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Doctor Who: The Woman Who Lived (Review)

Can’t we share? Isn’t that what robbery is all about?

– the Doctor on redistribution of wealth

The Woman Who Lived adopts the same structure as The Girl Who Died, basically grafting a fairly generic alien invasion narrative on to a more character-driven story. It is an approach that worked very well for Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat, but it admittedly works a little less smoothly this time around.

The Girl Who Died had the luxury of some very generic antagonists posing a very generic threat to a very generic village populated (for the most part) with fairly generic characters. Against this backdrop, there was room to develop not only the character of Ashidlr, but also to flesh out the perspective of the Twelfth Doctor and Clara. The stakes weren’t particularly high in the context of Doctor Who, and the resolution was decidedly goofy. But that was the thrill.

Okay, now Peter Capaldi is just showing off...

Okay, now Peter Capaldi is just showing off…

The Woman Who Lived is decidedly heavier in tone and content. This is not to suggest that the alien threat at the heart of the episode is any more substantial or nuanced. There is an alien emissary plotting to open a dimensional portal so that his buddies can harvest the Earth for their own sinister purpose. This is, if anything, even more generic than the Mire’s plot to harvest testosterone. The problem is that the script clutters everything up, adding betrayals and macguffins and mythos that add little of value.

It is not as if the convolutions of the generic alien invasion plot exist to balance a lighter character-driven story. If anything, the meat of Ashidlr’s character arc is to be found in The Woman Who Lived, as she learns to cope with the mixed blessing of immortality. The Woman Who Lived certainly gives Maisie Williams more to do. So The Woman Who Lived has a lot more going on than The Girl Who Died, which is not necessarily a good thing.

Candle in the wind...

Candle in the wind…

To be fair, The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived form the most successful two-parter of the season to date. The idea of forming a two-parter based on a guest character rather than on plot is quite clever. One of the challenges of the ninth season is finding novel approaches to a fairly standard format, one that typically relies on the moment of maximum tension coming between the end of one episode and the start of the next.

The ninth season has struggled when it comes to evenly distributing weight across the two legs of these stories, perhaps most strikingly in The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar. This two-parter cleverly side-steps the cliffhanger dilemma by opting to tell two self-contained stories that work reasonably well on their own terms, but which come together to form a greater whole. The linking thread is character- rather than plot-driven, which is an approach in keeping with the Moffat era.

A cat-egory-one invasion threat...

A cat-egory-one invasion threat…

It is not too difficult to imagine splitting this  particular two-parter up. The Girl Who Died could easily have aired after The Witch’s Familiar and before Under the Lake, receiving a belated follow-up after that particular story had resolved itself. Indeed, both parts of the story could arguably function independently. The Girl Who Died makes its own thematic points, while The Woman Who Lived dutifully explains everything that the audience needs to know from the first part.

(Indeed, the only plot-point that really justifies keeping the two-parter so close together is the “second dose” of immortality that the Doctor provided at the end of The Girl Who Died. If the two-parter were split up, the resolution to the episode might easily seem like a bit of a deus ex machina. As it stands, it feels like a rather convenient Chekov’s Gun; the fact that it primarily resolves a plot point rather than a character beat suggests the biggest problems with The Woman Who Lived.)

“I leave you alone for eight hundred years and…”

There is a lot to like here. Whatever problems exist with The Woman Who Lived, they are largely mitigated by the good will carried over from The Girl Who Died and by the guest performance of Maisie Williams. Williams was very good in The Girl Who Died, but there was a sense that the episode was playing against her persona from Game of Thrones. It is The Woman Who Lived who gives Williams an opportunity to show her range.

Williams is only eighteen years old, but she is surprisingly convincing as an immortal. (To make a comparison to contemporary pop culture, Williams is a lot more believable as an immortal do-gooder than Vin Diesel is in The Last Witch Hunter.) Perhaps the stock comparison here should be to Matt Smith, another young actor who expertly conveyed a sense of timeless agelessness, but Williams offers a more grounded and restrained performance.


