Friday, 13 November 2015

Live Long And Fester

Doctor Who
The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived
Series Nine, Episodes Five and Six

Deja vu!  I was only saying in my previous review that some two-parters are more like cousins than siblings, and then along comes a prime example of what I was jabbering on about.

The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived are undoubtedly connected, since there is a To Be Continued between them and, well, look at those titles.  But they are also two wholly separate stories, a one-parter and its sequel.  This might take place days or even months later, but we're skipping straight from one to the other, and why not?  It's a novel way of doing things.  For a show that's been on ten years now (sweet horse god, how long?), "novel" is a very welcome approach, even if it doesn't apply to every single thing on the screen.  (We'll get to that in a minute.)

The Girl Who Died is small-scale, which throws you right off during what's supposed to be a two-parter.  Throwing you off = novel, novel = good.  The world is not in danger this week, just a half-empty village of Vikings – and not particularly capable Vikings at that.

The worst part is this was a story
about historical anachronisms.
(A few words on historical accuracy: pointy helmets?  I'm no expert, but I know a few people well-versed in the subject and they were apoplectic about the Vikings in this.  To them I say, well, The Time Meddler already did all this stuff wrong fifty years ago, plus there's a setting to establish, and it's what people expect to see... but you could just ditch the helmets, have Clara say "Didn't Vikings have pointy helmets?" and the Doctor say "No, duh" and bob's your uncle, misnomer: nomered.  It's tricky.  I can see why they did it and I can see how they could fix it without breaking a sweat.)

Where was I?  Ah yes, village in danger.  That's after a really fun teaser scene with Clara drifting in space, and the Doctor – having just sorted something else out – struggling to locate her.  (He gets her to describe her spacey surroundings.  "Great.  I've seen it too.  I wonder where it was!")  I love starting at a point other than the beginning, and giving us a glimpse into unseen adventures.  (Novel!  Good!)  Then, after the TARDIS rings the Cloister Bell for no reason (hmm), it lands in Vikingsville where the Doctor and Clara have a quick chat about the rules of time travel, which Clara has apparently never heard.

Side-note: uh... really?  Super duper Clara, who knows everything and has been here seemingly forever, hasn't had the Fixed Points lecture yet?  How has that not come up?  Let's just clamber over that hunk of probable BS and get to this week's theme: the Doctor can't change big stuff.  Which is a big old Here We Go Again, but it's Capaldi this time, so... it'll be compelling anyway?  Wait and see.

So the Doctor tries to dazzle the How To Train Your Dragon-ers with some magic technology (sonic sunglasses) and fails completely.  (As he should!)  Then he tries again (with a yoyo and a booming voice), and fails again because someone else pulls the same trick, only more convincingly.  Big, actual Odin turns up in the sky, bellowing commands. This bit's a hoot.  "He's not a god!  He hasn't even got a yoyo!"

"Hooray!", said the audience.
"Excellent," said Moffat.  "You will want the screwdriver back."
On the one hand it's annoying for the Doctor to fail at stuff he's usually good at.  But on the other hand it's fun to invert things, and this is a valid way to show him up.  (Plus it's wrong to trick people, or why else would the baddies be doing it?)  Odin isn't Odin, obviously, but the leader of the Mire, bloodthirsty warriors who mulch up other warriors for... testosterone juice, apparently.  (Hmm.)  They're practical and they leave when they've got what they want.  Unfortunately Clara stuck her oar in and war was declared.  The Doctor must now school a bunch of mediocre Vikings in war, or think of something else to save them in little under 24 hours.  Cheers, Clara.

On hearing the Doctor's command not to get noticed, Clara suddenly races to use the sonic sunglasses, which gets her (and a bright young girl called Ashildr) needlessly captured.  If this sounds contrived, it's because there's another theme at work, this one of the "running" variety: "Clara Oswald, what have I made of you?"  All very ominous, but then the answer is probably just "a Doctor Who companion", is it not?  Headstrong, tick, does a passable Doctor impression, tick, seems to enjoy it all a bit too much, sometimes makes mistakes, tick, tick... see also Rose, River, Amy.  It's not as if Clara's only just started behaving as monotonously confident as the prince in a panto; it's just modern Doctor Who companions, always telling us how awesome they are.  The only genuine worry is that Jenna Coleman isn't coming back next year, but unless the Doctor has somehow been reading our news sites, I'm not sure what's got him so spooked.

It was around here that I figured out why the episode is so "small".  It's really just a flimsy thing to hang themes on.  And that's okay – why, it's that N word again!  No, wait, I meant novel, dear god I meant novel – so long as the flimsy thing is fun.  Which it is!

