Thoughts on: Knock Knock

To its credit, you can at least see what this episode was trying to do. This was supposed to be the “scary one”. Scariness has been in Doctor Who’s DNA since the beginning, and it’s as quintessential a part of the show as impenetrable continuity and outrageously camp romps. In attempting to pen a self-consciously “scary story” in a haunted house, Mike Bartlett is continuing a long and decorated tradition in Doctor Who, and he follows in the footsteps of the Doctor Who scary story’s greatest exponent, Steven Moffat. There’s a big, creaking haunted house inhabited by a creepy old landlord, and it’s eating alive Bill and her friends. A special “binaural” version of the episode was released so viewers could experience the frights and the scares in immersive 3D sound. You were supposed to be gasping and clutching your chest at regular intervals as Bill and her friends were assailed on all sides by the cacophonous, carnivorous dwelling.

It’s just that it isn’t all that scary. It certainly goes through the motions fairly scrupulously, offering startling noises, animate shutters, creepy fascinating insects and brooding landlords aplenty in its effort to frighten the viewer. And, certainly, no doubt the audience the episode was actually pitched at — children — would have found no shortage of things in this episode to scare them. But as for the rest of the audience, we veterans of The Empty Child and Blink and The Impossible Astronaut, we’ve seen this all before. There’s nothing in the familiar PG-13 horror tropes trotted out in this episode that we haven’t seen before. It’s an attention-holder of an episode, no doubt, and it’s not a feeble script by any means, and it certainly has atmosphere in buckets. But it’s just that you put it next to a lot of the run-of-the-mill scripts of any other series — take The Bells of Saint John, take School Reunion, take In the Forest of the Night — and there’s little that’s remarkable about it. “Scary haunted house” is the only thing this episode is trying to sell, and it’s fallen just marginally flat. As a result the rewatchability factor on this one is low, as I discovered after being significantly less impressed on my second viewing.

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I misspeak just a bit when I say that “scary haunted house” is the only thing this episode is trying to sell. David Suchet is also there, and he’s certainly the best thing about this episode. Suchet is a phenomenal actor, and his performance brought a gravitas and soberness to an episode which could have flopped if his character, the Landlord, were played with less conviction. And, if nothing else, it was a privilege to witness Peter Capaldi and David Suchet, two titans of British television, onscreen together.

When we get to the final act, where the Landlord is revealed to be Eliza’s son, things pick up. It’s a slightly long-winded finale, with a few clunky stage directions here and there (Eliza opening the window to see the fireworks; and “Your silence is confirmation”), but it’s the most riveting five minutes of the episode by far. Peter Capaldi is on stellar form as he acts out the Doctor’s ever-entertaining thinking-aloud style of problem-solving. David Suchet is captivating as he transforms from sinister, brooding landlord to petulant, whimpering little boy. The twist itself of the Landlord being Eliza’s devoted son, not her protective and jealous father, is almost certainly the only un-cliché part of the script. It went a long way to humanising, albeit in a rather pathetic way, a villain who before appeared simply controlling and selfish. It was unexpected and brilliant, and was admirably executed.

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The device of splitting up Bill and the Doctor for the episode’s latter half was interesting, if nothing else. Often it’s worthwhile to part the Doctor and his companion and make them tackle different fronts of the same problem separately. To be fair, the last time this happened, in Face the Raven, Clara went and got herself killed, but the show would be depriving itself of one of its more interesting plot devices if it let Clara’s fate dissuade it from locking companions in carnivorous Victorian manor houses. It was worthwhile to watch alternately the Doctor and Bill taking on this problem, to put the focus on each the Doctor and Bill in turn without sharing the limelight (and the good dialogue) with the other. We can see a sharper picture of Bill forming now, as a companion who’s quick to act, keeps a cool head and thinks quickly in the face of danger. As I’ve been saying, these are traits she shares with literally all of Moffat’s other companions (if not every other New Who companion, maybe with the exception of Donna), so we’re no longer either impressed or surprised when Bill displays traits which would be remarkable and admirable in any normal human being, but maybe it’s fair to say that the Doctor just has a type; he doesn’t pick “normal human beings”, he picks exceptional human beings.

