“Good old fashioned Doctor Who fun,” somebody said to me on Twitter last night. They were responding to my less than enthusiastic reaction to the latest episode, The Caretaker.
‘Good’ and ‘fun’ are subjective, so fair play to anyone who got that much enjoyment out of it. Me, I got bored. Tedious fluff, I thought. But I’ve racked my brains and can only guess that by ‘old-fashioned’ the Twitterer meant circa 2006.
Soap opera first crept into Doctor Who during the Davison years, I’d say, with the dysfunctional TARDIS family and small chunks of an average 4-parter given over to whingeing and bickering. Used to annoy me, particularly Adric’s whining which probably would have driven K9 away if he hadn’t already left for E-space by the time Nyssa and Tegan joined. Later, Ace to some extent seemed like a weird Grange Hill graduate and brought some soapish baggage with her which was woven into a number of stories.
But it was only really with the return of the show in 2005 that companions brought their families, boyfriends and kitchen sinks with them for large stretches of the adventures on offer. Where they didn’t bring all that along, they’d be popping back to see them all the time and the stories were often built around the baggage.
Sitcoms started to creep in a little later. And The Caretaker fits that mould, unsurprisingly similar to The Lodger aka The One With James Corden. In a decent run of stories, that sort of thing is passably amusing and Roberts (and Moffat) can certainly write wit. Unfortunately, he can also write a great deal of stuff that rhymes with wit.
In this case, Roberts shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. This Ozzie 4 The Squaddie, Clara loves Danny Pink story arc has been imposed from on high and I guess if you’re at all invested in that, then this episode would be a corker. Sadly, it lost my interest before their first date. As I’ve said before, I had high hopes the writers would be building Clara as a character after a season of using her as a plot device.
High hopes were the opposite of what I had coming into this episode. Expectations were lowered by five preceding substandard tales. So it’s even more remarkable that it still managed to disappoint. But I do suffer from chronic optimism when it comes to Who – I keep watching in hope that it will get better.
Sadly, this kind of soap-sitcom fare is part of the new standard, with a plot flimsier than a routine instalment of Friends (which runs for about half the length). Here, we have the Doctor going ‘deep undercover’ as a school caretaker in order to ferret out a sort of malicious Metal Mickey, ‘one of the deadliest killing machines ever built’. Well, sure, I mean it kills a whole policeman. A low body count in a comedy is fair enough, but my main objection with the thing is that it looks bloody stupid. Contemporary US drones look meaner and deadlier and while they might have a spot of trouble negotiating school corridors you could do worse than borrow a little from the military design mindset. Monster design has been generally poorer than in the ‘good old days’.
The rest largely boils down to farce, centring around the comic exploits of the new caretaker (teehee), Clara trying to juggle her stressful sci-fi adventure lifestyle with a job and her new beau (hoho), and the Doctor butting heads with Danny Pink like a jealous ex or a father vetting his daughter’s boyfriend or a child acting out when his mum has a new boyfriend on the scene (somebody fix my cracked ribs). His refusal to accept Pink as anything but a PE teacher goes beyond stubborn to dense. We see the same petty and infantile side of the Doctor we witnessed to excess in Robot Of Sherwood and further allusions to his absurd soldierphobia. Yawn.
Honestly, I struggled a bit to see the episode through to the end. What I struggled with afterwards was how this Twitterer could see it as old-fashioned Doctor Who. Each to their own and all, but still. I don’t know, I only faithfully watched the show since the early Pertwee era and caught up on the Troughton and Hartnell years a little later in life.
Unless it was a reference to having two teachers and a young pupil on board the TARDIS, just like back in the day the show began. But, strange, I don’t remember Ian and Barbara having any trouble juggling ordinary life with life on the TARDIS...
Oh yes, that’s right, they were whisked off on adventures in time and space and weren’t dropped off back home every week.
As such, I recklessly replied to the above tweet thus: “There was nothing old fashioned about it and very little good. Ymmv.”
Which sounded fair enough in my own head and normally I’m not one to diss and tell but for the purposes of making a point here I will share the answer that earned me from the Twitterer in question:
“oh god, you’re not one of those ‘it was only good in the 60s when the Doctor forgot his lines every ten minutes’ people are you?”
This seemed at odds with their previous views of ‘old-fashioned Doctor Who’. So again, I had to assume that to them ‘old-fashioned’ meant rather more recent. My inability to recognise the striking similarities between The Caretaker and pretty much anything from An Unearthly Child to Survival was apparently my failing as a viewer and a fan just too darned nostalgic for the days of William Hartnell’s increasing illness.
For the record, no, I’m not ‘one of those people’. Indeed, I’ve always endeavoured to be balanced in my reviews, be it a modern or ‘classic’ DW. Even though Hartnell and Troughton were both before my time I gained a tremendous appreciation for their respective takes on the role as well as for the achievements of the production teams working under the extraordinary pressures and limitations of technology and budget of the time.
If today I detect a laziness in the writing and/or a growing drought of good ideas, a degree of repetition or any other aspect I’ve found lacking, if that’s born of any comparison at all it’s as measured against other more recent and contemporary TV shows that have been created in comparable environments. And on that gauge, Doctor Who is currently falling short by quite some distance. Orphan Black, for example, was not everything a friend of mine cracked it up to be, but it (the first season anyway) made for much more compelling viewing than DW.
If compared directly with immediately its own preceding seasons, the shortfall is less marked but the problem for me there is that it’s nowhere near different enough. In Capaldi we have a great new Doctor and we had a great new opportunity which, to my mind, is being frittered away week by week. Meanwhile, Clara is being wasted on weak sub-soap rom-com material.
The Caretaker did everything its title promised. It removed my inclination to care. The X Factor's borderline sadistic six-chair challenge has more drama
YMMV. Your mileage may vary. For me, Doctor Who seems to have run out of gas.
All of this, of course, is opinion. Not fact. There's really nothing more complex to be read into it than that. Disagree, argue passionately against it. But if Twittering fans do feel the need to level their own pet theories as to why I have those opinions, well, that's what the Block option is for.