Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 6 – The Woman Who Lived

“Do you ever think, or care, what happens when you’ve flown away? I live in the world you leave behind.”

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In a year dominated by two part stories, this was a bit of an odd one – not strictly a second part, but definitely a companion piece, or a sequel, to last week’s. As with all the best sequels, it (and its predecessor) can stand perfectly well on its own; but, as an examination of one character, they complement each other. Even more unusually, this had a different writer to last week, Torchwood’s Catherine Tregenna making her debut writing for the show.

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And it wasn’t half bad. As with last week, the plot was slight at best, but again as with last week, the plot wasn’t really the point. The point was to catch us up, some 800 years later, with the formerly soulful little girl to whom the Doctor, in a fit of emotion, granted immortality. To an extent, this is well-worn material – the depressed immortal living on while everyone around them dies, growing increasingly isolated from humanity. We’ve seen it before, not least with the Doctor himself in his occasional sulks – Pyramids of Mars, School Reunion and The Snowmen leap to mind.

The challenge for Tregenna, then, was to take such familiar material and make it fresh. I’d say she did, but she was ably assisted by another amazing performance from Maisie Williams. Ashildr (now simply going by the name of ‘Me’) was recognisably the same person, but with the weight of 800 years of life hanging heavy on her shoulders. Notably, the Doctor seemed almost to treat her as an equal, blithely telling her about future events like the Great Fire of London (nice to hear the Terileptils get a mention). For her part, Me treated the Doctor as an equal too – and the episode was at its strongest in their two-handed scenes together, two ancient beings comparing notes.

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Their musings on immortality played well as an exploration of ‘Me’ and inevitably of the Doctor himself. Not for the first time of late, the Time Lord was forced to confront the consequences of his actions, consequences he seemed to run away from last week. Though it seems that he has been popping in to check on Me’s progress from time to time just as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman did with his own immortal human counterpart, Hob Gadling.

From Me’s perspective though, he’d hardly seen a thing, and her flashbacks to her centuries of life were interspersed throughout, snapshots of what had made her the hollowed-out, empty person she now was. Again, Williams played it well in those moments without the need for dialogue – witness her expression of exuberance as she marched to Agincourt, or her devastation at the death of her children in the first Black Death epidemic. As she commented, “I’ve had 800 years of adventure – enough to fill a library if you wrote it down”. And she had to – another good point about immortality was the limits of the human brain in remembering 800 years of life.

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The historical setting was a lot of fun – but then, I would say that, as I’ve a particular fondness for tales of 17th century outlaws. As notorious highwayman ‘the Knightmare’, Me had the opportunity to involve the Doctor in the sort of fun adventure romps common to such tales – when they weren’t pondering the existential angst caused by longevity, anyway. With Clara absent (something to do with learning tae kwondo), the pair made an effective team, their constant bickering fun to watch. As the dialogue pointed out, particularly when they met rival highwayman Sam Swift, the question was really, who was whose sidekick? Me was such an effectively equal foil for the Doctor it was hard to say. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen the Doctor paired with someone so much on his level since the second Romana.

There was a fair bit of broad comedy here, more so in fact than last week’s even more lightweight plot. Aside from the bickering between Me and the Doctor, most of it came from ‘Sam Swift the Quick’ (“imaginative name”). That wasn’t much of a surprise – you don’t cast Rufus Hound (near unrecognisable here) and expect overt seriousness.

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One of my friends has complained that the result was to portray the female characters as deadly earnest, and the men obsessed with dick jokes. I don’t think that was the intention, though Me certainly made a number of disparaging remarks about men. Given my familiarity with his material, I wonder how many of those gags were from the input of Rufus Hound himself. However, they served a deadly serious dramatic point; Sam was, in effect, performing a standup act to delay his appointment with the gallows. The point being made was that, to him, life was so precious that he was trying to extend it by as many minutes as he could – a deliberate contrast to Me’s jaded, unengaged personality.

The philosophy of Doctor Who has always been, at heart, one of hope and optimism, so it was no surprise that Me’s story arc was ultimately one of redemption and newfound engagement with humanity. From her earlier assertion that, “these people are like smoke, they just blow away”, when the crowd gathered at Tyburn were caught in alien death ray fire, she found that she actually cared. “Infuriating, isn’t it?” grinned the Doctor, the point of their similarity underlined once again.

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The aliens that were the McGuffin for the ep’s character exploration were rather more impressive than last week’s ‘standard armoured warrior’ type. It’s hard not to warm to an imposing figure so lion-like that he was named Leandro the Leonian (subtle), and bonus points for his ability to actually breathe fire on top of that. The makeup was first rate, as was Ariyon Bakare’s performance, though I’d have expected some reference to his similarity to the Tharils from Warrior’s Gate. Or at least a quip about Beauty and the Beast.

And of course, Leandro’s deception underlined that, however smart 800 years may have made her, Me was not infallible. Neither, as she saw once again, was the Doctor, as he waffled technobabble gibberish about Sam’s potential immortality before finally admitting he just didn’t know. Earlier in the episode, Me had seemed pretty arrogant about her intelligence – “All it takes is ten thousand hours to master any skill. A hundred thousand hours, and you’re the best there’s ever been. I don’t need to be indestructible – I’m superb”. We’ve seen the Doctor display that kind of arrogance before (notably in Midnight and The Waters of Mars), only to be taken down a peg or two by mere humans. This ep showed Me, perhaps for the first time, learning a similar lesson.

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With Clara mostly absent this week, you might have expected some letup in the recurring ominous hints of her impending doom; not a bit of it. Me’s jaded, isolated state was a consequence of his actions, actions from which, as he himself admitted last week and Me also realised, he usually just runs away from. In case the point wasn’t clear enough, Me compared the situation to her own losses – “How old are you, Doctor? How many have you lost? How many Claras?” On top of that, she reiterated one of the other recurring points this year, which must surely be significant – “enemies are never a problem, it’s your friends you have to watch out for”.

Even if Me achieved some kind of redemption, Tregenna’s script was not so obliging for the Doctor himself. Me’s renewed purpose was couched in terms of his failure: “someone has to look out for the people you abandon. Who better than me? I’ll be the patron saint of the Doctor’s leftovers”. It’s a measure of how well Capaldi now inhabits the part that he didn’t need to say anything to make it obvious how chastened he was. It wasn’t in the dialogue, but Capaldi’s performance made it clear, when Clara did return, that his forced jollity and even ‘banter’ was a mask covering his shame. Again.

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I really, really enjoyed this episode, though I know it didn’t work for everyone. One of the ways in which ‘Nu-Who’ has always been an improvement over the original is its depth of, and development of, even the guest characters – but a thoughtful character drama isn’t to everyone’s taste in  a show more usually known for alien invasions and explosions. Nevertheless, the script provided a fair few set pieces of old-fashioned derring-do; enough for me to balance out the quieter moments, though those had the real power. Maisie Williams once again demonstrated what an amazing range and versatility she has as an actor – I hope we see Me/Ashildr again, and I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if we do before the year is out.

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