Thoughts on: Hell Bent

Warning: spoilers.

In the week before Hell Bent aired, I had prepared myself, along with many, for a barnstorming, ambitious finale of grandiose scale — the Doctor’s spectacular, long-anticipated return to Gallifrey and his epic face-off with the Time Lords. Indeed, for the first fifteen or so minutes, that was what the episode looked like it was doing. There was the Doctor strutting back into town, channelling Clint Eastwood, facing down Rassilon in something like a Time Lord Western. It was all wonderfully atmospheric and intense. But, ultimately, for better or worse, this wasn’t a Time Lord Western or the Doctor’s legend-making homecoming to Gallifrey. The Doctor’s face-off with Rassilon was dealt with quickly, and the episode became an intimate, character-driven piece about the Doctor and Clara Oswald. It was about an ecstatic, passionate, but dangerously flawed friendship, and the terrible lengths to which the Doctor would go for Clara.

It took me a couple of attempts to see this and to really appreciate it. I think perhaps my preconceptions and expectations had something to do with my equivocal first impression. I had prepared myself for one thing, and when the episode took a turn (or a couple of turns) I didn’t expect and turned into something completely different, I was thrown. Making an effort to put aside my preconceptions, though, it was only after a couple of viewings that I came to appreciate the episode for the involving and emotional character piece that it was. Whether an episode centred on the Doctor’s return to Gallifrey would have been better is a relevant question, but, assessing the episode for what it was, and what it was trying to do, I think it was a success, though not without its faults. Watching the Doctor, completely devoid of self-awareness, hell bent on saving Clara at any cost, and witnessing the lengths to which he would go to save his friend, was a compelling and exhilarating story in itself. As a personal, character-driven piece about how far the Doctor’s emotion and grief would take him, it was very powerful and involving.

That said, I do think there is a fundamental problem at the heart of this script that saw the episode leave me (at first), along with many others, with a queer taste in our mouths. It’s that this finale, to an extent, tries to be two things at once. It tries both to be the long-anticipated return-of-Gallifrey episode, and Clara’s exit episode. Gallifrey didn’t need to feature in Clara’s exit. The Doctor didn’t need the Time Lords to meddle with time and save Clara. At the same time, the Doctor-and-Clara plot rather crowds out Gallifrey’s return, something which surely merited its own episode (if not two). The result was a finale that felt, to me at least, rushed (even for a 65-minute episode), disjointed and unfocussed. It took some concentration to keep up with everything that was going on. You think it’s going to go in one direction, but without warning it changes tack and veers in another. Sometimes this sort of thing works, but here I found it disorienting. You’d be forgiven if, somewhere along the way (especially since the narrative was heavily dialogue-reliant), you lost track of what was going on. I didn’t, but I struggled, more than I should have, to keep up.

I don’t think I’m necessarily unjustified in making this (admittedly subjective) point: Steven Moffat mentioned in an interview that, for a while, he thought he might be retiring as showrunner this year. He thought this might be his last finale. Understandably, he would have wanted to tie up his Gallifrey arc before he left, perhaps sooner than he might have if he had known he would be staying on for at least another series. Thus this messy and not completely coherent script. The return of Gallifrey really did need to be its own story, preferably a two-part story, while Clara’s exit story, in my opinion, would have benefited from doing without the intrusive culmination of the Gallifrey arc. All that said, though, I think the script just managed to pull it off. The script just managed to tie everything together — Gallifrey, the Hybrid, Clara’s exit — in an engaging and satisfying way and construct an eminently watchable joined-up narrative out of it all, deftly avoiding deteriorating into an incoherent mess. There are few writers who could have done that, but Moffat, evidently, is one of them.

Moffat by now knows how to push all the right emotional buttons in the event of character exits. While I still think I might have preferred Clara to have died, as tragically and traumatically as possible, this inversion of Donna’s situation is really very tragic and heartbreaking in its own way. It was really quite clever how it was done. I’m sure every fan watching thought to themselves “Oh Christ, we’re doing Donna again,” before the episode once again upended expectations and made the Doctor forget Clara. And, bloody hell, wasn’t it painful? Right in the feels. I think the only thing worse than a companion forgetting the Doctor is the Doctor forgetting his companion, especially a companion he was as passionately close to as Clara Oswald. The sight of the Doctor in the American diner, trying in vain, like a doddering, senile old man, to remember his forgotten friend, who was standing directly in front of him, was what really got me. The way Clara looked at him at that point, wistfully, teary-eyed, was almost too much to handle. Also, “Run you clever boy…” Welp. Going to cry now. In a sense, though, it’s a good thing Clara was written out in this way: it’s horrible to think that the Doctor won’t remember Clara, but at least it’ll make for a clean restart with a new companion — there’ll be no lingering regret and angst for Clara overshadowing the next companion, à la Martha, which is good.

