...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Day 5410: DOCTOR WHO: …the Lion Was Flawed


I wanted to call this "outstanding and delivering", but in fairness, it wasn't quite as amazing as part one. The plot was more… generic: Leo the Lion and his "surprise" invasion twist, leaning heavily on 2005's "The Unquiet Dead", which also features a rift opened by death. But that wasn't the point.

This was all about why Maisie Williams was essential to the role of Ashildr/Lady Me. You might have thought that that Viking maid was familiar from "Game of Thrones"; but here we see the range of her talent as she evolves from Arya Stark to Cersei Lannister.

We've met a race of extra-dimensional leonids before in "Doctor Who": the Tharils of E-Space in Season Eighteen, and so it was a shame that "Leandro" didn't turn out to be a Tharil from their early buccaneering, slaving days. And surely "Leandro" (Lion Man) is just Lady Me coming up with a suitable Anglicised (or Latinised) name for him – surely she's not dumb enough to fall for it if it's his own made-up name for himself. Plus it was jolly nice of his fellows to blow him up at the end, especially after missing so many of the locals. (Who, in fact, are Londoners – does no one remember that Tyburn Tree is at Marble Arch? Which in fairness would have been fields at the time, but it does seem no one remembers the "town" nearby is London.)

But cursory as these lion/invasion plot elements were, though, they were key to Lady Me's story: as she's become more and more like the Doctor she just wants to run away. (And one of the best lines of the episode is: "I'm not looking for a husband, you oaf. I'm looking for a horse to get me out of town.")

A life of centuries rather than being full, has become empty. That's not particularly an original observation, and the lesson that the Doctor gives to Me – that immortals need the "mayflies" – is all very "Interview with the Vampire", but that's perfectly appropriate for the gothic romance of a tale like this.

There's a wonderfully playful way that the episode toys with non-binary gender in Maisie Williams' character. In part one, we had already heard her as Ashildr talk about how she was too boyish for the girls and too much a girl for the boys, but still found acceptance in her village. But now we see her switching comfortably between roles as the (male – in presentation, particularly doing the voice) highwayman "The Knightmare"* and the (female – in presentation, particularly the very-off-the-shoulder dress) "Lady Me". Delightfully, the Doctor doesn't appear to see anything at all odd about this. This idea of gender as fluid, optional, as performance even, is very Seventeenth Century, all rakish and Restoration (perhaps a little late, timewise for here, but very in with the romances of the era) but also brings us back to the idea of "gods" and "immortals" choosing to grace us in human form.

(*Yes, apparently K is for Kow in any language; it really is spelled with a "K")

And, just as Lady Me switches from one persona to another, so the episode flips between "highwayman as latter-day Robin Hood or carousing adventurer" larks and "melancholic contemplation of a life not even remembered".

The triumphs and tragedies of her life, from Agincourt (broadcast a day before the 600th anniversary of St Crispin's Day 1415!) to Plague, that we glimpse as the Doctor literally rummages through the pages of her memories are all the more poignant because she herself no longer has them, none more so than the pages ripped out – an extreme version of Bernice Summerfield (from the "New Adventures") and her post-it note bedecked diaries.

(Not quite sure how she lugs them all from place to place every time she fakes her own death, though. And, in "Castrovalva" fashion, the earliest volumes, with uncertain handwriting, are still as beautifully bound as the most recent, which takes quite some doing.)

Not all of the comedy works. The comedy guards come to arrest the Doctor don't half feel like a Shakespearean walk-on gag. The house-breaking goes on perhaps just a bit too long. But it's not just comic relief. It's as vital to the story as the silly lion invasion plot, the idea that life has this vital spark. Sam Swift's desperate gag-cracking, the very (I'm sure deliberately acted) imperfections of the delivery adding to the feel he is cracking jokes as though his life depends on it, convincingly sells the premise of the story.