Otherwise, among the most interesting parts of this episode were sequences which had nothing to do with the plot. The Doctor being distinctly evasive after he accidentally mentioned the word “regeneration”. Bill calling the Doctor “grandfather”. The vault. Actually, after four weeks the vault is becoming rapidly less interesting. There’s only so long you can sustain interest in a very conspicuous mystery like that without revealing anything substantial about what its significance is. At the moment it’s just a locked door, which, as of now, fairly obviously (and disappointingly) contains Missy. What’s far more interesting than what’s inside now is what its purpose and significance is, but almost nothing’s been said about that. It’ll be a relief when the damn thing finally opens in Extremis. As for “grandfather”, unless Steven Moffat is being extremely cruel and uncharacteristically frivolous, it’s looking more and more like Susan is going to have some significance this series, if not, I suggest tentatively, making a five-decades overdue reappearance — which would be simply amazing.

Rating: 6/10.

Thoughts on: The Husbands of River Song

Warning: spoilers.

Steven Moffat stated in an interview that, for a long time, he thought that this script, the 2015 Christmas special, might be his last for Doctor Who. He didn’t know if he’d be continuing as showrunner after 2015, and undoubtedly had at the forefront of his mind the possibility that this year’s Christmas special might very well be the last episode he produces for Doctor Who, at least as showrunner. And, truly, The Husbands of River Song feels very much like a swan song of sorts. It isn’t just that it ties up the seven-year story of River Song in what feels like definitive and satisfying closure — there’s a relief and gaiety, but also a genuine emotional touch, to the proceedings that lends to it a sense of warm finality. I mean, much of it is silly farce, but it’s silly farce done in such a loving, adoring way that it does feel as much a personal statement from its writer as much as it is a bit of lighthearted seasonal fluff. You can feel, in a very real sense, Steven Moffat smiling affectionately through the script. To put it another way, if Heaven Sent and Hell Bent were the soaring final act, the coup de grâce to the Moffat era, then The Husbands of River Song would have been the rousing encore.

As far as Christmas specials ago, this is surely the campest, fluffiest, most farcical yet. And there’s nothing wrong with that. After the intense and emotionally devastating three-week long coda to Series 9, a lighthearted, comedic, self-consciously camp story about the Doctor and River Song stealing a bad old king’s head, jam-packed with the most juvenile, lame humour Moffat could muster, was exactly what we needed to bring Doctor Who in 2015 to a close. It was the perfect tonic to one of the darkest, heaviest ends to a series since 2005. And this episode wasn’t just a worthwhile watch for that reason — lighthearted camp can often be tedious, forgettable pap (e.g. Partners in CrimeThe Crimson Horror), but this was genuinely fun, funny and well-written farce. It was so self-consciously camp and silly — the characters, the lines, the whole situation were supposed to be unutterably ridiculous — that it was good, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. If nothing else, it’s highly pleasurable and gratifying light Christmas viewing, which is as it should be.

At heart, though, this was a story about the Doctor and River Song, not King Hydroflax’s head. It was a joy to watch Peter Capaldi’s Doctor and River Song together, no less in a situation where one doesn’t recognise the other. It was also poignant to watch the Doctor visibly hurt by River’s not recognising him and by her flirtation with what seems like everyone apart from him, when she thinks he’s not watching. The situation made for some fantastic moments, hilarious as well as poignant, not least the Doctor’s side-splitting and eminently re-playable performance when he gets his chance, “finally”, to do the “It’s bigger on the inside” thing. Easily the best “It’s bigger on the inside” of them all, in my opinion. But moments like the Doctor and River’s tension-laden conversation at the dinner table on the supervillain luxury resort spaceship carried great emotional weight. And of course, River’s speech, insisting the Doctor (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”), the love of her life, doesn’t love her back, was very good, very earnest and emotive.

All of which made it so much better when River finally recognised the Doctor. The dynamic between River and Capaldi’s Doctor, and the flirting and the banter, after River recognised the Doctor was every bit as good and electric and convincing as River with Matt’s and David’s Doctors. It does make me wonder, even, whether the moment shouldn’t have been delayed as long as it was, whether we could have been treated to more quality Twelve-River action. As a close to River Song’s story in Doctor Who, though, the episode was perfect: as lovely and beautiful and emotional as you could want. The show, in tying up River’s seven-year long character arc, brings her story full-circle, ending it by leading into Silence in the Library, the first time we ever see River, but the last time River sees the Doctor (in life). As an effective addition, it was interesting to see that the Doctor has learnt his lesson from Hell Bent — he knows, and accepts, that this is the last time he sees River before she goes to the Library, where she will meet her end, and he can’t change that. When he says “Times end because they have to,” and “There’s no such thing as happily ever after,” he’s clearly still internalising his lesson re Clara, as well as resigning himself to River’s fate. Which is as punchy and profound an instance of the Doctor’s character development as it gets, frankly. “Happily Ever After”, though, as River insists, only means time, and it’s such a gratifying and lovely end to River’s story on Doctor Who to know that River and the Doctor will have, practically, as much time as they could want to spend together on their final night. And that final shot, of the Doctor and River gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes, was beautiful. Happy Christmas, indeed.

