Doctor Who Recap: When A Kids’ Show Goes Back To School
There’s been a long-standing argument as to whether Doctor Who is a kids’ show or a family show. As far as debates go, this is the most pointless.
This is a recap of the most recent episode of Doctor Who, ‘The Caretaker’. Spoiler alert.
There’s been a long-standing debate as to whether Doctor Who is a kids’ show or a family show. As far as Doctor Who debates go, this is one of the most pointless given the distinction is mostly academic. Then of course there are the neckbeards who don’t want it to be either, because you can’t be a proper Whovian unless you’re happy to devote a Saturday night to watching a fan reconstruction of 1969’s The Space Pirates, or can quote passages verbatim from the Cat’s Cradle trilogy of novels. For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to pretend I don’t fall into that category.
Doctor Who is a kids’ show. It was first designed to be a way to educate children about history; the time-travel aspect was simply a device to get them back into the French Revolution, or Ancient Rome, or the time of the Aztecs. That’s why the first three companions consisted of a history teacher, a science teacher and a student. The Doctor was simply the one who operated and maintained the machine. The chauffeur. The caretaker.
Back in 1963, that very first episode opens in Coal Hill School, where teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright are discussing their very mysterious student Susan, and decide to confront her at the address she claims to live at. The address is a junk yard, and the TARDIS is there waiting. The rest, as they say, is available on DVD.
It didn’t take long for the educational element to drop away, and for the show to become total fantasy. So any future Doctor Who set in a school would follow the obvious path, right? A student gets whisked away for a trip in the TARDIS, and the kids in the audience leap around screaming, “I identify wholly with that demographically-fitting representation!”
When the Doctor visits a modern school in 1983’s Mawdryn Undead, one of the schoolboys hitches a ride with him off into the unknown. The audience identification aspect is somewhat marred by the fact that the boy in question is actually an alien who does a deal-with-the-devil to kill the Doctor. This story really only plays into the fantasy of the kids who hate Doctor Who, and they probably weren’t watching.
The 25th anniversary story, Remembrance of the Daleks, saw the Doctor return to Coal Hill School mere months after he’d left in the very first episode. But despite largely taking place at the school, the only kid who appears is a creepy little girl who turns out to be a Dalek agent.
2006’s School Reunion is more about the Doctor reuniting with Sarah Jane Smith, although there is an attempt to give the kids in the audience an avatar in the shape of a dumpy glasses-wearing boy who is lauded by his classmates at the end for blowing up the school. It’s funny, but given he’s on the periphery for most of the story – “Sarah Jane! K9! Buffy’s Anthony Stewart Head! Oh, and some weird kid, I guess.” – he doesn’t really stick in the memory a whole lot.
2007’s Human Nature spent much of its time in the classroom, but as that classroom was from a century ago, and of the two kids featured one was possessed by an alien and the other was a psychic who went to war, it was hard to get modern kids to relate.
On the question of kids relating, maybe it’s not as important who the kids are as how they act. After all, the times in which the show has deliberately tried to create a character for the children in the audience to relate to, they’ve almost never made them human: Susan (alien, granddaughter of the Doctor); Vicki (born in the 25th century, discovered stranded on a dead planet), Adric (mathematics genius from parallel dimension; annoying prat with a face only a mother could not-punch). Once their fantastic origins are done away with, they spend all of their time screaming at monsters and clinging to the Doctor for support.
So if we’re not using schools for education or for identifiable fantasy, what function do they serve? At this point, I’m prepared to say “nostalgia” and leave it at that.
This episode, The Caretaker, continues the recent tradition of a Doctor who is unable to operate properly in a domestic situation. Gareth Roberts, who wrote the brilliant 2011 episode The Lodger, returns for another Doctor Thinks He’s People story, as our hero tries to stop an alien robot blowing the planet up or something. As with The Lodger, the actual alien threat is secondary to the relationships between the characters, and the episode is all the stronger for it unless you hate emotion.
The most interesting part is how the Doctor’s weird prejudices really make him look prattish, and deliberately so. There’s this popular idea that because he’s the hero, any negative personality traits he displays must be automatically endorsed by the writers, when it’s rather obvious that the opposite is true. The Doctor assumes Clara must be dating the Matt Smith-lookalike teacher who talks about Shakespeare, in a surprising show of esteem towards his former self. The Doctor’s incarnations invariably have contempt for the previous one (the Third Doctor sniping at the Second, the Sixth Doctor instantly dismissing the Fifth), but the Twelfth Doctor still seems intent on setting Clara up with the Eleventh. It’s weird as hell and I like it.
Coal Hill schoolgirl Courtney – who I now realise has been present in some form or another in most of the previous episodes this season – gets a trip in the TARDIS at the end, suggesting the forthcoming makeup of the TARDIS team will be two Coal Hill teachers, one Coal Hill student, and an older grumpy Doctor who is as much an antagonist as protagonist. The more things change, eh?
Questions To Ponder:
- Was there a Brigadier reference in there? Lethbridge-Stewart went from being a UNIT soldier to a maths teacher in Mawdryn Undead, so the Doctor’s insistence that soldiers can’t be maths teachers might have some precedence.
- If Coal Hill School can look different every time it appears on screen, why can’t IM Foreman’s junk yard? The Doctor’s “Home sweet home” when he enters, along with its proximity to the school, suggests it was the same one he was parked in back in 1963.
- That River Song reference isn’t a substitute for her actually appearing at some point, is it? I’m dying to see her and Capaldi together.
- The Doctor doesn’t want to admit he has met Jane Austen? He took a trip with her in audio adventure Frostfire. Although at this stage it’s harder to think of an author he hasn’t spent time with. Orson Scott Card? Ayn Rand? Dan Brown? Actually, let’s hope they all steer clear of the show. Keeping in mind that the Doctor has met the author of Mein Kampf.
- We can’t get one Ian Chesterton cameo? He’s listed on the sign as being the school’s chairman or something, and William Russell is still healthy and working. I’ll take anything. A wink in the final seconds of the show, anything. Seriously, I’m not fussy.
Everyone had written off Doctor Who in the late ’80s, and few witnessed it suddenly getting great again. Not just good. Great. Remembrance kicked that off. And hey, when the Seventh Doctor enters Coal Hill, he’s asked if he’s applying for the position of caretaker. Now that’s foreshadowing!
Lee Zachariah is a writer and journalist. He co-hosted the ABC2 film comedy series The Bazura Project, and is a co-presenter of film podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates. He tweets at @leezachariah