As for Clara’s exit itself — I think I surprised myself at how much it didn’t bother me. I was one of those who, while expecting and hoping that Clara would make another appearance in the finale (I predicted correctly that the Doctor would meddle with time to save Clara), ultimately wanted Clara to stay dead. I thought, for a companion as important to the Doctor and as close to the Doctor as Clara, and given Clara’s worrying addiction to her dangerous, adrenaline-fuelled lifestyle with the Doctor, that death would have been the only appropriate and fitting end for her. Anything short of death would have felt anticlimactic, I thought. But I didn’t consider that Clara might be given her own Tardis and companion and carry on doing what she loved, that she’d actually do what she’d always been threatening to do and become the Doctor (in a sense). I really like that. I mean, I’m disappointed that the show didn’t have the courage to kill off a companion for good, but I’m not disappointed by this way of writing out Clara, as I thought I’d be if her exit amounted to anything short of death. I quite like the idea of Clara romping around space and time with Ashildr in a stolen borrowed Tardis, just like the Doctor.

Some final thoughts. I’m not sure how I feel about the lack of definitive resolution to the Hybrid arc. In the end it didn’t really matter, because the Doctor and Clara may as well have been the Hybrid, given how far the Doctor was prepared to go for Clara. Somehow, though, I don’t expect we’ll ever get an actual answer to what the fabled Hybrid of Time Lord prophecy is. Peter Capaldi’s Time Lord Victorious act was chilling. I think this is the first time we’ve seen the Doctor genuinely unhinged since The Waters of Mars, and, although I think the Doctor was scarier in that episode, that’s not to diminish Peter Capaldi’s performance by any means. I was glad to see Maisie Williams back, more enigmatic than ever as the now-billions (trillions?) of years-old Ashildr. She emphatically convinced as an impossibly old enigma, and I’m glad that her taking up with Clara means that we may yet see her again in the show. Also, it was so gratifying seeing the classic-style Tardis. Completely unnecessary, gratuitous fanservice it was, but when was that ever a bad thing? Finally, that final scene, the Doctor donning his velvet jacket again, catching his new screwdriver, snapping the Tardis doors shut, the hero theme playing in the background — it was a wonderfully uplifting, exhilarating end to the series and the beginning of a new era. Just superb.

Rating: 8/10.


Quote of the week:

“I was a completely different person in those days. Eccentric, a bit mad, rude to people.”

7 questions before the finale

Spoiler warning: This article contains spoilers about returning villains/adversaries in the finale. If you haven’t read the official synopses for Heaven Sent and Hell Bent, and don’t want to know who the villains of the finale are, then DO NOT READ ON.


Well, that was quick. It didn’t seem that long ago that we were all drooling over every scrap and teaser the BBC were throwing us in saliva-specked anticipation for September 19th. Who can believe that it’s time for the finale already?

Before we forge ahead, though, there are some questions we all want answered in what promises to be an absolutely epic extended two-part finale.


Where has the Doctor been sent?

At the climax of Face the Raven, it was revealed that Ashildr had been manipulating all the events of the episode in order to bring the Doctor to her trap street. She was in league with a host of shadowy benefactors who were employing her to acquire the Doctor. At the end of the episode, the Doctor, Clara-less and alone, was sent by Ashildr to wherever it was her co-conspirators were taking him.

Now, if you’ve read the synopses for Heaven Sent and Hell Bent, you’ll know that it’s the Time Lords behind it all, and it’ll be the Time Lords the Doctor encounters in Hell Bent. But, in the meantime, the Doctor has to endure what has been described as his “bespoke torture chamber” in an undisclosed location. Heaven Sent is a single-handed episode essentially following the Doctor for 55 minutes as he confronts what terrors his tormentors have prepared for him. It promises to be sensational.

The question compels itself, though: where has the Doctor been sent? I have a feeling that it isn’t just a random, deserted planet that someone thought might be a convenient location for a giant torture chamber. I have a feeling that there’s something significant about the location of Heaven Sent. What it might be, I have no clue. But, given Time Lord involvement, we can make some informed speculations: the Death Zone on Gallifrey, perhaps; somewhere in the Time War; inside a Tardis; maybe even the Doctor’s (abandoned) family home on Gallifrey, Lungbarrow.

