Last year saw the fiftieth anniversary story for “Doctor Who” start with Clara having a teaching job at the place where the “legend” began, Coal Hill School. Somewhat belatedly, the Doctor made his return to the school following his previous adventure at this school (more on this later) as he took on the role of John Smith, the new caretaker.
The Doctor pretending to be human is nothing new. After all, Gareth Roberts has done this take on the lead character twice before with “The Lodger” and “Closing Time”. However, despite the threats of a Silent time craft or the Cybermen, these two stories were, for want of a better phrase, cute and fluffy – and this is not a criticism of those stories. They suited the more comedically alien incarnation that Matt Smith portrayed. But with a new Doctor comes a fresh take on the “Doctor pretends to be human” story which whilst still maintaining the humorous tone of the previous two stories is as spiky as the lead.
The main story follows the Doctor as he goes undercover on a “thing” to track down and stop a one robot artillery called a Skovox Blitzer. Apparently, the Blitzer has been attracted to Artron energy, which the Doctor admits (in a roundabout way) could be down to the Doctor’s previous travels to this location (in “An Unearthly Child” (1963) and “Remembrance Of The Daleks” (1988)). Amongst this, the Doctor must impersonate a human, whilst preventing Clara and fellow teacher, and her boyfriend, Danny Pink from getting in the way of his plan. However, I have to admit that the Doctor chasing around an alien war machine wasn’t the most interesting aspect – firstly, because… well, I have to admit that the Blitzer looked a bit naff as an adversary. It looked like something from the classic series rather than what we’ve been used to since 2005. The second was that the sub-plots were more interesting as a storyline.
There are two sub-stories which bounce in and out of this plot. The first is Clara’s trouble with keeping her “Coal Hill Life” and “Doctor Life” separate due to her controlling behaviour, which is harder for her than the Ponds, for example, who unashamedly revelled in the “Doctor Life” whilst he popped in and out of their lives. The second is that a new person has pushed her way in to the Doctor’s life in Courtney Woods – the school’s disruptive, formerly very disruptive influence.
The humour from this script comes from the fact that the very fact that right from the outset, the Doctor can’t impersonate a human. Yes, he looks like one and sounds like one, but from the moment he greets himself as “John Smith”, you can see through Peter Capaldi’s performance that the Doctor can’t be a human for the same reason that he can’t be a caretaker (even though he has taken on this role in “The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe) – “Twelve” is a great big show off.
Why do I say a “show off“? Well, this comes through in both the humourous and serious sides of this script. An example of the humourous nature of his showing off is when he gatecrashes Clara’s lesson on “Pride and Prejudice” and tells her in front of the class that she’s wrong because he’s read the notes to the book. An example of the more serious showing off is in the scene when Danny uses the invisibility watch to hide on the TARDIS. The Doctor shows off that he can detect an invisibility field due to his nature as a Time Lord. However, this attempt at showing off backfires on the Doctor once Danny uses his past as a soldier to serve as an uncomfortable reminder of his actions as the “War Doctor”, in particular that Danny is the type of person to rescue people whilst the Doctor is the person who causes the problem in the first place – an uncomfortable to parallel to the War Doctor’s message that great men are forged in fire whilst lesser men serve to light the flame. How many “Danny’s” were there in the Time War to make the Doctor this uncomfortable?
In fact, whilst Clara is the hub of this particular sub-plot in the story, it’s the Doctor’s encounter with Danny that makes it interesting. Danny is, understandably, a little out of depth with the Doctor and Clara’s relationship. Of course, he’s going to be suspicious of the Doctor’s use of alien tech (the Chronodyne Generators) to defend the school and it’s natural that Danny would want to protect the school both from the Blitzer and from the Doctor, but whilst he’s out of his depth, you can see that Danny genuinely cares about Clara. Whilst the shock that Samuel Anderson portrays in the scene when he first meets the Doctor attract comparisons with Mickey’s behaviour at the end of “Rose”, Danny’s protective nature throughout is more in tune with Rory than Mickey along with his “Alpha Male” attitude as far as where Clara’s concerned.
The Doctor also displays an “Alpha Male” attitude where Clara is concerned and this brings out some qualities that, I have to admit, I’m uncomfortable with. Yes, he’s vain enough to think that Adrian is Clara’s boyfriend rather than Danny and there is a sweet smile of recollection as though he thinking to himself “That was was Clara and I at one time”, but it brings out an ugly side to his character. You get the high handed arrogance of the Time Lord within the Doctor, something that has been pretty well hidden in the modern era of Who, except for “The Time Lord Victorious”. He protests that he doesn’t want to be saluted or spoken of as “Sir” by Danny, but he treats Danny as somebody who requires his approval to be Clara’s boyfriend and as a bit stupid and, with that, he condemns humans as being stupid and boring with an element of contempt, which reminded me of Christopher Eccleston‘s interpretation of the Doctor.
