TV Good old Donna Noble. Despite having suffered a Time Lord lobotomy and presumably still knocking around on Earth enduring the new perils besetting the planet (you bet she was on one of those planes frozen in the sky with Wilf underneath looking aghast and hoping his Casanova looking friend is somewhere around), the Doctor’s own memory of her, crying in the console room, pleading with him to show some humanity bubbles to the surface causing the Doctor to once again do something rather against the rules. You might well ask why it’s only now that the memory suddenly emerges given the shit he pulled last year, but nevertheless, this risky flashback to the Russell T Davies era, surely another part of the subtle celebration of the revival’s tenth year on television is utterly gut wrenching. The Netflix stream of Fires of Pompeii’s going to have a spike in traffic this evening.
There’s a hypothesis I’ve been cooking for quite some time about who the Doctor is, or at least how Time Lords are wired internally. In The End of Time, there’s much talk of how the Tenth doesn’t want to go because one man walks away and another takes his place. Still the Doctor, but a different Doctor. The nature of this and how it’s explained has changed over the years because different writers have interpreted it in numerous ways, from Terry Dicks’s assumption that essentially it’s not about the words it’s the actor to the majority of other writers and producers who’ve very clearly tailored his attributes to a given actor. The Eccleston incarnation is a different man to Tennant and to Smith and to Capaldi and more often than not its impossible to imagine them reading each other’s lines.
Here’s my theory. I think that inside each Time Lord there’s a core being, a kind of sub-conscious creature who is the Time Lord who then essentially inhabits each new incarnation like a suit. But rather like a TARDIS it isn’t autonomous and when each new body emerges, it essentially takes control of this core being. In other words, a Time Lord’s conscious being changes around his or her subconscious, which is also an archivist for everything the being known as the Doctor is. So when the Tenth Doctor says he doesn’t want to go, when he talks about it being a kind of death, it really is for him, as his conscious mind goes to replaced by another who has all of his memories and knowledge, sort of, but with a different approach to how they can and should be used. None of which explains the whole Romana business, of course.
When the Twelfth Doctor says he’s been given this face for a reason, it’s because his subconscious pulled that face from his memory as a way of providing guidance for this new man who’s taking control. Except he’s been wildly slow on the uptake. Part of the problem I had last year was if this was supposed to be the same man with all of the memories of the deeds and compassion of his previous incarnations, how could he then act that way? Increasingly its looking like we were witnessing a season long post-regenerative torpor. With his conscious mind on an even keel, his subconscious finally feels confident enough that if it throws up the memory of Donna in the TARDIS crying and of saving Caecilius and his family from the fire he’ll know what to do with it. Last year you could imagine him dismissing it out of hand.
If all of that feels a bit like discussion heavy obviscation its because as I write, I’m not sure what I thought of Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat's The Girl Who Died. My instant reaction is that it’s a hilarious, Pythoneque romp which suddenly takes some very odd narrative turns in order to set up the next episode and that even though Maisie Williams was very good, she didn’t seem to be given enough to do in order for her death to resonate enough to be an emotional gut punch but that you could argue that given the title essentially sets up that death, the paratextual noodlings about this being a multi-episode visit for the actress meant that we knew she wasn’t dead anyway and we were just waiting to see the method of recovery so that she could turn up in an obviously much later setting in the following episode which is presumably were she’ll have a much stronger role anyway.
On the whole, this near stand alone Vikings adventure was just a welcome change. With the exception of The Time Meddler and the iconography of The Curse of Fenric, probably for reasons of cost in relation to convincing production design, this is a time period barely tapped by the television series. There are also only sporadic appearances in the spin-off material, the key texts being Jenny Colgan’s Eleventh Doctor hardback Dark Horizons about a Scottish village under constant menace from a Viking horde and Marcus Sedgwick’s The Spear of Destiny in which the Third Doctor is caught between two warring factions during a search for Odin’s weapon. Perhaps its because Vikings tend to be utilised as antagonists. I’m not sure, for example, that we’re even told what the Viking warriors here were doing before they met the Doctor and Clara, though the indication is that it’s something the Time Lord probably wouldn’t agree with.