Whither Clara?

So Clara died in Face the Raven. She legit died. I saw it. She fell over and everything. But did she, really? Upon witnessing Clara’s fairly unequivocal death, the fandom has reliably sprung into action with theories abounding about how Clara didn’t really die. Knowing Moffat and his penchant for aggravating twists and deaths-that-aren’t-really-deaths (see: Rory Williams), they might actually have a point.

But nevertheless, I’m quite confident that Clara really did die in the last episode. She’s dead. For one thing, given the emotional lead-up to Clara’s death and all the tortured dialogue about Clara’s death being inescapable, I don’t think even Moffat would dare to turn around and go “Ta-da! Look. she’s still alive! It was all a trick! Gotcha!”

However, we know that Jenna Coleman is appearing in Hell Bent. Clara is going to come back in some capacity—whether sometime back in her timeline, as a dream or illusion, as one of her echo versions, or something else. I think the Clara we’ve seen in publicity pictures dressed up as a rollerskated waitress in a 1950s-style diner is probably an echo version, one perhaps being given a visit by the Doctor because he wants to see Clara’s face again.

In any case, I’m personally inclined towards a theory that the Doctor will actually go back in time and change history to avert Clara’s death; in effect, bring Clara back from the grave. The very suggestive title of the final episode, Hell Bent (as in, the Doctor will bend hell itself to bring Clara back), gives some support to the idea. The idea of meddling with time to avert death has been a subtly recurring motif in Series 9: I count its recurrence at least three times, most notably when the Doctor turned Ashildr into an immortal in a very public “screw you” to the Time Lords.

She’ll still be dead in the end, though. I’m sure the Time Lords will make sure of that. But it’ll still allow for one last goodbye for Clara. Moffat wouldn’t let some amateur newbie writer write his character out of the show, after all…

Whither the Doctor?

Before hopping it, Clara’s dying wish to the Doctor was that he not take revenge on Ashildr or anyone for her death. But, knowing the Doctor, he may well not be able to stop himself. He cared deeply, passionately, for Clara. I’ve no doubt that, without suggesting anything explicitly romantic or sexual, the Doctor loved Clara. Clara has almost certainly been the closest and most important companion to the Doctor since Rose—arguably even more so than Rose. Clara’s death will have broken the Doctor, even unhinged him. If you’ve read anything about the plot of Heaven Sent, you might know that it features a Doctor apparently gone off the rails in grief and anger over Clara’s death.

The question is, then: what will the Doctor do? Will an understandably maddened and aggrieved Doctor heed Clara’s dying wish? Or will he wreak his terrible revenge? Without Clara by his side, who will stop him?

What are the Time Lords up to?

It’s almost certain that it was the Time Lords who employed Ashildr to abduct the Doctor, and who, in the next episode, have brought him to his “bespoke torture chamber”. The question is, what in Kasterborous are they playing at? Abduction? Physical and mental torture? That isn’t how you treat the man who literally saved your entire race and civilisation from total obliteration.

I really have no answer for this one. I haven’t the scintilla of an idea about what could possibly have driven the Time Lords to behave this way. The only thing I can think of is that it has something to do with the Doctor’s mysterious confession. Which brings me to…

What is the Doctor’s confession?

I asked this question at the beginning of the series, and we’re still none the wiser in respect of an answer. I shared my speculations about what the Doctor’s confession might be here. Supposedly it has something to do with why the Doctor left Gallifrey in the first place. Some terrible reason that compelled the Doctor to fly from Gallifrey in his first incarnation. Which, as far as fleshing out the mythology of the show goes, is a lip-smacker.

In short, I’m partial to the idea that the Doctor has some dark, terrible past that he left behind on Gallifrey, along with his real name, that he’s been attempting to repent for ever since. Thus “Doctor”. But I’m not dogmatic and I’d love to know the real reason for the Doctor’s flight, whatever it is.

What is the Hybrid?

Somewhat related to the above. The Doctor’s confession may or may not have something to do with a purported legendary hybrid creature which the Doctor had some hand in creating. First mentioned by Davros in The Witch’s Familiar, the “hybrid” motif has reared its cryptic head at inopportune interludes throughout the series. It’s apparently a thing.

