“The Caretaker” is the funniest episode of Doctor Who in years, the rival of co-writer Gareth Roberts’ previous effort “The Lodger,” right up to the moment that tonight’s episode stops being that. There’s a big pivot in this episode from the snappy comedy that defines its first half to the relationship drama that propels its second. Remarkably, give or take a somewhat anticlimactic ending with a self-destructing robot and a shockingly acrobatic math teacher, the two sides of “The Caretaker” complement each other beautifully rather than canceling each other out. Roberts and Steven Moffat have penned a script that continues this season’s renewed emphasis on character, and director Paul Murphy proves himself adept at balancing the episode’s disparate strands of comedy, drama, and science fiction. But a huge portion of the credit here has to go the actors. Peter Capaldi has already had some chances to show off the funny side of his Doctor, but he and Jenna Coleman are particularly strong here in the episode’s several comedic setpieces; anyone looking to understand this Doctor’s particular sense of humor need only watch the scene in which he “reveals” to Clara that it is he disguised as the caretaker. Still, while Capaldi and Coleman acquit themselves well in the more dramatic scenes, they aren’t the ones primarily responsible for the success of that part of the episode.

Whenever “The Caretaker” is serious, this episode belongs to Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink. Anderson has been a real asset from “Into The Dalek” on, bringing a grounded, naturalistic acting style that contrasts well with Coleman’s rapid-fire delivery. Danny feels like a real person in ways that Clara never quite has—more on that in a bit—and it’s telling that he drives all the episode’s major confrontations. After all, the Doctor makes such a big show of being above such petty human concerns, and Clara’s futile effort to lead a double life is born of her not wanting to choose between two irreconcilable paths. This episode plays down the wartime trauma that informed Danny’s portrayal in “Into The Dalek” and “Listen,” instead focusing on what it means for Danny to be in love with someone who lies to him as a matter of course. While I wasn’t entirely convinced by Danny’s promise to always be there to protect Clara—again, that flip to the rescue was just a bit much—that’s more than balanced by the insight on display in Danny and Clara’s final scene together, in which he insists she allow him to offer emotional support when the Doctor pushes her too far, as he surely will.

That scene makes clear the difference between how Clara and Danny view her time in the TARDIS. She believes they are making a deal, as though this is a concession she makes to maintain the otherwise separate spheres of real life and Doctor life. Danny, however, sees no such distinction; if they love each other, then that love and all the promises it entails do not suddenly disappear when she steps into the TARDIS. Danny never really asks Clara to stop traveling with the Doctor—it’s conceivable such a conversation occurs off-screen, but there’s no particular indication of that—but he can’t quite countenance the idea that Clara uses her travels from the Doctor as an escape from her life on Earth, from the life she’s starting to build with him. After all, why does she need such an escape? Clara doesn’t have a good answer to that question, and the standard answer of so many a new series companion—that she gets to see wonders she could never see in her ordinary existence—has never quite rung so painfully hollow.

To the episode’s great credit, “The Caretaker” only briefly flirts with presenting Clara, Danny, and the Doctor as the vertices of a romantic triangle. The episode builds on what we saw in “Listen,” where the Doctor spoke of looking ahead and determining the mystery man’s prospects, in placing the Doctor in an essentially paternal role; he reacts to the mistaken impression that Clara’s boyfriend is her fellow teacher Adrian like a proud father would upon learning his daughter has chosen to date a personal favorite of his. Of course, since this is Doctor Who we’re talking about, there are plenty of mind-bending implications to this, as the bowtie-clad, floppy-haired, and ramble-prone Adrian is an ersatz 11th Doctor. Both the script and Capaldi’s performance suggest enough mental distance between the 11th and 12th Doctors for this to not feel like the incumbent incarnation reads this as Clara’s enduring interest in him; he’s undoubtedly flattered, but in a way that feels more familial than paternal. That’s backed up by the Doctor’s disgust when he learns whom Clara actually loves. He reacts not like a jealous romantic rival—as even the relatively asexual 9th Doctor would when Rose showed any interest in a man—but as a disapproving, even betrayed father.

