[Note: I know there was a “To be continued” sign, but I’m treating these two episodes as separate stories, not a two-parter, albeit with a linked narrative, mainly because they’re obviously distinct situations, rather than a single story told over two episodes; they were also written by different writers.]
I must confess that I was a bit nervous about this one. That’s a new feeling for me—I can’t remember, as much as this, wanting an episode to be good but feeling so sceptical about what the finished product would look like. It boasted a promising lineup of personnel: first and foremost the stellar Maisie Williams, who would doubtless bring her natural acting talents into her role, not to mention some of that Game of Thrones stardust. There was also the dreamy writing partnership of Jamie Mathieson (of Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline fame) and Steven Moffat, the former being the most exciting Doctor Who writer since Moffat himself. But it was the content of the episode that made me apprehensive. Vikings — with horns. And what looked like the most pantomime aliens since the farting Slitheen in Series 1. “Please, oh, please don’t let Maisie’s episode be as rubbish as it looks,” I prayed. “Please, God forbid, don’t tell me Jamie Mathieson has been lumped with the filler episode. Anything but that.”
I shouldn’t have worried. This episode was great. Especially so given that it could have easily been a fairly mediocre episode. I should have trusted that Jamie Mathieson could take even a nondescript story idea as, admittedly, this one was, and make a riveting and absorbing episode out of it. Granted, this was Mathieson’s least impressive script yet, but that is emphatically a compliment: it was a great episode, and the man has a flawless run of stories so far, much like Steven Moffat did before he took over as showrunner (*nudge* *nudge*). If anything, this script is an exemplar of Mathieson’s versatility: he’s shown in his two scripts for Series 8 that he can do the serious storytelling and the hard science fiction, both staples of this show, but in this episode he’s shown he’s just as adept at a traditional romp, Doctor Who’s reliable mainstay. Mathieson’s take on the romp is distinctive, though, in such a way that raises it above the likes of Tooth and Claw and *shudder* The Crimson Horror. It has all the comedy and camp silliness of a conventional Doctor Who romp, but it’s also an involving and well-composed narrative, punctuated by a handful of—genuinely well-written—poignant and intelligent little moments.
Mathieson made the shrewd decision not to make the Mire the focus of this story, who were a singularly uninteresting villain, apart from the gruesome detail that they harvest warriors for their testosterone—appreciated only for their self-consciously pantomime quality. Instead, we get a fun and engaging story about the Doctor training a ragtag band of ill-equipped and, as it turns out, particularly hopeless Nordics for battle against one of the mightiest warrior races in the galaxy. It’s Dad’s Army in the 10th Century, and it makes for delightfully funny viewing. Mathieson milks the situation for as much quality humour as he can: the Doctor’s (unconvincing) impersonation of Odin; the Doctor promptly being upstaged by an enormous, comical apparition of Odin’s face in the sky, complete with beard and eyepatch (the most camp thing Doctor Who has ever done? Quite possibly); the Doctor giving the Viking villagers amusing derisory nicknames (ZZ Top was my personal favourite). It was all great fun.
But, as I said, it was an intelligent and involving script as much as it was an entertaining one. Moments like the Doctor’s translation of the baby’s (surprisingly poetic) wailing, the Doctor’s brooding over his effect on Clara, and Clara’s inevitable end, and, of course, Maisie’s poignant scene with Capaldi, gives this episode proper emotional heft. At the top of the list is that scene, where the Doctor finally understands why he “chose” his face. He goes from brooding, surely feeling the weight of his impossibly advanced years as keenly as ever, over the loss of yet another person close to him, resentful that he couldn’t do anything about it (or, rather, wasn’t allowed to), to deciding that he would save Ashildr, whatever the cost, astonishingly quickly. The spur was remembering where he got his face from, and what it meant. And we’re treated to a wonderful, hair-raising flashback to the Tenth Doctor in The Fires of Pompeii. “I’m the Doctor, and I save people!”
It was a fist-pumping “Doctor” moment, as good as any, but at the same time there was an ominous “Time Lord Victorious” vibe about it—the other side of the coin to the Doctor’s defiance of the laws of time. The Tenth Doctor defied the laws of time in Pompeii in a small, imperceptible way, remembering which was what spurred the Doctor to save Ashildr, but Ten also went on to become the Time Lord Victorious. The Doctor belatedly realised this when he expressed doubts over what he did to Ashildr, whether he’d done too much. It’s set up what looks to be an intriguing arc surrounding Maisie’s character to be carried over into the next episode, perhaps even further. That final scene, the pan around Ashildr with the universe respiring around her, her expression passing from joy to something quite chilling, what looked like bitterness, even hatred, was visually glorious as well as ominous and foreboding. And, yet again, this is the third instance in as many stories of the idea of defying the laws of time to save someone. I’m becoming more and more confident about my hunch that the finale will involve the Doctor going back in time to change history in order to avert Clara’s death, perhaps leading to another horrifying “Time Lord Victorious” moment.
Some final thoughts. Maisie tho. She really is a phenomenal young actress. She has buckets of screen presence, and her scene with Capaldi in her tent was mesmerising. Even if I weren’t a Game of Thrones fan, I’m sure I’d be proud to have her as an honoured member of the Whoniverse. Her character was obviously conceived as much like Arya, but Maisie was good enough an actress to clearly distinguish the two characters. Ashildr is definitely a very different character from Arya, which is not so much down to the writing as much as Maisie’s own acting instincts. There are many parts that Maisie could have simply played as Arya, but chose to do very differently, and she’s to be commended for that. Peter Capaldi, too, has to be praised. Sublime performance, as ever. I haven’t found the space so far this series to make this point, but Capaldi’s portrayal of his Doctor has markedly improved this series. I think Capaldi might have been allowed more freedom to forge his own interpretation of the character this series (reflected, not least, in the outfits). Series 9 Twelve is definitely more reminiscent of Tom Baker’s good-humoured bohemian vagabond (except with much better acting) than the tetchy, crotchety old man that Twelve was in Series 8. That’s a good thing, in my book, and Capaldi is quickly shooting up my “favourite Doctors” list.
Quote of the week:
“I’ve got too much to think about without everybody having their own names.”