If you happen to have read my articles on Once Upon a Time, then you might have noticed I’m a little obsessed with villains at the moment. I enjoy obsessing over the narrative arc of novels and television shows because I believe that, in most cases, literature and media reveal truths about life and the world we live in. As Jane Austen says in the film Becoming Jane…
“A novel must show how the world truly is. Somehow, reveal the true source of our actions.”
And so recently, I thought to myself, “What do villains—or all characters in general—have to say about the true source of our actions?”
I was roaming around Pinterest, searching for inspiration for my writing, when I came across this article on character building: How to Create a Remarkable Villain (Beyond the Clichés!). The content caused me ponder, what does it mean to be a villain? Where does villainy originate—from a character standpoint and from a writer’s pen? It’s been a while since I’ve sat in a literature or writing course, so when I read David Villalva’s three factors to consider when writing a villain, I thought, “Oh my gosh. [Head smack.] I already knew this, but I didn’t actually recognize these points until now.”
A quick example: Villalva writes, “The villain functions as a reflection of the hero,” and then compares the similarities between Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter as an example. I can remember Harry asking Dumbledore a few times about the similarities between him and Voldemort—especially in the second year when Harry discovered quite publicly that he can communicate with snakes. At the time, I was young and thought, “Oh hey, they’re like the same people, but totally different.” Now I’m recognizing the contrast between antagonist and protagonist for what it is: a way to reveal the true motivation behind the characters’ actions.
Thinking of Ashildr
Throughout Season 9 of Doctor Who, I kept trying to wrap my head around Ashildr’s character. What kind of person is she? What motivates her to oppose the Doctor? Her motives tend to change, so is she lying about her motives or are they changing with the times? Could she be lying to herself about her motives? And so on.
As I began to delve into the structure of a well-created antagonist, I thought of Ashildr welcoming the Doctor, Clara, and Rigsy to her hidden alley. I immediately realized that in many ways, Ashildr is the Doctor’s foil. Especially when I thought of the Doctor’s moral ambiguity. I couldn’t put a finger on her morality because it is a reflection of the Doctor’s. I can’t label her a “bad guy” because I can’t exactly label the twelfth Doctor a “good guy.” Since the Doctor’s morality is sometimes ambiguous, it makes sense that I have all these questions about Ashildr. She’s not pure evil just like the Doctor is not pure goodness.
Ashildr as The Doctor’s Reflection
Villalva’s first direction for creating a strong villain, as I mentioned in the preface, is to draw the antagonist as a dark reflection of the protagonist. With this logic, we can say Ashildr is a reflection of the Doctor. Take a look at these statements.
- Is a Time Lord; he will live a long life because he can regenerate.
- Travels around the universe.
- Remembers almost everything about the universe he has seen or learned about in his travels.
- Travels with companions who are typically human. Companions keep the Doctor grounded by reminding him of the goodness in life. They also prevent him from becoming too angry and bitter with the universe.
- Never shares his name. He goes by a title he gave himself and strives to live up to that name–Doctor.
- Did count how many children and people were on Gallifrey the day the Time War ended, although he claims he does not know.
- Was a Viking girl, but is now an immortal human. (The Girl Who Died)
- Cannot leave planet Earth. No matter how much she begs the Doctor, he will not let her travel the universe with him. The times Ashildr has tried to leave Earth, the Doctor has found a way to stop her.
- Has a limited memory. Thus, she must rely on her diaries for information.
- Refuses to find a companion to share her immortal life with. Over the course of time, Ashildr has been a daughter, wife, and mother. Due to the pain of watching her loved ones die over time, she chooses to be her “own companion. Singular. Unattached. Alone.” (The Woman Who Lived)
- Goes by the name of Me, but is known as Mayor in Face the Raven. She tells the Doctor that the title Mayor is something for her to live up to.
- Has killed many people over time, but does not know exactly how many. She does not keep an accurate count. (The Woman Who Lived)
Ashildr and the Doctor are very much alike; however, they are a foil to one another.
Truths Ashildr Reveals
Villalva’s second point is that, “The villain exposes truths the hero does not want to admit.” Ashildr is always finding ways to reveal the Doctor’s dark truths.
In The Woman Who Lived, Ashildr points out the harsh reality of living a long life when she asks the Doctor, “How many have you lost? How many Claras?” It is the Doctor’s fault she is immortal. Ashildr explains to the Doctor how she has lost everyone she knows and loves over time. The Doctor can relate because he frequently loses his companions: Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, Donna Nobel, Amy Pond, Rory Williams, and now Clara Oswald. The Doctor must admit how horrible immortality has been to both Ashildr and himself.
When the two are later drinking in the Ye Swan with Two Necks (the pub), they chat about how they cannot travel together. They are too much alike, but with contrasting opinions. Ashildr also points out that “someone has to look out for the people [the Doctor] abandoned.” She makes the Doctor see that in his attempts to save Earth, he has also hurt people on Earth. Therefore, she claims that she will be the person to watch out for the Doctor and protect the Earth from him.
The Doctor is rash and sometimes obtuse. He doesn’t own up to this until Ashildr calls him out on his behavior at the end of the universe. She mocks him when she says, “You’re willing to risk all of time and space because you miss her.” In this moment, Ashildr exposes the Doctor’s selfishness. Often he attempts to alter time and space so that he can get what he wants. Usually, his actions are to save a companion, but sometimes he needs to accept loss when it occurs—which is another truth Ashildr forces the Doctor to acknowledge.
The Doctor does not handle goodbyes well. He doesn’t know how to properly let go and move on. Ashildr comments on how the dying stars are beautiful. The Doctor objects. “It’s sad,” he says. She then points out that the end of beautiful things can be both beautiful and sad. Everything must end at some point, and everyone must learn to let go. Even the Doctor.
Reacting to the Biggest Truth
The final advice Villalva shares is that a well-written villain must ‘push the hero into confronting the exposed truth. Essentially, “the villain forces the hero to evolve into a savior.” This is true for the end of Doctor Who’s Season 9. Ashildr tells the Doctor that he must let go of Clara. Clara is dead. The Doctor refuses to accept Clara’s death though. In the last two episodes, Heaven Sent and Hell Bent, the Doctor finds a way to fight time, escape a self-made prison, and save Clara (albeit, temporarily). In this way, the Doctor becomes a savior of sorts.
Perhaps viewing Ashildr as a type of villain is wrong. She is an antagonist of sorts, but I honestly believe she does not mean to do serious harm. In some instances, she is a hero of sorts. In The Woman Who Lived she realizes after making a huge mistake that she does love her life and humankind. She quickly repents and asks the Doctor how they can work together to save everyone. Then in Face the Raven, she seems honestly shocked and upset that Clara took the quantum shade from Rigsy.
No matter what we all believe about Ashildr, I think we can agree that she is an interesting character who carries many contradictions and adds a new sort of complexity to Doctor Who. As an antagonist, she brings important obstacles into the Doctor’s life. Even though Ashildr causes the wheels in my head to keep spinning, I hope to see more of her in Season 10.