In the case of this episode, I’m quite thankful that Phil Sandifer has written such a comprehensive review, as I don’t have to spell out a lot of the details as I would have otherwise. Of course, I’ll place the link after my
warning, right about here. Those details include the way Capaldi’s performance acts as a further revision of the script, the deft means by which the show is spelling out Clara and Danny’s relationship, and the peculiar approach Capaldi takes to the comedy of a Gareth Roberts script, which is very different from Smith’s. So I’ll just let you read, and post this scary picture of the Skovox Blitzer war machine while you follow the above link to Phil’s review and have a good think about what he said.
Ready to start? Okay.
The most philosophically intriguing element of The Caretaker is its conversation about the politics, morality, and ethics of class. This is most obviously brought to the surface in the first direct conflict between Danny Pink and the Doctor. Part of the thematic arc this season has involved the Doctor’s distrust of soldiers. It’s never quite explained why, but given the history of the show in total and some key events this season (particularly in Into the Dalek), it’s because they prioritize violent action as a means of problem solving.
|The Doctor's plan to neutralize this powerful, destructive|
robot involves convincing it that he is its creator, so he can—
Wait, I've really got the wrong photo here, haven't I?
The Skovox Blitzer is a war machine, and a very powerful one at that. When Danny first discovers what it is, his first recommendation is that they bring in the army. But the Blitzer is such a powerful weapon that conventional human armies can’t defeat it. The Doctor’s plans to defeat it are never about building a weapon that can overpower and destroy it. His first plan is to trick it into a time portal that will send it in the distant future floating in deep space. His second plan is to make it think that he is its creator, and use his authority as such to order the Blitzer to deactivate itself.
The irony is that the Doctor acts in a militaristic way in a lot of contexts. A lot of the online discussion about the Doctor’s hostility to soldiers this season has posited that the roots lie in that they take and give orders. But the Doctor does that as well, explicitly telling his companions and friends to do as they’re told when situations require tough action. This is a superficial and mistaken reading. The Blitzer is dangerous because it shoots first, and insofar as a soldier is typically thought of as having the same mentality, that makes such people dangerous.
But Danny is no ordinary soldier like the ones we encountered in Into the Dalek. Danny is an ex-soldier, and it’s clear from his scenes in Into the Dalek that he has gone through serious post-traumatic stress because of some of his experiences. A brief moment of dialogue mentions that Danny served in Afghanistan. Danny’s distaste for the officer class probably reflects some of his experiences there, where low-level soldiers frequently paid with their bodies and lives for the poor decisions of the military and civilian leaders who planned the occupation.
|Danny Pink is a character that's quite different from the|
people who've appeared in Doctor Who before.
After all, Danny insults the Doctor, calling him an officer. A Brit knows what kind of military stream the Lords go into, and being a Time Lord would cause a similar association. The Doctor falls into this pattern of behaviour, condescending to Danny after he learns of his military background with the confrontational refusal to believe that he can be anything other than a Phys. Ed. teacher (although he is a sports coach, as well as a math teacher).
Danny calls the Doctor “Sir,” especially emphatically after the Doctor asks him not to. He struts around the TARDIS control room like a toy soldier, or perhaps a robot soldier, to mock the Doctor’s grandstanding attitude. And because he knows that behaving this way gets on the Doctor’s nerves — it’s obvious during that scene.
I think it gets on the Doctor’s nerves because this class conflict is so sensitive to him. It’s foregrounded that season by the master of the foreground, Mark Gatiss, when Robin Hood draws the explicit parallel of the Doctor and himself: the Doctor is a man born into privilege who sympathized with the lower classes such that he completely changed his lifestyle. His disguise in this episode is as one of the most lower-class figures in the school hierarchy, the caretaker.
|He can put on a different coat, but he still the same Doctor|
underneath, for worse and better.
Clara initially raises doubt, in one of the funniest scenes in the episode, about whether the Doctor can actually pass himself off as an ordinary human. But he’s actually quite successful, overall. Danny only sees through the Doctor’s disguise because his condescending sarcasm doesn’t match the social position of someone who looks to be about 50, but who works in custodial positions. The Doctor has been hostile toward entrenched and institutionalized power since the beginning of the show. For Danny to peg the Doctor so clearly to the upper class here is a particularly deep cut.
The upper class is not to be trusted because they have a terrible tendency of considering the lower classes servants at best and cannon fodder at worst. Either way, they’re something to be given orders. The Doctor himself is vehemently opposed to such power structures, but in his own behaviour often appears upper class. With this conflict moving to the foreground, I think this season of Doctor Who is becoming more explicitly politically provocative than it has been in some time. Not at the intensity of the Cartmel era just yet, but we might be on that road.
• • •
I want to make one last point, unrelated (at least explicitly) to my longer argument, which is that some of the initial reaction to The Caretaker accuses the episode of racism. But this all seems to be the result of mishearing lines delivered too quickly to be caught on initial viewing if you aren’t paying close attention.
1) The Doctor doesn’t regard Danny as only capable of teaching Phys. Ed. and being stupid because he’s black, but because he had just heard that Danny was in the military. This is another expression of the idea that a soldier shoots first and talks later, that he would be incapable of intellectual work.
2) The Doctor tells Courtney to get back to her shoplifting class. Paying attention to the whole scene and the whole episode shows that this is actually good-natured sarcasm. Courtney has already introduced herself as “Disruptive Influence,” to which the Doctor happily responded with how glad he was to meet her. After just this few minutes of conversation, the Doctor all but offers her a place as his new regular companion, and says he’ll come back to her for the job when the position opens up. At the end of the episode, he takes her stargazing in deep space. I wouldn’t be surprised if he taught her some good shoplifting techniques before dropping her home.
3) The police officer harasses two black youths from Coal Hill School. This is actually encoded as likely racist behaviour, a white cop singling out black teenagers, presuming them to be delinquents from school. The teenagers go back to school to avoid getting in trouble with the police. This is a depiction of real-life racism, and not an endorsement.