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That carries its own worrisome implications, admittedly, but they tend to reflect poorly on the Doctor himself rather than on Doctor Who as a whole, as the 11th Doctor’s ill-defined feelings for Clara sometimes did. Yes, Clara does end up playing a somewhat passive role in the story’s emotional resolution, but I’m okay with that on the grounds that Clara is the one person here who knows what she wants, and it’s nice that neither the episode nor Danny and the Doctor force her to make an unfair choice. More crucially, “The Caretaker” quickly zeroes in on what’s so potentially dangerous about the Doctor and Clara’s relationship, and it’s not that Clara is juggling two lovers or boyfriends of whatever else. Instead, the episode favors a more direct approach that more accurately reflects what the Doctor actually represents to Clara. Yes, Danny quite reasonably asks how Clara’s escapes in the TARDIS are different from elopements, and he asks whether she loves this strange alien, but he isn’t hung up on the romantic question as much as he’s bothered by Clara’s dissembling instincts. Worse, Danny knows who the Doctor is, because he’s met such men before.

The standoff in the TARDIS between the Doctor and Danny is telling. Consider how the scene unfolds before Danny reveals himself: The Doctor and Clara both know that the other knows what’s going on, but they are willing to fly halfway round the universe if it means not having to be direct with each other. Danny has to break the stalemate by deactivating the invisibility watch, because only he is willing to go ahead with an actual confrontation. “The Caretaker” threads a hell of a needle here, as Danny does overreact at points here; it’s not really the Doctor’s fault that his people are known as Time Lords, for instance. But he nails the larger point here that, even if Time Lord is just a name, it implies an ethos to which the Doctor unequivocally subscribes. The Doctor says he wants no part of salutes or command structures, but he’s still the kind of anarchic rebel who thinks everyone else should shut up and do what he says. Anderson perfectly captures every aspect of Danny that the scene requires of him: the hard-earned contempt when he recognizes the Doctor’s aristocratic worldview, the aggrieved defiance when he mockingly salutes the Doctor, and the anguish when he tells Clara that he might be a soldier, but the Doctor is an officer.

That’s the closest “The Caretaker” comes to clarifying just why the Doctor has such a big issue with soldiers. It’s consistent with what we learned in “Into The Dalek”—an episode that gets better and better with every rewatch, as I suspected it would—as the Doctor’s antipathy for soldiers was contrasted with his burning, nigh-genocidal hatred for the Daleks. As Danny observes here, “I’m the one who carries you out of the fire, he’s the one who lights it.” The only trouble is that the Doctor has thus far refused to engage with the points made by Danny or by Rusty and Journey Blue, so the characterization still feels a bit amorphous. I might speculate that this incarnation’s conscious effort to return to who the Doctor “really” is has brought with it a newfound crisis of conscience, as he can’t be entirely sure that his appearance as a good, peaceful man was just as much of an affectation as the pin-striped suit or the bowtie. Is the Doctor lashing out at those who remind him of who he really is, or is he perhaps trying to reassert a more absolutist morality after centuries of compromise with himself? Is this older-seeming Doctor actually trying to adopt a youngster’s more simplistic view of what’s right and what’s wrong? As long as season eight—or this Doctor’s overall tenure—is headed for some kind of reckoning with this question, then this all works as foreshadowing. But in the here and now, his distaste for Danny feels imprecise.

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“The Caretaker” has plenty more to say about the Doctor, though not every such point is so dramatic. Like Gareth Roberts’ 11th Doctor scripts, “The Lodger” and “Closing Time,” this episode provides the opportunity to understand the Time Lord through his interactions with humans who aren’t his companion. “The Lodger” in particular revealed that an 11th Doctor freed of all his Amy-related guilt was a walking whimsy overload, a hyperactive creature who failed to understand the most basic rules of human interaction but was just so damn enthusiastic about the entire enterprise. The current Doctor is something quick different; humans now are a distraction and an annoyance, so much so that he has to steel himself to get through another 48 hours in their company.