Some “me” time…

Williams very much pitches her performance against her co-star, and does an excellent job holding the screen against Capaldi. Capaldi is easily among the strongest actors to play the lead role – ranking alongside Eccleston, Davison and Troughton. Managing to hold ground against Capaldi is a remarkable accomplishment, with The Woman Who Lived positioning Ashidlr as the Doctor’s equal in a way beyond even Clara’s journey towards demi-Doctorhood.

On a purely superficial level, this makes The Woman Who Lived the perfect choice for the season’s Clara-light episode. Although it seems quite likely that Ashidlr’s plot is building towards something within the season itself, it might be fun to see the character become a recurring crutch for the series. Matt Smith was allowed to team up with James Cordon when Karen Gillen and Arthur Darvill needed a week off, so it might be fun to watch the Doctor and Ashidlr adventure their way through the eras.

Cat's in the cradle. (Of power.)

Cat’s in the cradle. (Of power.)

The biggest problem is that The Woman Who Lived feels somewhat over-stuffed, with the convolutions of the evil plot feeling just a little blunt and heavy-handed. There is something quite clever in the idea that the evil-looking alien might want the incredibly dangerous alien artifact for a purpose beyond simple destruction or invasion, but that is ultimately brushed aside in favour of another generic alien invasion. There is even a CGI fleet and a convenient plot-resolving execution.

This is a shame, because – like The Girl Who Died before it – the best parts of The Woman Who Lived are the quieter moments. It is fun to return to the Doctor’s mistrust of “banter” from Robot of Sherwood, and it is impossible not to enjoy a pun-packed stand-up comedy execution that is building towards the as-inevitable-as-it-is-hilarious punchline of “don’t leave me hanging.” This lightness and giddiness works well, but it feels squeezed out by an overly-elaborate “evil alien of the week” plot.

Stand and deliver.

Stand and deliver.

Still, the character of Ashidlr remains fascinating. The Woman Who Lived returns to a couple of the thematic points of the season around it. Davros’ speculation about why the Doctor ran from Gallifrey seems to reverberate across the season, with The Woman Who Lived teasing out its own answers in the form of Ashidlr’s restlessness. Ashidlr is another version of the Doctor, another copy of himself rattling through the time-space continuum; perhaps a cautionary tale about what Clara could yet become.

Ashidlr is simply bored. having lived eight centuries, she has seen everything that the world has to offer. “I’ve done all I can here,” Ashidlr reflects, before elaborating on how she stares up at the stars and dreams of escape. How often has the Doctor offered a similar sentiment to the survivors of the disaster of the week before disappearing in his magic blue box to explore new worlds and new possibilities? It seems likely that the Doctor ran for the same reason that Ashidlr wants to run.

Carriage return...

Carriage return…

Again, the show is able to tease out characterisation of the Doctor through the development of Ashidlr’s character. For all the mystery that exists around the Doctor, questions that will likely never actually be answered, The Woman Who Lived suggests that the answers are self-evident. Fans have speculated about why the Doctor left Gallifrey, but perhaps there doesn’t need to be a prophecy or a reason. Perhaps boredom is enough.

Indeed, the episode even teases a possible reason for the Doctor’s connection to Susan, an odd piece of Doctor Who continuity that looms large over the ensuing fifty years of history. Introduced in An Unearthly Child as the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan Foreman remains a mystery that cannot be unraveled. It seems that every female character with ties to the Doctor must endure speculation that they are really Susan Foreman, with the show’s fandom fixated upon the idea of her return.

Hold up! Hold up!

Hold up! Hold up!

How could the Doctor just leave her in The Dalek Invasion of Earth? What about all the questions to which she might tease an answer? Her existence implies the existence of a family, but the show has never explicitly shown the Doctor’s extended family – Russell T. Davies’ speculations about the mysterious woman in The End of Time aside. In Ashildr, The Woman Who Lived teases a mundane answer to this. Susan exists as a memory of a past life; her loss is reason enough that it should never be revisited.

