Jamie Mathieson! Maisie Williams! Female Who writer! Moniker name titles! Must be a new Moffat style Doctor Who two parter. I enjoyed the first half better than the second half, just as I did last two parter, but there was a lot of interesting stuff to unpick this time around.
Ashildr joins the show as an ordinary Viking girl: plucky, outspoken, foolish and stubburn. Again, the Moffat theme of power in story also re-surfaced, with Ashildr using her puppets to save her Viking town from alien annihilation.
Ashildr: 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. But here I’m loved. You tell me to run, to save my life. I tell you that leaving this place would be death itself.
But Ashildr is more than a repeat of the Amelia Pond prototype. The girl who died became the woman who lived forever and forgot how to feel (just as The Doctor does without a human companion to remind him why emotions matter). Maisie Williams is a brilliant young actress and I enjoyed seeing her have to stretch herself by playing a character who has seen thousands of years pass filled with pain, death and sadness, even if the audience only got the benefit of seven days passing between episodes. Though Maisie didn’t always manage to convince, I think this was mainly down to the script jumping so far ahead and telling us about Ashildr’s immortal life rather than showing it to us across multiple episodes (which wouldn’t have worked as Doctor Who anyway). This was an ambitious two-parter and Ashildr’s gradual loss of humanity could have merited an entire spin-off all on its own.
Where Clara performs The Doctor role, Ashildr is a mirror to The Doctor. They both live untold years and leave too many people behind. Ashildr has lived long enough to know that The Doctor runs away from responsibility (“You left me.” “You seemed fine”) and has casualties he can’t escape the memory of no matter how hard he tries to forget (“How many people have you lost? How many Clara’s?”) Ashildr knows that The Doctor doesn’t like endings, that he leaves people like open pages in books (I wish River could have met Ashildr. Maybe she has?) And The Doctor knows why he can’t travel with Ashildr, despite their similarities in experience.
The Doctor: People like us, we go on too long, we forget what matters… the last thing we need is each other.
It is humanity, those like Sam Swift who faced the hangman’s noose with bad puns and a ready smile, who remind people like Ashildr and The Doctor to care.
The Doctor: People like us, we go on too long. We forget what matters. The last thing we need is each other. We need the mayflies. You see the mayflies, they know more than we do. They know how beautiful and precious life is because it’s fleeting.
Both The Doctor and Ashildr need to be reminded how to feel, how to let the heart bleed, and it is humanity in its messiness which does this. Finally, Ashildr after thinking she doesn’t care, falls off the wagon and wants earth saved, but that doesn’t mean Ashildr is suddenly pro-Doctor. I quite liked this end of episode impasse:
Me: Someone has to look out for the people you abandon. Who better than me? I’ll be the patron saint of the Doctor’s leftovers. While you’re busy protecting this world, I’ll get busy protecting it from you.
The Doctor: So are we enemies now?
Me: Of course not. Enemies are never a problem. It’s your friends you have to watch out for. And, my friend, I’ll be watching out for you.
(This line reminded me of Ros Myers in Spooks actually, and to be honest, Ashildr has pale shadows of Ros.
Ros: Lovers leave, friends annoy and family mess with your head, colleagues are OK.
Damn I miss Ros on my TV. She was fucking bad ass.)
Anyway, small Ashildr questions remain, who told her that The Doctor comes for a battle and runs from the fall-out? Missy or someone else altogether? Will she meet Captain Jack? Will she return to the show as friend or foe?
Aside from The Doctor being reflected in Ashildr, there were a lot of Doctor character moments this two-parter. The first might seem a minor thing, but I enjoyed the little touch. All of The Doctor’s hate violence on principle (except for when it is them using it). Twelve goes a step further by selectively ignoring it. People try to use violence to get him to do something and he simply doesn’t respond. At the start of The Woman Who Lived, he’s more interested in his own theories than he is in the heist. His brain simply doesn’t process words accompanied by violence in this episode.
In more meatier meta, I liked the reminder that The Doctor doesn’t interfere with people or planets unless there are children crying (say what you like about The Beast Below, that was a lovely Amy/Eleven moment). Twelve tells Clara he can’t interfere, can’t make ripples.
The Doctor: I applaud your courage but I deplore your stupidity. And I will mourn your deaths. Which will be terrifying, painful and… without honor.
Ashildr: Stay. You could help us, I know you could.
The Doctor: I told you to run. That’s all the help you’ll need. That’s all the help you’re getting.
The Doctor: Suppose I saved it—by some miracle. No TARDIS, no sonic. Just one village defeats the Mire. What then? Word gets around. Earth becomes a target of strategic value and the Mire come back. And god knows what else. Ripples into tidal waves until everybody dies.
But then in a nice throwback to Stormageddon, Twelve can understand baby talk and knows that the baby is deathly afraid. He can’t help himself, he has to stay behind and help the Viking village.
Clara: What’s it saying?
The Doctor: She. She’s afraid. Babies sense danger, they have to.
Clara: Tell me.
The Doctor: “Mother, I hear thunder. Mother, I hear shouting. You’re my world but I hear other worlds now. Beyond the unfolding of your smile, is there other kindness? I’m afraid. Will they be kind? The sky is crying now, the fire in the water.” Fire in the water…
Clara: You just decided to stay. The baby stopped crying.
The Doctor refuses to interfere at first because he knows he will make mistakes, cause discrepancies which will cause further misery and land back at his door. The irony is that when The Doctor chooses to ‘save’ Ashildr by granting her immortality, he creates a tidal wave which he cannot control and he runs away, rather than facing his actions (a theme that has surfaced again and again in Moffat Who).
By granting Ashildr immortality, The Doctor does more than create a tidal ripple, he also creates a woman in his own image without initially thinking things through. There are some great scenes and lines in The Woman Who Lived which remind us why no man lives forever/why dead men rise up never/why even the weariest river/winds somewhere close to sea. Ashildr’s diaries parallel River’s in the library, but are made sadder by the deaths Ashildr has witnessed and the tears she has shed (the ghost lover got me). The saddest part of all was the plague when Ashildr lost her babies and vowed she would have no more (I cannot suffer the heartache).
The consequence of The Doctor’s interference is immortality, but the cause begins with him. If he had not interfered in people or planets Ashildr would have died peacefully, and not had the pain of living forever. The problem with The Doctor has always been that he doesn’t think.
Me: Do you ever think or care what happens after you’ve flown away? I live in the world you leave behind. Because you abandoned me to it.
The Doctor: Why should I be responsible for you?
Me: You made me immortal.
The Doctor: I saved your life. I didn’t know that your heart would rust because I kept it beating. I didn’t think that 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.
Me: You didn’t save my life, Doctor. You trapped me inside it.
Amy and Rory showed us the way it was impossible to adjust to ordinary life after running with The Doctor, River showed us that The Doctor doesn’t do endings, even when he loves someone deeply and Ashildr shows us that The Doctor doesn’t put much thought until it is too late into the people he touches and leaves behind. He is focused on the future. The next horizon and sight to see. The next adventure. Because the past is too painful.
The Doctor: Oh, I like a nice view as much as anyone.
The Doctor: Can’t wait for the next one.
Ashildr: I pity you.
The Doctor: I will mourn for you. I know which one I prefer.
By the end of this rich two-parter, so do we.
The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived: 8/10 inky stars