Doctor Who: “The Woman Who Lived” Has a Few Problems

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Any look at the critical reviews of this season of Doctor Who, mine included, will mostly agree this has been the best season in years. The two-parter format has given the show both space and time to develop new characters and grander stories while maintaining the faster pace introduced in 2005. Peter Capaldi is more force of nature than mere actor, and I sometimes wonder if what we’re seeing in his Doctor is what we might have gotten if Christopher Eccleston had signed on for a few more years. I love this season. I love this episode. I love everybody! Especially you guys.

Still, “The Woman Who Lived” is definitely the first episode where the shine was off enough that I started seeing some problems. I’ve read some speculation that this particular story arc was not originally conceived as a two-parter and ended up getting shoved together, which makes sense as “The Girl Who Died” was written by Steven Moffat and Jamie Mathieson and “The Woman Who Lived” was written by Torchwood writer Catherine Tregenna making her Who debut.

Here’s the good news: Maisie Williams is amazing. Whereas her previous appearance was arguably just Arya Stark in a Doctor Who episode this was a complete 180 that showed off just how talented she is. The reason the “Girl” is now the “Woman” is apparent. In the 800 years since The Doctor made her immortal life has not been kind to Ashildr. She learned to fight and became a deadly soldier. She watched her own children die in the Black Plague while she continued. In her own words she has an immortal’s experience in a normal-sized brain and it’s left her cold and forgetful, only remembering her long life through a library of journals where she often rips out pages if certain memories are too hard to bear.

Essentially this is a story about how we mess up our kids. How, as Dylan put it, our sons and our daughters are beyond our command. I was expecting to see the grand repercussions of The Doctor saving a life meant to die, sort of a Charley Pollard Part 2 for my fellow Eighth Doctor audiophiles. Instead what we get is an intense emotional rollercoaster where The Doctor is confronted with the disastrous effects he’s implemented on a girl he cared deeply for and how little power he has to do anything about it. He’s a dad trying far too late to alter the course of a child’s life as she kicks down the door of adulthood.

Williams is kind of geekdom’s eternal kid sister, but in “The Woman Who Lived” it’s impossible to see her that way anymore. She does what she wants. She associates with strange men we don’t approve of. She has her own set of morals not in line with our own. The scene where she dresses in 17th century ladies finery and demands that The Doctor take her with him reminded me rather uncomfortably of Isabelle Fuhrman’s attempted seduction scene in Orphan. Maturity is frightening in someone you’ve held power over, and considering The Doctor made Ashildr immortal without her consent I’d say power over her is an understatement.

So all that was wonderful, but let’s look at some of the less wonderful bits. For instance, I’m 500 words into a review and I’ve yet to say a single word about the actual plot. The reason is there really isn’t one. This episode can almost entirely be summed up as “The Doctor talks to someone he knows about the effect he’s had on her life” and you would miss nothing important. The villain is so forgettable I’m not even going to bother going to look up his name. His betrayal of Ashildr is so predictable that I refuse to put a spoiler warning in this review because if you don’t see it coming you probably aren’t old enough to read this. There’s a couple of daring horse chases and a neat heist scene that made me want to replay Thief, but overall the episode had less adventure than I had driving through the heavy rain on the way home from dinner to watch it.

Here’s where you see a consistent problem with Doctor Who. The show can’t just have their equivalent of Breaking Bad’s “Fly” because there must be an alien threat to be vanquished. Likewise, the show just refuses to just have an adventure in the past without, again, an alien threat. I know I harp on about this a lot but there’s nothing wrong with just visiting the past without bringing the future into it. It’s formulaic, and it’s doing a disservice to the story the episode is often trying to tell.

That and Doctor Who really needs to pick a stupid cat-alien race and stick with it. They keep introducing new ones and never building them up to anything.

And then there’s the… Moffatness. Sometimes you can just feel the hand of Steven Moffat in a script even if he didn’t write it. Ashildr has been compared to Jenny from “The Doctor’s Daughter”, and while that’s not inaccurate I thought of her far closer to River Song. The thing that River Song and Ashildr have in common is that they are both women who can in many ways equal The Doctor, and in both cases there is the weird need to remind them that because of that they are unsuitable as full-time traveling companions.

The idea that no one in the universe deserves The Doctor’s power but him is a long-running theme since 2005. Rose Tyler becomes a god and immediately commits genocide. His fellow Time Lords from Rassilon to The Master are all bonkers. The Doctor has an uneasy relationship with Jack Harkness because of his immortality and somewhat more military approach to the Earth’s problems.

River and Ashildr stand out though because they are “unstable.” In River’s case she openly admits that she is too much of a psychopath to be a full-time companion, and in Ashildr’s case The Doctor basically tells her the same thing. Any woman that approaches The Doctor’s power level becomes dangerous mentally and emotionally. Missy is the final evolved Pokemon version of this.

I liked “The Woman Who Lived.” I really did. However, it didn’t accomplish what it set out to do. It’s one thing to see our children grow up. It’s quite another to see them as our equals.  

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