Clara is starting have trouble juggling her double life at Coal Hill School and in the TARDIS, especially now that she is dating Danny. She is let off the hook when The Doctor announces he is going ‘deep cover’ and tells Danny she wants to spend more time with him. Unfortunately, The Doctor’s undercover operation is at Coal Hill where he is the new caretaker. The Doctor is using his cover to track a killer robot that is patrolling the area called the Skovox Blitzer, who he plans to jettison a billion years into the future with time vortex manipulators.
The Doctor meets Danny but does not clock him as Clara’s boyfriend and instead suspects English teacher Adrian, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his previous incarnation. Danny is immediately suspicious of The Doctor, and barges in on his trap, accidentally sending Skovox Blitzer only a few days forward. Danny finds out about The Doctor, Clara and the TARDIS and later saves Clara and The Doctor from the robot when it returns. Meanwhile, The Doctor takes disruptive student Courtney Woods in the TARDIS, who throws up. Danny tells Clara to let him know when The Doctor has gone too far.
Whether or not you think it’s worth spending an episode on Danny finding out Clara is a time traveller, it’s hard to deny that Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat (who began his TV showrunner career on school comedy Chalk) know exactly how to pull off this kind of sitcom-style Doctor Who story. Perhaps it’s because Coal Hill School has played such a defining role in Doctor Who since the very first episode that we don’t much mind stopping there for a while, or it could be the fact that the programme is always better when it feeds off relatable experiences.
However, the secondary school setting isn’t utilized as well as in the 2006 episode ‘School Reunion’ where it actually mattered that it was a school under attack. It’s also surprising that there isn’t much teaching going on in the episode given the abundance of teachers, students and classrooms as well as Doctor Who’s origins as an educational programme. To say that Skovox Blitzer isn’t developed enough for a Doctor Who villain is an understatement, but it’s made pretty clear that he isn’t the focus of the episode. Still, the robot is pretty campy and dated-looking, even by Doctor Who’s standards.
As there’s not much of a story in Blitzer’s attack on the school, most of the episode is about how Danny and Clara’s relationship changes once he finds out she’s travelling with The Doctor. We also get to see how The Doctor reacts to Danny’s history as a soldier, through the comic device of The Doctor being unable to think of him as anything but a P.E. teacher. Danny’s impression of The Doctor as an upper-class commanding officer is a totally new spin on the Timelord. It’s also rare not to see a companion immediately rushing off in the TARDIS.
The references to Matt Smith are both good and bad for the programme. On the one hand, it’s a great visual gag and no memory of Smith can be a bad one but I can’t help feeling nostalgia like that holds the viewer back from completely embracing Capaldi as the new Doctor. It also revives the romantic attachment between the two, which I’d hoped we’d left behind. The season arc with Missy is fleshed out some more, as we witness a police officer arrive in the ‘Nethersphere’ and start to see ‘Heaven’ as possibly more corporate than we previously imagined.
I much prefer these sustained comic episodes of Doctor Who to putting laboured comedy routines in episodes where they don’t belong, especially when they’re as well-written as ‘The Caretaker’. But it is fair to say this is one of the blandest stories you’ll see this season, especially the science-fiction aspects. Character development is the key here, and there’s plenty of time left over for that, but in a programme aimed partly at children, you do expect it to do something more with the idea of a secondary school than a few homework clichés. Halfway through the season, it feels like a bit of a holiday, but one you do something worthwhile with! The ‘caretaker’ is actually a good metaphor for the episode, since it’s job is to clear up the mess created by previous episodes and keep Doctor Who ticking along in preparation for the second half of the season.