There was someone odd, almost off-kilter about this week’s episode of Doctor Who right from the start. As soon as the Doctor’s head poked out of the Tardis door and wasn’t immediately followed by any sign of Clara, it was clear that was something fundamentally different about “The Woman Who Lived.”
Of course the show strives to be different almost every week – it’s why I end up doing a review of every episode while virtually every other show on TV can be sufficiently covered in a single post. That variation has been particularly apparent under showrunner Steven Moffatt who delights in confounding expectations and coming up with new things with which to tease and titillate the viewers, whether it’s new variations on old themes like “Under the Lake” or ostentatiously radical reinventions like “In The Forest Of The Night”. Some work and some don’t, but it’s never dull or boring and the same was true of the entirely off-the-beaten-track diversion this week.
“The Woman Who Lived” felt old-fashioned, but not in the sense of simply returning to old tropes like ‘base-under-siege’ – that is, not unless you cast your mind back to the old historicals of the classic series under William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton. No, rather it felt old-fashioned in a broader sense: a tale of highway robbery, country house breaking-and-entering, Carry On-style gallows humour genuinely in the shadow of the hangman’s gibbet, and the Doctor literally galloping to the rescue against the clock. Such elements are not in themselves unknown to Doctor Who but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen them like this; and moreover they were fitted together in a way that wasn’t quite according to the series’ regular playbook. It wasn’t the usual sense we get from Moffat – of someone knowing the show’s rules inside and out and then wilfully going out to subvert them all for effect – but rather a feeling that the writer wasn’t all that terribly interested in knowing the rules in the first place and just wanted to tell a tale her way.
Yes, that’s right – her way. For the first time since Helen Raynor contributed a brace of two-parters for David Tennant’s Doctor in 2007 and 2008, the screenwriter was a woman. Although making her début writing for Doctor Who, Catherine Tregenna is no stranger to the Whoniverse having already penned four stories for the spin-off series Torchwood including the Hugo Award-nominated episode “Captain Jack Harkness”. The absence of any female writers on the main show in seven years has been a matter of some controversy and growing discontent, so it’s very good to have the matter finally set to rest – for the time being at least. What’s more, the fine quality of Tregenna’s script should firmly nip in the bud any suggestions that her appointment was in any way ‘tokenism’ merely in response to those criticisms.
But does it really make any difference whether a Doctor Who writer is male or female? Surely it shouldn’t make any difference? Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does and it was keenly noticeable that “The Woman Who Lived” had a very different sensibility, perspective and intent than the episodes around it. And just to lay to rest any doubt of whether I thought it worked or not, the answer is an unequivocal yes – precisely because it did make the show feel refreshingly odd, off-kilter and yes, even slightly old-fashioned.
As expected, the star of the show this week was Maisie Williams. While she had been the Star Guest (rather than guest star) in “The Girl Who Died”, her role in that story had nonetheless been somewhat unremarkable. Essentially, Williams had been able to simply give a light reheating of her Game of Thrones role of Arya as Viking villager Ashildr and not required to do very much much more than that by the script – at least, not until the very end which had teed-up this week’s story set in Commonwealth England in 1651. What would eight hundred years of immortality have done to her?
The answers we got to that question were fascinating. On one level, the study of what functional immortality would mean in practice is hardly a new idea in genre fiction: from Virginia Woolfe’s Orlando through to Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat stories leading in turn to a major aspect of all modern vampire tales including Buffy, Angel, Being Human and Twilight, it’s a subject that is no stranger to Doctor Who itself both through the character of the Doctor and perhaps more relevantly through the aforementioned Captain Jack Harkness. In fact by this stage the observation that immortality isn’t about living forever but being forced to watch those around you that you love grown old and die while you yourself stay young and alive forever has been so often referenced by the likes of Highlander that it is getting to be a quite hoary old chestnut barely worth roasting again.
But while “The Woman Who Lived” started in the same neighbourhood, it soon struck out to find new pastures to call its own. We’re used to how a Time Lord is able to cope with a life-spanning millennia and all that jumping around in time, but checking back in with Ashildr brings home how different it is to face this as an otherwise normal human being instead. For one thing, the capacity to remember gets stretched so thin that it breaks: when the Doctor meets her again she barely remembers ever having been Ashildr in the first place. The village and her family and friends that were all so dear to her have long been lost to the mists of time; she’s worn so many names since then that she’s ended up just thinking of herself as ‘Me’ (and her sickly aged retainer really does even call her ‘Lady Me’.)
To remember, she writes everything down. And then edits the volumes to remove the bits she wants to forget, while retaining those that she needs to remember – like the painful memory of her children dying. It turns out that immortality isn’t just about seeing those you love die, it’s about how you harden yourself so that the pain cannot keep endlessly recurring, even if it means resolving to never again have any more children. No more lovers. No more friends. No more connections.
The Doctor knows just how dangerous going down this road to isolation can be for someone’s soul, and it’s the very reason why he keeps companions like Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, Rory and now Clara around him. The best scene of the “The Woman Who Lived” was the Doctor and Ashildr-as-was simply talking candidly about exactly this: “We need the mayflies. They know how beautiful and precious life is because it’s fleeting,” explains the Doctor. It’s also the reason why he never offered the gift of immortality to Clara at the end of “The Girl Who Died,” because he knows how bad it would be for two immortals to travel together for all time without change or renewal. They would lose touch with the reason for living and for caring. As he tells Ashildr: “The last thing we need is each other.”
