Doctor Who: The Woman Who Lived

Posted on October 26, 2015


Peter Capaldi and Maisie Williams in BBC America’s “Doctor Who.”


Curse you, beautiful fall weather and lazy Sunday brunches. Your siren calls kept us far away from completing this review on time, giving it an unintended air of flippancy with its lateness when we’d rather get the exact opposite impression across.

We spent a decent amount of time pondering this episode and despite countless attempts to keep our critical hats firmly on our heads, they just keep slipping off and we wind up coming back to our initial impression: What a truly fantastic episode of Doctor Who; possibly even one of the best. Not without its flaws (oh God, that lion guy was painful to look at) but certainly the best single episode of the series we’ve seen in years. Such an opinion (reasonable gentlefolk may disagree, of course) tends to support our longstanding take on what kind of show Doctor Who can be when it’s at its best. It’s fun when it tells ripping adventure yarns of space and time travel, sure, but it’s at its best when it uses those stories to examine the human experience in unique and unexpected ways.

There’s nothing particularly new about the idea of an immortal character losing touch with their humanity and moral center. It’s a trope that tends to be built into most stories about immortals. At some point, the faces of lost people pile up so high in one’s memory that it becomes nearly impossible to carry on without essentially chopping off parts of your humanity. But there were three things that set this tale apart, which we will now list and elucidate for you:

First, Maisie Williams performance, which was all but flawless. If there’s one aspect of Ashildr/Me she didn’t effectively get across, it was her last minute change of heart, but that looked to us more like a flaw in the writing rather than in her performance. We have to wonder if this character was written with her in mind, so well does it play to her strengths as an actress. Williams knows exactly how to use that baby face to its full ironic effect after half a decade playing Arya Stark on Game of Thrones. All the promise in that chilling final shot of her in last week’s episode came true in this one. We can’t think of another actress her age who could pull off the combination of rage, hurt and chilling, inhuman coldness this character required. Her delivery of such clearly hard-to-sell lines like “You’ll have to remind me, what’s sorrow like, Doctor?” was a Master Class in fantasy genre acting. In a way, we’re almost sorry to see her established as more or less a friend because halfway through the episode, we started wondering if she didn’t have the potential to become a classic long-term adversary. Granted, there’s still something of a sinister quality about the ways she’s keeping an eye on the Doctor.

The second thing that set this story apart was the somewhat unique (although not totally unheard of) take on immortality. As we said, the idea of the bored or amoral immortal is hardly a new or unexplored concept in these kinds of stories, but we were specifically intrigued by the idea of an immortal with only a human’s capacity for memory. An immortal who wasn’t so much afflicted with a loss of morality or connection with humans, but an immortal whose identity is so fluid, by time and necessity, that she really doesn’t have one anymore. That’s pretty fascinating, and infinitely more nuanced than a simple bored god with a desire to see something new or a lack of empathy for the people she calls “mayflies.” Maisie’s performance was so clearly different this week from last week’s that she was more or less playing a different character entirely. It wasn’t just stubbornness or denial that had her insisting Ashildr wasn’t her name anymore. It’s simply impossible for her to relate to who that person was, especially since time has mostly erased the memory of her. Granted, there’s also a point being made about how purposely selective memory can be, even if it encompasses the better part of a millennia: she had absolutely no problem identifying the Doctor on sight, even though she’d only seen him for one day, 800 years before. She couldn’t (or more likely wouldn’t) remember her father, but she clearly had the Doctor’s face seared into her memory this whole time. Her growing anger toward him is what allowed her to remember him better than people she used to love, which brings us to our next point.

The third thing that made this story much more interesting to us was the overtly female point of view to it. This episode was written by Catherine Tregenna, who is the first woman to solo-script an episode of Doctor Who in something like five or six years, which is kind of appalling, when you think about it. All the credit in the world must be given to her for taking this opportunity and running with it, infusing the story with several moments that really stood out just for being so different from the Who norm. Ashildr righteously sneers at the Doctor for assuming she was looking for a husband instead of looking for power, adventure or even meaning in her life. But underneath the feminist argument being made by and for her character, there was a much deeper, more nuanced and more devastatingly emotional core: the eviscerating pain of a mother burying her children. We won’t definitively claim that only a woman could have written what was the most devastating scene in the episode, but we can’t help leaning in that direction. And without being too essentialist or narrow-minded about it, there was something different about the tone; the turn toward reconciliation and the focus on the companions the Doctor leaves behind and how blithe he can be about the effect he has on their lives. She’s not a daughter or a wife, not a “companion” or a lover or a co-pilot or a colleague. She’s herself and she’s going to take it upon herself to keep him from hurting anyone. It’s an entirely new role in the Who mythos and we truly can’t wait to see more of this character. But much more importantly, we think a clear and decisive argument has been made about a Doctor Who series with a more feminine point of view to it. Between the Missy episodes and these last two, we get the sense that Steven Moffatt is attempt to counter some of the accusations of sexism in his run. And while this episode alone doesn’t make up for every bad joke or cliched trope that popped up over the past few years, it definitely helps. More of this, please. We may even get a lady Doctor out of it someday.

Oh, by the way, Peter Capaldi was excellent too.


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