I’m inclined to think that the Doctor’s confession actually doesn’t have anything to do with the Hybrid, that the Hybrid is something separate from the Doctor’s confession. It’s just that the Doctor has clearly already committed his confession to his confession dial, but he always seems just as mystified as we are whenever the topic of hybrids comes up. At one point he seemed to be wondering whether Osgood was the terrible Hybrid warrior of ancient Time Lord legend. Clearly, he doesn’t have a clue.

There have been many hybrids created by the Doctor throughout his travels, some of which could easily fit the description of the Hybrid warrior that’s coming in the finale. I’m thinking particularly of the Meta-Crisis Doctor, a human-Time Lord hybrid, whose bloody rite of baptism into the universe was his mass slaughter of billions of Daleks. I explained here about the fan theory surrounding the Meta-Crisis Doctor which postulates that the Meta-Doctor could have become the Valeyard, the Doctor’s “evil” incarnation.

I’m not persuaded by the Meta-Doctor/Valeyard theory, but there is a very big question mark hanging over character of the Valeyard, who was supposed to be created around this point in the Doctor’s timeline. Maybe the Hybrid is the Valeyard? It has been noted by those who’ve seen the finale, after all, that Moffat does invoke some of the show’s mythology, and engages in a bit of sly rewriting of that mythology.

As long as it’s not the Time Lord/Dalek hybrid that Davros seemed so exercised about. That, frankly, sounds too stupid for words.

Will we see Ashildr again?

Given she’s in league with the Time Lords, it seems likely that we’ll see her once more this series. I’m interested to know what becomes of her, now she’s made an enemy of the Doctor and has become embroiled in the machinations of the Time Lords. Even if we don’t see her again this series, we’ll almost certainly see her again in future series. It’d be a scandal if we didn’t.

One thing’s for certain, though: Ashildr has pretty much ruined her chances of becoming the Doctor’s companion now. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed.


What do you think?

Thoughts on: Face the Raven

letmebebrave2

Warning: spoilers.

I’m glad she died. No, not like that. I’m glad that she went the way she did: death, as opposed to something short of death, as has been the pattern in modern Doctor Who. That’s not just because I feel that it’s about time a companion died, as opposed to succumbing to some faux-tragic ending. I feel that death was the only appropriate way for Clara to go. I feel that death, a really tragic, pathetic death, like the one she got, was the only fitting, logical conclusion to Clara’s story, and that an exit for Clara that fell short of death would have been anticlimactic. The Doctor and Clara together have been through so much. Clara has been more important to the Doctor than arguably any companion before. Clara and the Doctor are inseparable, on a cosmic level, and it seemed inevitable that the only thing that should separate them would be death. Clara couldn’t just walk away like Martha did — it would kill her. Clara couldn’t have been trapped in another dimension, like Rose, or in a paradox, like Amy — the Doctor would have stopped at nothing to bring her back. She had to die.

Moreover, it’s been clear for some time that Clara’s recklessness, her thrill-seeking and disturbing flirtation with danger would ultimately end in tragedy. As far back as Series 8 the show has been dropping ominous hints about the way Clara is becoming more and more like the Doctor. Remember how she couldn’t keep away after she stormed out in Kill the Moon? In Series 9, the hints that Clara’s recklessness would lead to her untimely death have come thick and fast. When she was finally faced with her death, she asked the Doctor, in response to his regret over allowing her to become so reckless, “Why can’t I be like you?”, more a plea than an argument. In those poignant words, layered with plaintive longing and wistfulness, she reveals herself. She reveals how much her dangerous, fantastic life and her association with the Doctor has consumed her as a person. How much of a dream, an unreal fantasy, her life has been for so long. It was inevitable: it was all going to come crashing down sooner or later, the question was only when.

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All that said, I regret that I have to say that the actual scene of Clara’s death left me somewhat cold, or at least a lot cooler than it should have. The whole episode was leading up to this scene, and I suppose I expected something more momentous. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t feel it. I’m not just griping for the sake of it — my regular readers would know I’m the last person to engage in that kind of cynical, self-regarding analysis. I really, truly, viscerally wanted to be moved by the scene. This show’s capacity to make me feel for characters to whom I have an emotional connection is a big part of why I watch it, and these infrequent moments, and the way they make me feel, are what I remember most vividly from watching this show. I remember how intense the feeling was when I watched Donna’s, Ten’s, Amy’s and Eleven’s exits for the first time. This time, I regret to say, it didn’t work for me. I know that it did for many others: my Twitter feed for hours after the episode aired was filled with hysterical bleatings after Clara, and I must have read at least a dozen accounts of people who were left in tears by the scene. Obviously it was effective; it obviously did its job, at least for some.

