And what a tribute. This is the strongest episode of the season so far, in spite — or maybe because — the sci-fi plot takes a back seat. Let’s face it, we’re all in this for one reason — to see the two men in Clara’s life finally face off.
You see, the Doctor hates soldiers, which he might have mentioned once or fifty times this season. Danny hates people who assume that he’s a mindless killing machine just because he’s a soldier. Can you see where the tension might come from?
Predictable it might be, but Peter Capaldi and Samuel Anderson get on like a house on fire: lots of shouting, running for cover and furniture going up in flames. The suggestion of a conventional love triangle gets dealt with briskly, if somewhat disturbingly — aware that Danny has snuck into the TARDIS, the Doctor goes into full bonkers time travel mode. And by responding to Clara’s caution with “You’ve never said no before!” in an effort designed to goad Danny into showing himself, he also twists the previous Doctor/Companion dynamic into something darker.
Refreshingly, Danny’s issue isn’t really sexual jealousy — not when he has another reason not to trust a Time Lord. “You can always spot the aristocracy. It’s in the attitude.” The Doctor may be fighting to save the universe, but Danny’s waging a one-man class war and he’s got a very clear idea of which side the Doctor’s on. I’d put money on his Tragic Backstory involving orders from a superior officer that left him with blood on his hands — if so, this is a nicely subtle way of hinting at it.
And when Danny salutes the Doctor, the flicker of horror on the Time Lord’s face when he realizes he’s been tricked into giving Danny orders is worth however much Capaldi is getting paid. Danny sees the War Doctor behind Twelve’s manic glee, and we see that the Doctor doesn’t hate soldiers because he can’t relate to them, but because he was one. Danny may carry people out of the fire, but the Doctor once set the whole universe ablaze.
Jenna Coleman has been on consistently top form this season, and her track record continues. It would be very easy for her to get overlooked as just the object of the Doctor/Danny rivalry, but as usual she’s her competent, snarky self — Clara’s rant about Jane Austen being the Doctor’s “bezzie mate and you went on holiday together…and then you all formed a band and met Buddy Holly” might be the highlight of her entire TARDIS tenure. (Also, that episode needs to happen.)
Plus, for once, the Doctor’s comments about Clara’s appearance actually work — “you look lovely today, have you had a wash?” being the highest compliment he’s capable of — and his forgetting that they no longer look the same age is adorable. Danny’s first thought isn’t that Clara is cheating on him, it’s that the weird caretaker is her “space dad.”
If “The Caretaker” has one flaw, it’s the way it deals with race. Coal Hill reflects the diversity of your average East London school nicely, but when the black pupil and parents are shown to be the troublemakers, while the nice, middle-class white child next to them at Parents’ Evening who top marks, the show is sending out a message whether it intends to or not. Similarly, whilst the viewers know that the Doctor is dismissing Danny because of his military background, to a casual observer he looks an awful lot like a racist old man calling a black character stupid.
Still, in a season that’s been patchy at best, “The Caretaker” provides a glorious return to form. Let’s hope it lasts.