Rating: 8/10.


Quote of the week:

“It’s bigger on the inside!”

Thoughts on: Face the Raven

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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: Sleep No More

Warning: spoilers.

I’ve watched Mark Gatiss’s latest effort, Sleep No More, three times, and have had more time than usual (due to preoccupation with exams) to think about it and mull over my impressions. I think that’s for the better in this case, because my impressions of the episode now have shifted quite considerably since my first viewing. If I’d reviewed this episode on the day of broadcast, this review would probably have read quite differently. While I won’t presume to tell others to watch it again and reconsider their opinions, I think this is definitely one that needs to be watched at least twice to be properly appreciated. Needless to say, this has also been one of the most divisive episodes of Doctor Who I’ve seen—the most divisive, at least, since Kill the Moon, and even that one received a broadly positive reception. This one has divided opinion more violently than almost any I’ve seen.

Divided opinion is to be expected from a script as experimental as this. Whenever the show, Doctor Who seemingly more than any other, does something differently and left-of-field, there are inevitably going to be fans who love it and fans who hate it. It’s not just the found footage style that’s different about this episode, although, to say something about that, I found it effective. For the most part, I didn’t notice the difference from a regular episode, but, at its best, it allowed for the amplification of the intrigue and atmosphere and thrill of the episode. It provided for some wonderful moments, including the numerous moments Peter Capaldi spoke directly to the camera.

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They were sand… and they were men… like… a hybrid?

But it’s also the way the story, and its overarching conceit, played out that’s bound to frustrate some. If you’re like me, you probably came out of the episode upon first viewing more than a bit confused about what had just happened and feeling rather unsatisfied. After two subsequent viewings, I’ve managed to wrap my head around the slightly convoluted conceit the script was weaving—that all the events of the episode were orchestrated by the dust to tell a story to keep the viewers hooked, to infect them with the Morpheus signal—and I appreciate the “action” of the episode a lot more with that in mind. Although the episode plays out like a stock-standard base-under-siege with some gimmicky camerawork, it’s really quite a concept-heavy piece. Again, I think you need to watch it a few times to fully appreciate that. Its narrative appeal is primarily on the meta level, and if that isn’t to your taste, then this episode is probably not going to work for you, especially if, like me upon my first viewing, you found the action a bit boring and the plot overly complex.

That said, there’s a lot that could’ve been improved upon. The Sandmen, notwithstanding their intriguing concept, in practice were fairly unoriginal creations. They were snarling, groping monster-men practically indistinguishable from the zombies in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. In the Sandmen there’s a reticence on Gatiss’s part to take the brilliant ideas he’s put into this script as far as they could have been taken. Why not show a person’s transformation into a Sandman? (Deep-Ando’s death was a perfect opportunity) Why not illustrate exactly how these creatures are sentient sleep dust, rather than just showing them stomping around like generic zombies and having the Doctor tell us “they’re sleep dust”. Moreover, the other problem I had with this episode is that, even given that the action was all engineered to tell a riveting story, there wasn’t enough plot to tease out to fill the whole 45 minutes. We watch the Doctor, Clara and the crew getting into scrapes and near-misses for most of the episode—yes, it was all manufactured by the dust, but after a while it all became a bit tedious. The first plot development of any significance came 30 minutes in, when the Doctor realised the dust had been recording them. By then you’d be forgiven if you’d lost interest.

But yet… I rather enjoyed it. I enjoyed it more upon each subsequent viewing, perhaps because, wrapping my head around the confusing plot points and meta-narrative, I was in a better position to appreciate the script for the clever and engaging piece of writing it was. I was in a better position to appreciate that this wasn’t just a typical monster runaround with a clever twist tacked on at the end, but that Mark Gatiss really has, for all its faults, crafted an exquisite script. And, I mean, it wasn’t that boring. Perhaps I overstated my impatience with the episode above—I was certainly unsatisfied the first time round, but, like I said, it improved for me once I grasped what the point of it all was. Contrary to others’ impressions, I found the characters all fairly well-written, especially the unsettling Rassmussen, and I loved the amusing Chopra-474 double-act. And I have no hesitation in affirming that I’d watch this episode again just for that ending. I think the last minute of the episode is the one thing everyone agrees was superb. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by suggesting it was one of the creepiest, freakiest, most chilling moments in a  Doctor Who episode ever. I’m sure if I were 10 years old, I’d have been petrified about going to bed after watching that. It just reeked of Mark Gatiss’s dark, morbid sense of humour. I love that.

