This is very loosely the second part of a two-parter, exploring the character of Ashildr. There always has to be some Doctor Who jeopardy in every episode, and it is thrown in and underdeveloped, with no real motivation for Leandro’s actions other than being the invading alien of the week. There are also no characters of note apart from the Doctor, Ashildr, the villain (Leandro) and the loveable comedy rogue (Sam Swift), but that’s absolutely fine when the whole point of the episode is Ashildr. Sam Swift is actually very funny and provides a good bit of comic relief from all the morality and misery, although it is a shame that the big question of who gets the second medkit is resolved in such a handwavey way, and we never learn whether it has actually made him immortal as well or not. You would think the Doctor would want to find out. It’s an untidy thread in the script. Something for Big Finish perhaps. It’s always fun to see an actor who is a big Doctor Who fan have his dream come true, and there seems to be a strong tradition of popular actor/comedians turning their hand to acting in a Doctor Who episode, having been lifelong fans: David Walliams, Matt Lucas, Frank Skinner, and the man with the Dalek tattoo: Rufus Hound.
So Sam gets the second medkit, and the question of why Ashildr didn’t use it already is explored in a very interesting way. Anyone who is fortunate enough to be in a long-term, loving relationship may find it odd why this was such an issue for her, until the script makes it clear that she hadn’t used it yet at the point she had children. And she had three, who all died in quick succession, so how could she possibly decide how to use it? More than that, she has stopped aging, and it wouldn’t be much of a fate to be a baby for all eternity, or to be the immortal who has to look after a baby for all eternity either. So in this context it becomes easier to understand why she gave up at that point, both on having children and on using the medkit.
Of course, Doctor Who is forever exploring the theme of immortality, or at least living a very long life, and the consequences of that. To some extent, Ashildr is another Jack, and that gets mentioned in a “yes, we know” kind of lampshady way. Like Jack, the Doctor has the means to make Ashildr happier by allowing her to travel with him, but refuses to do so. That leaves her on the “slow path”, desperate to escape the planet (although I’m not sure even after 800 years things would get so boring with the entire planet to explore). Although she lives forever, she still has a human memory capacity, which is ultimately stopping her from growing as a person, which is why we will see her again at a point where she appears to have forgotten the lesson she learnt here and her redemption has been reversed.
Where the memory thing is taken too far is in her claim that she has forgotten her name. She might have a finite memory but it’s difficult to forget a word that gets used on such a regular basis, probably the most important word in her life. The idea behind it is pretty obvious: she is being positioned as a mirror to the Doctor, so she is immortal, unable to fully commit to a loving relationship, weighed down with loss, bored easily, needs someone mortal to give her a sense of perspective, and has abandoned her name. But it’s difficult to not actually have any name at all, as the popstar Prince discovered, whose name for a while became The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. You see, people have to say something. And that something, for Ashildr, becomes “Me”. Which is just another word. So she isn’t nameless, as per her intention, but has just changed her name to another, very silly one. You would think an 800-year-old would get that. At least she knows how diaries work. When you finish one you start another. The Doctor never really learnt that lesson, using a 500-year diary, and then when that ran out getting a 900-year diary and then a 2000-year diary, which signifies a rather odd inability to grasp how a diary functions. You don’t normally use one book for your whole life. But I’m wandering off on a tangent.
To get things back on track, we need to look at the one big elephant in Ashildr’s room. Why doesn’t the Doctor take her with him? I absolutely hate this aspect of the episode because it is so poorly thought through. His reason? Travelling together with another immortal will cause them to lose perspective and they each need a mortal to keep them on the right path.
So take Ashildr, and a human then!
I mean, the Doctor didn’t have any problems with travelling around with Romana for a few years, so why not give Ashildr at least a taste of what she wants? He should surely feel some responsibility to alleviate her suffering, having created the problem in the first place. This is where the Twelfth Doctor’s characterisation goes astray, as it frequently does. Not even giving her one trip somewhere seems terribly closed-minded in a way that the Doctor rarely is, and this all feels rather cruel. The episode starts with Ashildr on the wrong path, committing crime to stave off boredom, so the Doctor can see she is not doing great on her own. So he abandons her again, and again she isn’t going to be able to keep to the good path. It is the absence of the Doctor that is making her lose perspective, not his presence. In the end, he is simply running away from the consequences of his actions.
