OK, so here's me trying to catch up with Doctor Who
reviews. I'll aim to keep them short(ish... for me), as there are so many to catch up with. And obviously, I'm now doing this with hindsight, so I'm unlikely to be saying the same things here that I would have said if I'd written about each episode at the time. But I do have the notes I wrote while watching each episode to hand, so can see what I thought about them on initial viewing.
Between its Viking setting and its explicit concern with the consequences of time travellers changing history, the first half of this story reminded me strongly of The Time Meddler
, and was clearly supposed to. My own notes for the latter remind me
that it was the first Doctor Who
story to articulate the idea that time travellers shouldn't
change history, as opposed to the idea that they can't
(which is what we get the very first time the issue comes up at all in The Aztecs
). As the Doctor says to the Monk, "You know as well as I do the golden rule about space and time travelling - never, never interfere with the course of history" - though it's noticeable that this rule has only ever applied to Earth history, as known to a contemporary TV audience. The Doctor can clearly change history on other planets as much as he likes!
This story is all about the Doctor breaking that 'golden rule' and creating a tidal wave where he should leave only ripples. At the time of broadcast, this was clearly signalled as a pivotal moment both emotionally for the Twelfth Doctor, and structurally for New Who as a whole - particularly through the explicit flashbacks to his decision to save the Caecilius family in Fires of Pompeii
and his self-identification as someone who 'saves people'. And now in retrospect we can see how much it foreshadowed, too. The first half of this story put a lot of emphasis on how in saving Ashildr by using Mire technology, the Doctor had created a hybrid of the two races, and the second had Ashildr referring to herself simply as 'Me'. To join those dots, the closing words of Heaven Sent
You got the prophecy wrong. The Hybrid is not half-Dalek. Nothing is half-Dalek; the Daleks would never allow that. The Hybrid destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins is me.
Of the two halves, I preferred the second. That's not to say I disliked the first, and especially its core idea of the Mire being defeated with the power of imagination, stories and spin rather than brute force. But the second half appealed more aesthetically, offering a lot that was Hammeresque or generally Gothic, while its explorations of the consequences of immortality were suitably emotionally weighty. I also liked many of the smaller touches in the second episode - like comedy highwayman Sam Swift, Ashildr / Me trying out life as a man for a while (very Orlando
), or her use of journals to work around the problem of a limited memory but an unlimited life-span. I'm only 39, but I am beginning to know the feeling!
Meanwhile, I found myself wondering whether both halves of this two-parter could actually have been handled as pure historicals, rather than pseudo-historicals. This takes us back once again to The Time Meddler
, which was the first Doctor Who
story to insert an alien threat (the Meddling Monk himself) into a story set in Earth's past. Both halves of this story qualify likewise, thanks to the presence of fake-Odin and the Mire in the first and Leandro and his people in the second - but could much the same plots otherwise have unfolded without them? I'm pretty sure it could have done for the first episode, with Ashildr's village simply facing down a more powerful neighbouring warrior tribe instead of the Mire and making them look like fools to be laughed at around camp-fires up and down the land. The only adjustment needed would be to establish that the Doctor carries medical chips of some kind around on the TARDIS which could take the place of the Mire chip - but that wouldn't be hard.
It would perhaps be slightly harder for the second episode, as it's important to Ashildr / Me's emotional arc in this story that she is trying to find a way off the Earth to more exciting prospects beyond - this is what makes her collaborate with Leandro, kill Sam Swift and then realise that she has done something awful in a flawed cause. But I should think a clever story-teller (not me!) could still come up with some way to put her through that arc which didn't involve aliens. Perhaps she could instead have ended up aspiring to some kind of apocalyptic destruction-of-Earth plan, in the hope that it would put paid to her own unwanted and unending life along with everyone else's, but realised once her plan began to unfold that she didn't want this after all, and needed the Doctor's help to stop it? (Though that may be too utterly dark for Doctor Who
, even now - defeating an alien-of-the-week is always a much safer bet for a feel-good story.)
But my point is that I felt that we were dancing on the edge of not really needing the alien element in either of these episodes - like it was there because that is simply the accepted Doctor Who
format, rather than because it was actually necessary to what the stories were trying to do. Certainly, these weren't
celebrity historicals - indeed, they stayed well clear altogether of touching on any specific Earth history as it might be known to a contemporary TV audience, which as I've suggested above is the real
'golden rule' of time travel. The matter of whether or not a particular Viking village was defended successfully against attack, or whether someone called Sam Swift was or wasn't hanged at Tyburn, wouldn't break our suspension of disbelief about these stories (and thus the whole of Doctor Who
) taking place within our history, and our universe as we know it. And if we've got to the point where Doctor Who
is producing historical stories that barely need aliens in them to work, then could it be possible that some time soon we'll take the next step onwards from there, and get to the stage of having a historical story which doesn't have aliens in it at all? That's something I have to say I'd really like to see after all these years without one.
Finally, I don't really watch Game of Thrones
properly, though I've seen enough of it to have been able to recognise some of its musical cues in The Woman Who Lived
in particular. But I enjoyed Maisie Williams' performance last year as the central character in the Channel 4 film Cyberbully
, and was impressed again across these two stories - and of course Face the Raven
, which I've also seen since. She has already appeared in the 'next time' trailer for Hell Bent
, and I'm glad that we will be seeing both her and her character again.Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.