Like Mathieson’s Flatline, this is about the Doctor in purely heroic mode, the whimsical figure who, as Clara recognises, throws together an otherwise inconceivable plan, in this case by proving to some farmers that they can’t actually be warriors and that its entirely possible to fight without picking up a hand weapon because what else are you supposed to do against a villain who’s taking cues from a Terry Gilliam animation on how communicate with humanity (“A blessing, a blessing from the Lord! God be praised!"). All of which is hilariously played with Capaldi and Coleman at their comedic apogee, the latter notably during the description of the action we’ve just missed as broken villages loll about as we *lol* too.
The Mire are as much a narrative function as an alien race. Apart from having an MO straight from Soylent Green via Jupiter Rising, they generally exist to be a menace in a similar way to the kinds of monster or the week or fortnight or month (depending on the publication era) of Doctor Who Adventures and the solution to punishing them is in just that mode. Giving one of them a human face, albeit modelled after a God, does provide some point of interest, but recognising everything else which is happening the episode, the writer purposefully barely sketches them in. Perhaps for monsters to make their mark in the revival they have to be the key point of the episode, as per the Weeping Angels and we haven’t had anything with that kind of complexity since the turn of the regeneration. Which isn't to say that this lot won't make good on their threat and return.
Weaving through that is Ashildr's story. To use this word again, the Doctor ruminating on how his choices affect time isn’t especially new, as the overt flashback to Pompeii underscore, but it’s the fact of this version of the Doctor having those concerns, to see the pain of Eleventh during Vincent and the Doctor washing across Twelfth’s face worrying about how saving one person can create ripples coupled with some of the manic rule breaking bravado of Tenth during Waters of Mars, knowing full well that his actions will have consequences even if the Time Lord’s aren’t around to tut at him from under their giant circular hats. Capaldi’s performance in these moments is superb and if you want another example of how he’s answered the question for himself about who the Doctor is, it’s here.
There’s also Clara’s acceptance of Ashildr’s death. Way back in World War Three, when Harriet Jones notices the rather blaze attitude of Rose considering all the deaths which have been occurring in Number 10, the companion suggests that travelling with the Doctor changes you. Clara herself seems to have become inured to death now too, both of the Vikings on the space and unsurprised in some ways here about the girl’s demise even having guessed the cause and that perhaps the Doctor was well aware that this might be the outcome. But this no longer shocks her and indeed it’s the Doctor’s kindness which probably astonishes her more, especially having had to convince him to stay earlier in the episode. This is probably the most mature portrayal of the relationship between Doctor and companion we’ve had in quite some time and equal, particularly in comparison to last year.
The writing in the closing scenes is multi-layered and complex. On the one hand it is exposition heavy, the Doctor explaining what he’s done, why he’s done it and what the results might be, cue Arthur Darvell screaming at his television that he didn’t get a spinning homage to George Pal’s The Time Machine crossed with the Genesis Wave when plastic Roman Rory guarded the Pandorica for two thousand years (while it brought Amy back to life). But it’s also thick with the themes of the opening Dalek two-parter about having the right and the Doctor having created a hybrid (the resurrection scene itself being reminiscent of Laszlo’s resurrection in Evolution of the Daleks). To an extent, the Doctor’s become Davros to Ashildr, utilising alien technology in order prolong her life.
But what’s unusual about all of this is that in televisual terms, this is a cliffhanger in which mystery resides in the results of the Doctor’s own actions and his self-revelation that in allowing his subconscious right of way the man he is now is going to have to deal with the consequences of leaving the gate open. If the Doctor hasn’t saved Ashildr there’d be no The Girl Who Lived. Also, at the risk of thinking too far ahead, these two episodes will also be analogous to The Ark, both in terms of structure, revisiting characters in two different time zones in what’s essentially the same story, and also in that Dodo’s illness is what changed the status quo of the Security Kitchen in a similar way to the Doctor’s actions here albeit on a more conscious level. Bet there won’t be many reviews which make this comparison.
Having written all of that I think am able to have an opinion now and it's much the same as before. I liked it. I laughed a lot and it’s lovely to have the heroic, questioning whimsical Doctor back. But it's tonally all over the place and I think bits of it feel rushed and that we’re never quite properly introduced to Maisie’s character early on and there’s a lot of reliance on cross franchise empathy with Arya Stark but that some of this will be mitigated by her return in the next episode and rewatching the two together. We’re five episodes into the series and the whole thing has an undercurrent of reliability which is really comforting. I’m back to looking forward to the next episode again for the first time since the Moffat era 1.0 and how brilliant is that?