Is it me? Has excessive reviewing rewired my brain and numbed my capacity to feel in respect of this show? I really hope not. All the elements were there: the emotional farewell between Clara and the Doctor, Clara facing her death so bravely, “Let me be brave”, Clara screaming silently with that maudlin music playing in the background. I should have been moved to tears by all that. But in the end, the only time I felt genuinely emotionally involved in the scene was when the Doctor was raging at Ashildr, which I found really bracing and exhilarating to watch. What does that say about me, I wonder. One substantive criticism I will make about the scene, though, that might’ve affected my engagement with it, was that Clara’s exhortation to the Doctor, moments before she was about to die, to try to cope after she was gone, felt a bit unreal and seemed to reduce Clara in the moments before her death to a narrative device to move along the Doctor’s emotional state. I don’t know, but that was the moment I felt most disconnected from the scene. I did find it very poignant, though, when the Doctor walked back into the room, looking totally forlorn and broken, oddly incomplete without Clara by his side.

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Sarah Dollard, the first of my countrymen to write for Doctor Who since the 1960s, acquits herself well in her debut script. It’s brimming with interesting ideas, and I can tell that, if it were a self-contained story without the burden of effecting a companion exit and major arc progression, it might have been an instant classic. Moffat did, after all, choose Dollard’s original, draft script (and a debut script no less) for Clara to go out on, so it must have been impressive. It’s just that, while there are clearly fantastic ideas behind it — trap streets and an alien refugee camp — and it was engaging enough while it was an unassuming story about Rigsy’s tattoo and trap streets, the superimposition of the series arc material onto Dollard’s pre-existing script somewhat compromised its integrity — it’s an awkward edit — and makes it all feel just a bit directionless and messy until the final scene. That’s not to say it wasn’t a good story, though. It was at least as good the episode that came before it (which I liked), it’s just that the awkward way Dollard’s story has been sacrificed for the purpose of progressing the series arc left the end result feeling slightly underwhelming.

Some final thoughts. My critique of the final scene above should in no way be taken as a slight against the acting of either Jenna Coleman or Peter Capaldi. Both were fantastic throughout this episode, and were given meaty material to gnaw into, which they did with gusto. Peter Capaldi, especially, was surpassing. Capaldi was frightening to behold when the Doctor was thundering at Ashildr. At the same time, he portrayed the Doctor’s wordless sorrow over saying goodbye to Clara sublimely. The man has awe-inspiring range. Rigsy was a wonderful addition to this week’s cast, and Joivan Wade’s character is truly a beloved member of the Whoniverse now, if he wasn’t already. Maisie Williams is impressive as always as the ever- morally-ambiguous, untrustworthy Ashildr, now over 1,000 years old. Something tells me we haven’t seen the last of Ashildr this series. Surely, if she’s in league with the Time Lords and accessory to their plot to abduct the Doctor, we’ll see her again in Hell Bent? I hope so.

Rating: 7/10.


Quote of the week:

“Clara, go back to the Tardis. Pick up all my most annoying stuff.”

Thoughts on: The Woman Who Lived

ashildrleandro

Warning: spoilers.

This, together with The Girl Who Died, is not a two-parter. It’s tempting to see them as a two-parter, given the twinned titles and the common story revolving around Ashildr/Me, but one of the prerequisites for a two-part story should at least be that the episodes were both penned by the same writer, which is not the case here. Nevertheless, it’s inadvisable to watch either of the two episodes as standalone stories: you really can’t have one without the other. I say that because, watched together, these two episodes form a riveting character story and a compelling discussion of the themes of human life and immortality, but, individually, they’re not really anything special — particularly this one. True enough, I had high hopes for this episode as the follow-up to The Girl Who Died, and find myself slightly let down by the result. To be sure, it’s a good episode, and includes a handful of utterly sublime moments, but it had very conspicuous problems that made for a somewhat unsatisfying follow-up to last week’s episode.