Is it Mark Gatiss’s best script yet? Although that isn’t really saying much, I’d be tempted to say “yes” if it weren’t for the exceptional Robot of Sherwood in Series 8. Even if we accept, though, that Sleep No More is the weakest episode of Series 9 so far (it’s vying for that honour with Before the Flood and The Woman Who Lived, to my mind), that is undoubtedly to the credit of Series 9, because this is by no means a bad script, and I have no hesitation in saying that every series since 2005 has had episodes much weaker than this, even the stellar Series 4 and 5 had Partners in Crime and Victory of the Daleks, respectively. And, I mean, there’s a tendency to overstate the poorness of the quality of Doctor Who scripts. The average quality of Doctor Who compared to most everything else on television is emphatically higher, and even Doctor Who’s weakest scripts generally make for good television. Because we devotees of this wonderful show are used to an unusually high standard of writing and storytelling in our show, this episode might not necessarily have made for great Doctor Who, but it certainly made for stunningly good television. Admit it, you’d much rather be watching this than anything else that was on at the time.

Rating: 8/10.


Quote of the week:

“No, you don’t get to name things. I’m the Doctor. I do the naming.”

Who’s Next: Faye Marsay

The next actress we might feasibly see in the companion role come Series 10 is one of the names more often bandied about, ever since her much-acclaimed appearance in the 2014 Christmas special, Last Christmas. It’s Faye Marsay.

Faye Marsay seems to fit the profile of a prospective Doctor Who companion actress: she’s young and obviously talented, but, for now, relatively unknown—or up-and-coming, depending on how you want to look at it. A stint as a Doctor Who companion has often been a springboard for talented up-and-coming young actresses to rise to greater prominence in the film and television industry, à la Billie Piper, Karen Gillan and now Jenna Coleman, who’s now going off to play the high-profile eponymous role in Victoria on ITV.

Faye Marsay’s appeal lies in the fact that she already has an established character in Doctor Who, the quirky, endearing Shona McCullough, a “would-be” companion if there ever was one. Shona made an impressive impact upon the fandom, and Marsay built up literally overnight her own sizable faction of Shona fans who want to see Shona travel with the Doctor. That’s not just a testament to the wonderful character created by Steven Moffat, it’s a credit to Marsay herself, who’s clearly an exceptional actress, having brought vividly to life her character and captured the audience’s affections within moments of her appearing onscreen.

There’s so much that’s right in bringing Shona back as a companion. She’s a genuinely engaging and lovable character. She’s very different from Clara, in the way she approaches the challenges she’s confronted with. She’s brave, like Clara, but she’s also, compared to Clara, refreshingly human. Clara has always displayed extraordinary qualities that make her, at times, almost as alien as the Doctor. Compared to Clara, Shona seems a much more relatable character — just an ordinary girl — and, in that way, recalls Rose.

An ordinary girl. That would be a big change in itself from The Impossible Girl, and The Girl Who Waited. But she’s also unordinary. She hasn’t got the enviable, photogenic life of Amy or Clara or Martha, and she hasn’t got the super-stunning looks of pretty much every female Doctor Who companion ever (don’t get me wrong, though, she’s still pretty). Shona is quirky and eccentric, and not a generic “Mary-Sue” by any means. She has an off-kilter sense of humour. She looks like she has a very mundane and unfulfilling life, as though she’s just crying out to be whisked away in the Tardis. In these respects, she’d be much like the Moffat era’s Donna, or even an unconventional Ace-like companion. This is good. A change from stunning, sweet-natured girls-next-door would be very welcome.

But there’s one pretty big reason I don’t want Shona to be the next companion. In almost any other set of circumstances, I’d love to see Shona board the Tardis. It’s just that, as refreshing a change as she would be, she’s still not different enough from literally all her predecessors since 2005 to make a real difference. She’d be another “ordinary” British girl from the 21st Century. In any other circumstance, Shona would be an exciting change, but, after five 21st Century British girls in 10 years, Shona would feel tedious and repetitive. To the casual audience, she’d be difficult to distinguish from the five characters with strikingly similar profiles that preceded her. The casual audience might reasonably conclude that it’s all more of the same and that they’ve seen all this before. And, frankly, I’d be bored, too.

It’s for these reasons that, as much as I love Shona’s character, I don’t want her to be the next companion.

