Last week, I referred to “The Girl Who Died” as the first half of a two-parter. It was pretty obvious even then that, along with “The Woman Who Lived,” this pair wasn’t a two-parter in the same vein as the previous tales this season. Not only are they entirely different settings, but they’re not even by the same writer. Catherine Tregenna is new to Doctor Who, but not to the Whoniverse. Between 2006 and 2008, she wrote four episodes of Torchwood, the show about the immortal Captain Jack Harkness (who gets a name-check here). Was that experience an ideal primer for this series of extended gut-wrenching conversations between two immortals, traveling through time on very different paths?
Perhaps, but I’d argue that the best primer was her sex, which brought a refreshing, vital point of view to the ongoing story of Ashilder/Lady Me that surely would have been absent with a man at the keyboard. Mind-bogglingly, Tregenna’s script is the first written by a woman for the series since Helen Raynor’s “Sontaran Stratagem” two-parter back in season four. Season four … when David Tennant was still the Doctor! It is absurd that it’s taken this long to “find” another woman to write for the series, particularly since one can hardly accuse Doctor Who of being a series steeped in machismo. The even better news is we’re getting yet another female perspective later in the season.
This week’s episode still works nicely alongside last week’s, as a continuation of the story of Ashildr (Maisie Williams). If she felt a tad underserved in Jamie Mathieson’s script, that’s more than rectified here, and it wouldn’t be out of line to suggest that this represents some of the finest acting of Maisie’s young career. So, why begin the tale with a scenario that feels all but ripped directly from an old episode of Blackadder (“Amy and Amiability”)? On that show, Miranda Richardson played a disguised highwayman who similarly used an improbably phony male voice. Last week, I praised this season’s pre-credits sequences; this week, I have egg on my face. Most of this episode’s problems, which, admittedly, are fairly minor in its grand scheme, stem from unnecessary comedy bits. Surrounded by such unusually rich characterization, they often feel tacked on and cheap by comparison (except for Sam Swift the Quick, who was loads of fun).
However, the meat of the episode — the complex back and forth between the Doctor and Ashildr/Lady Me — is remarkable. After 800 years of life, the innocent teenager the Doctor once saved has turned casually cruel, calculating, and cold, and “The Woman Who Lived” is an exploration of how she came to be so. Given the realization that dawned on him at the close of “Girl,” one would think he’d be actively searching for Ashildr, but upon their run-in, he maintains that he is not, and is instead using a “curioscanner” to search for a piece of alien tech. Is he lying? Though the tech in question does play a large role in the episode, he also admits to having previously seen her in a leper colony. Or was the tech the curioscanner searching for the Mire tech in Ashildr? The episode nebulously plays this angle, but there’s a telling moment when Me asks the Doctor if he knows what he’s looking for, and the frame shifts to an image of the scanner and Me, with the Doctor saying, “I’ve got a pretty good idea.” That seems telling.
The prophecy of the hybrid warrior appears fulfilled, as Lady Me recounts bits of her eventful life to the Doctor. Not only was she a medieval queen, but she took part in the Battle of Agincourt and helped end the Hundred Years’ War. She also once cured a village of scarlet fever and was nearly drowned as a witch because of it. Though it’s the ruthless warrior side of her that concerns the Doctor the most, he soon learns that those fierce battles are not necessarily the primary events in her shaping. After confessing that she has little memory of much of her long life, Lady Me urges the Doctor to read her journals, and what he finds inside is heartbreaking. Though we never learn the specifics of their lives and deaths, this much is clear: She has given birth to and lost no fewer than three children. And we all know (if not from experience, then certainly from osmosis) how devastating it is for a parent to bury a child, let alone three of them.