The headline of this episode was the transformation of Ashildr, the vivacious, spirited young Viking girl we met in The Girl Who Died, into “Me”. Ashildr is a shadow of her former self, almost unrecognisable as the endearing, sweet young girl she used to be. Eight hundred years have transformed that girl into the selfish, distant and unsettlingly cold woman who calls herself “Me”. She’s physically the same, but she exudes ages: jaded, world-weary and drained by the centuries of all compassion and feeling. It’s frankly unnerving to watch her; the relentless passage of time has turned her into something inhuman, and it’s an enormous credit to Maisie Williams that she was able to transition from playing flushing, exuberant youth to extreme age so convincingly. The sequences conveying Ashildr’s heartbreak over losing her loved ones, and, movingly, her inability to remember how it felt, were truly riveting and emotionally profound. “I keep that entry to remind me not to have any more,” is winding. There’s a poignant subtext about the Doctor’s own proneness to emotional reclusion after losing loved ones: Ashildr’s behaviour recalls how the Doctor acted after losing Donna and the Ponds.

ashildr

At least in this respect, then, The Woman Who Lived was a fantastic character piece. The two-handed dialogue between the Doctor and Ashildr make up the episode’s best sequences, and make for truly captivating viewing. It’s just that that’s not enough to make a great episode. The first fifteen minutes were superlative, but the episode begins to ramble with the housebreak scene, which is redeemed only for its humour (which nevertheless felt slightly out of place in such a dark and sombre script). The altercation with Sam Swift the Quick, as funny as it was, reinforced the impression that this episode was floundering around aimlessly in search of a plot. Indeed, the absence of anything conforming to the description of a substantive plot made much of this episode feel tedious and undercooked. The thing with Leandro and the magical amulet doesn’t count: that all came off as an afterthought, as beautifully designed as Leandro was. To an extent, this episode felt like the filler episode, even though it wasn’t. And, frankly, I’ve seen plenty better filler than this.

Truly, the episode is worth watching only for the scenes between the Doctor and Ashildr that focus on Ashildr’s character, and they really are very good. The scene in Ashildr’s home following the run-in with Sam Swift was wonderfully written, and gave Maisie the chance to display the impressive range she has as an actress. Ashildr’s pleading, through anger and tears and confusion, for the Doctor to take her with him, and her demanding to know why not when he refused, was truly something to witness. Maisie really can be a presence to be contended with, as she’s shown in these two episodes. Equally, Ashildr’s redemption, her shocked realisation that she really does care and that she can feel again, as Leandro and his bros launch an armed assault upon a throng of dirty peasants, was somewhat corny writing, but, nonetheless, in Maisie’s sure hands, effective and gloriously piercing. This resolution, with Sam’s jubilation upon finding himself alive, and the Doctor’s soliloquy to Ashildr in the pub, was a really heartening and uplifting ode to the value and wonder of human life. This contemplative parting message was so effectively conveyed, it almost made me forget that much of what preceded it was aimless “gadding about” (in the script’s own words). Almost.

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Some final thoughts. The episode’s ending was very open-ended. We’re left unsure whether this was a “good” ending or not, with Ashildr’s cryptic last words, and the more-than-a-little creepy image of Ashildr in Clara’s selfie, looking like something from those “When you see it you’ll s**t bricks” photos. Sarah Dollard has already confirmed, after all, that Maisie will be appearing again in her episode, Face the Raven, so it’s pretty clear that Ashildr’s story is not over, as far as the Doctor is concerned. Secondly, it’s nice to be in the Stuart period. Apart from being one of my favourite periods of history, everything just looks so sumptuous, and, really, it’s just nice to have a historical piece that isn’t in the Victorian era for once. And, gosh, doesn’t Maisie look just gorgeous dolled up as an aristocratic Stuart lady? I loved Rufus Hound’s comic relief as Sam Swift, even if his scenes were some of the episode’s poorer. Finally—cor, they’re really laying on the foreshadowing of Clara’s death heavily now, aren’t they? It couldn’t be more blindingly obvious what’s going to happen… or at least what they want us to think is going to happen. To be honest, that they’ve dropped the hints so heavily actually makes me begin to doubt that Clara’s really going to die. It would be very like Moffat. No doubt she’s going to succumb to some horrible fate in the end, but what, if not death?

Rating: 6/10.


Quote of the week:

“I saved your life. I didn’t know that your heart would rust because I kept it beating. I didn’t think your conscience would need renewing, that the well of human kindness would run dry. I just wanted to save a terrified young woman’s life.”

Thoughts on: The Girl Who Died

Warning: spoilers.

[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.

Rating: 9/10.


Quote of the week:

“I’ve got too much to think about without everybody having their own names.”