Series 8 is turning out to be one of the best, if not the best, of the new series of Doctor Who, and “The Caretaker” earned its place in this season’s episodes. I didn’t care for the episode particularly, but only because its predecessors are that good; in contrast, “The Caretaker” seems a little more ordinary, with at least one plot element that doesn’t ring true; I’ll get to that in a bit.
The opening montage is brilliant: Clara and the Doctor are seen in several adventures, and after each she returns to a date with Danny Pink. But Danny isn’t blind to Clara’s condition after each of these adventures: after one she is sunburned, while after another she’s wet and smelling of fish. This sets up the premise of the episode well. Clara’s life with the Doctor can no longer be kept separate from her relationship with Danny.
The Doctor appears at Coal Hill School as the caretaker - a maintenance man - much to Clara’s chagrin. He needs to pass as human for a few days in order to catch a monster. (Shades of “The Lodger”!) The monster in this episode, a battle machine from another time and place that the Doctor must remove before it destroys Earth, is incidental to the plot, merely a MacGuffin here.
When the Doctor finally meets Danny, who is introduced as someone mechanically competent because he is an ex-soldier, the Doctor’s prejudice against the military rears itself, and he immediately takes a dislike to Danny. The Doctor can’t believe that Danny is a math teacher, insisting that he must each Physical Education. Instead, the Doctor believes that the History teacher, who bears a passing resemblance to the Eleventh Doctor (complete with bow tie!), is Clara’s boyfriend, despite obvious clues (including graffiti that reads “Ozzie loves the squaddie”).
When the inevitable happens, and Danny disrupts the Doctor’s efforts to send the monster through time, he realizes that Clara and the Doctor know one another and that Clara has been lying to him about their relationship. In a comical moment, Danny assumes that Clara is an alien, sputtering “I thought you said you were from Blackpool!"
The Doctor’s dislike of soldiers comes to the fore in this episode. He tells Clara, “You’ve explained me to him. You haven’t explained him to me.” But Danny turns it around on him, accusing him off being an “officer,” and goads the Doctor until he orders Danny to leave the TARDIS, barking the command just like an officer. Inevitably, we also see that sometimes a soldier is necessary to save the day, and the Doctor grudgingly accepts Clara’s relationship with Danny.
The episode is filled with clever lines and wonderful moments with Capaldi’s alien Doctor. (At one point he asks a girl if her name really is “disruptive influence.”) Clara is comically caught between her men, trying to maintain her Earth-bound relationship with Danny while trying to help the Doctor and keep her relationship with the Doctor a secret from Danny, and failing with both men. However, the thing that never clicked for me was the Clara/Danny relationship. Several episodes ago, when the two were meeting awkwardly for the first time, or having their disastrous first date, it was easy to believe that the two were starting out as a couple, getting to know one another. In “The Caretaker,” we’re supposed to believe that the two are well into their relationship, time having passed on Earth since they first met, yet the couple still seems very much at the beginning of a relationship. When Clara blurts out “Because I love him” to the Doctor in front of Danny, it seems forced.