Much better is the idea that his original rule-breaking wasn’t necessarily the wrong thing to do. This is a very Doctor Who thing. Most genre series would do the obvious and Ashildr would become a monster, unleashed because the Doctor cheated the rules of storytelling. Doctor Who has had an issue right from the start with the consequences of the Doctor’s interference in history and the rules concerning where he can and cannot interfere, and who he can and cannot save. Russell T Davies attempted to solve this and pin it down with the “fixed points” and “save somebody” stuff, but ultimately Steven Moffat recognised that it is better left as an unsolved problem. Doctor Who can play in the playground of the moral ambiguity, and that’s a whole lot more interesting. RP
The view from across the pond:
After The Girl Who Died came back to life, we had to wait a few centuries to meet The Woman who Lived. While this story is better than its predecessor, it still isn’t even as strong as the weakest episodes of season 10. It does provide a contrast between the Doctor and Ashildr though, which is interesting in terms of companions. The Doctor has the mode of transportation that Ashildr lacks and can travel around finding the right friends to temper him and basically help make sure his moral compass is still working while Ashildr does not. She may have her “companions” through the years but the death of her daughter jades her to the point of crime. Now in some ways, the Doctor too resorted to theft with the TARDIS but as Smith’s Doctor tells Amy, after saving the world, he thinks he can keep the clothes. (Or the TARDIS). (And if we’re analytical, the very TARDIS does in fact save Gallifrey as we learned in the 50th anniversary special – the Time Lords should be thankful that he stole the TARDIS!) So the contrast comes off especially harsh on Ashildr who seems like a petulant child, even after so many centuries. Perhaps it’s meant to offer a look at what we humans would be like; we are certainly not as civilized as the Doctor’s race. Ashildr just stops caring because to her humans are like mayflies. The Doctor, by contrast, seems to care so much more because of the same thing. It’s the difference between not thinking a short life is worth it and thinking a short life has to be protected as long as possible. It opens a great deal of debate, if nothing more.
Beyond that, the story is another below average one. Beast, from the old TV show Beauty and the Beast seems to be the monster of the weak. (Yes, that was intentional). While handsome, he comes across as very two dimensional. The writer is trying to cram too much into 42 minutes so Beast never develops; he’s very wooden. And why is it that we call a star Delta Leonis and that happens to be where a lion-like creature hails from? (I’ll address this at some point in the future, but in general Doctor Who does this far too often!) Our comedian guest star, Rufus Hound, is a far more likable rogue, working with the Doctor to come up with as many puns as possible to the delight of the audience (both in front of the camera and behind the sofa!) Now he also has a Mire chip, so should we assume he’s out there too? Why is it Ashildr is nearly eternal and where the devil is Sam Swift now?
And that’s all part of the problem. We want to explore a little medieval stand-up comedy, a monster-of-the-week theme, whether or not an immortal human and a Time Lord are really so different…. And still have time for some explanation, and a little bit of the Doctor and Clara? It might have worked better as an actual 2-part story, rather than 2 loosely connected stories about the life of Ashildr, (who by the way now calls herself “Me”). A life which apparently covers stalking Clara just to photobomb her. I’d be jaded too if that’s what my life was reduced too. But as I said in “part 1”, I follow a lot of shows, so I’d have something to keep me occupied, I’m sure! (If nothing more, I’d be able to follow Doctor Who for as long as it’s around, which can actually be as long as Ashildr, if we’re lucky!)
Capaldi at least is hitting all the right marks, but Clara has overstayed her welcome. Her abusive relationship with the man who literally gives her all of time and space can end. I keep hoping to find out that everything post-Last Christmas is a dream! For me, Clara Oswald is rapidly becoming a poster on my 15-year old self’s wall. She’s great to look at but I wouldn’t want to talk to her. She’s too much of a know it all, and they are never easy to stomach. Like Ashildr, there’s just too much jading going on! I was surprisingly glad she appeared in so little of this story.
Maybe the next story will give us a happier ending. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Zygon Invasion