Netflix UK TV review: Doctor Who Season 9, Episode 6 (The Woman Who Lived)
Mark Harrison | On 25, Oct 2015
This is a spoiler-free review. Already seen it? Read on at the end for spoilers.
In a season that’s experimenting with two-parters all the way, the second halves of these first three stories have each been wildly different. The Witch’s Familiar was an omnibus-friendly continuation of the high drama of its predecessor and Before The Flood got very timey-wimey to lesser effect. The Woman Who Lived is different again because it’s not the resolution to an unfinished story – it’s very much a sequel.
Odin and the Mire were sent packing by the 35-minute mark of The Girl Who Died, at the cost of Viking girl Ashildr’s life. In a purposeful fit of omnipotence, the Doctor decided not to put up with this and saved her, accidentally making her immortal in the process, and then just left her behind as he usually does. The result is an episode that resembles Season 1’s Boom Town in terms of story, as the Doctor has to face the consequences of his actions.
The Doctor isn’t looking for Ashildr (Maisie Williams) at all when he runs into her again. Clara’s taken her Year 7 kids for taekwondo and, finding himself at a loose end, he tries to track down a rare alien artefact in the year 1651. Highwaymen roam the roads of England by night and early in this story, the Doctor comes face to face with the most fearsome of them all: the Nightmare, who is searching for the same artefact. But what nefarious plans are in the works and where does the girl who used to call herself Ashildr fit into them?
The immediate difference between the two loosely connected parts of Ashildr’s story comes from the writing end. Catherine Tregenna takes over where Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat left off and her style makes this sequel an intriguing volte-face. Tonally, it still has the rompy feeling of certain historical Who’s, including last week’s, but Tregenna’s style is much more dialogue-heavy, which fans of her Torchwood episodes will know is all the better.
Even the cheeky cold open to the episode is not especially action-heavy, but it’s a light and funny skit that contrasts with the 15-minute sequence following the opening titles. That part comes down to a catch-up between Ashildr and the Doctor, marvellously played by Williams and Peter Capaldi.
We only saw her last week, but for the Viking girl, it’s been 800 years on the slow path and as suggested by the closing shot of last week’s episode, immortality has been a harrowing experience. She’s taken to calling herself “Me”, because most of her old life has slipped her memory – this is just one of the details that really gets room to land in an episode that’s in no hurry to get going.
It gets off the mark quicker, for not having to resolve a cliffhanger, but doesn’t introduce alien intrigue right away; one similarity it has to Episodes 2 and 4 of this season is the way in which it’s content to focus on Capaldi’s Doctor just talking to another character. But unlike Davros or the Fisher King, Me/Ashildr challenges him without antagonising, as an enemy would. Many have bandied around Williams’ name as a potential future companion and the chemistry on show here should validate that idea.
Of course, extra-terrestrials do eventually figure into the story, with a new creature played by Ariyon Bakare. There are also some comic interjections by another highwayman, Sam Swift the Quick (Rufus Hound), who fancies himself as the Nightmare’s nemesis. It’s at this point that the episode becomes rather more like last year’s Robot Of Sherwood, with the Doctor again professing his disdain for banter.
It’s an appropriate callback, because even though this is the most dialogue-heavy episode of Doctor Who in recent memory, The Woman Who Died is a banter-free zone: not a word is wasted as it establishes its sturdy thematic footing. The Woman Who Lived stands apart and alongside last week’s episode and when it rises to meet audience expectations of a pseudo-historical episode, this early groundwork is what gives it an extra spring in its step and elevates what could have been something more zippy and throwaway to a considerably more introspective tale.
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Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– This has proven to be a bit of a Marmite episode, so let’s address a couple of the divisive bits. Bakare’s alien conspirator Leandro looked a bit like Lion-O from Thundercats and he’s a character who you either believe or don’t. The make-or-break moment there would be when he breathes fire – personally, we liked that he upheld the show’s celebrated camp factor in an otherwise slightly moodier episode than the kids at home might like, but he’s not the show’s most impressive creation.
– We weren’t a big fan of Sam Swift. Doing a stand-up routine to stave off an execution felt in keeping with the show’s sense of humour, but a couple of the bawdier gags were definitely misjudged and we didn’t particularly like him enough for him to be brought back to life at the end – that’s purely to save the day and they neatly side-stepped actually immortalising him. Hound gives it his level best, but the character is the only clanger in an otherwise great script.
– Through her work on Torchwood, Tregenna wrote for another immortal Whoniverse character, Captain Jack Harkness. Jack gets a nod at the end of the episode too and the Doctor’s “He’ll get round to you eventually” is at least a better bit of tongue-in-cheek innuendo than Swift’s stuff. Speaking of Tregenna, can we have another episode from her in Season 10, please?
– Clara’s absence for the most part of this episode (apparently Jenna Coleman was making a movie during the filming of this one) feels necessary, not just to give Ashildr more screentime, but because it’s an episode about the fleeting nature of the Doctor’s relationships. It feels like we’re having quite a long build-up to Clara leaving, but at the same time, it’d be nice if she got a bit more to do in the second half of this season than she did in the first.
– Ashildr/Me will return – and quite right too. Williams nailed it this week, more than holding her own opposite Capaldi and bringing incredible nuance to a character who has become distant and detached by her experiences, which included the deaths of everyone she knew and the deaths of her children. The title is poignant: she really has lived, long beyond her years, and she’s not necessarily better for it. With hybrids and enemies within friends getting a lot of lip service and no other obvious contenders presenting themselves at this midpoint of the season, we get the sense that she’s more of a Big Bad than she is companion material.