Sunday, October 25, 2015

In Which I Review Doctor Who (9x6)

Companion-lite episodes are a long standing tradition on Doctor Who. The Doctor, without his trusty sidekick, embarks on an adventure where he gets to interact with other people whom the audience will never see again, most likely; but overall it's a chance for the Doctor to stretch his legs and get out of the sometimes very rote storytelling of Doctor + Companion + Danger = episode. However, in this week's episode, "The Woman Who Lived," a follow up to last week's phenomenal episode, the Doctor himself became the companion as we followed a broken and dark Ashildr around the 1651 English countryside and got an answer to what would happen if the Doctor was alone for too long. This episode was not as funny as last week's, but it absolutely fit in the overall theme of the season as a whole which is examining the Doctor's influence on his friends, companions, and even his enemies. From the Mistress, to Davros, to Clara, to Ashildr, we are tasked with answering if the Doctor's magical and mythical influence on us is as beneficial as we sometimes believe it to be. It's a hard question because as mundane people living our ordinary lives, we want to believe in the extraordinary. We want that taste of the divine; but Ashildr is proof: sometimes tasting the divine is like falling into Hell. Grab a mask and let's go! 

I'll start off with something that was probably fairly obvious if you were paying even half attention: Ashildr is a stand-in for the Doctor. There are some big clues like the immortality and the need for adventure, but there was also her desire to forget her own name, to take on an identity that sounds strange to everyone except herself. For the Doctor it's...."Doctor." For Ashildr it's "Me" which she uses to remind herself that she cannot become attached; she is her own companion and alone in this very lonely world. Other companions die and become like smoke that blows out when a strong wind comes. See. Another Doctor parallel. How many companions has the Doctor had now? A lot. Let's face it; we can't count them all (well, I could look at Wikipedia, but I'm trying to make a point here). The Doctor takes on companions and he loses them. He mourns them, telling himself that they are leading better lives and that he gave them something spectacular in the short time they were with him--and, of course, conversely, his companions gave the Doctor something as well. Their mayfly existence reminds him that life is beautiful because it is so fleeting. In the end, though, they break his heart(s). Ashildr has lost that perspective, that wonder she had when she first began her own adventure. She sees the endless years stretching out before her, never ending. One day after the next, looking for her next adventure, her next score, her next battle with the dreary world she inhabits. Unlike the Doctor, Ashildr doesn't have a TARDIS. She can't pop off to another planet or another time and still make it home for tea. She has to witness the end of life and cultures and eras as they happen in real time. The Doctor, in many ways, is lucky. He knows history backwards and forwards and sideways and can avoid the more painful aspects, like the Black Plague. Ashildr had to live through the horror, losing three children in the process. You can argue that the Doctor had that experience--the nightmare of day to day living without being able to escape--in the Time War (where he also lost children. See, parallels) which is why he still runs, but Ashildr does not have this option. The Doctor's influence on those he comes into contact with is almost always painted as "good." After all, the mad man in his box normally saves the day so what's not to love. But the fact is that he has astounding influence on those he meets and for all the good he does, there are bodies and lives that fall in his wake. For all the grief I give him, Moffat has done a fine job of slowly dismantling the idea that meeting the Doctor is all sunshine and roses. It's not. He changes you; he changes everything. And that doesn't necessarily bode well. Look at Clara Oswald; her character thesis is a study in addiction and abuse. Look at Ashildr. What has immortality done to Ashildr, and maybe more importantly, what would immortality do to the Doctor if he didn't have his companions? In short: nothing good.

When we met Ashildr in the Viking village, some 800 years ago, she was an energetic, enthusiastic, lovable and passionate young girl. The "Me" we meet now is a withdrawn, introverted, dark, and cold woman. Over the course of so many years, Ashildr likes to believe that her heart has turned to stone, or perhaps vanished altogether. After all, why have a heart when everyone you love dies? Sound familiar? It should except the parallel character happens to have two hearts, which I'm sure only adds to the pain. Ashildr wants to escape, to see the stars and other worlds  and have other adventures that aren't the same ones she's having everyday. Ashildr wants to travel with someone who understands her, and the only person who does is the Doctor, a being who is reluctant to let her step foot in the TARDIS. Along the way, the girl we knew lost bits and pieces of herself in the various villages she inhabited. When Ashildr tries to save peasants from Scarlet Fever, she is drowned as a witch; we can only imagine that this same scene plays out many times over the course of centuries. As she loses bits and pieces of herself and her heart hardens, Ashildr starts to believe that she simply doesn't care for any of these mortal mayflies. They can die or live, it makes no matter to her. Life will go on with or without them and so shall she, forgetting their existence the longer Ashildr is alive. This is, in other words, exactly how the Doctor would begin to act if he were left alone too long. We've seen episodes in which the Doctor has clearly been apart from a companion too long and is more maniacal and clearly has a more alien approach to the current plot. He's frantic, moving to and fro, talking to himself. Several companions, like River or Clara have warned him against being alone too long, knowing the toll it would take on him. On his own, the Doctor would become more like Ashildr and I have to wonder if he'd being to forget humanity (and his own humanity to be perfectly honest, if you'll forgive the reference given that he is a Time Lord). Would the Doctor forget his companions or the rich history and experiences he has shared with them like Ashildr has (or at least claims she has)? Possibly. His mind is obviously bigger than her's but I think he'd start to force himself to forget what he has lost. Eternity, Ashildr reminds the Doctor, frightens him. And that's the real reason the Doctor has a companion; he cannot be alone; it's too scary. To be alone is a fate worse than living forever with a hand to hold or someone to hug. Being alone turns you into someone who forgets what it is to care. Ashildr, in the end, remembers that she cares because, as expected, the people around her are in danger. One threat from above and she (and the Doctor) remember that their hearts are bigger than their loneliness and that, in spite it all, they really do care. The loneliness will come, of course. You can see it written on the Doctor's face in the final frame when he watches Clara, still wide eyed as she beholds the spinning gears of the TARDIS before it takes off in flight. He'll lose her sooner rather than later. He'll lose them all. But, the Doctor will pick up the pieces, find another friend, another soul who can behold the universe with its infinite wonders and he'll remember: he cares.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Woman Who Lived

--This season is really hitting it out of the park. Out of the six so far, 5 have been truly spectacular with one mostly very good (but not astounding) episode.

--Could we possibly have Maisie Williams come on as a full time companion. I'm sure she can do Game of Thrones when Doctor Who isn't filming, right? Please?

--"What took you so long, Old Man?"

--"What happened to you?" "You did." This little exchange between Ashildr and the Doctor is a nice callback to last week's conversation between the Doctor and Clara in which the Doctor wonders what he's "done" to Clara.

--Very little Clara this week, obviously, but the bit she was in was quite nice but also sad as we near the end of her run.

--Love the Jack Harkness shout out. If we ever manage to get him back, I demand that he shoot some arrows, though. (Malcolm Merlyn reference for the win!)  

--"I live in the world you leave behind."

--The final conversation between the Doctor and Ashildr highlights another theme of this season in which the lines between friends and enemies are blurred beyond recognition. The Doctor can save the world, but Ashildr is going to save the world from him. Friends? Enemies? Who can tell.

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