There’s a scene about two thirds into this week’s Doctor Who episode that speaks volumes. We’re in an ornate, well-furnished house in Stuart-ruled England, and Ashildr – who last week had a heart attack under the strain of defeating the Mire, before being resurrected – is railing at the Doctor. “Human life is fleeting,” she says. “People are mayflies, breeding and dying, repeating the same mistakes. It’s boring. And I’m stuck here. Abandoned by the one man who should know what eternity feels like.” I’m not sure whether it was at this point that I realised we’d gone right through the fourth wall, but I do remember looking over at Emily, and realising what we were experiencing: a Doctor Who episode that, for the second time this series, dumped all over its predecessor’s potential, a good idea squandered in a sea of worthiness and the mire (no pun intended) of a mind-numbingly tedious narrative.
The problem with both of these episodes was that the settings and stories were to all intents and purposes immaterial, playing second (third / fourth) fiddle to the concept of killing Maisie Williams and then bringing her back. If last week saw the Doctor acting on impulse, ‘The Woman Who Lived’ (in which he catches up with her, albeit by accident) sees him reaping what he sowed, as the ‘new’ Ashildr is quite different: cold, self-centred and violent. It’s clear what we’re supposed to think: Ashildr is what the Doctor fears Clara may eventually become (and which she seemed in danger of becoming in series 8). The Doctor, for his part, regrets staying away quite so long, although to be fair the last time he saw her she was setting up a leper colony, so the misunderstanding was forgivable.
That’s not a bad idea for a theme, as long as it has some sort of narrative to support it. Unfortunately in the process of dealing with the ramifications of functional immortality – to use the Doctor’s own terminology – Catherine Tregenna (four of the weaker episodes of Torchwood, which should tell you all you need to know) got so hung up on the emotional pathos that she forgot to include anything we might feasibly call a story. Instead we have thirty-five minutes of the Doctor chatting with Maisie Williams about how shit it is being immortal. Really this two-parter is an acting showcase: a chance to show contrasting sides of the same character, one young, fresh and paranoid; the other jaded and world-weary. (It’s telling that Ashildr’s abandoned her Viking lineage and goes around referring to herself as ‘Me’, which is one step away from adopting the name ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’.)
And it’s that sense of weariness that drags this second instalment down into the murky depths, from which (despite best efforts) it is never really able to extract itself. Narrative inadequacies may have plagued ‘The Girl Who Died’, but that didn’t stop it being fun. It mined enough clichés to wake a balrog (horns! dragons! VALHALLAAAAAAA!), but the episode was – at least until its final seven minutes – delivered with a sense of humour, to the extent that even the baby poetry didn’t matter that much. ‘The Woman Who Lived’ fares far less well, simply because somewhere along the line it had all the fun zapped out of it. It’s not even Who-by-numbers, which is a criticism I levelled at ‘Into the Dalek’ last year. It’s New Who at its most preachy and ponderous: a whole episode of brooding about the Doctor’s tendency to make monsters out of good people. At least in ‘Journey’s End’ we just had a bit of gloating from Julian Bleach, a clenched jaw from Tennant and a quick montage. This is an entire episode of seriousness, with no real life or soul to it.
That’s not to say Tregenna doesn’t have a go. It’s just the results are a dismal failure. Listen, years ago there was a Big Finish story called ‘Bang-Bang-a-Boom‘ in which the Seventh Doctor and Mel find themselves involved in an intricate conspiracy surrounding an intergalactic singing competition. It is literally half Star Trek, half Eurovision. It is also quite marvellous, although one criticism would be that the Star Trek bits try way too hard from time to time, resulting in occasional awkwardness.
Now, take that awkwardness and crank it up to eleven, and you have ‘The Woman Who Lived’. The producers cast a stand-up comedian as a highwayman who also happens to be a stand-up comedian. You could forgive a character like this the odd joke here and there, but this isn’t enough for Tregenna. She inserts (perhaps at the behest of Steven Moffat, perhaps not) a plot-crucial scene in which he actually does stand-up. By a gallows. With the Doctor. Whose delivery is on a par with Yodel. It’s not even fun in a silly, “Ha ha this is my day job” sort of way. It’s just self-consciously naff. It’s like casting Katharine Jenkins as a beautiful maiden with a tragic backstory and then getting her to save the universe with her singing.
Before we get to the stand-up at the gallows (featuring a mob with farming tools, which is in its own way immensely gratifying) there is an earlier scene in which the Doctor and Ashildr sneak through a mansion in order to find a thing that I don’t particularly care about, although it is blue and sparkly. The moment in which they attempt to hide from the snoozing guards by ducking behind tables is ostensibly bedroom farce, although it reminded me rather of the moment in ‘The Horns of Nimon’ where the Doctor, Seth (not Adric, as I erroneously wrote earlier) and Romana hide behind server cabinets in the Nimon’s laboratory: a scene that works because ‘The Horns of Nimon’ is deliberately pantomime, and stylistically consistent, even if Anthony Read doesn’t like it. (The moment in question is at 6:15, if you’re interested.)
If you’re going to run a sequence like this in contemporary Doctor Who, you need to use actors who possess at least a modicum of on-screen chemistry. Capaldi and Williams have precisely zero. It would have worked with Clara, but she’s off doing something else. This is just embarrassing. It’s like watching the Eleventh Doctor and River: a screen test that gets onto the DVD, rather than the sort of thing that results in a casting decision. It’s not that Williams is bad – although the change to her character was perhaps better embodied by the mute, fifty-second time lapse that closed the previous episode than by anything she says and does this week – it’s just that even a Game of Thrones veteran can’t polish a turd. You just get mashed-up turd smeared everywhere, making a horrible mess.
What else? Well, there’s a playful nod to ‘The Visitation’. There is this week’s plant and payoff (Google it) in the form of the second health patch, saved for a crucial moment. Oh, and there’s a cat, who does nothing of any consequence except breathe a bit of fire. I’m fairly sure this happened in at least three or four Tom and Jerry episodes, all of which had more story and dramatic conflict than the forty-five minutes of my life that I’m never getting back (ninety, when you consider that I now have to watch this story again in the company of my children).
At the end, various questions are unanswered. How does Ashildr know the Doctor has a ship? What was in those missing diary pages? Could the foreshadowing of Clara’s supposed death be any more obvious? Did Peter Capaldi have a set number of guitar scenes written into his contract? Why on earth didn’t Clara notice Ashildr outside Coal Hill if she’s been stalking the Doctor? And have none of those people who said Leandro looked like Vincent from Beauty and the Beast seen ‘Warrior’s Gate’?
Most of all, do I actually care anymore? What does it say about me that I no longer want to talk about this show with my children, that I’m tired of good actors wasted and decent ideas squandered? The fan in me still doesn’t really want to believe that Doctor Who is in trouble, but the worst part is how little I find it concerns me these days. And who can blame me? When you serve up a hatchet job like this, BBC, how can you expect me to keep caring?