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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…

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Doctor Who: The Girl Who Died (Review)

“He’s not really Odin, is he?”

“He hasn’t even got a yoyo.”

The Girl Who Died is very much in keeping with Jamie Mathieson’s previous scripts for Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline. It is a script that expresses an affection and fondness for Doctor Who, but with just a hint of playful innovation. The Girl Who Died is recognisably part of the show, but in a way that feels like more than simple imitation or emulation. Mathieson does not just understand the mechanics of the show, he understands how and why they work in relation to one another.

After all, the set-up of The Girl Who Died is almost aggressively traditional. The Doctor wanders into a dangerous situation where he finds himself tasked with protecting a small community from a band of aggressive outsiders. Using his wits and no small amount of technobabble, the Doctor manages to stop the hyper-advanced aggressors in their tracks. He does this in a way that relies on trickery and subterfuge more than blunt force. The day is saved when the Doctor offers a quick-witted and chatty speech that sends his opponents reeling.

Not a patch on Odin.

Not a patch on Odin.

In terms of plot, there is not a lot happening here. The Mire are a fairly generic band of alien baddies, a stock science-fiction warrior race in the style of the Sontarans or the Klingons. (Indeed, Ronald D. Moore’s suggestion that the Klingons are “space Vikings” pays off here as the Mire find themselves squaring off against literal Vikings.) With the exception of Ashildr, most of the guest cast are reasonably bland; it seems highly unlikely that most of the audience will remember any of their actual names, instead remembering the Doctor’s “affectionate” nicknames.

However, The Girl Who Died takes the opportunity to flesh out its character dynamics, affording time and energy to long conversational (and philosophical) scenes in which the Doctor and Clara meditate upon responsibility and salvation. The Girl Who Died is very much an episode that feels like set-up, building towards that cliffhanger and into The Woman Who Lived, but its use of build-up is very canny and astute. Mathieson takes advantage of the two-part format adopted by the ninth season, expertly exploiting the space afforded by a two-parter.

Viking Direct, eh?

Viking Direct, eh?

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