The contrast is between Lady Me's ennui – epitomised by the way Leandro is just using people; a trap she too falls into until she's turned around – and Rufus Hound's charmingly rough-edged rogue Sam Swift the Quick (not just overcompensating: his name puns on "Quick" as opposed to "Dead", and his swift, brief life). Sam cracks puns on the scaffold literally buying himself more seconds of life with his words because life is so important to him. Lady Me just saw him as a resource not to let go to waste: he was going to die anyway, so why not use him? The fact that the failure of her plans sees her rediscover that she cares, and that she saves Sam to set things right is a little vindication of the Doctor's position.

Of course it's more complicated than that. The Doctor knows that on the most superficial level he did a good thing in saving Ashildr as a girl. He also knows that, given human nature, it had the potential to turn to a really bad thing. But, on an even deeper level, that simply taking her off in the TARDIS and going adventuring with her might lead to an even worse thing, for both of them. And indeed the Universe. While the Doctor makes a number of arguments to Lady Me, Capaldi conveys all this deeper knowledge with a series of looks and postures and an air of "I've been here before and tried all the ways out of this conundrum", until only at the end is Me in a position to understand the lesson properly.

If you've seen Season Two of Game of Thrones you know already that Maisie Williams can hold her own in a scene with Charles Dance. The power relationship between Doctor and Lady Me is more evenly balanced here – indeed, who has the upper hand and who is sidekick is another thread running through the story – but it still takes some mighty acting chops to go head to head with Capaldi in these long often brutal conversation scenes.

And while it's clear that he's been "dropping in" to check up on here – much as the tenth Doctor did his tour of all his past companions – it's clearly not enough to see what it is she's been losing along the way.

The notion that the human brain isn't big enough to contain all the memories of an immortal life struck me as novel and tragic (though actually, it occurs to me, there's a bit, also from the early "New Adventures", where the Doctor filters his memories through the TARDIS and edits them down a bit because even his brain – larger on the inside, presumably – can get too full). I wondered subsequently if Captain Jack – assuming he really is the Face of Boe, and it's not just Rusty's little joke – evolved into an enormous head as a different solution to the same problem. (Hilariously, the actual Face of Boe – or the voice of, anyway, is Struan Rodger who also appears in this episode.)

And speaking of Jack – interesting that it takes the former "Torchwood" writer Catherine Tregenna to bring him up again; it would be nice to see Barrowman come back (commitment to "Twang!" "Arrow" allowing) and maybe explore Captain Jack's missing memories after all these years – but was anyone else disappointed that when the Doctor said he'd travelled with another immortal it wasn't Romana he was thinking of (after all, if he can mention the Terileptils in passing…)

Because, oddly enough, even though many would say the Tom Baker/Lalla Ward pairing is one of the finest in the series' history, it's also been observed that the two Time Lords together do rather swan about the Universe with increasing disdain for the mortals through whose lives they career. To the extent that if Season Seventeen is mainly about them gadding about having a really really good time, then Season Eighteen – Tharils and all – is, you might suggest, about the real world slapping the Doctor very firmly in the face as a result.

So is this a two-parter? I'm a little caught by my own rules here. Because I take the "To Be Continued…" at the end of "Utopia" to indicate that that episode is the start of a three-parter, I should, in fairness, concede that this is part two and "The Girl Who Died" is part one. Even though, really, they feel more like one episode and its sequel. On the other hand, Alex's feeling – which I find myself strongly in agreement with – was that this episode developed characters and ideas while leaving many plot threads hanging… in other words it feels much more like "The Sound of Drums", i.e. a part two of three.

Does it not, after all, feel as though some elements here have been set up for future pay-off: the appearance of Ashildr/Me in Clara's present day, could she end up being the Minister of War alluded to in "Before the Flood", or the question of how (or whether) she relates to that prophesied "hybrid".

And looked at the other way, the Doctor wanders into this situation clearly in the middle of other business and after dropping Clara off. Time, for him, as passed too – we don't know how long, but we know he's had time to at least look in on Ashildr's progress (and leper colony-founding activities) – meaning that it is only the audience who perceive these stories as juxtaposed.

It might therefore have been even better if there had been another (pair of) episodes in between. Maybe something with, I don't know, Zygons in it?

Next time… Oh look! Something with Zygons in it! Fair warning: I've met the author. Will he be as controversial as last year's space dragon? Expect double trouble, in "The Zygon Invasion".

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