Let’s get it out-of-the-way from the get go: I wouldn’t normally call myself a petty man, but a high-five for me correctly guessing last week how this episode would play out.
Not only did we have a Captain Jack reference, the first in a long time, we had the bemused Twelve Doctor saying Jack will get round to Ashildr ‘eventually’.
Unfortunately that, and the musings on immortality and friendship at the end, are the few highlights of this episode.
Of all the episodes in season 9 so far, this is the only one that felt like a filler and an irrelevancy. The plot was neither remarkable nor interesting and the villain (Ariyon Bakare playing Leandro) got nowhere near as much attention to give him significance to the plot.
This week was was one of the few instances where I found myself checking to see how much time was left on the clock. If you were feeling jaded from having watched all of the new series in a binge it would be understandable. But this is the sixth episode of a new season. It shouldn’t feel thematically tired but it does. Yes, The Doctor’s immortal. Yes, he’s lonely. Yes, people leave him and dies and he runs away. We get it.
It would be silly to pretend that Maisie Williams’ character isn’t going to return. Her presence at the end in Clara’s photo confirms her ominous warning that it’s not your enemies but your friends that you should be concerned about (sentiments which echo Missy’s warning about Clara a few weeks back).
All of this touches on the curious possibility that Clara could be a Trojan horse. Is she going to lead to The Doctor’s demise in some way? Ashildr’s comments that she would be there for the ones he abandons has the curious intimation that she meant his companions; something never really looked at in the show. In The Sarah Jane Adventures we get a brief list of what some of them are doing, including Ian and Barbara right the way to Ace. We also learn that The Doctor always looks back at them, and is very proud. Is this going to become apparent, and might the serendipitous pictures from last year of Janet Fielding (Tegan Jovanka) and Katy Manning (Jo Grant) with Peter Capaldi play a part?
Certainly there is more here than meets the eye, but unfortunately not enough to make this episode a belter. There were moments of pure tragedy carried marvellously by Williams. The loss of her children, pages of her hundreds of diaries ripped out because they were memories too painful to relive and the fascinating revelation that she might be immortal but has a human-sized memory were all excellent.
Rufus Hound (Sam Swift) was comedic but in an irrelevant way. He was tone-deaf to the epistemological musings that defined this episode and was flawed, human but ultimately unsympathetic. His immortality makes sure that he will be back at some point, however.
This was trudging hour and a waste of time. It was a springboard for what comes next and might have done better coming later on, not straight after last week’s episode, in which case it might have provoked more interest than a faux ‘oh, hasn’t it been a long time’ element.
The Twelfth Doctor’s journey to being a more sympathetic character is a curious one and, as I argued last week, should well be remembered as one of the most decent characterisations of the Timelord ever seen. Yet writers are dangerously close to exhausting the patience of the many who find the continued focus on his impending death and the implications of a long life tedious. Playwright Catherine Tregenna took on writing duties for this episode, and while this was her inaugural episode, surely it’s worrying that even fresh writing blood relies on the old tropes and themes done to death in previous seasons (particularly in Matt Smith’s concluding ‘The Time of the Doctor’).
Yes, he travels with a human companion to remind him to treasure every moment with human “mayflies” and to see the universe in a way that’s not jaded (echoing what was said by Eleven that human companions help him to see the universe with young eyes). Age is everything, and so is identity. Ashildr, now calling herself ‘Me’ was an interesting take and perhaps an allusion to The Doctor himself. No name per se, merely an identity that is recognisable and ultimately self serving for a reason we don’t, and hopefully never will, know.
All in all it this was a take-two on the successes and failures of ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’. Two young women, both the product of The Doctor and both struggling to reconcile the realities of the life he has given them with the realities of the universe. We never did see Jenny again, which was a shame, but Ashildr seems to be the natural heir to a plot thread that never achieved its full potential.
If the show is to insist on focussing on age and mortality, they should choose a more interesting vehicle, like exploring what it was like for The Doctor spending 900 years on Trenzalore It’s an obvious gap that needs to be filled.
I will say this: I’ve had enough of the bastard sonic glasses, but plenty of time for The Doctor regularly playing the guitar. Guitars are cool.
Next week there are Zygons, and that will already be seven episodes into this season. How will it all end?