That’s a crushing reply to her. She’s slogged through eight hundred years of some of the bloodiest and dirtiest centuries of Earth’s history. Unlike a Time Lord she doesn’t have the capacity to skip the boring bits and jump to the more exciting stuff: “You gad about while I trudge through the centuries, day by day, hour by hour,” she says, another on-the-nose observation the script makes about the cost of living forever, especially as a young woman in a civilisation where violent misogyny isn’t just to be expected but is positively institutionalised. Even though Ashildr has been able to use her longevity to provide herself with unique advantages that have allowed her to wrangle a vast fortune and a level of independence unique to woman at the time, it’s clear just how hard and painful achieving all of this has been and how much it has cost her.
Small wonder then that Ashildr falls for the promises of Lenny the Lion, a.k.a. Leandro the fire-breathing lion-man from Delta Leonis. While something of a crude caricature when it comes to the monster-of-the-week, Leo is nonetheless nicely brought to life and particularly effective early on when seen only as a pair of shining eyes in the darkness (very Scooby-Doo!). It’s when the chickens come home to roost in the one all-out action sequence of the episode (which feels somewhat randomly thrown in because someone figured we’d gone too long into the story without the requisite explosions and running round) that Ashildr’s hardened carapace is finally cracked and she realises that despite everything that’s happened and all she’s been through, she really does still genuinely care about other people after all. Her humanity is restored and rebooted.
That might have been a bit of a twee ‘happy ending’ had it not been tempered by what follows. Rather than a pleasant, all-hugs reunion with the Doctor it appears that Ashildr now has new resolve to do what the Doctor cannot. While he might sweep in every now and then to save the day, it’s Ashildr who will live alongside the people he saves, share their experiences and pick up the pieces after the Doctor swans off to some new adventure elsewhere. Her final words are laden with import and not a little dark threat as she promises to stand up for the Doctor’s ‘leftovers’ and to hold him to account for his actions through the centuries. It’s enough to make the Doctor ask aloud whether they are friends or enemies.
“Enemies are never a problem,” she replies. “It’s your friends you have to watch out for. And, my friend, I’ll be watching out for you.”
That loops back to another of this season’s themes, articulated initially by Missy in “The Witch’s Familiar” when she explained to Clara that within enemies there are friends, and within friends there are enemies. It certainly suggests a significant sign and portent for the second half of series nine, which we already know will end with the departure of Clara in some fashion or other. In many ways, despite her almost total absence from this week’s outing, “The Woman Who Lived” still manages to be mainly about her.
Jenna Coleman only shows up as Clara for a brief one-scene cameo at the end, with a rather too-convenient smartphone selfie to show to the Doctor which has a ‘surprise’ that is as subtle as a brick through the front window. Even so, it does the business it needs to in setting up something for the episodes to come and suggest that we’ve not seen the last of Ashildr just yet, although the Doctor’s prohibition against travelling with other immortals does seem to put the damper on rumours that the show might have been lining up Williams as a possible successor to Coleman at the Tardis console for next season.
While Coleman’s absence from the episode was likely down to the practical production needs of ‘double banking’, it was also quite necessary for this week’s story that Clara be busy elsewhere taking her year seven pupils for taekwondo lessons. It’s not that Ashildr became a surrogate companion in her stead; rather, it’s Ashildr who took over the lead role of the show for a week as the mysterious, enigmatic, slightly inhuman time traveller. Throughout the story, she is the one with the greater knowledge of the period and the ability to get things done while the Doctor is relegated to the role of sidekick (and even named as such on screen) asking all the questions on behalf of the audience. It’s a strange reversal but an effective one that works for both characters, which simply couldn’t have happened with Clara around.
The best scene is when they banter their way through a bit of house breaking (“This is banter. I’m against banter”) mid-episode and prove to be both spectacularly bad and incredibly lucky in their endeavours. There is a delightful bit of musical accompaniment to these scenes as well and the sequence was quite my highlight of the episode, although it has to be said that Murray Gold’s score seemed intrusive at other points and I even struggled to catch the dialogue in the final scene set in the the public house because of the sound mix getting in the way.
That’s a shame as it was a terrifically written moment with two excellent performances. You kind of expect superlatives for Peter Capaldi now, and each week he just gets better and better – he really does have his portrayal of the Doctor immaculately sorted out and is able to do things with small mannerisms that many actors couldn’t achieve in a month of Sundays. What’s almost as impressive is Maisie Williams who turns in a very different sort of performance from “The Girl Who Died” or Game of Thrones, and in doing so totally sells it. That she’s still only 18-years-old and able to go toe-to-toe with Capaldi like this is quite something and totally vindicates executive producer Brian Minchin’s idea to cast her for the part. It totally wipes out any suggestion of that it has been some sort of ‘stunt’ casting to boost the ratings – instead she was simply the absolute right actress for the part, and they were darn lucky to get her.
Overall then this episode gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from me, especially the for-the-geeks mentions of Captain Jack and the Terileptils. It might have been a bit slow and talkie for the younger members of the audience. It certainly wasn’t the historical romp it had appeared to promise in the previews with the exception of guest star Rufus Hound’s stand-up routine at the gallows, while the action sequences did feel rather as if they’d wandered in from a completely different story just because someone felt there needed to be an injection of pace here and there. However, taken as a whole – and especially as a two-parter with “The Girl Who Died” – this may yet prove to be one of the best, most thought-provoking and emotionally satisfying stories under Moffat’s entire tenture to date. The fact that it came from a female writer is perhaps no small coincidence and simply shows the need for more such talent to contribute to the series in the very near future.
And just to add a further thought as we reach the midpoint of this season of Doctor Who: the two-parter format is working a treat as far as I’m concerned. This series is firing on all cylinders and hasn’t put a major foot wrong to date. If it carries on like this then we might be looking at the strongest year of the show since … Well, since Ashildr was very young indeed.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings.