Series 9 of Doctor Who has seen a return to more multi-part stories, opening with two two-part stories and following those with... not exactly a two-part story, but two linked episodes. With the second episode of each pair, I've commented on how they compare to one another, whether the second episode has lived up to the expectations of the first, exceeded them (in the case of “The Witch's Familiar” compared to “The Magician's Apprentice”), or fallen short (in the case of “Before the Flood” compared to “Under the Lake”).
“The Woman Who Lived” by Catherine Tregenna is technically a new story, not the second part of “The Girl Who Died” (despite the “To Be Continued” slapped on the the end of that one). The two episodes have different writers, different settings, and different plots. Even the atmosphere and tone of the two stories are different. But what links them is they both form segments in the life of the one carry-over character (apart from the Doctor himself, of course), the titular Girl Who Died/Woman Who Lived. Much like the entirety of Doctor Who shows us moments in the life of the Doctor, these two episodes show us the life of Ashildr/Lady Me. As such, it's only natural to compare them as the second builds upon the first.
So, the question is, how does “The Woman Who Lived” compare to “The Girl Who Died”? Does it meet expectations? I have to say it more than meets them. It leaves those expectations far behind in the dust. “The Woman Who Lived” is Doctor Who at its best. It's a calm, character-based tale (mostly) free from world-destroying shenanigans. Epic, world-threatening adventure has an important place in Doctor Who, but it's not the only thing and never should be. There need to be introspective stories that slow things down a bit and show us effects and consequences. “The Woman Who Lived” does this and more. With brilliant performances by its two leads, it mixes a compelling morality tale with emotion and a light dose of comedy (and much more successful humour than that attempted in “The Girl Who Died”).
“The Woman Who Lived” is Catherine Tregenna's first Doctor Who script, although she wrote four episodes of Torchwood, including the highly regarded “Captain Jack Harkness”. Her Torchwood episodes are some of my favourites, all of them strong character tales, so I'm not surprised that her first foray into Doctor Who is just as good. Tregenna is only the second woman to write for Doctor Who since it returned in 2005, and the first since Helen Raynor in 2008 (Raynor wrote four episodes total over 2007-2008, “Daleks in Manhattan”/“Evolution of the Daleks” and “The Sontaran Stratagem”/“The Poison Sky”). A third woman, Sarah Dollard, has written an episode, “Face the Raven” that will air later in Series 9. All things considered, this is a pretty bad gender-balance record for the show, but it is good to see that some attempt has been made to address the problem this year. Hopefully, this will continue in future years to even out the balance.
The basic premise of “The Woman Who Lived” is nothing new to Doctor Who. In fact, Doctor Who (and Torchwood) has examined the issue of immortality on numerous occasions. Captain Jack even gets a nod in this episode. This story builds on that idea by giving us an in-depth discussion between two essentially immortal characters about the problems of immortality (the Doctor isn't truly immortal, but he might as well be given that he can potentially receive more and more sets of regenerations every time they run out).
At the end of “The Girl Who Died”, the Doctor resurrected Ashildr via a handy plot convenience and then took off—the man who runs away from consequences. He knew at the time that he might have made a mistake and that the troubles of immortality might change Ashildr immensely. As such, it's a bit odd that he seems surprised by her changes here, although a large part of that is probably an act for her benefit to help her remember her old self. However, it's also hard to say just how long it's been for the Doctor since the last episode. Clara has taken a holiday from the TARDIS and so the Doctor could conceivably have been wandering about for years on his own before reconnecting with Clara at the end. At the very least, he's had enough time to visit Ashildr on one other occasion (although not revealing himself to her at that time). So perhaps he has simply forgotten his earlier concerns. Forgetting the past is a theme in this episode.
And Ashildr certainly has changed—a lot. We get a glimpse of it during the time lapse at the end of “The Girl Who Died” as her expression changes away from happiness. Now she has buried her feelings away as best she can. She has experienced too much loss, too much unhappiness.
The Woman Who Lived” contains one of the most original ideas regarding immortality, one never seen in Doctor Who before and one I'm unaware of appearing in any other show that has tackled immortality—the limits of memory. Immortals in various programmes, including Doctor Who rarely seem to have much difficulty recalling the past (in picture-perfect flashbacks even!), yet this story acknowledges that the human brain simply can't store 800 years worth of memories with any sort of precision. Ashildr has even forgotten the village she grew up in—the one she was willing to die for rather than abandon.
Ashildr doesn't initially even remember that name. She hasn't gone by it in centuries. She now goes simply by Me. And that, in itself, is a simply ingenious look into the person she has become. As we all get older, we tend to feel that time goes by faster. Each successive year is a smaller and smaller fraction of all the years that have come before. Imagine living for hundreds of years. Would the decades and even centuries start to fly by? Me has seen so many friends and loved ones come and go, so many people appear and disappear that they no longer have any real meaning to her—they are just mayflies, she says. There is only one constant: herself. She is all there is. What better name than Me? What other name speaks more volume than those brief two letters?
This is a very different kind of immortality than that of Captain Jack, who, while he has suffered loss too, does not seem to have the same memory problems as Me (perhaps Rose, as Bad Wolf, adjusted Jack's brain physiology when she restored him to life to help him cope; she could see all of reality after all). Me is forced to chronicle her life in shelves and shelves of journals that she can reread to help her remember. These, too, offer a great insight into her character—not just in the events they retell, but the events they don't. Some memories are just too terrible to recall, she says, and so she tears those pages out. But not the pages detailing the deaths of her children. She keeps those to remind herself never to have any more children.
This is all covered in a few relatively brief sequences in the episode, yet they contain more depth of character than most people in Doctor Who ever get. It's phenomenal storytelling by Tregenna and utterly heartbreaking. But it's more than just the depths of storytelling that convey who Me is: it's also Maisie Williams's portrayal.