The opening is snazzy as hell.  The Doctor's "I am Odin, and I am very cross with you!" routine is hilarious.  The quest to train a bunch of naff Vikings involves a lot of sparkling dialogue.  ("Heidi faints at the mention of blood.  Not just the sight any more, he's actually upgraded his phobia.")  It also has its dramatic moments, as the Doctor explains that they're all doomed and would be better off hiding until the battle's over.  I admire his practicality, and I can believe he's sick enough of people getting killed to go straight for Get Everyone In The TARDIS, or thereabouts.  (As for translating a baby, that's over-egging it by miles.  Also, "I am afraid"?  Who needs a translator to tell you a baby is afraid?  And when did babies get so eloquent?)

"She's saying 'Mother, mine botty doth need a change, for I hath made poop.'
This... isn't helping."
What he eventually comes up with is suitably quaint and Doctorish, and wraps up the over-confident Mire by way of the episode's other theme (!), the power of storytelling.  Ashildr's imagination saves the day, which is all very sweet, but somewhat underdeveloped.  Sadly, so is Ashildr.  Maisie Williams is compelling as the doe-eyed innocent with-just-a-hint-of-steel, but her character is like a list other people are reeling off.  She sees visions of doom and blames herself, apparently; she has a vivid imagination and loves making up stories, so she tells us; she's so fond of the Doctor that Clara joshes "I'll fight you for her" – but Capaldi and Williams have barely met at this point.  Her (major) part in the finale feels like setup for another episode, which of course it is, but I just didn't know her well enough to be truly crushed when she SPOILER ALERT OH HANG ON IT'S IN THE TITLE dies.

And, phew, we're back to the main theme.  The Doctor can bring her back, but should he break the laws of time – and human nature – to do so?  There are clips from The Fires Of Pompeii and Deep Breath, in case this wasn't familiar enough already, and boy, we're all about the clips these days, aren't we?  (Strangely no clip of The Waters Of Mars, where he got into the Pompeii situation all over again and had exactly this week's reaction.)  But it's not just barefaced repetition, as we're finally answering the question of why the Twelfth Doctor looks like that bloke in The Fires Of Pompeii.  It's because Peter Capaldi's awesome.  All right, fine, it's because the Doctor always saves someone and he needed reminding of that.

Skipping over the why-does-he-suddenly-need-reminding bit, I don't mind this.  You don't actually have to explain it, any more than you should waste your time pondering the Doctor's name, but as explanations go it's harmless.  It's a bit odd that he's reminding himself to break the rules of time and nature – which he knows is Not A Good Thing, see Waters Of Mars – and it might have more impact if Ashildr was in the episode more, but that's what Part 2 is for.  Peter Capaldi makes it awesome all the same, just like he does with everything else.

He's bloody good, isn't he?  More and more the quintessential Doctor, whether he's chucking in a Tom Baker inflection ("and it is a dooziiiie") or sitting just how William Hartnell would sit (!) or hitting all the right notes of anger, comedy, grief, mystery – he's absolutely your-eyes-are-stuck-to-the-screen brilliant.  And he does wonders for what is, when you stand back and glare at it, not an amazing episode.

Moves Like Jagger?  Pfft.  I prefer Sitting Like Hartnell.
In other news, I don't get out much.
Sure, there's a bouncy script, some juicy character moments and a wee plot that isn't too hard to follow.  But there's also some pretty weird stuff, like why the Mire are bothering to steal testosterone juice when they've got a thing that makes them immortal (WTF?); why they sneak around pretending to be Viking gods when they can just as easily teleport you straight into the juicing machine (or come and raid you like, y'know, warriors?); and just how plugging Ashildr into a Mire helmet sends her imagination into all the other Mire helmets.  "That's the trouble with viewing reality through technology.  It's all too easy to feed in a new reality!"  Oh, silly me, that makes perfect sense.

All in all, it's a lot flimsier than Jamie Mathieson's last one.  Maybe it's just the Capaldi Factor, but I had a grand time anyway.


Funnily enough, that last bit sort of goes for The Woman Who Lived as well.  A completely different story by a different writer, with a different setting and Maisie Williams playing almost a different character, it's similarly big on theme, little on plot, and gosh-isn't-Peter-Capaldi-marvellous?

Catherine Tregenna's episode focuses on the cost of Ashildr's long life, what it could do to even a really nice person, and how the Doctor reacts against that.  Obviously there are parallels between the two, and like a lot of the stuff in The Girl Who Died, it isn't exactly new ground.  The Doctor reflected on a long life in School ReunionThe Lazarus Experiment, Human Nature and Utopia, and he's always espousing the wonderfulness of us short-lived humany-wumanies, especially when he's picking up a new one.  And yet, through the medium of Capaldi and Williams, it's all fascinating again.  When The Woman Who Lived is just the two of them talking, which most of it is, it's gold dust.

Last week, Ashildr was a thing around which the plot revolved.  Add on 800 years and subtract sweetness and she's completely reborn.  She calls herself "me" these days, since her memory isn't immortal and an identity is only worth a damn if there are people in your life – they keep dying, so why bother?  Incredibly, the script doesn't labour the parallel, but if you want an explanation for why the Doctor doesn't require a name, here you go.

