Series 9, Episode 6 - "The Woman Who Lived"
Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Maisie Williams
Regular airtime: Saturdays, 8.20pm
US: 24 Oct 2015
There was a moment in Saturday’s conclusion to last week’s episode “The Girl Who Died” when the usual good humour associated with Doctor Who suddenly ran dry. In the experience of Ashildr (Maisie Williams), inadvertently made immortal by the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), everyone dies. By the time the Doctor catches up with her, she is no longer a callow girl living in a Viking village, but masquerades as a highwayman in 17th-century England, and centuries of experience has made her bitter. The shelves of her home are lined with hundreds of volumes of diaries that help her remember who she was, and what she did. And they remind her of all that she has lost—including her children.
What a ballsy move it was to convey her misery through such a visceral portrayal of grief. No other installment would have the guts to prostrate its guest star on the ground of a medieval hut in front of three empty cribs laid out in a neat row, signifying her children, victims of the Plague in an earlier time. It’s faintly transgressive, somehow; it’s certainly an utterly unexpected image. And it sets the tone for what is a surprisingly solemn episode about what it means to be immortal. The gods, it transpires, really are lonely.
Not that the Doctor is a god. (The Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who is long finished.) Nor, for that matter, is Ashildr: she isn’t even immortal as such, as the Doctor points out that accidents can happen to her, just as they can to everyone else. But both have the exceptional longevity that puts them out of step with humankind. Hence her casting-off of Ashildr’s original identity—by the time of her reinvention as a highwayman, she simply refers to herself as “Me”. Hence also the absence of Clara (Jenna Coleman) in this episode: the schoolteacher gets a single scene at the end, because there’s not much she can bring to this discussion. (There is also the small matter of seeing how the Doctor gels with a character who may or may not be a future companion, but that’s another story.)
For all the humour that emanates from the duo’s interaction with rival highwayman Sam Swift, played with alacrity by Rufus Hound, this episode rises or falls on the merits of watching two people talking. The result is not uniformly satisfying, but Capaldi and Williams, though not quite comfortable in the two-handers, make enough of their scenes together to effectively carry the episode, and it is compelling to watch the Doctor tumble to the fact that the parallels between his experience and that of Me are closer than he would like to imagine. She’s his Greek chorus, reminding him of his own transgressions. When he asks him how many companions he has lost—“How many Claras?”—it cuts to the quick: etched on Capaldi’s face is an eternity of regret.
It’s a telling line. For a moment, the compassion that has been such a hallmark of the character is effaced, and we see a glimpse of something approaching ugliness in the Doctor. Long-time fans will have remembered the Fifth Doctor’s (Peter Davison) refusal to rescue Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) in “Earthshock” (1982), or the abandonment of Tegan (Janet Fielding), to her profound dismay, at the end of “Time-Flight” (1982). We are left to ponder how deep the Doctor’s “duty of care” to his friends runs. It’s an uncomfortable place to be; but then, that is what “The Woman Who Lived” is all about: discomfort, forbearance, suffering. There are some witty moments and a few laugh-out-loud jokes, but light viewing it ain’t.
Elsewhere, there are a few clangers. Someone seems to have forgotten to inform the design team that England was in the grip of the third civil war in a decade in 1651—the village we see looks in remarkably decent nick under the circumstances!—and it is ridiculous to think that the stately house Me occupies would have escaped the war either. For the most part, though, Restoration-era England looks tolerably convincing.
The real plaudits here, however, are reserved for the writing. That Welsh writer Catherine Treganna becomes only the sixth woman to pen an episode of Doctor Who in 50 years is an indictment, but the true failing will be if she’s not approached for more in the future. Considering she’s new to the show, it’s a remarkably confident debut, scripted with admirable economy and genuine flair.
Whether or not the Doctor and Me will last as a compelling pairing is another matter. There seems too much of the Doctor-Clara dynamic in the relationship to make it a sure thing. If Williams should inherit Coleman’s role as companion, it would seem to me to be an opportunity missed. To have yet another in a long line of emotionally dependent women in the TARDIS feels like a misstep. It seems strange to think it, but there were arguably more strong, independent-minded women in the TARDIS in the 1970s then there are today. Liz Shaw played a no-nonsense UNIT scientist opposite Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor. Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith was a card-carrying second-wave feminist who also did a good line in gunmanship. Romana (Mary Tamm, Lalla Ward) was a Time Lady, and the Doctor’s equal.
Who have we seen since the Doctor’s return in 2005? Rose Tyler was confident and capable, but couldn’t see past her own love for the Doctor; ditto Martha Jones. Donna Noble saved the universe, and then forgot about it. Clara’s dependency on the Doctor needs no explanation. It’s not that these companions are girly “screamers” in the vein of 1960s Doctor Who; they do all the stuff the most capable characters of the 1963-1989 era did, and more. It’s that their characters end up being defined through their relationship with the Doctor. So: what about Me? Will she shack up with the bloke who caused her centuries of anguish and bitterness? It’s a good job the TARDIS is bigger on the inside, because that’s a lot of emotional baggage to unpack.
‘The Woman Who Lived’ takes the Doctor Who playbook—value action above all; place the companion at the centre of the plot; if in doubt, lighten the mood—and throws it out of the nearest window. What we get instead does not consistently satisfy. It is challenging viewing, going against that which we have come to expect, and the guest character it introduces is one big question mark. But it jolts the audience out of our comfort zone, and maybe it’s about time.