This show really does need to get away from the standard companion archetype, at least for a while. I’ve loved all the modern Doctor Who companions, each in their own way, but repetitive and unoriginal is the one thing Doctor Who shouldn’t be. The show should even avoid the appearance of repetitiveness, as the traumatic experience of the late 1980s should have taught us.

The show did successfully break the mould of young Doctors in the fantastic Peter Capaldi, so there’s no reason it couldn’t break the mould of young, ordinary, British and 21st Century (YOB21’s?), too. The classic series always managed to mix it up fairly consistently, plucking its companions from the past, present and future, from alien worlds, and even, shock horror, from the male sex—that is, as proper companions rather than attached to main female companions.

If Doctor Who wants to keep the 21st Century British girl formula, it needs to do something radically different in respect of the profile of the next companion: Lady Christina de Souza was a superb example, and, personally, I’d have loved to have seen Lady Christina travel with Ten as a proper companion. But part of Lady Christina’s appeal was that, even with the same gender, nationality and time period as Rose, Martha and Donna, she was so different from what we were used to in a companion, and she brought such distinctive qualities to the role because of her unique profile.

Something to think about.

Thoughts on: The Woman Who Lived

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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.

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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.”

How Maisie could still be the Rani

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Debunked? I THINK NOT.

It was deceptive. It was sly. It was oh-so clever. The mastermind Moffat almost had us there. We were almost fooled into believing that Maisie Williams’ character wasn’t a returning character. It was to be expected, of course. A good showrunner never plays his hand in advance of time. But this fan was too quick for you, Moffat. I’m an old hand at this game, you see; I’ve grown savvy to your tricks, Moffat, old mucker. I know what this is all about. I know that Maisie’s character is actually the Rani.

Oh, you almost had me going. What with Maisie’s character being presented as a teenage Viking girl called “Ashildr” (that was really my first clue — no one’s called “Ashildr”), and “Ashildr” being entirely ignorant of anything outside her little 10th Century village, and the fact that Maisie’s character didn’t regenerate before she died. It was a very thorough job you did of duping the audience into thinking Maisie’s character had nothing to do with any returning character. That she really was actually a Viking girl the Doctor made immortal with a piece of alien technology, as the episode appeared to suggest. I mean, putting it like that just shows how entirely laughable the notion is, doesn’t it?

To believe Ashildr was who she seemed to be, though, would be to neglect a critical line of dialogue in the episode, at 26 minutes 28 seconds in:

“I’ve always been different. All my life I’ve known that. The girls all thought I was a boy. The boys all said I was just a girl. My head is always full of stories. I know I’m strange. Everyone  knows I’m strange.”

There. Right there. Maisie’s character practically CONFIRMS that she’s the Rani. Or, at least, that she’s pretty obviously NOT who she says she is. She could have just meant that she was an odd child (as, admittedly, she was), but if you believed that, you’d have to be stupid.

Rather, it’s the line “my head is always full of stories” that should have sent alarm bells off. What does that remind you of? A TIME LORD CHAMELEON ARCH. The technology the Doctor used to hide his Time Lord essence in a fob watch in Human Nature/The Family of Blood, and the Master in Utopia. Both the Doctor and the Master in those stories, despite changing themselves into humans, were haunted by memories of their Time Lord lives. This is what Maisie’s character was referring to. Obviously, Maisie’s character is a Time Lady who removed her Time Lord consciousness with the use of a chameleon arch, becoming the human girl Ashildr.

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What about the fact that Ashildr seemed to have a father? Well, that’s pretty easily explained. A perception filter. The Rani is supposed to be the Time Lord equivalent of a genius. A kind of Time Lord, female Sheldon Cooper. Doubtless she could have designed a perception filter powerful enough to make not only a Viking man believe she was, and always has been, his daughter, but also to make a whole village accept her “sudden” presence among them without a second glance.

What would compel the Rani to hide herself away in a medieval Viking village like that? This is where the theory is less robust, but that’s only because we don’t have all the information yet. I fully expect that we will find out why the Doctor’s old enemy holed herself away among grubby Vikings in the next episode, or at least by the end of the series.

But the Rani’s becoming immortal is surely significant. Granted, Time Lords are already practically immortal, but maybe she planned this. MAYBE she was on her last regeneration and this was her means of procuring immortality by other means. MAYBE she knew the Doctor would come to the village and fight off the Mire (she has a Tardis after all), SO she strategically inserted herself into the situation, courted the Doctor’s affection, got herself bumped off, and reawakened (as she knew she would) with eternal life.

When you think about it, it’s all so obvious. It’s a damned sight more plausible than the idea that Maisie’s character is an immortal Viking girl. I mean, seriously, now.