Friday, 3 October 2014

Doctor Who: The Caretaker versus Remembrance of the Daleks

Coal Hill School occupies a magical place in Doctor Who history, ever since William Hartnell abducted two schoolteachers back in 1963. The last time the TARDIS landed in East London, his Seventh incarnation had a confrontation with the Daleks and Davros that consistently ranks high amongst fans – not only for McCoy’s run, but for the pre-2005 episodes as a whole.

Last week, we had another episode set in that venerable education establishment, and I decided to stack Remembrance of the Daleks against The Caretaker in a versus review!

The Enemy
Moffat has attempted to think ‘outside’ the villain box against the Twelfth Doctor. During ‘Listen’, it’s arguable if there is an enemy at all. Very revolutionary, but leaves one a little unsatisfied by thin metaphysics. This week, the enemy is ostensibly a scuttling CGI effect called the Skovox Blizter, but in reality the enemy is  – in the Doctor’s irascible eyes – the ex-soldier Danny Pink.
No mention is made of how the Blitzer ended up on Earth. How many alien races accidentally forget where they left a planet-killer? Moffat has again elected to describe something apocalyptic, that then proceeds to be only dangerous to the furnishing, and extras.  It’s the concept he likes though – the End of this, the destruction of all that, the Last of all them. It sounds wildly impressive, and that sound is meant to convey a world of threat all by itself. 
In reality, the Blitzer is a menace to A) a bobby on the beat, B) some chairs and C) a shed door. 

Meanwhile, under showrunner Andrew Cartmel, the Seventh Doctor is up against his most photogenic enemy. A measure of every incarnation is how he fights Daleks, and this episode alone earned McCoy the
unusual moniker of the ‘chessmaster’ Doctor, because he’s fighting two antagonistic factions of the pepperpot invaders. To win, he’ll end up manipulating them – and his erstwhile human allies – like pieces on a chessboard. Well devious!

The Doctor admits that the Dalek mothership in orbit of Earth could “crack this planet like an egg!”, and it’s a believable threat with the Nazi dustbins from space, so he needs to avoid antagonizing them too much. Instead, we’re treated to the unique sight of Daleks blowing merry hell out of one another on the streets of Shoreditch, not to mention the many squaddies caught in the crossfire. Enough Daleks were detonated with pyrotechnics, the emergency services were summoned by concerned neighbors!

We are treated to some truly unique moments for what is fast becoming a revolving door foe – who was not astounded when, in 1989, the Daleks finally overcame their second most mortal enemy? That first cliffhanger, we all joined McCoy in staring aghast as a menacing Dalek soldier levitated up the stairs, forever endangering our second floor bedrooms as the last bastion of safety. 

The appearance of the Special Weapons Dalek was a rare treat as well, enough that it was briefly honoured again in Asylum of the Daleks when one briefly turned up in Skaro A&E as Matt Smith bumbled past. On the swinging streets of Sixties London, it was a breathtaking foe that torched entire Dalek patrols without breaking a sweat. Or a rust, I guess.

The Location
The school is a battleground for both Daleks and Skovox. The old familiar foes decide its basement is an ideal staging ground for teleporting in reinforcements, and enslave the Headmaster as their coordinator in the field. He is startled when one applicant for the vacancy of Caretaker introduces himself as ‘The Doctor’ – isn’t he overqualified? 

Flash forward sixty years, and "Most people call me The Doctor", dreadful wink, takes up that vacancy. Nobody notices or cares. Cutting satire on the role of the service industry? Maybe. This time, it’s the Doctor deciding this building full of vulnerable children is an ideal execution ground for dispatching nemeses. Why didn’t he rig the alleyway outside the Blizter’s den in the abandoned building with the chronodyne generators?

The Doctor
Amidst the action of Remembrance, we find the Seventh Doctor in an unusually restrained mood at the café with Geoffrey from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (no, seriously). McCoy’s normally mischievous face is forlorn and faraway, as the ancient time traveller ponders the impact of every action. It’s a beautiful little scene that conveys the unimaginable scope of this eternal warrior of space and time. It’s one facet of a complex Doctor, who employs cunning manipulation of archenemy Davros, his paternal worries towards the gung-ho Ace, his distracted concern around military officer Gilmore. People tend to only recall the spoon-playing, ALWAYS SHOUTING, clownish McCoy. The intention is, of course, that you were meant to think that all along.

Prise up Capaldi’s frothing animosity towards Danny Pink, and you discover the irascible old man is just worried about a boy living up to ‘his’ companion’s exacting standards. He was more than happy with the cheap knock-off copy of his own Eleventh self, but he cannot tolerate the thought of an ex-soldier being Clara’s own companion. Grist for the psychologist’s mill maybe?

Something here jars though – because the last time the Twelfth Doctor was talking to soldiers, he said of Clara “She cares, so I don’t have to.”  Moffat has been hitting us over the head with the Twelfth Doctor’s ‘darker’ side, which so far has been represented by his grumpiness, unwillingness to empathize, and stark, snide, superiority. Capaldi feels more like he’s playing a pre-watershed Malcolm Tucker in space, and less of the wistful, wise old wanderer. 

