than over Moffat’s endless teases, our interest level in the episode shot up about a billion times higher when this part came on, not least because of the lovely little turn from the Doctor’s former colleage Olly from DoSAC.
And the other thing is the single nugget of genuine complexity: the end of the final conversation between Danny and Clara. First, he threatens her if she doesn’t confide every tiny detail to him. Then there’s this:
“If you don’t tell me the truth, I can’t help you. And I could never stand not being able to help you." Help her? Who asked him to? This is probably supposed to look loving and caring or something, but ugh. Anyway, that’s not the interesting part, because we don’t think this is a reading they were intending us to be taking from it. What’s interesting in in-episode terms is Clara’s troubled look, that Danny doesn’t see, at the end of it. Conflict. Complexity. Ambiguity. Thank God.
RINGING ANY CLOISTER BELLS?
Clara’s door number is 63, the first year of transmission for Doctor Who. Two teachers, one irascible Doctor, Coal Hill School and a teenage girl in the TARDIS. Hmm.
IT CERTAINLY WORKS ON US
“Why are you being nice?” “Because it works on you.” Love Peter Capaldi’s breathtaking delivery.
HERE IS OUR NO FURTHER COMMENT
The symbolism of the Doctor handing his sonic screwdriver to Clara requires no further comment from us.
FLY ME TO THE STARS. OR NOT
“Why do you fly off with him?” Seriously?