“Yes, you’re the very next thing on the list.” Thus began the first installment of our third two-part episode, in a run of what will be four in a row this season on Doctor Who. Unlike our opening two-part episode this season, “The Magician’s Apprentice,” this week did not waste the extended running time by filling it with fan service filler. Every second of this episode functioned in service of the plot, even if that service was to the other adventure Clara and the Doctor were in the middle of having when they accidentally got taken prisoner by Vikings. (Please note, this is only the second time Vikings have ever shown up on Doctor Who. Clearly he is never in the mood for Vikings.) And though it functioned as set up for thinks to go wildly sideways in next week’s episode, unlike our second two-parter, “Under the Lake,” it was not all one extended set up. This episode stood perfectly well on its own, along with setting up for next week. I suppose this is proof that third time is, in fact, the charm.
The Doctor: “People talk about premonition like it’s something strange. It’s not. It’s just remembering in the wrong direction.”
With so much jammed into the episode, it seems odd that we should pop a look back across those other two-part episodes. But we must, because thematically, they’ve led to this. In “The Witch’s Familiar” the theme of the episode was all about compassion, and whether or not the Doctor’s surplus of it for all living things in the galaxy–even Davros–was in fact a strength or a weakness. Last week’s theme from “Before the Flood” found the Doctor standing tall against the Fisher King, and condemning him for twisting the rules of life and death, as a crime far worse that the Doctor’s twisting of time and space.
And yet! This week found the Doctor breaking those same rules. Over and over, throughout the reboot, and especially since Moffat took over, we’ve seen the Doctor as pragmatist, sacrificing the few for the good of the many. Someone like O’Donnell had to die, so that his past self would trigger his future self, etc. Here this week, Maisie William’s character, Ashildr, was the sacrificial lamb. “I plugged her into the machine, used her up like a battery,” the Doctor admits. And yet, his compassion is his weakness. In his guilt and anger, he sees that he can maybe have it all this time. In the tie back to “Pompeii” we fans have waited for since Capaldi was cast, the Doctor sees his face and recognizes it as the face of the man he saved at Donna’s pleading, and decides it is a sign. A sign that he should save someone, just this one time. Just this once Clara, everybody lives.
Until they keep on living, and living, and living.
Clara: “The universe is full of testosterone. Trust me, it’s unbearable.”
Another thing tying these two part episodes together is the Doctor’s continued insistence that he’s discovered he has a “duty of care” towards his companion. (I’m sure Peri would be shocked to hear it.) That Clara keeps ignoring him will, I am sure, be the thing that causes this to be her last season. But until then, we’ll see her playing her best Doctor, even when confronted by The Mire, and their creepy teethful faces, trying to sensibly convince them to go on home. It helps when she has a companion with her. As you’ll notice, her relationship with Ashildr on the ship basically mimicked her own with the Doctor, down to trying to tell the girl to shut up when she’s ruining the plan. (Also, this is now the second time we’ve had Clara vocalize an attraction to women. What’s up with that?)
But Ashildr ruins said plan, and now The Mire are coming to kill everyone. The Doctor has no plans to save them either, until a baby’s cries rouse his protective instincts. Until it turns out the baby is actually the clue to planthe Doctor needs, and the “fish” and the “fire in the water” are in fact electric eels. Put those together with Ashildr’s wooden statuary (I wouldn’t call them puppets), and you have a cockamamie plan that rivals the Doctor’s most romptastic “Let’s Kill Hitler” moments. (One that also takes full advantage of the latest “Benny Hillifier” app.) That it works is merely a testament to Rube Goldberg machines, along with the power of Imagined Dragons. George R.R. Martin would be pleased.
The Doctor: “I’m reversing the polarity of the neutron flow. I bet that means something. It sounds great.”
Speaking of Martin, let’s talk Williams. I was trying hard not to expect an Arya like character. Ashildr certainly wasn’t that–Arya would never sit around and carve out puppets of such size, for instance. But there were parallels. Arya is a Westerosi misfit. Ashildr, in her most powerful scene, talks to the Doctor about how her fantastical imagination makes her “strange,” rejected by both the men and the women of her time. But though Arya has yet to play a fulcrum part in saving anyone, let alone the people she loves, both characters ultimately find themselves in the same situation, trapped in a life they didn’t expect or ask for, due to the choices of those more powerful than they.
At least in this world, the powerful realize that they may have just made a horrendous mistake. The Doctor has hammered it home all season about how much he needs to not mess with time, lest time mess back. “I’m not actually the police, that’s just what it says on the box,” he announces crossly as Clara pokes him about failing to permanently save another race. But it turns out the Doctor might doth protest too much. “Ripples. Tidal Waves. Rules.” In fact, the Doctor is insisting he can’t do anything as a reminder to himself that he oughtn’t do anything, because if he really went round saving every person who died, there’d be nothing left in the universe but ghosts.
The Doctor: “To hold me to the mark. I’m the Doctor, and I save people. And if anyone happens to be listening, and you have any kind of problem with that? TO HELL WITH YOU.”
Also, If he’d really recalled what happened in “Pompeii,” instead of just the feel good moment when Tennant reached forward and saved Lucius Caecilius at Donna’s insistence, he might have also paused. Remember, to Lucius and his family, The Doctor and Donna were their household gods. And what’s the one things gods never do? “Gods never show up.” With good reason. When Gods show up, things go bad. And from the slowly darkening face of Ashlidr, as the stars and the sky turns and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend, legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten, it looks like things are about to go very bad indeed. After all, what did Davros say the Doctor fear making the most? A hybrid.
Not only do thing look like they’re going to go bad as Ashlidr outlives her village, her world, and everyone she ever loved. (One assumes when we meet her a second time, she won’t have found the person she wants to use that other chip on yet.) But things will especially go bad if The Mire decide they really will be back again for revenge in a few thousand years. (Benny Hill’d YouTube video or no.) Also, perhaps the Doctor should go back to the screwdriver and lose the sunglasses. it turns out wearable tech is breakable. Though I will say one thing: from next week’s trailer, it looks like for once The Doctor will learn what it’s like to be the companion. Isn’t that always the way when your own creations surpass you?