The Woman Who Lived

30th October 2015 • Review by Abigail Brady •

After a few years of No Two Parters, Doctor Who is back this year with Only Two Parters. Except “The Woman Who Lived” is not exactly a second half but more of a sequel. It has the same guest star (Maisie Williams) and director (Ed Bazalgate) but different writer (Catherine Treganna), setting (Commonwealth England), and, substantially, a different tone.  It’s detached enough that they could have held it back a few weeks in the running order.

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“The Woman Who Lived” is unusual in the extent to which it is dominated by its guest character (Me, fka Ashildr; our Maisie Williams). Clara is absent except for a brief scene at the end. There are only two other substantive characters: Sam Swift (Rufus Hound), who is there as a rival and victim; and Leandro, who has no more than a few dozen lines, and serves the perfunctory science fiction plot that Doctor Who episodes need to have. As a drama, it rests entirely on that Doctor/Me relationship.

And that’s a shame, because it doesn’t quite work. Don’t get me wrong, Maisie Williams is great. So is Peter Capaldi – I think he has really come into his own this season, and has found the right level of humour in this and the last episode in particular.

The problem is, we’ve seen this all before. The Doctor worrying about his companions mortality is a very basic Doctor character beat, and he just can’t grow from it, without stopping being that character. Similarly, the idea that the Doctor damages the people he leaves behind – how many times have we seen that, now?

And by the time is up, we’ve seen it all before within the episode. The Doctor/Me interaction essentially consists of them making the same points at each other over and over again. That’s all it is.

And that pays off very well indeed. Peter Capaldi is on top form, having finally nailed the part this year. And Maisie Williams is a phenomenally talented young actor, capable both of pulling off the nervous young girl we saw last episode, and the by now ancient immortal we get this week.

The script is in a mid 2010s Doctor Who headspace, with concerns about mortality and all that shit, but it veers on the side of being about actual ageing than about the imagined worry of having outliving your elderly while still in your prime – Captain Jack’s problem. Sure, it nods towards that. But in having Me’s children die in youth rather than old age, she’s given a trauma that real people actually have.

All too often Doctor Who is about Space People having Space Problems. Now, we’ve got a real one.

I’m in two minds, see. I suppose that tells me something immediately: I don’t unconditionally love it, like I did last week’s. I do think that the Doctor/Me scenes drag out too long. I do think it’s great that she’s still at root, a human character.

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Let’s try for some other opinions: it’s funnier than I was expecting it to be, and not just because of Rufus Hound. (Stand-up on the gallows, by the way?  I’m sure I was reading about that actually happening a couple of weeks ago.)  2014 Capaldi had lines that ought to have been funny – and perhaps would have been had they been in the mouth of a 20something without basic social skills, but came off as mean from him. This episode has lines that could have gone as wrong: the “[your face is] very pink” – similar to jibes against Clara in Series 8 – is immediately tempered by a sincere “are you ok?”

It didn’t screw up. But that’s all it managed. It’s baseline level Doctor Who. It doesn’t take risks, so none of them fail. There’s nothing weird, at least by our standards. It tells more or less the story you’d expect, with any reverses or twists telegraphed well in advance (OMG the highwayman turns out to be the guest star the episode is about!  OMG the alien turns out to be tricking her!)  As a writing debut for the show, given the constraints (use Ashildr, and set her up for her almost inevitable finale appearance), it’s fine. It’s thoroughly competent. But after the mess that was “Under the Lake”/”Before the Flood”, I’ll take gladly take competent.

Abigail Brady's first clear memory of Doctor Who is Colin Baker saying "carrot juice?" Her next is Dimensions in Time; and after that the TV movie. No wonder she never became a fan during the interregnum. The new series ignited a latent fandom, and now she listens to Big Finish and has firm opinions about William Hartnell companions (Dodo is underrated.) She is the writer of the 50th anniversary fanfiction "Doctor Who and the Hipsters", and the very slightly naughty Doctor Who/Game of Thrones crossover fic "Doctor Who and the Gratuitous Nudity", which she is embarrassed about.

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