Cast your mind back to Series 8 and its modus operandi: ‘Am I a good man?’ – the show that year went to great lengths to give us an incarnation of the Doctor with the veil lifted – no pretence, no hiding behind an adopted personality – here was a Doctor with every raw nerve visible; a Doctor that questioned everything he stood for.
Naturally, some of that worked, some of it didn’t – the biggest criticism being it always felt too didactic: the argument never quite stuck because, deep down, we were being asked to reject everything we had seen before without being given enough compelling evidence to do so.
Anyway, come the end of Death in Heaven and the show again managed to make peace with the adopted personality of the Doctor – he was back to being a madman in a blue box and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Then there was Ashildr.
In her first appearance in The Girl Who Died, there wasn’t much beyond the surface – the Doctor may have been playing the fool to deflect attention from impending doom but he wasn’t doom laden enough for it to feel as though he had truly opened something hitherto unseen.
No, what we got instead is an honest Doctor. He didn’t rationalise his rage at Ashildr’s passing; he acted on it in a way that felt emotionally honest – it’s a quality throughout that episode that makes it stand out – along with a nice line in subverting clichés (the Vikings being genuinely rubbish at fighting, the Doctor being rubbish with a yoyo…).
It also addresses one of the common complaints that often, when the Doctor has to rationalise why he can’t interfere when it comes to saving/condemning a species, the reasons are distant and always Doctor-centric.
By saying ‘angst from the Time War’ every time he sidesteps an issue; it doesn’t really give the actor much room to express themselves but it totally relies upon them to sell something that’s quite esoteric.
No, the reasoning here is entirely practical – he can’t declare war on species because it would ultimately put Earth in jeopardy; which itself is governed by his interaction with Ashildr – he doesn’t have a plan but he can’t bring himself to leave the largely useless, defenceless village. Ashildr is just a kind-hearted girl who the Doctor can’t bear to lose – and it takes her death to remind him that he chose that face for a reason – to save people even if the personal cost might be great.
Here, in her first appearance in Doctor Who, Maisie Williams does a fine job of giving her character a sense of time and place – she’s relatable but not to the point where she feels out of context
If all this feels a little far reaching for a spin-off book; indulge me – everything great from that episode comes from some sort of interaction with Ashildr – she is a far more interesting character in the Doctor’s presence.
Fast forward to The Woman Who Lived, and even though we’ve been in the presence of immortals before, we’ve never really had one who’s only power is that she lives forever.
Captain Jack was a smooth-talking time agent and River Song is part human/part Time Lord… but Ashildr/Me is just a regular person cursed to walk the slow path. And she feels every single step it takes to keep going.
What’s great about this two-parter is that while we get the same performer, we don’t get the same character – gone is any shade of the girl from the village; she’s been forgotten by years of loss and pain.
Perhaps the best thing about the episode that isn’t directly addressed is that, despite hundreds of years of misery and pain, she remembers the Doctor and Clara – she could easily have forgotten him or let him slide into mythical obscurity – the man that cursed her – but she has near perfect recall of exactly who he is and has rationalised him as both her ‘hero’ and her ‘jailer’.
While the journals deal explicitly with certain memories or people she wants to keep, the underlying tension, the things that she can’t control but still retains, are something that the episode doesn’t really address.
These contradictions would be difficult to convey for any actress but Williams does a fine job of conveying a very idiosyncratic emotional state – the initial bravado which greets the Doctor, the ‘what took you so long old man?’ from the trailer, hides a simmering resentment towards the continued Hell that is her existence (her initial reaction to the Doctor calling her Ashildr could easily have been overplayed but she lives in that moment, despite the obvious personal pain that brings).
If you are familiar with any of these emotional beats, then there’s nothing new within The Legends of Ashildr – in fact, you might be wondering, outside of financial gain, why the title exists and why Ashildr and no spin-off tales from, say, Captain Jack? (It’s interesting to note that The Legends of River Song will be released later this year).
Well, the short answer for this is contained within that subtle difference between immortals outlined above – the book might not live as long in the memory as Ashildr but it does underline what makes her a character worth exploring.
The four ‘Legends’ in question are divided by perspective – the first two, The Arabian Nightmare by James Goss and The Fortunate Isles by David Llewellyn, are third person perspective and are the weaker of the four stories.
The first is reworking of Arabian Nights, hence the punning title, and while told effectively with a neat turn of phrase, underlines just how bland the character can be without the Doctor: that while she may have stumbled upon fantastic adventures, she isn’t perhaps the most gregarious of lead characters. Even when she adopts multiple personas and against her better judgement falls for someone, she’s still very much an enigma in this context.
To use a rather crass metaphor, it’s like playing a wonderfully designed video game with a bland place-holder lead character. We’re given none of the fascinating detail of the episodes because we’re at a distance from her – a distance that doesn’t give us enough motivation to really explore beyond merely understanding that survival dictates keeping personal interaction cold.
The Fortunate Isle by David Llewellyn gives us a neat little puzzle box that could only really exist in Doctor Who lore – complete with a twist that is literally out of this world.
It’s nothing particularly ground breaking but there’s an interesting moment where she attempts to do good by using her immortality to save someone; only for it to backfire because, unlike the Doctor, no one expects remarkable things from her and those whose company she keeps aren’t really prepared for such selflessness.
It’s a well worked commentary on the Doctor’s own persona – Ashildr is doing what the Doctor expects her to do – we know when he last checked in on her before the events of The Woman Who Lived, he merely noted that she was working for a leaper colony and assumed she was well (note the subtle difference; the Doctor needs to see you doing good to convince himself you are doing well; not if you are personally doing well; the Doctor is always at a distance and wants you to lead by example) but here, amongst liars and thieves – the company she keeps because she has to remain distant – it simply leads to more suffering as she allowed herself to believe that she could save someone.
The next two tales switch to first person storytelling and the move proves to be successful. The third tale, The Triple Knife by Jenny T. Colgan, is told in diary extracts and concerns perhaps the most divisive moment of her long life – the death of her children.
In and amongst the plague ridden streets of London; we get a sense of The Girl Who Died’s contemporary, relatable character – she’s a concerned mother but one that ultimately can take you down with a single blow – and, when salvation comes from beyond the stars, we get a sense of her selective memory and sense of otherness; though she may dress herself in the trappings of the day, she ultimately knows that life exists beyond this solar system, that she is pretending to fail here on Earth.
When she approaches the ramp of a spaceship, she smells the difference between the clean, inviting world of space and time travel and the musty, dirt-ridden stench of death that hangs over the streets of London – and she understands her place in the world; one where she’s ultimately trapped.
It’s here that she learns to be ‘light’ to drift through the world unblemished by the countless lives that have passed her by – in other words, to adopt the morality of the Doctor.
The best tale of the bunch, it makes you wonder why the whole book wasn’t presented as The Diary of Ashildr, rather than the ‘Legends’.
The final tale, The Ghosts of Branscombe Wood by Justin Richards, builds upon the idea of her selective memory by making her confront ghosts from her past – although, this being within the Doctor Who universe, it isn’t that straight forward.
It’s entirely predictable and a little inconsequential but for the brief moment where she is confronted by the ghost of Odin – pulling apart her perfectly maintained distance and reminding us that some beliefs outlast even several life times.
The front cover of The Legends of Ashildr poses a question: Would you want to live forever? And if your immediate answer isn’t ‘not on your life’ then you might get something more out of this collection of well told but ultimately slight tales.
You can’t quite escape the feeling that we’re covering familiar ground and that Ashlidr, for all the interesting questions an immortal, normal person raises, she is less of a character away from the Doctor.