Previously on Doctor Who: Before the Flood.
In the first two-parter guest starring Maisie Williams, we’re visiting first the Vikings, and then the (I’m guessing) late 18th century. With war-thirsty aliens projecting a false god Odin into the skies (very Monty Python’s Holy Grail, by the way), the mere fact that we’re visiting the Vikings is not so much the point, except perhaps for the idea of a death in battle being a good way to go. Since the whole episode is set within one tiny village and, intermittently, on one pretty small spaceship, the world-building isn’t as extensive as we’ve known it to be.
Again, Clara and the Doctor are separated (it’s a theme, in this series), but not for any great length of time.
Gods never actually show up!
Turns out, it’s not an invasion, it’s a harvest, because the adversary of the week is distilling pure testosterone from Earth’s finest warriors.
In conclusion, if I may: what the hell?
The universe is full of testosterone. Trust me, it’s unbearable.
That’s basically the definition of toxic masculinity and glorification of war — which often go hand in hand. The Doctor smashes the villagers’ determination to go out guns — or, rather, swords — blazing by quite simply asking them whether babies die with honour. Because that’s what’s going to happen in any war. Those who cannot defend themselves die along with those who had a choice. (Or at least believed they had one.)
In the end, it comes down to embracing the oldest and noblest of pirate traditions: we must fight… to run. It’s not about risking everyone’s lives in a fight they cannot win — it’s about changing the rules so that they’ll have a chance. The Doctor is making a tidal wave, because he refuses to keep losing people wherever he goes.
I am so sick of losing people.
Look at you! With your eyes, your never giving up. Your anger and your… kindness. But one day, the memory of that will hurt so much that I won’t be able to breathe, and I’ll do what I always do; I’ll get in my box and I’ll run, and I’ll run. In case all the pain ever catches up, and every place I go, it will be there.
I can do anything. There’s nothing I can’t do, nothing. But I’m not supposed to. Ripples, tidal waves, rules. I’m not supposed to—
And this is when we finally find out why he chose this face. To remind himself of Pompeji. Of the day he thought he had doomed everyone just by showing up, the day he thought there was no-one he could save. And then Donna begged him to save just one.
“To hold me to the mark,” the Doctor says. To the mark of what Donna showed him being the Doctor can mean. All that power, and he could only save one family. But he did, and that’s the point. He chose this face to hold him to the promise he made to Donna, long ago.
I’m the Doctor. And I save people.
There’s one point Clara and the Doctor discuss that echoed the past, but reframed it, in a way:
The Doctor has been accused of making people dangerous to themselves, of making companions into soldiers. (Donna, after meeting Martha and learning she’s with UNIT.) But here, Clara asks him about teaching the villagers how to fight.
Turning men into fighters. That’s not like you.
Yeah, I used to believe that.
You. Clara Oswald.
That’s a bit… weirdly framed, and at the same time, it’s not entirely untrue. So far, when the Doctor had people fight, it was to save themselves, it wasn’t for an all-out battle. And when they did die or sacrificed themselves, it wasn’t because he’d shown them how to wield a sword.
The other thing that is very important: Clara taught the Doctor about the duty of care, she impressed it upon him during Kill the Moon. So for him now insisting that she should leave before the morning, for him to be telling her that that’s his job because he has a duty of care, she says she never asked for that. That may seem disingenuous at first, or dissonant, but she’s making an important point here. She did ask that he respect her boundaries and limits, and not to put her into desperate or impossible situations, not to leave her alone in something terrible when he’s got all the information and she has none. But she did not ask for him to make her decisions for her. Here, she knows what’s coming, and she’s staying. That’s the point.
Note to Jaimie Mathieson and Steven Moffat: that Benny Hill theme was a terrible idea. Awkward execution, and a wonky end to the scene.
So, the Doctor saves Ashildr, and it’s only the beginning of a very long story.
The thing is: when the Doctor gives them that second capsule, he does it so she can have what he never got. A life with someone.
She might meet someone she cannot bear to lose. That happens, I believe.
(Let’s ignore for a moment that that carries some notion of the very naive belief that people will be able to spend eternity with one another without wanting to bash each other’s heads in. And that it won’t drive them mad.)
This is a very quick way of baking yourself a Time Lady, if you will — some quick character foil for the Doctor, until he finds Gallifrey. Perhaps explaining why he chose to get away from them: he needs the mayflies (see below).
But Ashildr doesn’t use it. No-one was ever “good enough,” even though she did have children. She didn’t save them, either, unwilling to condemn someone else to living the slow path for all eternity without their consent. She lost the last children she had to the plague, and she reminds herself not to have any ever again, not to put herself through the pain of outliving them just like everyone else. As we see, she’s happy at first, but then she grows weary, then resigned, then heartbroken. In the end, all that remains is a void of anger.
You’ll have to remind me, what’s sorrow like? It all just runs out, Doctor. I’m just what’s left.
The Doctor abandoned her, he condemned her to a life alone, to a life on the slow path. Faking her death over and over again, roaming the world to avoid suspicion, losing everyone she loves. Earth holds nothing for her anymore, so she wants to flee to the stars for a change of scenery.
I didn’t know that your heart would rust because I kept it beating. I didn’t think 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.
You didn’t save my life, Doctor. You trapped me inside it.
She has become callous to shield herself from the pain, has convinced herself that she does not care about other people anymore, because the world has nothing left to offer her.
But she cares, she does, and so she saves Sam from having his life drained by finally using her second kit. Not that he’s immortal now or anything, the thing’s batteries are drained. That whole debacle was over a bit quick, and mainly consisted of about twenty people screaming and running around in circles — again, sloppy execution of the big finale. In the very end, the Doctor and Ashildr (a name she reclaims at the end, or at least accepts it) have a lovely conversation.
People like us… We go on too long. 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.
The Doctor also remembers Jack Harkness, the other immortal being in his life, and how impossible (albeit fun) travelling with him was. Jack does live the slow path, for the most part, but the Doctor also knows it ends with his head in a giant jar.
What I adore about Ashildr, and about casting Maisie Williams: she’s small in stature, and she looks, for all the world, still very much like a young girl. But she does all of this, what we’ve seen in this episode, and more, and it’s never questioned by the Doctor that she can, or wether she would be taken seriously. She alludes to the disguises she must adopt to make her way in the world and live as she pleases, using stereotypes of femininity to her advantage.
I like that this episode, written by Catherine Tregenna, didn’t add Clara into the mix. As such, they could concentrate fully on the consequences of what the Doctor did for Ashildr — or, rather, did to her. At the end, we did get a minute with her, learning that the Doctor still pops in around the school, helping some of the kids with their homework, which is endlessly adorable. Very endearing was also the hug at the end, and his quiet, but outspoken and earnest admission that he’s missed her.
Most adorable moment: the Doctor picking Clara up and twirling her around ❤
As it turns out, Ashildr may be stalking Clara — this is definitely not the last we’ve seen of her.