Doctor Who used to be a bi-polar TV show, providing it's fair share of good and bad episodes since the shows rebirth in 2005, until it settled into monotonous mediocrity when Stephen Moffat took over as show runner for the Matt Smith seasons onwards. But I'm trying to figure out if this mediocrity has been broken by the new season, that has gone from good episodes to bad episodes to disappointing episodes to episodes that exceed expectations. Is this a sign that Moffat is learning to take the same risks that Russell T. Davies did? I hope so. Anyway...
The plot for "The Caretaker" has a rogue piece of alien technology hiding near Clara's school, and as such The Doctor goes undercover as the school's caretaker in order to, well, take care of it, much to the chagrin of Clara, who is trying to take her relationship with Danny Pink more seriously. However, Clara is finding it difficult to balance her real life with her other life and is struggling to keep her double life secret, showcased by the excellent opening sequence that demonstrates the hectic nature of living a double life and the determination of Clara to continue to have her cake and eat it too.
The bulk of the episode takes place within Coal Hill school, which gives Clara's character an aspect that had been missing in the recent series - a link back to the real world. All other assistants have had some link back to where they came from that his heavily emphasised and focused on to provide the character with something to lose, but Clara has only ever really had her job (that we knew very little about) to return to, meaning that audiences have less of a connection to the character than they did with other assistants. Spending an episode in Claras other life seems to be an important step in making Clara a less forgettable assistant.
The Doctor has a lot to do this episode, but we are spared the false character development and links to the Doctors past that have been shoved here there and everywhere for the rest of this season. Instead, we just get a Doctor that knows what he is doing and does it, some entertaining dialogue and the usual fish out of water humour, and another great performance from Capaldi, who has completely settled into the role despite the general quality of the episodes that he has been working with. The Doctor serves the purpose that the episode needed from him and nothing more, freeing up runtime to further explore the underdeveloped Danny and his relationship with Clara without taking anything from the underlying story of the episode, leading to one of the most well paced episodes of Doctor Who in recent years.
More importantly, "The Caretaker" adds a great deal to the character of Danny Pink, who was very much on the sideline up until this point. He isn't so much an interesting character on his own, but more of an interesting mirror to The Doctor when seen through the eyes of Clara - Danny Pink is everything that The Doctor isn't. The Doctors happiness when he believes that Clara is dating a Matt Smith look alike is rather telling about how The Doctor perceives his past with Clara, and I imagine that her inevitable departure from the series, most likely with Danny Pink, will break him - because in his eyes, she will be choosing a soldier over him, which reflects nicely on Danny Pinks utter refusal to allow himself to be defined by his military past.
Danny's confrontations with The Doctor are entertaining, but he comes off as incredible childish and annoying for a part of the episode, as well as weirdly controlling towards the end, which highlights further issues with gender roles in this episode. If Moffat's intention with this seasons push to make Clara a more rounded character was to reduce the (admittedly, mostly unfounded) complaints of sexism, then having an episode where Clara craves The Doctors approval to date someone is bizarre and a huge step backwards. Moffat needs to realise that people of opposite genders can interact without the relationship being either flirtatious or possessively protective, something that Tennant's season with Catherine Tate managed just fine.
Gender politics aside, "The Caretaker" may actually end up being one of the best episodes that this season produces - it's certainly one of the best so far. It's a fun episode that moves quick enough to gloss over the poorer elements and doesn't make the mistake of thinking that it is smarter than than it is or trying to tie everything together all the time, making two episodes in a row that have been more Old Who than New Who - and I remain cautiously optimistic about the future of this season.