I've come across a few very vocal detractors of Williams's performance. She's too wooden, they say. But I think they miss the point. Me is trying very hard to be wooden, to pretend that things don't affect her—but they do, and those things come out sometimes. Williams does an amazing job bringing that across. Her facial expressions are subtle, but they are there—her sadness, her anger. She neither overacts it nor underacts it. No real person has ever lived 800 years, so portraying such a person is not an easy thing. How exactly does one portray the weight of 800 years of loss without known that weight oneself? Yet Williams, at only 18 herself, successfully convinces that she has lived that long.
This episode gains a lot by Clara's absence through most of it. In some ways, this is a bit unfortunate as it sidelines Clara again (which has been happening a lot this series—the series which is her last) and uses that absence to focus on her effect on the Doctor, essentially removing her agency as a character. Yet at the same time, this gives added agency to Me, who is not afraid to remind the Doctor that he will one day lose Clara. Even if she stays with him her whole life, she will eventually die, and the Doctor will be alone again. If he took Me with him instead, he would have a companion for life.
But the Doctor has a different approach to his long life than Me, something she doesn't initially understand. The Doctor has had a much longer life and much more time to learn the pitfalls of living so long. He knows the importance of the “mayflies”. They remind him of the value of life whenever he starts to forget it, and so he travels with short-lived humans to keep him grounded. It's a lesson we've seen the Doctor learn before. But the Doctor still runs away. He doesn't like to face the long-term consequences of his actions. Me runs away, too, but in a different way, trying to hide herself from herself.
Peter Capaldi's performance here is likewise excellent. He too brings across the Doctor's age and sorrow in just a few telling looks, often in response to a mention of Clara. His look in the closing shot of the episode sums up everything he has been through and his knowledge that, despite Clara saying, “I'm not going anywhere,” one day she will be gone and who knows how many others after that will be gone too? It's also a bit of foreshadowing that that moment may come sooner than either of them expect.
Of course, all this introspection has to take place somewhere, and that's where the story's setting comes into play. In my review of “The Girl Who Died”, I bemoaned its rather ahistorical portrayal of Vikings. In retrospect, however, it's more the fact that the episode doesn't really make much use of its faux setting. It's a stock village with stock characters. “The Woman Who Lived” certainly isn't perfectly historically accurate either, but its setting is so much more a part of what is unfolding in the story, from the Knightmare's highway robbery to sneaking through the Fanshawe home to the gallows at Tyburn.
I particularly like the gallows scene and Sam Swift's “stand-up comedy” routine. I've commented before on the problems of forced comedy, “Robot of Sherwood” being a good example of that. But this scene turns that idea on its head. It's very much forced comedy, but it's forced in the context of the story itself. Executions were a form of public entertainment at the time. Entertaining the crowd and making them laugh bought the condemned a few minutes longer to live. It's the very origin of the term gallows humour itself. Although there are jokes being told, this is a tense scene meant to build up sympathy for Sam and add depth to his character. It's not really to make the viewers laugh.
Sam is also the perfect character to be the recipient of the other immortality chip. It's not because he's any more deserving of it than anyone else—he's certainly not the sort of person Me would have chosen to spend eternity with under normal circumstance (I think it's also pretty telling that Me never used it on her husband or children). It's similar to Rex becoming immortal at the end of Torchwood: Miracle Day. Rex is the last person anyone would choose to bestow immortality on, but he is the perfect narrative foil to Captain Jack. Sam Swift is a foil to Me, opposite to her in many ways, but providing a balance to her.
If there's one weakness in “The Woman Who Lived” (and there's always a weakness if you look hard enough), it's Leandro the lion man from Delta Leonis. Of course, his presence is merely to provide Me and the Doctor with something to do while they delve into the real story, which is Me's life and immortality. As such, he's a plot strand that should be tied up relatively easily. On the other hand, he never really portrays much of a threat. Even his fire breathing never really does anything, and the attack by his people at the end causes surprisingly little damage. His fate is also somewhat garbled. This isn't a fault of the script or performances, but some odd editing choices. He does get a couple of lines where he tells Me that if she closes the portal his people will kill him, and just before he disintegrates, he calls out to his people to spare him, but both lines are garbled amidst overpowering music and quick jump cuts. They're very easy to miss, leaving one wondering why he suddenly disintegrates. But really, the story's not about Leandro and the weaknesses in his part of the story don't overshadow the strengths in the main story.
Some quick final thoughts:
This episode contains one of the best lines of dialogue ever to grace Doctor Who: "I didn't know your heart would rust because it kept beating. I didn't think that your conscience would need renewing or that the well of human kindness would run dry.” It is kind of naïve of the Doctor not to predict something like this might happen, but it's an amazing line nonetheless and said with such conviction by Peter Capaldi.
Contrastingly, the episode also contains one of the worst lines: “Purple, the colour of death.” What purpose does this obviously dubbed line serve other than to tell viewer that the purple death ray on the screen is both purple and a death ray? Rather pointless really.
Me's acceptance that she does care in the middle of the attack is perhaps a little sudden, but such are the limits of a 45-minute episode.
Me's male voice as the Knightmare is unconvincing. It is too obviously dubbed over and not Maisie Williams speaking, even when she's in the mask.
It is unfortunate that the first Doctor Who script written by a woman in seven years doesn't pass the Bechdel test.
Me's appearance in the selfie at the end seems to imply that we have not seen the last of her. I look forward to her return.
Overall, “The Woman Who Lived” is amongst the finest of Doctor Who stories in recent years and even a good deal longer. Each viewing has had me entranced from beginning to end. I don't want Doctor Who to be like this every week, but I do want it to be like this from time to time. Incredible stuff!