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With The Mirror reporting that Peter Capaldi will appear in the first episode of Class, I thought it would be fun to review the episode where the Doctor got a job at Coal Hill School: The Caretaker. I am usually a fan of Gareth Roberts' writing for Doctor Who as he usually brings a great sense of wit and humour to the show, however I was a little disappointed with his episode for Doctor Who's eighth series. It was a good idea to make the Doctor the caretaker of the school that has been such a big part of his life but the episode features so much wasted potential. I'll get onto that in a bit - but first: a quick synopsis.
In The Caretaker, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is hired as Coal Hill School's new caretaker. He decides to use the school as a trap for the Skovox Blitzer - a war robot with weaponry that can destroy an entire planet. When Clara's boyfriend Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) accidentally turns off the chronodyne generators the Doctor has used in the school to trap the Skovox Blitzer in the time vortex, the robot is let loose in the school and the Doctor, Clara and Danny must work together to trap it back in the time vortex before it destroys the Earth.
Gareth Roberts wrote a very funny story in The Lodger but sadly none of that humour is present here. There's a great gag with the Doctor assuming Clara's boyfriend is a teacher with remarkable similarities to the 11th Doctor but aside from that there isn't anything particularly memorable compared to scenes in The Lodger (such as the Doctor's football match). It would have been nice to have seen more fish-out-of-water comedy with the Doctor as a caretaker but unfortunately the episode is too obsessed with Clara's love life. There's also no character equivalent to James Corden's Craig Owens, who was a big reason as to why The Lodger and to a lesser extent Closing Time worked. None of the teachers are particularly remarkable and the headteacher Mr Armitage (Nigel Betts), who first appeared in Into The Dalek, appears a little bland so it is baffling that he has been given his own spinoff in Class.
Thank God, then, for Ellis George as Courtney Woods. Courtney is one of the show's most three-dimensional child characters and is an absolute joy to watch. Ellis George has unbelievable chemistry with Peter Capaldi, just as Matt Smith did with Caitlin Blackwood as Young Amelia. The two bounce off each other really well and it was a wise decision by Steven Moffat to have her brought back as a temporary companion in the following episode Kill The Moon. The line 'End of the world for me tonight, whatever you do. Parents' evening.' is I'm sure something many kids - and those of us who were kids once upon a time - can relate to given the dread you would often experience when going to a parents' evening of 'Oh God, what's my teacher going to say about me?' and Ellis George says it perfectly. She really does give one of the best child actor performances of the show and is a character I think will be looked back on with fondness in years to come.
Whilst Ellis George as Courtney Woods is great, it is without a doubt a major disappointment that Ian Chesterton didn't appear in this episode. The Caretaker would have been the perfect opportunity for Ian to return given that it was set entirely in Coal Hill School and (as revealed in Day of the Doctor) Ian is currently the chairman of the board of governors. The fact that the BBC didn't bother to get William Russell to make a quick cameo is a huge let-down and possibly one of the show's biggest missed opportunities. William Russell isn't getting any younger and I would like to see him return as Ian before his time is up. The Doctor catching up with Ian would have allowed for a lovely bittersweet moment and in my opinion improved the episode considerably. Hopefully the BBC will do the right thing by casting William Russell in a cameo for Class (although I wouldn't be surprised if they don't).
The parents' evening scene is a return to form for Gareth Roberts though and feature the typical Gareth Roberts humour missing in most of the episode. It is genuinely funny seeing Clara and Danny talking to Courtney's parents about her progress before having to make a hasty excuse to leave when the Doctor requires their help. It is brilliantly played by Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson and shows the kind of potential the episode could have had if Gareth Roberts had been on his usual form. I wouldn't mind seeing Gareth Roberts given another chance with the Coal Hill School setting for a light-hearted episode of Class although I wouldn't particularly want to see the return of the Skovox Blitzer outside of a Big Finish audio drama.
Whilst the Skovox Blitzer is extremely well-designed by Christopher Goodman it is not a particularly memorable monster. It feels more comparable to the fifth Doctor's companion Kamelion than, say, the awesome K1 Robot. The Skovox Blitzer is more in-line of a generic one-off Doctor Who monster for the Doctor to defeat and save the day than a monster like the Clockwork Droids that lend themselves to return appearances. I can imagine Big Finish doing a good job with the character however should their license be extended to include the Twelfth Doctor Era once Peter Capaldi leaves the show. Perhaps the eighth Doctor VS the Skovox Blitzer could work quite well?
Probably the most memorable scene of this episode is Danny Pink confronting the Doctor in the TARDIS. His take-down of the Doctor's hatred of the soldiers by comparing him to an officer is brilliant. He is absolutely right that 'Time Lord' sounds pompous and his salute as though taking orders like a soldier from the Doctor shows the character up for how ridiculous is hatred for soldiers really is. It's always great to see the Doctor taken down a peg or two, especially when we know the Doctor was a soldier himself before - as the War Doctor. The Doctor may hold certain values but really he is one gigantic hypocrite and scenes in the show where this is pointed out to us tend to work really well.
Overall, The Caretaker is perhaps Gareth Robert's weakest episode. It doesn't contain the great sense of wit you expect from his episodes (bar the excellent Parents' Evening scene) and bar Courtney Woods the characters are bland and forgettable. It is far from the worst Doctor Who episode however. The TARDIS scene where Danny Pink confronts the Doctor after being found using the Doctor's invisibility watch is fantastic and the Skovox Blitzer is a very well-designed monster. Ellis George is one of the show's best child actors and the Parents' Evening scene is extremely well-acted by Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson. It is hugely disappointing though that William Russell wasn't given a cameo scene as Ian Chesterton as I believe it would have felt like a natural fit for the story. The Caretaker is very much an average episode of the show: not terrible but not great either. It falls somewhere in the middle - 'just good' - which is a shame as the idea of the Doctor as a school caretaker has a lot of potential.