Doctor Who S09E06 “The Woman Who Lived” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on BBC One, Saturdays
Writers: Catherine Tregenna
Director: Ed Bazalgette
Essential Plot Points:
- The Doctor “accidentally” bumps into Ashildr – the Viking girl he made immortal – in 1651. She is currently a highwayman.
- She’s forgotten her original name and now calls herself Me.
- She begs the Doctor to let her leave with him. He says no.
- He reads her journals. She’s had a very full but rough life. It’s made her ruthless and uncaring. She’s torn out the pages that contain memories she wants to forget bit keeps the pages about her babies dying to remind her never to have children again.
- She’s made some bargain with a leonine alien to get off the planet which involves some rum old plot involving jewels and portals and killing someone for their death energy. She kills a highwayman condemned to hang because he won’t stop telling really bad jokes (or that’s how how it seems, anyway…)
- But Lenny the Lion is a two-timing tomcat. The jewel opens a portal through which his mates start laser-beaming the Earth. Me has a change of heart and uses the spare immortality tablet the Doctor gave her last week to resurrect the dead highwayman and close the portal.
- Ashildr tells the Doctor that she will devote her life to looking out for the people he abandons.
- The other highwayman carries on telling bad jokes.
Blimey this is a tricky one to put a star rating to. There’s so much to love here, especially some truly moving moments as the Doctor learns how immortal life has sculpted Ashildr into Lady Me; flashbacks capture the joy of the highs and the harrowing depths of the lows she’s had to live through. On the other hand, there are some clunky comedy misfires too, with scenes of leaden comedy that outstay their welcome until they threaten to set up camp on your lawn.
It was, perhaps, a mistake to make the two Ashildr episodes so similar in tone; both being broad comedies with darker moments. It’s a balancing act that “The Girl Who Died” achieved better, maybe because the comedy was sharper, maybe because the dark wasn’t quite so dark, meaning it was easier the merge the two. Because make no mistake, there are moments in “The Woman Who Lived” that beat anything in “The Girl Who Died”; it’s simply scuppered by the fact that there are moments that are much worse too.
After an amusingly silly teaser, the episode starts off very impressively. As with “The Witch’s Familiar”, the show is confident enough to deliver an extended sequence that’s little more than a dialogue between the Doctor and one other character. And it’s great. Admittedly the flashbacks help keep things pacy, but essentially this is just two characters trying to suss each other out, and thanks to some bravura acting from Williams and Capaldi, it’s mesmerising.
Then the plot takes over and it all goes a bit River Song. The search for the jewel seems like a pointlessly long detour with way too much Scooby and Shaggy-style tiptoeing. Leandro and Me’s plan to get off world is underwhelming at best and Leandro treachery is obvious a mile off. It’s all so skimpy, the 45 minutes have to be padded out with some stand-up from a condemned highwayman whose main crimes are against humour.
Okay, so the story isn’t about the alien plot; it’s about the Doctor/Ashildr relationship. But when the alien plot so flimsy, and Ashildr is a part of it, her character is lessened by association. The plot’s shallow; it makes her look shallow. Similarly, her sudden redemption comes across as trite, especially when even Williams appears at a loss how to deliver lines like, “What have I done to these people?” with any conviction.
You can’t help wishing that the creeping-around-shadowy-halls guff and the deathly gallows humour has been cut back massively to allow more time for a cleverer plot, and more time to make Leandro an interesting villain. Because if he had been more charming, clever and impressive, we may have sympathised more with Ashildr for siding with him.
Thankfully the episode ends on a high note. The action climax looks great (with one weird exception, see below). Better than that, though, are the two epilogue scenes. There’s a genuine air of something significant going on as Ashildr promises – or maybe threatens? – to become “the patron saint of the Doctor’s leftovers.” Bemused the Doctor admits, “I think I’m very glad I saved you.” To which Ashildr cryptically responds, “Oh I think everyone will be.” It’s a wonderful scene full of promise and foreboding.
Finally, Clara puts in a appearance for a lovely little coda and an ominous, “I know you know she’s leaving soon…” from the Doctor to the audience. He doesn’t quite break the fourth wall this time – it’s more of a gentle tap on the fourth wall like he’s looking for secret panels – but the meaning is clear. Moffat’s setting something up.
If it involves Ashildr, then fine. She’s great. Let’s just hope she doesn’t bring any comedy highwaymen with her.
- Maisie Williams is great in a very difficult role; she’s at her best when Lady Me shows chinks in her emotional armour and reverts to be the scared little girl Ashildr again.
- The flashbacks are all fun, until the one where Ashildr’s children die which is one of the bleakest moments in Doctor Who for a long while.
- The edgy relationship between the Doctor and Me/Ashildr is great to watch, and the way they part is full of intriguing hints of something major to come.
- Amazingly for Doctor Who, some of the best dialogue in the episode isn’t the funny stuff. Especially, “Why are there pages missing?” “When things get really bad I tear the memories out.” “What could be worse than losing your children?”
“I keep that entry to remind me not to have any more.”
- On the other hand, Clayton’s world-weary, “Oh dear, always the quiet ones,” is a gem.
- Capaldi is great again.
- Although we’ve moaned a lot about the overload of comedy in this episode (we don’t mind broad comedy in the show – check out last week’s review for proof – it’s just spectacularly misjudged here) the comedy fight between Midnight and Swift was very entertaining.
- The gallows humour was a grave mistake. It felt like it was never going to end.
- The “comedy” escape from the manor after the theft of the jewel felt like clodhopping filler as well.
- In fact, after the balancing act was maintained so well last week, the varying tone was jarring at many points here.
- The whole “escape from planet Earth” plot was skimpy as hell.
- Leandro was severely underwritten.
- And what the hell was this shot all about? It didn’t make the Doctor look heroic, just a bit silly; with the low angle and the slow motion it simply came across as “trying too hard”.
And The Random:
- Jack Swift didn’t seem to have a particularly big nose to us.
- The Doctor mentions that the Terileptils started the Great Fire London, which they did in the Peter Davison Doctor Who story “The Visitation” (1982).
- For the second episode in a row there’s a sound like somebody’s farted that turns out to be something else entirely. Last week it was a Viking horn being blown (no sniggering please) which even the BBC subtitles translated as “Breaking Wind”; this week it’s a guy snoring.
- Is it any coincidence that Me talks about people being smoke when she and the Doctor are hiding in a chimney?
- Blimey, the servants in the Fanshawe’s house are a blind and deaf lot, aren’t they?
- It’s great that the Doctor gives Captain Jack a namecheck (and is surprised that he has got round to Ashildr yet) but anybody else want the Doctor to ask, “You haven’t bumped into a Roman Centurian guarding a big box, have you?” #theboywhowaited
- Also, with Ashildr calling herself “Me” we would have expected as least one “Doh, a deer, a female deer…” gag from the Doctor.
- Did you spot that the lights on the carriage in the teaser were made to look similar to Leandro’s eyes?