I’ve seen the argument that this Doctor is just too damn grumpy; I’m not sure I agree with the “too damn” bit, but this is an episode that lays bare the apparent paucity of the Doctor’s current motivation for saving the world. He doesn’t do it out of any great love for humanity or really any particular concern for children, or at least none that he is yet willing to admit to. He saves the world because it’s his job, and because nobody else possibly could. “The Caretaker” even leans into this with the Doctor’s assessment of his plan to defeat the Skovox Blitzer, an adversary that is theoretically a planet-destroying threat but in practice is little more than a sideshow: “Dead easy, tiny bit boring, I’ll need a book and a sandwich.”

Now, it’s not quite as simple all that, as moments of honest wonder do peek through. The Doctor wouldn’t have bothered to show the stars to a disruptive influence like Courtney Woods if he were really just going through the motions. And “The Caretaker” does let the Doctor have some fun, even if he does get into a bit of a funk once he learns the truth about Danny. He takes real, goofy joy from his invisibility watch, and he’s so hilariously pleased with his efforts to pass himself off as a human. Here again, this Doctor’s minimalist approach marks a departure from how episodes like “The Lodger” found humor in the previous Doctor. The quintessential 11th Doctor joke is built around the preposterousness of the character and the universe he inhabits; nothing is too ridiculous to be true when said by a grinning, coiffed Matt Smith.

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This Doctor, by contrast, knows what’s real and what’s ridiculous, and he is all too happy to let humans—mostly Clara—make fools of themselves guessing which is which. The Doctor probably has had some kind of crazy adventure with Jane Austen at some point—and yes, I’m aware of this, but even so, get on that, new series!—but this Doctor takes just as much supercilious amusement from pointing out he’s read the little bio at the back of one of her books. This is a Doctor who takes more joy from knowledge than from experience—remember “Time Heist,” where he said he hated not knowing—and that translates to some great Capaldi line deliveries, like his skeptical reaction to Clara’s mention of boggins from space.

I want to close by devoting a little time to Clara. As we hit the halfway point of this season, the show has done good work in giving Clara more consistency of character and more interesting material to play than she tended to get last season. This Doctor is a far better match for Clara than his predecessor was, and the season has toned down this incarnation’s weird putdowns as it has gone along, refashioning them from seemingly random insults to more clearly realized one-liners about this Doctor’s alien befuddlement with humans; his apparent belief that he and Clara look the same age, or that Clara looks older than him, is a nice example of that. “The Caretaker” once again makes good use of Clara, letting her mounting fear of confrontation between Danny and the Doctor drive some strong comedic scenes—her lame attempt to pass off the Skovox Blitzer as part of a surprise play features very funny work from Jenna Coleman—without ever defining this in clichéd, tiresome terms like “wanting to have it all” or “being a control freak.” That subtext might still be there, I guess, but I’m just happy that it’s no longer in the text.

Still, I have one bigger-picture conclusion to draw about Clara: She’s just never going to be a vital character. That isn’t the same thing as saying that she can’t ever be a good character. Again, leaving aside her superfluous role in last week’s “Time Heist,” Clara has been given plenty of compelling material on an episode-by-episode basis, and the show has done good work fleshing out her character in terms of her teaching career and her evolving relationship with Danny. But there’s still something about Clara that’s missing, some elusive quality that she should share with previous new series companions but just doesn’t. Basically, Clara lacks a character arc; there’s no real sense of why Clara needs to travel with the Doctor, or how her time in the TARDIS has changed her. Consider her predecessors: Rose Tyler and Donna Noble needed the Doctor to escape dead-end lives and realize their true potential, while Amy Pond used the TARDIS to run away from the responsibilities of real life, and her journey was one of slowly recognizing that the Doctor wasn’t really a character out of a childhood fairy tale, much as both of them might have wanted to believe that. These were all vital stories that demanded to be told.

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By contrast, Clara is there because, well, the most basic storytelling structure of Doctor Who demands that someone be there. From an in-universe perspective, Clara travels with the Doctor because of the exigencies of fate; her very presence is the byproduct of a plot arc so convoluted that it would take an entire separate review to explain adequately. (Here is one attempt.) This isn’t the first time the new series has given us a companion without a clearly defined story to tell; Martha Jones also kind of just slid into traveling with the Doctor, but the show tried to explore their poorly defined relationship in character terms, to variable effect. Hell, even the companions with supposedly vital stories weren’t always well-served by the show; just look at whatever the hell happened to Donna at the end of “Journey’s End.” But even when Doctor Who failed to stick the landing in wrapping up a companion’s arc—or, in the cases of Rose and Amy, provided perfectly satisfactory endings and then kept dragging them back onto the show after their natural exit points—that investment in serialized character development made the companions feel richer and more nuanced. There was a logic to Donna’s actions and beliefs that transcended the specific requirements of a given script, even if that logic abandoned the show in season four’s endgame. The journey was more fun, even if the destination was a disaster.

