"Immortality isn't living forever. That's not what it feels like. Immortality is everybody else dying."
IN THIS ONE... Guest-stars Maisie Williams. The Doctor saves a Viking village from the wrath of warrior aliens, but at what cost?
REVIEW: For what is on the surface a historical romp with comedy Vikings - and you know they're comedy Vikings because they have Hollywood horns on their helmets (grating to me) - this sure is a complex and important episode. But then, though it looks like a romp, one with two-dimensional villains, bouncy Sarah Jane Adventures-type welder warriors, and the Doctor training an army that faints at the sight of blood and pulling out references to past Doctors (the 2nd Doctor's expanded diary to go with those checkered pants, 7th's yo-yo), it's also very tragic. For example, the ridiculous notion that the Doctor can understand babies, formerly used as an engine for silly comedy, is here a thing of poetry and sadness, and what makes the Doctor decide to stay and damn the ripple effects it might have on history. And of course, there's Ishildr's deaths, both literal and metaphorical.
The Doctor immediately notices Ishildr, and so do we. She is, after all, played by The Game of Thrones' Maisie Williams. Her line "what took you so long, old man?" from the season trailer made some of us think she might be Susan returned, or some other Time Lady from his past. That line isn't spoken here, but expect it in the next episode. All Ishildr is here is a ready-made companion, a modern girl in a bygone time who is resourceful enough and sympathetic enough that she wouldn't be out of place in the TARDIS. She's what the Vikings call a Skald, a storyteller, and it's through those skills that the Maya are defeated, though not without a cost. Ishildr dies, but through the magic of a Maya medical kit absorbed into her body, she is restored and will live forever, an immortal on the slow road, unable to take shortcuts the way the Doctor can. It's a curse and the Doctor regrets it almost immediately, so to keep her from HIS fate, he gives her an extra kit to use on her own companion some day (foreshadowing!). Notably, he doesn't give it to Clara. (The existence of this technology is entirely dubious since it would mean everyone would have trounced the Maya by now and turned themselves into immortals, but it's required of the greater arc, so okay.) From Ishildr's point of view, her immortality will lead to a second death - though she doesn't put it into words in this episode - as her village is part of her identity. She believes, early on, that if she leaves it, she will die. We know the village can't exist forever, so it becomes a bit of a prophecy. Speaking of prophecy, the Doctor makes sure to say the alien tech inside her sort of makes her a "hybrid", which is supposed to fill us with dread, but just seemed weird on first viewing. They didn't sell the threat behind that word enough in The Witch's Familiar, and then didn't make not of it in the next two-parter, so it doesn't feel earned here. But that final symbolic sequence where the camera spins around Ishildr as time goes past around her, and as she changes from a sweet girl into someone who might blow up the world does. The Doctor has created a villain, and a historical tidal wave. Perhaps that's why he felt like he'd seen her before. Has she been a face in the crowd through human history, much as this episode has made it to the mural in Before the Flood?
A bad day for the Doctor and an example of what can go wrong when he doesn't stick to the rules of Time for Clara. She's still good as the Doctor's teacher, telling him here to do what he's good at, "winning", but there are things she doesn't understand, and that particular table is turning on her. A bad day it might be, but it's nevertheless a good episode for the Doctor. The tactics he teaches the village's irregulars are pretty much out of his handbook - the appearance of confidence giving him an advantage against a superior foe, etc. - and he realizes why his face looks familiar. See Theories for more on that.
THEORIES: The Doctor's face. In Deep Breath, it felt familiar to him, like a message his core self was trying to give this incarnation. We've discussed this kind of thing before, as the re-casting of an actor has happened before (Maxil/6th). Was there a bank of faces in the Matrix the Time Lords were limited to? Or just only so many faces in all of space-time? We just didn't have enough data. Now it seems that the Time Lord's subconscious DOES base the new regenerated look (and probably personality) on past experiences and future needs. If Doc12 were to be perpetually "cross" and somewhat distant from humanity, then he would at least have the face of a man he once saved when "godly" Time Lord concerns who have dictated he should not. Caecilius from The Fires of Pompeii. This a reminder that his priority is to help people. Past looks might also have worked like this. For example, 7th's diminutive stature a reaction to the bigger-than-life bluster of the 6th Doctor, or 10th's good looks a "fix" to the awkward Rose/9th relationship, etc.
REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High(ish-ildr) - The comedy and cardboard villains sometimes drag down what is nonetheless the most important episode of the season, plotwise, but it does have some stand-out moments for the leads.