We need the mayflies. You see, the mayflies, they know more than us. They know how beautiful and precious life is, because it’s so fleeting.
So, with this episode, we’re beginning to see something of a departure from the traditional two parter structure of the series thus far. Obviously, this episode and the previous one are both connected, but here the level of connection is something that liberties are taken with. It’s a pretty wise choice; the format of the two parter was starting to struggle with Under the Lake & Before the Flood, to be honest, so mixing it up a little provides some much needed variety.
The two episodes are of course connected by Maisie Williams, who once again did a fantastic job here. This episode, I’d argue, is actually a better showcase of her acting skills than The Girl Who Died; the bitterness to Ashildr (or rather, ‘Me’) contrasts well with her more Doctor like qualities. A lot of that comes down to the writing, of course; Catherine Tregenna did a great job of finding a really interesting angle from which to examine what’s happened to Ashildr. Playing up her similarities to the Doctor – the long life-time, the adventurous nature – serves well to emphasis the changes that occurred as a result of her having to live her extended lifespan in a linear fashion, one day after the other.
Similarly, positioning Maisie Williams as a more antagonistic figure feeds into this, and is effective for much the same reason; the fact we already know of her as a ‘Hybrid’ adds a certain tension to these moments, given that there’s a real possibility that she could become a fully fledged villain. It’s a very well done, considered and subtle performance, that’s helped by nuanced writing. It’s fair to say that Maisie Williams is going to go down as one of the strongest guest stars of the series, not because of her prominence, but due to a genuine abundance of skill.
Capaldi too is worth commenting upon; he does a wonderful job of selling the Doctor’s anguish and indecision with regards to Ashildr – it’s worth singling out the discussion of Ashildr’s journals as being a great moment for both Capaldi and Williams. Once again, we’re lucky to have Capaldi. (It was also nice to see Ashildr taking the role of the companion throughout this episode; though Clara was much missed, it’s interesting to see how Capaldi’s Doctor interacts with another character filling the companion role, particularly given Jenna’s upcoming departure.)
Admittedly, though, the strengths of the episodes are disproportionately weighted towards the part of Ashildr, specifically, and the performances of Capaldi and Williams; everything else was a little weaker in some regards.
Take, for example, the plot. Certainly it was a little thin – but, frankly, that’s both understandable and forgivable. The MacGuffin if far from the most important aspect of the episode – that’s Ashildr and the Doctor, and rightfully so. I’ve not begrudged episodes a weak plot before, of course, particularly when the focus is in the right place – and particularly in instances like this when the main object of their focus is pulled off so well – but I do feel like the thin plot had a little bit of an impact on this one. Not a huge problem – but it is noticeable.
Similarly, Rufus Hound’s standup section was… well, I actually liked it, for the most part. That sort of dodgy pun telling does actually appeal to me. Probably could have been funnier, though. Also undecided on the penis jokes.
It’s odd, actually – I started writing both of those things as complaints, before realising that I actually don’t mind them so much; a thin plot isn’t the end of the world, and I like puns. There’s just something about the episode that didn’t quite feel right; a little Doctor Who by numbers. It’s understandable, I suppose; Catherine Tregenna is on record as not being someone with a big interest in Doctor Who, which perhaps explains why we got something that – whilst very good – is certainly a departure from the norm.
I did have one technical complaint, though. Well, two, but one more significant than the other. The minor one was a couple of weird, jerky cuts between close ups and wide shots; it looked unprofessional, and a little sloppy. I suppose it may have been a deliberate directorial flourish, but not an effective one, to my mind.
The other, though, was the music. This is actually a fairly regular complaint, but it’s never been accurate for me before: the music was too loud and too obtrusive to be able to hear the dialogue. I also wasn’t particularly impressed by certain aspects of the score, though – there was one repetitive motif used whilst the Doctor and Ashildr were sneaking throughout the house that got rather grating rather quickly. (On the flip side of that, though, the theme for Ashildr was rather wonderful. I love that she got a theme at all, even, given that’s usually reserved for Doctors and Companions!)
So, a little bit of an odd one. Enjoyable, though. It’s certainly not traditional Doctor Who, but I much preferred it to this season’s previous attempt at traditionalism. We’ll call it an 8/10.