Where the Seventh Doctor prevented many more casualties by convincing the military to evacuate the civilians from the area, the Twelfth Doctor is certain that rigging the school building with a time trap and luring the world-ending robot into a building full of children is the best way to go. Granted he at least waits until after teaching hours, but the task is fluffed anyway when Danny Pink – displaying all the skills of an Afghan War veteran – spies a few of the ominously flashing devices and idly picks them up to toy with. Come to think of it, in a London state comp, he was lucky there were any to be found at all. 

To hurriedly resolve the situation, he takes a degree in engineering from Star Trek and condenses twenty-four hours of cobbling together a device into about twenty minutes. It saves the day though, and one has to wonder why he didn’t just pull it together at the start of the show.

Conversely, McCoy recycles part of an electric fire into a gizmo that incapacitates three Daleks with some glittery confetti just long enough for them to be sticky-bombed – but amidst an army of them, three is a minor victory. The device burns out after a single use anyway, and the Seventh never even bothered with a sonic screwdriver! It's a wonder he made it through a season alive.

The Companion
Ace passes a home-made grenade to the Doctor in a builder’s yard, then  batters one Dalek with a supercharged baseball bat and blows another apart with a rocket-propelled grenade. She tentatively flirts with smarmy soldier Mike Smith, before relentlessly calling him out on his treachery. At the end of the episode, she is shown trying to comfort the tortured young girl who was plugged into the rebel Dalek computer as a tactical resource. There was a vast array of roles for Ace to play in her very first full episode as Companion.

Clara got through all the flirting last episode, by abusing the Laws of Time so now it’s belatedly time to see what kind of teacher she actually makes. Well, at one point she pauses a lesson to argue with the wacky Caretaker. If I were a parent of a child at Coal Hill, I’d have listened to all those rumours about alien invasions and kidnapped teachers about the place and sent my kids elsewhere. As a Doctor Who fan however, kids aren’t really a possibility for me.   

In terms of helping the Doctor, Clara runs away in a montage at the start of the episode, then professionally runs away, to lure the Skovox Blitzer into a trap. That doesn’t go entirely well, so Danny Pink has to do his best forward-flip to distract an apparently deadly, highly advanced robot battle system.

The Resolution

The Seventh Doctor prevents the military from becoming embroiled in apocalypse by winning the trust of Gilmore. He permits Davros to eliminate his rival Daleks and win the prize of the Hand – only to shoot himself in the foot, or wheel, by setting off its booby-trap. The final remaining rebel Dalek is dispassionately obliterated by the sheer force of the Doctor’s will and convincing arguments. The Doctor and Ace discreetly exit before the funeral for poor, turncoat Mike Smith.
“Doctor, did we do good?”
“Time will tell. It always does.” An ominous and significant ending, as The Protectors of Time slip away discreetly to fight the forces of evil again!  

After tying up the drama with a last-second deus ex translator, Danny and Clara head home to rebuild their relationship, presumably abandoning the adults and pupils in the main hall to the interminable sitcom subplot Parents Evening. Mind you, they did miss an alien weapons system marching about the corridors and yelling about death. They'd probably miss the teachers coming back on fire.
Meanwhile, the Doctor tips the switched-off robot into space, adrift and presumably available for salvage. A small child is sick in the Console Room.

The Myth Arc
Seated on a school staircase, the Doctor explains the function of the Hand of Omega to Ace, and how it was built very early in Time Lord history - “…and didn’t we have trouble with the prototype.”
“We?” asks Ace immediately, suspiciously. The Doctor rarely mentions Gallifrey, but Ace knows the Time Lords are ancient far beyond the Doctor’s own life.
“They!” amends the Doctor with a guilty look. Later on, in a scene excised from most recordings, Davros angrily mocks our hero as “Just another Time Lord!”
With a smug smile, the Seventh Doctor responds “Oh Davros… I am far more than just another Time Lord.”

That was one of our first brushes with the Cartmel Masterplan, an attempt to inject some mystery into the Doctor. Dropped discreetly into other episodes of Season 25 & 26 are hints that the Doctor’s past is considerably murkier than we had believed – and that the Doctor may have deliberately lied about some of it. Whilst we’re accustomed to the Doctor lying now, primarily about his age or inconvenient plot elements, back then he’d become this noble and upstanding hero, all pure and good and dull.
Now, the Seventh Doctor was on the scene, sitting back and letting Ace kill baddies with home-made explosives, whilst he tweaked threads here and there. Beyond the toothy grin and mixed metaphors was a cunning mind, symbolised by his chess games against ancient evil in Curse of Fenric. You never knew where you stood with the funny little man and his rolling R’s, who might suddenly let you topple into a trap you never even noticed. The Doctor was dangerous.

The Twelfth Doctor has someone to be dangerous for him, it seems. Another glimpse of Madame Kovarian, sorry Oswin Oswald, sorry I mean River Song, wait I mean Irene Adler, or was that Miss Delphox… Well. Whoever the Mysterious Woman de rigeur this season is, Chris Addison has no right to be looking that smug in the same show as Peter Capaldi. I think I’m more looking forward to their confrontation than anything else this season.

A bit of mystery is a good thing – but where Cartmel was painting with fine strokes, Moffat has dragged his chimney sweep brush out and the old familiar pot of clichés. I’ll stick with Season 27, thanks.

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