It's a Big Plot Point's Life


Review of The Woman Who Lived
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

Nominally, The Woman Who Lived was the second half of a two-parter that began with The Girl Who Died. In practice, it's a brand new story featuring the return of a previously seen character, like Craig in Closing Time, the Meddling Monk in The Daleks' Master Plan, or the Master in anything after Terror of the Autons.

There was even a completely different writer for this episode than the previous one; last week's episode was co-written by Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat, while this was written by Catherine Tregenna (halle-effin-lujah, finally a woman!). It's hardly surprising, then, that it had a completely different character and feel than its predecessor.

That wasn't necessarily a bad thing. For me, though, the trappings of the mid-seventeenth century, the highwayman known as the Knightmare, and the fine lady in cahoots with Leandro of Delta Leonis (whom I was very disappointed to learn wasn't actually a Tharil after all) were of little interest. They were merely the setting in which the real story took place.

Said real story, as I see it, is twofold. First, there is the fact of don't-call-me-Ashildr's effective immortality, stuck on "the slow path," as Reinette put it in The Girl in the Fireplace. This exploration of what it would mean to live for centuries, outliving everyone you got to know along the way—and not being able to fly off in a blue box after—is the human side of the equation, though a modified one. We are not meant to live so long, certainly not alone. The way Ashildr's perspective has changed, and her attitude toward the lives of others with it, is testament to the psychological effects of that isolation.


Not Dead Yet


Review of The Girl Who Died
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

One of the advantages of avoiding as much information about upcoming episodes as possible is going in without any particular expectations. All I had this week was the trailer, the title, and knowledge of the big name guest star (which was neutral information, since I don't watch Game of Thrones). I had no pre-conceived notions about The Girl Who Died, and figured we'd be getting an okay-but-not-fabulous story. I was, thus, not disappointed.

Conversely, I wasn't pleasantly surprised. It was, to my mind, merely average. Given how much I (a) love Capaldi and (b) disliked certain episodes in the last series, though, fair-to-middlin' is still perfectly acceptable. As long as Capaldi's on screen, it can't be all bad.

As far as I can tell, though, the main point of this episode was to introduce Ashildr, the eponymous character. Unless there's actually something subtle going on, rather than the anvil-to-the-head clues dropped here, we've just seen the seeds of a major piece of the series arc.

Back when Davros was crowing over the supposed success of his latest mad scheme, he justified it by claiming he was fulfilling a Gallifreyan prophecy. "It spoke of a hybrid creature," he cackled. "Two great warrior races forced together to create a warrior greater than either." Now we're meant to see how that prophecy really gets fulfilled. Take the Mire, "one of the deadliest warrior races in the entire galaxy," add their technology to a Viking, and voilà! Hybrid ahoy! The Doctor even says so, just in case we're not clever enough to get it ourselves.

I say that I had no expectations going into the episode, but I'll admit that as the opening credits rolled, I had a hot/cold moment when I noticed the writers were listed as Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat. Mathieson wrote the scripts for my two favorite episodes of Series Eight, Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline. Moffat, on the other hand, well... We all know Moffat's style and have our own opinions about whether it's good or bad.


Flood of Expectations


Review of Before the Flood
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

I don't think I like it when the Doctor breaks the fourth wall.

Perhaps that's what got me off on the wrong foot such that I didn't enjoy this episode as much as I'd hoped. It was better for me the second time through (as is often the case when I don't immediately take to an episode), but after the strength of my positive reaction to the first half of the story, I guess I was just underwhelmed.

The fact that the tone of the second half of the story was—save for the scene when Moran was after Cass (brilliantly executed, by the way)—was completely different from that of the first certainly didn't help in terms of expectations. Even knowing going in, though, that it would not—could not—be another Base Under Siege episode, I just couldn't get a grip on this one at first.

By my second viewing, I approached it with a sense of reservation. With this dampened enthusiasm, I was able to see Before the Flood more favorably. Although the question of how the Doctor will cheat death and save Clara is clearly the main focus of the storyline, I found the "B story" centered on O'Donnell and Bennett more engaging. (Maybe once I knew the "trick" it wasn't as fun watching the illusionist's act?)

O'Donnell is another one of those audience stand-in characters like Osgood whom we love because we can relate to her. She's the fan we all wish we could be: cool and knowledgeable in the presence of  celebrity, but gleefully fangirly in private. This alone should have clued me in that she was living on borrowed time; it's a rare thing that someone who might make a good Companion survives their episode(s).


Base Under Water


Review of Under the Lake
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

Sometimes there's a really good reason that something becomes a trope. Take, for example, Doctor Who's well-known "base under siege" story archetype (seen most commonly in the Troughton era). While its frequent use tends to make certain elements easy for the audience to predict (unless actively subverted), the inherent tension of a situation in which a pre-determined, non-expandable set of individuals have to defend themselves against an unknown, mysterious, or seemingly unbeatable enemy can make for a gripping narrative.

Such is the case with Under the Lake. Writer Toby Whithouse (whose previous Who credits include School Reunion and three other episodes) uses the tried-and-true setup to great effect, keeping the crew both separated from outside help and in valid fear for their lives.

Upon first watch, I was so taken with the story, in fact, that I couldn't think of anything I didn't like about it. Further thought and a second viewing highlighted a few, but none were enough to dampen my general delight. I can't even express how refreshing it is to feel so unreservedly pleased with an episode.

The first of the relatively small down sides happened even before the opening credits rolled. While the Drum's crew was relatively diverse (two white women, three men of color, and one white man (who isn't technically even part of the crew)), it was still the black guy who was first to die. As a white woman myself, it took me a while to realize that sad truth, and I can't decide how much it ought to bother me.

Moran was the commanding officer, so in a way the Black Dude Dies First trope is balanced somewhat by the anti-trope of the black guy being in charge. I could also believe that it may simply be an accident of casting (they liked this actor for his reading of the few lines he had and for looming ominously as a ghost), but even if that's the case, it's unfortunate that it still fed into the trope (though at least the entire remaining cast wasn't white).


Something Familiar


Review of The Witch's Familiar
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

Well, it wasn't godawful.

In fact, it may well be the best second half of a Moffat two-parter I've yet seen (though the bar isn't set very high, in my opinion). That's not to say it was anywhere near flawless, but I did find plenty to enjoy.

The episode begins by resolving the we-didn't-believe-it-anyway deaths of Missy and Clara and giving an actual explanation for the method of their escape (and Missy's in Death in Heaven). It struck me as odd that Missy would need Clara to suss out why the Doctor always survives. Does Missy already know the answer or not? If she does, why walk Clara through it just to ask the follow-up question ("What happens if the Doctor assumes he's going to die?")? The only reason to do so is to bring the audience along (which is not good storytelling).

If Missy doesn't know why the Doctor survives, then she was dead wrong when she told Clara "you're the dog" in the relationship. Despite knowing him for millennia, Missy still needs a human who's only traveled with him recently, on and off for a couple of years, to figure out the Doctor for her? Neither of those interpretations makes much sense, and the scene thus left me vaguely dissatisfied.

Meanwhile, the Doctor is being all Doctor-y, chucking Davros out of his chair and driving it around himself. Moffat, in turn, continues to address the audience indirectly through his characters. When the Doctor survives the onslaught of Dalek guns and comes out calmly sipping a cup of tea, he chides his adversaries, "Of course, the real question is, where did I get the cup of tea? Answer: I'm the Doctor. Just accept it."



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