In these moments, the Doctor sees much of himself in the desensitized Lady Me, as he, too, has lost loved ones to the ravages of time and war. In an episode with no Clara (save for a touching tag at the close), the Doctor in many ways becomes the Clara to the icy Me’s Doctor, attempting to help her regain her lost humanity. The story echoes much of what we witnessed last season, and simultaneously demonstrates exactly how much this Doctor has grown since his regeneration (he, too, realizes it, I think). She’s having none of it, and pointedly asks him, “How many have you lost? How many Claras? She’ll blow away like smoke.” For Me, the mayflies that are the human race seem all but pointless. Later on, when she’s callously ready to take the life of one, the Doctor counters, “I know their lives are short. I understand. But those lives do matter.”
The Doctor: “I saved your life. I didn’t know that your heart would rust because I kept it beating. I didn’t think that your conscience would need renewing — that the well of human kindness would run dry. I just wanted to save a terrified young woman’s life.”
Lady Me: “You didn’t save my life, Doctor, you trapped me inside it.”
The third act of “The Woman Who Lived” is probably less successful than the first two, when it becomes less meditative and more romplike (unless you’re 10, then maybe it improves). I was often reminded of last season’s “The Caretaker,” which also had much to say about its central characters, but ultimately turned into a “let’s stop the alien invasion” fiasco. Of the pair, this is the stronger episode, but it’s still flawed. Though Leandro’s (Ariyon Bakare) leonine look and regal manner of dress, shamelessly ripped from Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, may be somewhat rooted in the period’s mythology, he’s a goofy villain who was difficult to take even remotely seriously. But it’s all in the service of helping Lady Me see the error of her ways, which she seemingly does, though it’s difficult to know with a character this complex.
Let’s not forget about the delightfully amusing Sam Swift (Rufus Hound), Me’s rival highwayman who nearly dies at the paws of Leandro’s dastardly plot but is instead given the other Mire repair kit. Are he and Me set to roam through the ages together? That seems unlikely, and yet Doctor Who surely wouldn’t introduce yet another immortal character without a plan. Though the opportunistic Me is left to take the slow path, she decides to be the person to pick the broken pieces the Doctor leaves behind throughout history — “the patron saint of the Doctor’s leftovers.” The assertion makes him uncomfortable. In the final moments, after the Doctor is sweetly reunited with Clara, he sees a familiar face in a selfie she shows him. Though it seemed as though Maisie would only be in this two-parter, Ashildr/Lady Me will be back, likely in the season finale.
The Doctor: “People like us — we go on for too long. We forget what matters. The last thing we need is each other. We need the mayflies. See, the mayflies, they know more than we do. They know how beautiful and precious life is because it’s fleeting.”
Odds and ends
- At one point, the Doctor mentions the Terileptils starting the Great Fire of London. That’s a reference to the 1982 Fifth Doctor story, “The Visitation.”
- The missing pages in Me’s journals are important, and surely the series will come back to them. Did they contain passages about certain people the Doctor had encountered throughout history? Or perhaps they had something to do with the Doctor’s confession?
- Ace bits: the tear stains on Me’s journals; Sam Swift’s “gallows” humor; the Doctor’s terrible lie about Sam’s immortality; the final TARDIS scene with the Doctor and Clara; the sonic shades are back!
- Naff bits: the Doctor jumping and yelling “Ashiiiildrrrrrr!!!” at the climax; arguably, Me’s line, “You’re not my dad!”; Leandro’s silly glow in the dark eyes; Leandro’s firebreathing; um, pretty much everything about Leandro.
- Props to director Ed Bazalgette, for both this week and last. Last week, I extolled his old ’80s band, the Vapors. In the interim, I found a great Vice piece that outlines exactly how fab the Vapors really were.
- Correction: Last week, I praised Simon Lipkin as Ashildr’s father. Her father, called Chuckles by the Doctor, was played by Ian Conningham.
- Hey, folks! I am in the early stages of writing and producing, with director Chris Hansen, a documentary about Doctor Who fandom, entitled inDoctornated. Currently, the project is actively seeking four fans to document — four people whose passion for the show has led to them somehow making the world a better place. Maybe you are precisely who we are looking for, or maybe you know the person we need to meet. Check out our website for all the details, like us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter, and by all means, pass the word around among your Whovian friends.