Ashildr isn't a hero and she isn't evil.  She's done heroic things and mastered almost every skill you can think of – she's got all the time in the world, after all – but her life is without meaning, so when the Doctor shows up, that seems like the answer.  But he won't take her with him, because immortals need mortals to keep it all in perspective.  (Hence companions.)  It seems perfectly reasonable to me that she'd consider a more destructive way off Earth instead.  Well, she asked nicely and he said no.  Why shouldn't she take up the next best offer?  She's waited long enough.

I can't even take the piss.  She's a strong, complicated, female anti-hero.
Appreciate all her non-Moffat dialogue while it lasts, folks.
Williams plays it beautifully, innocently pleased that the Doctor has come to rescue her one minute, coldly determined to do it without him the next, and ready with a back-up plan in either case.  Without a TARDIS to provide endless distractions, she's had to endure all the sticking around and misery that arguably drives the Doctor on his travels.  Sometimes she's persecuted, she's never loved by anyone for long, and she'll certainly outlive any babies, so of course she's not especially pleasant any more.  The character's really something.  I hope they don't muck it up later.

Aaaand in the other corner we have Peter Capaldi, who is somehow even more mesmerising than last week.  There's some very good material here, like when he reads Ashildr's memoirs of losing her children, and when he tries to dance around saying no to her TARDIS-y request.  It's an intriguing setup: he's basically supportive, because he understands what she's going through; he restrains his anger at her going off the rails, because he made it happen; he's also trying not to snap at a potential enemy in the making.  Sod it: this is a great episode for the Doctor.  It's so on the ball, it even makes me understand why he's always so pleased to see boring old Clara, even if he can't help making misanthopic gags when she finally shows up.  ("I got you a present."  "Why?  Are you never going to travel with me again because I said a thing?")

In The Girl Who Died, I didn't see the point of all that ominous Clara stuff.  In The Woman Who Lived, we're gracefully reminded that the Doctor feels like that a lot of the time, and every day is just another notch closer to Clara getting killed or getting bored.  When she makes her obligatory remark about how she isn't going anywhere (COUGH BYE JENNA COMING SOON), he makes an expression that subtly and silently tells you all you need to know.  Again!  The man is just... you know... words... look, he's vying for second place at this point.  Don't let him leave.  I don't even care if he keeps the stupid glasses.  (All right, no, the glasses are shit.)

Alas, there is more to The Woman Who Lived than some really well articulated stuff (which admittedly you've heard before).  There's a plot... more or less, though with all the effort pumped into the relationship between the Doctor and Ashildr there's barely anything left for a Monster Of The Week.  Here goes: Ashildr is hanging around with a shifty space-cat-person who breathes fire and his eyes light up (moving on); the two of them are looking for an alien gemstone, and with it he promises to take her away when the Doctor won't; however, he's secretly planning to open a portal to another universe full of... evil spaceships, which will zap everything and... maybe land somewhere?  A death is needed to open the portal – oh look, a theme! – so Ashildr offs rival highwayman Sam Swift.  When it becomes obvious that you shouldn't trust angry fire-burping space cats, because spaceships, she instantly regrets what she's done and suddenly feels compassion for all the fleeing peasants, and Smith to boot.  Aaaand that's Ashildr's lack of empathy solved.  You've got to feel for Maisie Williams, trying to convince as a nearly millennium-old character who changes her ways on the spot.  It's her worst scene, and it's not her fault by a long shot.

Sod the plot.  This > plot.
Story and plot aren't always the same thing.  The story here is about immortality, and it's really compelling.  Whereas the plot is a load of balls about glowy space-gems and shooty space-cats.  Plus some generic fluff about highwaymen which recalls – deliberately at one point – Robot Of Sherwood.  (Side-note: Rufus Hound is surprisingly likeable as the gag-spewing Swift, but there's about as much room for him in the episode as there is in this review.)  Wouldn't it be nice if, once in a while, we could just do character-driven stuff without stapling a load of tinsel on top?  Yes, some people would run screaming from Doctor Who if there wasn't a monster or a spaceship in it every week, but this is Doctor Who, so they can just come back next week.  Is this episode better for having lasers in it?  Even The Girl Who Died, which looks increasingly flimsy after this episode tackles its themes with more finesse, managed to do some novel things with its plot.

I'm a picky, list-of-things-I-don't-like type of person (surpriiise!), but even I think The Woman Who Lived is a success.  The best bits all involve Peter Capaldi and Maisie Williams being subtle and fascinating, and for me those bits speak louder than the daffy plot, not to mention Murray Gold, who annoyingly almost restrains himself throughout.  (But then Capaldi and Williams have a final, brilliant tête-à-tête and all of a sudden STOP – it's Murray Time.)  Both episodes feel a bit like Horrible Histories with delusions of grandeur, but when they're good, particularly The Woman Who Will Probably Be Back Quite Soon, they're certainly something to write home about.  As far as my list-of-things-I-don't-like-type-self is concerned, it's thumbs (begrudgingly) up for both of them.

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