But Danny is far from stupid or simply the former soldier that the Doctor despises. It’s Danny’s bravery that saves Clara and the Doctor when the plan to use her as bait to lure the Blitzer goes wrong, and it’s his emotional intelligence that works out that the Doctor is angry because he’s testing Danny to ensure that Clara is safe with him. Danny also parallels Rory significantly when he says that the Doctor behaves like an officer in the army by pushing his companion to please him, something that Rory accuses the Doctor of in “Vampires of Venice” when he states that the companions want to go through danger just to please the Doctor.
The only person, in this story, that the Doctor does seem impressed with is Courtney and that’s because she openly says that she’s a disruptive influence. Who better to impress the Doctor, the universe’s biggest disruptive influence? She has a curiosity that matches that of the Doctor, she challenges authority and she displays little fear when she realises the Doctor’s true nature as an alien being. Okay, she may end up with a little time sickness on her journey into space at the end of the episode, but even if it’s not Courtney who joins him at some point as a permanent fixture, you can see the start of the Doctor thinking of “life after Clara”.
At the end of the story, we have the coda to the Nethersphere/Promised Land as the PCSO who was killed by the Blitzer at the start of the story meets Missy’s assistant, with Missy herself in the background. I have heard one theory as to Missy’s true nature and it’ll be interesting to see if this pans out at the end of the story.
Casting wise, this, like most of the stories for Series 8, have been pretty intimate affairs with Ellis George being the guest star of note in the role of Courtney.
At the start of the story, Ellis gives Courtney a gobby and cheeky attitude with all her “Love to the Squaddie” references to Clara. As the story progresses, it’s her scenes with Peter Capaldi which really shine through with her verbal sparring making her worthy of the “Potential Companion” tag.
The regulars are also on form in this episode.
Peter Capaldi himself is definitely hitting his stride in the role of the Doctor. Granted, his Doctor is a bit of a shock to the system in comparison to the more “companion friendly” Doctors as of late. There is a sense in Capaldi’s portrayal that, on the one hand he’s steeling himself for letting go of Clara – something that’s been building as far back as “Deep Breath”, but on the other, he is reluctant to let her go and behaves in a possessive manner – such as in the scene when they first encounter the Blitzer when he says that Clara needs to explain her relationship with Danny to him. He also gives the Doctor an air of behaving in a morally superior way which borders on pompous, more alien and wanting a “hands off” relationship to people other than Clara. Bringing these things together and you end up with a character that is an uncomfortable and unsettling shift from the Doctor that people may be aware of since 2005. However, there are light touches in his portrayal which acts as a counterbalance including his bursting in on Clara’s English lesson, his bantering Courtney and I loved the reference to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” when Clara told the boys off for playing football on the outdoor chess area.
Jenna Coleman turns in another great performance in the role of Clara. The character likes to be in control of the two worlds in which she exists, so it’s great to see how the Doctor’s world pushes into her day to day existence and how she, unsuccessfully, tries to minimise the damage of this intrusion which includes trying to the put the Doctor in his place when he interferes in her English lesson and coming up with an unconvincing cover story when Danny first meets the Doctor as he truly is.
Samuel Anderson is also excellent in this episode as Danny. He informs the audience more of who Danny truly is. Yes, on the surface the character, Danny could be your typical male companion-figure, given the chance, with Clara treating him as a bit of an idiot in the aforementioned scene when she tries to explain the Skovox Blitzer as a Summer Fair play. Underneath though, Danny is a man who believes in honesty – whether it’s him sticking it to the Doctor in the TARDIS when he challenges him on his attitude or making a request to Clara for a relationship built upon honesty. There are still layers in the character to be explored, specifically his reasons for leaving the Army, and I hope these layers pulled away by the time Series 8 ends.
Messrs. Roberts and Moffat have served up and episode which works on two levels. It serves as a part-comedic/part-serious examination of the leading man and how his actions impact upon his companion and the people who his adventures encounter (something that Steven Moffat promised prior to the series commencing). It also serves as an ominous portent that as the series continues, we may be seeing a change occurring in the Doctor/Clara friendship – whether it be a parting of the ways or a change of emphasis.