As such, Clara is probably always going to feel like a more generic companion than her new series predecessors. Let me be clear: That isn’t a condemnatory statement, but rather an observational one. There are ways for the show to turn that fact into its own kind of strength, using Clara’s less specific character to consider more general, thematic questions about the companion’s role on Doctor Who. That’s what “The Caretaker” does, both in terms of the little throwaway observations—Clara’s line about the Doctor having to develop his own conscience if he started traveling on his own—and in the big-picture storytelling. Danny Pink’s story works because he feels so resolutely human, not just in comparison to the Doctor but also to Clara, who has been having these mad adventures for so long that she can no longer properly recognize how insane it all is. “The Caretaker” works in part because it can shift its point of reference from the Doctor to Clara to Danny, and I’m not sure that would be possible if Clara were as sharply drawn as Rose or Donna or Amy.

As with the Doctor’s as yet unresolved issues with soldiers, a lot depends on what happens next. Clara travels with the Doctor because, well, why wouldn’t she want to see such wonders? That’s compelling enough, but it means her reasons are fundamentally defined in terms of “why not” instead of “why,” and it’s more difficult to build a compelling arc in the absence of some burning, character-based motivation. “The Caretaker” plays around with that, as it does consider just why Clara is the first new series companion—and the first since the 3rd Doctor was splitting time with UNIT—to travel with the Doctor on a strictly occasional basis, why she wants to carve out two distinct existences instead of committing to one. I’m not sure Doctor Who is going to be able to make a larger, character-defining statement about who Clara is, because the show just hasn’t laid that kind of groundwork up to this point. This may well be where the addition of Danny Pink pays dividends, and not just because he already has a far more clearly defined arc; his more grounded presence tends to bring out the more relatable side of Clara, and, as both “Listen” and “The Caretaker” have shown, that is to Doctor Who’s immense benefit.

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Tonight’s episode isn’t quite perfect, but it’s funny and human and messy in all the right ways, and it shows a confidence of storytelling that suggests the show knows where it’s going in far more detail than it did last year, both in terms of plot and, more importantly, in terms of character. Whether it will get there is an open question—the new series isn’t exactly defined by its successful finales—but, thus far, the journey there has been a hell of a lot of fun.

Stray observations:

  • So, after spending a couple weeks on the back burner, the Promised Land returns in a big way with the return of Michele Gomez as Missy and the addition of Chris Addison as Seb. I’m studiously avoiding speculating on this, because I just don’t really see what good can come of speculation, but I will say this is thus far a considerably less plot-heavy thread than its counterparts in any of the Matt Smith seasons, which means it will probably be easier to push it one side if it doesn’t end up paying off. (Sort of like how the good stuff in seasons three and four still work well, irrespective of the dicey resolutions of the season-long arcs, whereas season six, which is probably of as high or higher quality on an episodic basis, always feels a bit dragged down by the convoluted Silence arc.) Either way, I’m excited to see fellow The Thick Of It alum Addison the show, especially since he and Capaldi have done science fiction before.
  • “No, it says, ‘Go away humans.’” “So it does. Never lose your temper in the middle of a door sign.”
  • “You’re running out of time.” “For what?” “Everything! Human beings have incredibly short lifespans. Frankly, you should all be in a constant state of panic. Tick tock, tick tock.”
  • “Sorry, stupid. I underestimated you.” “It’s easily done, it’s a lot to estimate.”
  • “I would say, yes, I’m afraid Courtney is a disruptive influence.” “Yeah, but last year you said she was a very disruptive influence.” “So I suppose that counts as an improvement.” You know, I feel like I’m not supposed to react this way, but I kind of love the entire Woods family. Would that we could all be disruptive influences and have parents who are so philosophical about our being disruptive influences.

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