In 2006 there was an episode of Doctor Who in which David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor went undercover in a school in an effort to flush out a band of alien shapechangers. Featuring the return of Sarah Jane Smith and K9, as well as a guest appearance from Anthony Head and a straightforward, enjoyable plot, the episode was met with praise from pretty much everyone. Fans, newcomers and critics all seemed to like it a great deal.
In 2014 the premise was deemed worthy of repeating. Only this time the Doctor was being played by Peter Capaldi and he wouldn’t be going undercover as a teacher but as a caretaker. Also, he would mention that he was going undercover quite a bit. Because that’s funny, apparently.
Going back to the premise of the Doctor trying to work inconspicuously in a school wasn’t a bad idea. It’s a setup that presents opportunities for situational comedy and, specific to this season, gentle nudging of the Danny Pink and Clara Oswald relationship. Let’s not forget that situational comedy revolving around adult relationships is where co-writer Steven Moffat made his name in the nineties, and that Gareth Roberts had previously had success writing Matt Smith’s Doctor in an environment where he had to pass himself off as a standard human and that he has previously striven to mark himself as the funny Doctor Who writer. They seemed like the ideal combo for this scenario.
And for the first fifteen minutes they were. We started with the always popular montage of unseen adventures. Capaldi was funny and odd and detached while being easy to watch. Coleman did some of her best work and finally made it seem as though Clara actually enjoys the time she spends with the Doctor, something her usual sarcasm and eye-rolling doesn’t achieve. The idea of the Doctor working at the school was introduced well, as was a well-made monster prop (shot effectively too, for the record).
But it couldn’t last. Around fifteen minutes into the episode the Doctor sent the monster he was there to fight into the future, leaving the episode to focus on Clara’s relationships with the Doctor and Danny and the initial reactions of the two men to one another until it returned for the Action Packed Final Sequence™. These relationship scenes were clearly what the episode existed for, and that was fine. The Clara and Danny relationship is clearly going to play a significant role in series eight as a whole and it was a good decision to dedicate the bulk of an episode to establishing that the Doctor and Danny do not initially like one another.
What let the episode down was… well, everything really. The writing, the performances and the direction all seemed off. The trouble with the latter is a straightforward complaint: too many shots looking up at people’s faces as they mooched along corridors and an overuse of slow motion effects. The writing and the performance troubles are broader. Clara spent the entire episode essentially worrying about pleasing two men. Not a very 2014 mentality. And Danny, well Danny requires a paragraph all his own.
Danny revealed a previously unhinted at loathing of the officer class (and some nifty acrobatics for that matter – seriously, what was his somersaulting all about?) and came across as a controlling, emotionally manipulative spouse in the scenes in which he and Clara were alone. Samuel Anderson didn’t have the ability to make Danny seem likeable during these scenes. They were unpleasant to watch and they shouldn’t have been. Unless, of course, Moffat’s taking the show in a bold new direction and actually intends to make Danny the controlling spouse he appeared to be here. If so then I’ll take back what I’ve written about Anderson here because he nailed it. But I’ll have a fresh batch of complaints about Moffat’s writing instead.
The saving grace was once again Capaldi. When his Doctor was given funny lines Capaldi was funny and he was nicely believable during his angry scenes with Danny. His Doctor is at his best when being given the chance to be flippant and angry, so he was in his element. I wouldn’t mind Gareth Roberts being given another episode next year, but ideally one without Moffat’s relationship scenes slipped into them.