Me: 'Yes, it is me. What took you so long, old man?'
A Clara-less interlude with Arya Stark as Ashildr, Ashildr as Me, Me as the dandy highwayman, Scar from the Lion King as the villain, and Rufus Hound as Sam Swift, the womanising wobber (sic). Do they not know that panto season is still 5 weeks away?
This felt like an uncharacteristically flat episode. I didn't hate it, but it didn't set the world on fire, either. (Apart from when the Leonians literally tried to set the world on fire.) There was so much potential here—with the Doctor-centric format, the return of Maisie Williams, and the atmospheric 17th century backdrop—but it was so unevenly executed that it kept pulling me out of the story. One minute I was chuckling along and losing myself in an exploration of the pitfalls of immortality, the next I was trying to work out whether I'd missed something humorous, choking on the clunky exposition, and frowning at the dialogue.
The character stuff was excellent. The idea of Ashildr being disillusioned and bitter after decades of losing children, friends and significant others to mortality, was a fascinating idea to explore, and Catherine Tregenna made a valiant attempt at getting across Ashildr's ennui and alienation. Explaining that the finite mind is too small to contain eight hundred years of memories was the perfect way of introducing Ashildr's journals, and showing the Doctor leafing through her most painful memories—particularly those revolving around the loss of her family—was effectively done and undeniably moving. I loved Ashildr's new digs, too. They're quite the step up from her tiny hut in medieval England. Scandinavia. Wherever.
But there was too much inconsistency around Ashildr's character. One minute she was pleased to see the Doctor, the next she was angry with him for abandoning her, then she was begging that he take her with him, then she was throwing passive-aggressive threats in his face, and the whole episode seemed to cycle through these seemingly conflicting states ad infinitum. I honestly couldn't work out how to read half of their exchanges—particularly their final conversation. When the Leonians started to attack, and Ashildr realised that she cared about people after all (a plot development which felt horribly manufactured), Ashildr's attitude towards the Doctor seemed to undergo something of a metamorphosis, yet in the tavern after their victory, her demeanour was an inexplicable mix of the amicable and the sinister.
Her 'I'll be busy protecting the world from you' spiel positively dripped with spite. I get that she was initially miffed at him for dumping her—although the Doctor appears to have visited her at least once to make sure she was all right—and I understand that all of that doesn't just go away overnight, but their final scene was such an odd mixture of friendly smiles, compliments, fond farewells and veiled threats. Why? Because the Doctor said no? If the Doctor had agreed to take her with him, would she have forgiven him entirely? And the music was so misleading—mixing mellow strings with seemingly threatening dialogue—that I struggled to get a handle on the underlying intent. How pissed off with him is she exactly?
I did enjoy Rufus Hound—but I like him anyway, and was astounded at how little like Rufus Hound he looked and how competent his acting was. I just wish Sam Swift the Quick had been better integrated into the story. He was obviously nothing more than a catalyst for Ashildr's about-turn, but the bulk of his dialogue was laugh out loud funny. (Not to mention occasionally bordering on the risqué.) Which is more than can be said for some of the other dialogue. A different writer would have made a meal of the extra space on offer due to tonight's relatively underdeveloped story, but Tregenna's dialogue often felt overly explanatory, repetitive, and the actors frequently seemed to struggle with it. This felt like an episode that would've benefited greatly from a final revision.
The final scene between the Doctor and Clara, although undeniably lovely, felt like such an obvious portent of doom. Clara's 'I'm not going anywhere', followed by a long and meaningful stare from the Doctor, seemed to suggest that the Doctor knows a lot more than he's letting on. Or was he simply reacting to Ashildr's 'how many Clara's have you lost' comment, and pondering on past failures and Clara's inevitable departure—whenever that may be? Whatever the case, the Doctor telling Clara that he'd missed her, when she'd only been away teaching the seventh years taekwondo, and them hugging, was probably one of the most intimate moments we've seen them share. I loved it. I also hated it, because we only ever seem to get these scenes when things are about to go tits up.
Will Ashildr be back? Her responding to the Doctor's 'I'm very glad I saved you' comment with 'Oh, I think everyone will be,' definitely gave the impression of a story unfinished. I'm glad about that. Despite struggling with some of tonight's episode, when Tregenna hit the right notes—and she hit plenty of them—it was an excellent yarn, and added meaningful miles to Ashildr's journey. Plus, there's still the hybrid storyline to wrap up. Despite Maisie distracting us with her 'Well, I'd like Ashildr to come back one day' comments in interviews, it would be a pity if she didn't feature again this season. Unless she ends up killing Clara. Again, I have to ask the question: just how annoyed with the Doctor is she? Angry enough to give him a reminder of how it feels to lose a loved one?
—Is it just me, or was the camera work all over the shop in tonight's episode? There were so many unnecessary multiple angle cuts and weird shot framing.
—Have you ever seen two people do a less convincing job of creeping around a house? They were clumsy, noisy, and easily visible.
—Whoa, extras... you're not doing a play down your local village hall. Try to reign it in a bit.
—I don't have much to say about Lenny the Lion. He looked like a lion. He breathed fire. Like lions do all the time.
—Nice references to Captain Jack and 'The Visitation'.
Me: 'How many have you lost... how many Claras?'
Me: 'I live in the world that you leave behind, because you abandoned me to it.'
Me: 'You made me immortal.'
Doctor: 'I saved your life. I didn't know that your heart would rust because I kept it beating.'
Me: 'While you're busy protecting this world, I'll get busy protecting it from you.'
Doctor: 'So are we enemies now?'
Me: 'Of course not. Enemies are never a problem. It's your friends you have to watch out for. And, my friend, I'll be watching out for you.'
Doctor: 'I think I'm very glad I saved you.'
Me: 'Oh, I think everyone will be.'