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Posts Tagged ‘The Caretaker’

I came across a very interesting article earlier this week about some of the various travails to which long-running franchises are prey. The writer discussed in particular The Simpsons and X-Men, arguing that both series have created a vast fictional mythology with dozens of characters (even before you consider the wider Marvel Comics universe), both have large (if dwindling) fanbases, and both are nowhere near as good as they once were. (I think you may be able to guess where I’m going with this.)

The main thesis of the piece was that in the case of both Simpsons and X-Men, the main problem is that they are now under the control of people imposing a misguided vision of what the series was actually supposed to be in the first place. The Simpsons, when it was truly great, was less about it being anarchically post-modern, and more about its very traditional narrative virtues: consistency, characterisation, world-building. In the same way, the classic Byrne-Claremont X-Men stories are not really about vast hyperbolic storylines and outrageous superpowered battles, but are instead the ongoing, almost soap-like saga of a bunch of well-defined characters with a particular genetic quirk, their lives and their relationships.

I was rather impressed by the fellow’s thinking and it did lead me to wonder if the same kind of analysis might be illuminating when it comes to Doctor Who. It certainly meets the mythological requirement, and while I’ve no idea of the state of the fanbase (even the very word seems to me to imply a degree of homogeneity that I’ve never seen any evidence of), I would certainly agree that the show is not really at its best at the moment – although I suspect we might disagree about whether the Golden Age was at its peak in 1976 or 2008, to name just two possibilities.

Of course, this leads us to the question of what kind of programme Steven Moffat thinks great Doctor Who is, and how he could be mistaken about this. Certainly, watching The Caretaker I was very aware that – for some of the time at least – this was absolutely not a straight drama. In fact, would it be completely ridiculous to say that, these days, Doctor Who is a comedy-drama series? One of the problems with Matt Smith’s final episode was that it was studded with comedy set-piece moments, most of which were completely irrelevent to the plot, and Moffat himself is fond of talking about the character as ‘silly old Doctor Who’. I couldn’t find it in my heart to describe Drivel of Sherwood as anything other than an attempted comedy.

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The Caretaker seemed to me to be even more up-front than usual about its assault on the chuckle-muscles, and while I was initially very unsure about this, it outflanked my scepticism through the novel tactic of actually being genuinely funny – the joke about the Doctor assuming Clara’s boyfriend would be his own one-time lookalike had me laughing out loud at length, something which the series hasn’t been able to make me do in an age.

And then I was confounded again, as the episode suddenly started working as a drama too. Let’s be honest, the monster this week was a bit of a Maguffin – although I am inclined to admire the subtle way in which the Doctor’s responsibility for its presence was left largely implicit – but the scenes between the Doctor, Clara, and Danny had a genuine sense of heft and significance about them the series has too often lacked recently. After many episodes off in Moffat’s timey-wimey fantasy world of ‘romantic logic’, it felt as if Doctor Who had crashed back into a space where decisions carry real consequences with them and bittersweet endings are not just things to be contrived for when the companion departs.

So on the whole, the episode rather won me over. I am still, however, increasingly coming to think that – no matter how brilliant Peter Capaldi’s performance, and he has been uniformly good so far, even with the weakest material – we are not getting the Time Lord we have been advertised. I wrote the other day about the nature of antiheroes, the character who fights for a good cause without being a conventionally good person, and there have been touches of this in the Doctor’s character sometimes, in the past. With all the talk of Capaldi as a difficult, old-school Doctor, I thought we would be seeing this explored a bit more, but I don’t think this is honestly the case.

Capaldi’s Doctor is an odd, angular character, who can be abrasive – but it seems to me that this is not primarily because he is an alien being with a different set of priorities and emotional responses – the ‘Olympian detachment’ of which Tom Baker, who epitomised these qualities most successfully, sometimes spoke. The Capaldi Doctor is not distant and difficult solely as a result of being an alien. He is distant and difficult simply because he has very poor social skills, which is a different matter entirely – he does care (observe his delight when he believes Clara has fallen for his human lookalike), he just can’t express it very well. To put it another way, this is not a quality of the Doctor, but rather one of his shortcomings, and as such it does feed into the theme of the season so far, which is that the Doctor is a horribly flawed man who really doesn’t like himself very much.

I’ve spoken before about my misgivings about this idea and so I won’t rehearse my disquiet about it here again. I will just say that I would hope that the makers of the series might find some way of expressing just why it is that the Doctor is worth watching and caring about, why he really is a genuine hero, without endlessly qualifying it this way. Perhaps that’s the difference between Moffat’s current conception of what Doctor Who should be and my own.

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