The Moffat era has played with the idea of the Doctor’s name repeatedly, most notably in the clever double-meaning of the title of The Name of the Doctor. The character’s name has become an enigma hanging over the show, but the defining feature of the Moffat era has always been to reject this big “mystery box” approach to narrative in place of more intimate character-driven narratives. Through Ashidlr, the show proposes a simpler explanation for why the Doctor’s name remains a mystery.

Cue crazy cat lady jokes...

Cue crazy cat lady jokes…

When the Doctor refers to Ashidlr via her birth name, she simply does not recognise it. The Doctor has difficulty parsing this. “What do you call yourself?” he wonders, reasonably enough. Ashidlr responds, simply, “Me.” It is easy to imagine a similar explanation for the Doctor’s own choice of name. He has simply grown past whatever label his parents assigned him, moved beyond the life that was associated with such a title.

As with the rest of the Moffat era, continuity finds itself tied more to memory than to history. One of the joys of Doctor Who is trying to navigate the show’s tangled web of continuity, which defies any rational attempt to impose order upon it. The Moffat era largely eschews detail-orientated approaches to history or continuity. Instead, it favours the idea of memory as the arbitrator of identity. After fifty years, history is too complicated and messy. Thanks to the BBC, some of it is missing. But memory? Is that not as real.

Facing up to his decision...

Facing up to his decision…

Ashidlr’s identity is tied to memory, much like the Doctor’s relationship to Davros in The Magician’s Apprentice is tied to memory. There are pages missing from Ashidlr’s journals, much as there are video recordings missing from the archive of classic Doctor Who. Ashidlr confesses that she needs to keep a library of her past adventures. “I can’t remember most of it.” That would seem to make sense in the context of Doctor Who, untying the Gordian Knot of tangled continuity.

“When things get really bad,” Ashidlr confesses, “I tear the memory out.” It is a nice approach, one that has also allowed Doctor Who to escape its own more questionable decisions. (Given the recurring ninth season fixation on a prophesised “hybrid”, it seems appropriate to point out that the show seems to have torn out its own memory of the Doctor’s claim to be “half-human on [his] mother’s side.” Memory is more important to identity than history.

Do you mind, robbers?

Do you mind, robbers?

The Woman Who Lived also continues the ninth season’s fixation with eye-related imagery. The Witch’s Familiar marked the first time that Davros opened his eyes, while the ghosts in Under the Lake had distinctive empty eye sockets. The opening shot of The Girl Who Died focused upon Clara’s eye, to say nothing of faux!din’s eye-patch of power. Eyes are obviously an important symbolic element, but the ninth season seems fixated upon them.

Ignoring the use of bandit masks in The Woman Who Lived, the episode contains a number of distinctive references to eyes. The alien menace is first identified through glowing yellow eyes in the darkness. The macguffin driving the plot is “the Eye of Hades”, which serves to open a portal designed to evoke a gigantic eye. In her references to the plague, Ashidlr makes an oddly specific reference to “sightless children.”


Horse play…

It is interesting to wonder where all this eye-related imagery might be going, if it is going anywhere at all. After all, the Moffat era’s fascination with memory suggests that perception is ultimately the most important aspect of reality; everything is inherently subjective, as the Doctor would attest based upon the relativistic directions that he used to rescue Clara at the start of The Girl Who Died. Perhaps the eyes are nothing more than a thematic reminder of that subjectivity.

The Woman Who Lived is an effective resolution to a character arc that began with The Girl Who Died, even if it lacks the lightness of touch that made the first episode such a standout. Nevertheless, it is still the strongest two-parter of the season to this point, demonstrating the potential of the season’s year-long experiment.

2 Responses

  1. Great review Darren!

    It occurs to me reading this that ‘The Woman Who lived’ would made a perfect historical. Ditch the generic alien and have the only sci fi elements be the Doctor and Ashidlr. Surely her story and their interaction would be compelling enough without superflous lionmen walking around?

    Like ‘Robot of Sherwood’ it feels like a missed opportunity to leave out the other aliens for once (the ones without the blue box.)

    • That’s a good idea, particularly given the vibes it sent out evoking “The Visitation.” I’d love a modern pure historical. C’mon, there has to be a fun way to do it. (The show could do Listen, after all.)

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