Season 9, Episode 6 “The Woman Who Lived”
This is going to kind of be a short one… well, short for me anyway. Soooo far behind this week, and I would like to get this out before tonight’s episode airs in the States. Which I will jussssst barely not at all do.
I can tell you are all shocked.
It’s OK. Me too.
Still, it’s an important part of this season, and we’ll take a few moments to talk about it. Even as the new episode airs.
Much like last week’s “The Girl Who Died”, “The Woman Who Lived” has a plot that matters less than the character moments and what those moments say about the Doctor and – especially this season – what they say about how the Doctor affects those around him. While we’ve obviously seen the effect traveling with the Time Lord has on Clara, this is more about the unforeseen effects of his actions, however good intentioned they may be, specifically on Ashildr, or as she prefers to be called here, “Me”.
As the title of this review references, there is a bit of HIGHLANDER here, and any excuse to make reference to a Queen song is one I’ll take. There the song “Who Wants to Live Forever?” played over the life and death of Connor McLeod’s wife Heather, signifying the horror of staying the same as those you love age and die. Here, Ashildr’s journals take the Doctor through the moments in her life that systematically stripped her of her empathy and emotional connections with those around her, by watching those she loved die of old age, sickness and more.
It’s a funhouse mirror we’re looking through here, with the Doctor and Lady Me the reflections of the other:
The Functional Immortals who needs to care about others… lest they lose the best parts of themselves.
The “Mayflies”, as the Doctor describes those of us who make our ways through the world with normal, human lives, are what keeps the world – or the Universe – in perspective for those who walk in Eternity. Without us, without the Claras, Amys, Donnas, Roses and the others, the Doctor becomes both too much his own people and too much the Renegade, or the Time Lord Victorious. For Ashildr, the pain of loss and the blurring of the years has led her to become both a thrill-seeker as the Nightmare, and ally herself with Leandro – and actively plot the death of an innocent – in the hopes of breaking herself out of the cycle of every swiftly passing day becoming another day of unbearable distance.
We don’t often see what happens after the Doctor leaves, and what he leaves behind when he goes. A few stories have given us glimpses that it isn’t always the happy ending at the end of the stories, but only a few.
In the 4th Doctor’s run we got “The Face of Evil”, where the Doctor’s attempt to repair an expedition’s computer resulted in creating an insane godlike being who terrorized Leela’s people. In the book line, we got Benny Summerfield’s father in “Return of the Living Dad”, pulling together the alien survivors of the Doctor stopping centuries of invasions, and keeping them hidden from the humanity who would destroy them if they knew they existed. What we didn’t get was the Doctor saving one single person by making them into something like him.
That, of course, matters because of what Clara seems to be becoming. As the Doctor watches his friend become far too much like the person he likes the least – himself – he is also always aware of how fast human lives go by in comparison to his own. To see that awareness echoed back at him in the almost inhuman Lady Me, and to see what he had hoped would be a gift become a prison hits all to close to home. Ashildr’s smacking the Doctor in the face with the fact that Clara – no matter what she may or may not be becoming – is one of the Mayflies, just adds to the Doctor’s growing horror over what that “gift” has wrought.
And this all in the character moments. Like so much of this season so far, the magic has been in the dialogue and the interaction, often very quiet, between two people. The Doctor and Davros, Missy and Clara, and here between the Doctor and Ashildr. In all these cases, while enmities may remain, an odd kind of understanding has resulted, and we’ve seen deeper into the heroes and villains of Doctor Who, in a way we haven’t before.
OK. Enough philosophizing. Here are a few highlights of the episode:
- Rufus Hound’s Sam Swift: While I’ve seen several reviewers say that Swift is a fool and a bit of an idiot, I think it’s more foolish and quite human. Sure, he’s not as good a highwayman as the Nightmare, but that’s an apples/oranges thing, isn’t it? Ashildr has had a lot more time to practice. The – literal – gallows humor bit was actually funny, with a couple of the jokes clearly aimed at adults to some reviewer’s dismay. I find that curious, as the whole season, actually the whole show since it came back in 2005, has never really been a children’s show, despite people calling it that. Was it ever really, since the Daleks – our Nazi analogues – first rolled onto the screen? Sam Swift, ribald though he be, is meant to show the lust for life of the Mayflies to Ashildr, and one suspects that at least for a time, Lady Me may have a companion of her own. Maybe longer, given the Doctor’s track record with guessing the effects of the medical chips.
- The discussion in the pub, and “Are we enemies now?”: The Doctor has pulled back the mask and shown his sadness before, and the sometimes crushing loneliness of outliving everyone you care about, but here he explains why a TARDIS full of Immortals could be a bad thing indeed. Yes, we’ve seen the 4th Doctor travel with Romana, very much a Time Lady, but that was, again, in a time of a different kind of storytelling. In the 80’s, peeling back the layers of the Doctor would never have looked this deeply. But here it’s clear that the Doctor needs the Mayflies – his Roses, Claras, Amys and Donnas – to anchor him, to remind him that all lives have value, however short.
That someone who lives – functionally – forever has a duty to try and save those lives… when he, or she, can.
And isn’t that what makes the Doctor the Doctor?
Of course we’re left with an interesting, and fairly ominous to be honest, image at the end of the episode, contrasted with one of friendship tinged with sadness. Ashildr, in the background of Clara’s life, on a mission to “clean up” after the Time Lord. Someone who is aware enough, somehow, to know that the Doctor will see the photo and her place in it. And we know now that Maisie Williams will return at the end of the season, and that Ashildr and the Doctor’s story is far from over. Which I am quite happy about, as while I thought Williams was a touch underused at first, here she was just fantastic.
It is, of course, that final look on the Doctor’s face that we go out on, both here and in the episode. The Man Who Runs Away, watching the Impossible Girl with the pain of knowing their time is coming to an end, no matter what happens or what he does. Peter Capaldi, in one look, laying bare the lonely man within the Lonely God.