The main storyline is a throwaway, but there’s a lot of greatness in this week’s quieter moments.
You did not save my life, Doctor. You trapped me inside of it.
Doctor Who’s seasonal venture into two-part storytelling continues to reap rewards for the fifty year-old sci-fi serial. In a way it’s a harkening back to the show’s original run, when the writers used multiple episodes to tell a single multi-part story. And while the current incarnation of the show isn’t in danger of challenging Season 3’s “The Daleks’ Master Plan” (12 episodes) or Season 23’s “The Trial of a Time Lord” (a staggering FOURTEEN!!) for endurance records, the extended episodes have allowed the current slate to delve far deeper into what makes its characters tick than the average 47-minute installment. “The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived” is a perfect example. You could categorize each half of the story as standard “monster of the week” fare, but the surrounding greater conversation is captivating.
Honestly, I could’ve done without this week’s A-storyline. In short, the Doctor encounters Ashildir in 17th century England where she lives a public life as a wealthy noblewoman while masquerading as a highwayman once the sun goes down. She and the Doctor steal an ancient alien artifact together that will allow Ashildir to travel across the universe. Toss in a double-crossing alien lion king, and that’s the majority of action that “The Woman Who Lived” has to offer. Sound lame? It was. Doctor Who has certainly done worse, but for a story featuring a guest star as notable as Maisie Williams, I frankly expected more from the show.
I know that Doctor Who has always had a campy side, but I can’t help but prefer when the show makes the effort to play it straight. That’s what made “Under the Lake/Before the Flood” so good earlier this season. Sure, the entire premise of Doctor Who is rather silly, but it can be completely engrossing when it takes the time to make its villains scary. Why was Leandro even a lion from space? It didn’t have any importance to the episode. Maybe someone just though it would be a cool costume and makeup design. Your guess is as good as mine. To quote the Doctor himself, “This is banter. I’m against banter. I’m on record on the subject of banter.” It’s just noise.
Thankfully, the larger conversation happening in the quiet moments of “The Woman Who Lived” was fantastic. The Doctor’s repair of Ashildir’s body with alien technology at the end of “The Girl Who Died” has made her effectively immortal as her body is capable of constantly repairing itself when wounded or ill. It puts her in the unique position of being on near-equal footing as the Doctor. She, like him, finds herself enduring through time while those she cares about wither and die. Everyone dreams of infinite life, but Ashildir knows the truth: an everlasting life is immensely lonely.
Ashildir doesn’t even use her own name anymore, using an endless string of public names as she adventures across Europe and simply calling herself “Me” in her private moments. “All the other names I chose died with whoever knew me, ‘Me’ is who I am now. Nobody’s daughter, sister or mother, just ‘Me,’” she says. Everyone who knew her as Ashildir has been dead for centuries.
Her meticulous diaries reveal her to be a woman full of grief, having watched her entire village slowly die out, and then losing her own children to the Black Death centuries later. Continual loss has a way of destroying hope, and the current Ashildir is a broken, emotionless woman. What difference does any mortal life matter when they all last but a blink of an eye to you? She wonders how the Doctor has managed to do it for so long, continuing to live on while the “mayfly” companions in his life come and go. When the Doctor worried about the “tidal wave” of impact that Ashildir’s immortality could create, did he envision how it would force him to confront the loss in his own life? Ashildir’s question about how many companions the Doctor has lost over time, “how many Claras?” seems especially pointed.
“The Woman Who Lived” is yet another piece of evidence that Maisie Williams is one of the best young actresses of her generation. Though Doctor Who obviously lacks the dramatic heft of Game of Thrones, Williams is able to instill Ashildir with a weight that makes the character’s eternal existence seem plausible despite the actress’s fresh young face. Williams has no problems going toe-to-toe with Capaldi, but her verbal sparring is actually much more than that. Due to the themes of the episode, Williams is actually facing off with the Doctor’s fifty-year existence as a character. Viewers have followed the Doctor across a half century of stories and face changes, but Williams has to capture an equal feeling of longevity in just 90 minutes of screen time. Needless to say, she does it marvelously.
The episode leaves a future return for the character a possibility, and I hope she gets the opportunity. The idea of her caring for those who the Doctor has left behind is intriguing: a caregiver for the mayflies, as it were. It seems that the Doctor doesn’t entirely understand the impact his presence makes, and the deep crater he leaves in his wake.
Much of the Doctor and Ashildir’s conversation works because Clara is notably absent from the episode, only appearing in the final minutes for a nice conversational coda with the Doctor. She seems as excited for the next adventure as ever, but the Doctor seems noticeably distant. It’s similar to how the Tenth Doctor desired to travel alone after parting with Donna Noble. If you live alone, then you can’t feel loss. It’s exactly the type of thing the Doctor warned Ashildir against multiple times in “The Woman Who Lived,” but we all know that the Doctor doesn’t always practice what he preaches.
-Purple is the color of death, apparently. Has anyone warned Prince?
-Rufus Hound got shafted in my recap, but he also deserves a shoutout for excellent work. Not every performance should be hammed-up, but his savvy, jokester of a highwayman is just that.
-What about those missing pages from Ashildir’s diary that were too painful to be kept? What could be more painful than your children’s deaths? Again, the door is open for a possible Maisie return.
-I joked multiple times this last week that Ashildir was going to meet a young Jack Harkness and bestow immortality upon him, but it wasn’t to be. He got a mention though!
-Could the show be telegraphing Clara’s fate any harder?
Until next time!