Doctor Who: 906 “The Woman Who Lived” Review
Reviewed by John Hussey.
It would seem Series Nine has been a roller-coaster ride in terms of quality and enjoyment factor. One week we have either a great episode, or an episode promising great things, and then the next week we have a flop or a disappointment. Last week’s ‘The Girl Who Died’ fell into the latter. Luckily, this week we received a masterpiece.
‘The Woman Who Lived’ continued last week’s revelation of Ashildr now being immortal due to the Doctor’s interference. The narrative, therefore, concentrated on this aspect in great detail. Similar to Captain Jack Harkness’ journey in spin-off Torchwood, Ashildr was given a dark journey and background. Her immortality wasn’t a blessing, but rather a curse. Though she didn’t die over and over again in grizzly fashions, she certainly had her fair share of watching others die whilst she lived on.
This turned the story quite bleak from time to time. It created such a poetic narrative filled with pure emotion, something Catherine Tregenna is very good at. Tregenna has a talent for creating tragic character stories, and Ashildr was perhaps one of her greatest. I felt Tregenna had a better understanding of how to write for Ashildr, which was completely lacking in ‘The Girl Who Died’. I had no engagement with her due to Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat throwing away her development in favour of a half-baked narrative. This was odd due to the fact that Mathieson wrote two of the best episodes last year.
I felt this week Maisie Williams was allowed to shine. Last week Williams didn’t get that opportunity due to the weak script she was given by two supposed talented writers. With Tregenna’s script, however, Williams got given a fantastic role and a torturous journey to bare on her shoulders. I really enjoyed her performance throughout and could see that she was truly talented and gave Peter Capaldi plenty to bounce off. The two of them made quite a pair onscreen. Within moments of seeing them two together I actually wished that Williams was announced as the next companion. The chemistry displayed in this one episode was enough for me to want to see a whole series worth.
Another thing that happened was my realisation of how bland Clara has been this series. I’ve enjoyed her story-arc this year but compared to her last two series, Jenna Coleman has been less than impressive over the last three episodes due to her lack of emotion. Also it has come to that point where, after seeing someone fresh at the Doctor’s side, you become aware of how tiring the current companion is and that there is a need for change. Clara’s time has come. She’s had a good run but I believe Coleman has made the right choice in leaving this year. We now need someone new and different to revamp the show, and as I said above, Williams could accomplish this and help Capaldi in his next stage of development.
Williams went on an emotional journey throughout ‘The Woman Who Lived’ and as the title suggests, she has lived longer than most, becoming a character that really reflected the Doctor. This became a strong bond throughout and created some interesting areas that could challenge the Doctor in a personal way. The Doctor could relate to Ashildr’s pain of loss and the idea of eternity, with ordinary people becoming fleeting due to their short lifespans. Unlike Ashildr, the Doctor has come to appreciate life more than most because of his connection with ordinary people and knowing that they live life to the fullest. This is something that the Doctor tried to remind Ashildr and that her immortality doesn’t have to be a burden.
But, like the Doctor, Ashildr has experienced loss in the harshest manner. The mere mention of her losing her own children to the “black death” was heart-breaking. That and the mere implication of Ashildr knowing that everyone else, including her own offspring, would eventually turn to dust whilst she continued to stand the test of time. The emotional level rose further through the Doctor reading Ashildr’s dairy; recordings of her past to which she can no longer remember. I like how some of the pages were missing due to those particular memories being too painful to remember. Perhaps these pages have been left open for interpretation or, an even better theory, will one day be addressed upon Williams’s inevitable return.
The comparison between the Doctor and Ashildr’s loss stems back to Clara and the foreshadowing of her departure at the end of the series. I loved how Ashildr challenged the Doctor about this touchy subject, to which even he has begun to be concerned at the inevitable fate of his young friend. Like the Doctor, Ashildr became distant and changed over time from what she originally was. Her humanity disappeared, even her name vanished from time. She decided to call herself “Me”. Also like the Doctor, she felt that escaping reality would be the only way to escape the dullness of the world.
It was interesting to see the Doctor’s reasoning for not allowing Ashildr to join him in the TARDIS. He felt that two long-lived entities would not coexist because of their common ground when it comes to understanding walking in eternity. He felt Ashildr needed to be with ordinary people to remind her of what life is all about which the Doctor couldn’t provide. It was also touching that Ashildr eventually turned around and became the Doctor’s friend, vowing to look out for those the Doctor leaves behind. I also loved how she discovered about the Doctor through those that became inspired by him. On top of this it was nice to get further nods to Captain Jack through the Doctor actually referencing him. It would be nice to see the two immortal characters meet one another one day.
Despite the darker themes, ‘The Woman Who Lived’ wasn’t all doom and gloom. There were some moments of comedy but unlike last week’s episode where the comedy dampened the seriousness we had a well-balanced narrative. Rufus Hound was the highlight of the comedy moments through his usual comedy charm. His character Sam Swift added in a poetic humanity moment that actually showed Ashildr what it means to live, reverting her back to her original self. This was done through his witty jokes as he was about to be hanged and his simple relief after being spared.
As predicted, the villain of the narrative was pushed to the side-line and brought very little to the episode. But, unlike with the poorly executed Mire, Leandro provided more purpose. Leandro tried to manipulate the damaged Ashildr into opening a portal, through the death of another, in order to allow its species to invade. Despite this, however, we had little indication as to his intentions or his plans until the final act of the narrative and even then it was vague. Even his defeat seemed rushed and without a real explanation. Still, I loved how the portal he opened through killing Sam was reverted through Sam being made immortal by the spare piece of Mire technology the Doctor gave to Ashildr.
I suppose I was a little saddened to see the device wasted on Sam. I liked his character but I really wanted Ashildr to have found her one true love and been able to make that person immortal so that they could live together. I suspect that the torn out pages may have indicated to that person, who was tragically lost to Ashildr before she could apply the device, but we may never know.
I was tempted to give this episode full marks but there were a few gripes that occurred that made it impossible for me to see ‘The Woman Who Lived’ as perfect. Apart from these slight flaws, this episode was a gem and will hopefully become a classic within its own right. I loved the character development throughout and the fantastic take on the themes of immortality and loss by Tregenna. And as stated above it was a nice change in chemistry and I actually enjoyed the lack of Clara in order to allow Williams to deliver a performance worthy of recognition. Here’s hoping she returns as soon as possible.