Immortality is an apt concept for Doctor Who to explore, now that its hero is possibly immortal. In “Kill the Moon,” the Doctor indicated he wasn’t sure how many new regenerations he had received when the Time Lords granted him more. So, I was looking forward to how “The Woman Who Lived” and the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) would deal with Ashildr’s (Maisie Williams) immortality when they met again. However, “The Woman Who Lived” ducks its responsibility, focusing on how immortality has changed Ashildr but only paying lip service to the Doctor’s own culpability in the matter.
“The Woman Who Lived” makes it clear that Ashildr – which is what I will continue to call the character for review consistency, though she is now known as Lady Me – represents what the Doctor could have become or at least, what he fears he could have become. Choosing a life with no companions, an understandable action, Ashildr has closed herself off from emotion and its resultant pain and looks forward only to adventure.
Williams does an admirable job here and largely nails the idea of a life lived for adventure, but other times during the episode, I couldn’t help but think a slightly older actress should have been cast in the role, as Williams never quite successfully sells the idea that she is hiding any great pains.
Although this may have been the intention, given Ashildr’s initial cavalier attitude, the idea that there truly isn’t any hidden pain makes Ashildr’s change of heart at the end of “The Woman Who Lived” a harder sell. It would also put the character more in harmony with the current iteration of the Master, something that the episode already flirts with in the idea that Ashildr doesn’t care about human lives and has no qualms about killing them in cold blood.
This is one of the consequences of the Doctor’s “gift” of immortality in “The Girl Who Died,” but where that episode teased the fact that we would also be seeing the Doctor wrestle with his own immortality, that thread is barely present in “The Woman Who Lived.” Instead, the episode gives a redemption arc to Ashildr, albeit a shortened one as it seems to all take place in the time between Sam Swift the Quick’s (Rufus Hound) death and the arrival of the other Leonians. In fact, her redemption is so abrupt that it nearly erases the good work the episode does of establishing Ashildr’s detachment from life.
“The Woman Who Lived” also has trouble selling what seems to be its central premise: the people of Earth need protecting from the Doctor. Certainly, they don’t all need protecting, but as we’ve seen throughout Doctor Who, the Doctor has a tendency – although not always by choice – to leave people, his companions in particular, behind. The major problem with this theme is that the episode never gives it any emotional stakes for the Doctor.
In screenwriting, emotional stakes are what the main character has to lose, and this often comes about in the form of a person. Given that definition, what does the Doctor have to lose in “The Woman Who Lived”? Some people might argue Ashildr, but over the course of the episode, it seems more and more likely (until the magical redemption) that Ashildr is already lost.
If you assume the Doctor has nothing to lose in “The Woman Who Lived,” that leaves a gaping hole in the episode’s core. With no true consequences to the Doctor’s actions (here, giving Ashildr immortality), what is the point of the episode? “The Woman Who Lived” dances around the idea that perhaps the Doctor shouldn’t have made Ashildr immortal but never fully lands the blow.
What “The Woman Who Lived” does do is recall Captain Jack Harkness. Way back when Martha was traveling with the Tenth Doctor, Captain Jack appeared in “Utopia” and the two episodes after it. As it’s the only time he went with the Doctor while he was immortal, it has to be what the Twelfth Doctor references in “The Woman Who Lived.” Unfortunately for the more recent episode, “Utopia” dealt far more effectively with the problem of an immortal being by giving the Doctor an emotional investment in Jack.
In “Utopia,” the Tenth Doctor tells Jack that he “ran away” from him after the latter became immortal because it wasn’t easy looking at him. There is a lot of pain in this exchange, though the Doctor never directly says it may have been wrong to leave Jack behind and adrift. The idea that the Doctor has a responsibility to those who travel with him, especially the ones who are radically changed by their time as companion, is something that “The Woman Who Lived” also addresses. But in “Utopia,” the Doctor is ashamed of his actions whereas in “The Woman Who Lived,” he claims no responsibility to Ashildr and blames her for her own problems.
Had the episode then explored the idea that the Doctor was wrong for denying his own culpability, I would have welcomed it, but “The Woman Who Lived” restricts its narrative to its titular character and her redemption. The Doctor is freed of any guilt over Ashildr’s immortality, something he seemed to be struggling with at the end of “The Girl Who Died,” when Ashildr decides to help people instead of kill them. He even gets to say, “I think I’m very glad I saved you.”
While it could be argued that the Doctor is glad because he recognizes the fact that someone needs to help those he abandons, that argument doesn’t track with the episode’s narrative. The Doctor never acknowledges that Ashildr – and therefore everyone else – needs help after meeting him. Ashildr blames herself for opening the portal to the Leonians – and the episode doesn’t mention the idea that the Doctor making her immortal has essentially driven her to it – while the Doctor’s main emotion seems to be joy that Ashildr has finally decided to care again, something he had no part in. Ashildr saves herself from the destructive power that the Doctor wrought on her, and at the end of the episode, he simply moves on once again.
Ashildr is an interesting character, and my problems with the abruptness of her redemption aside, “The Woman Who Lived” gives her a good narrative arc. The issue is that Ashildr, while interesting, is not the person we watch Doctor Who for. The episode ends with barely an indication of how the Doctor’s time with Ashildr has affected him, and that’s a major flaw in story-telling.
- I watched the first three seasons of Torchwood before I ever watched any Doctor Who, so I was happy when the episode mentioned Jack Harkness and gave me a chance to talk about him.
- Clara (Jenna Coleman) barely appears in the episode, which is significant because the companion not being around has so rarely happened in the new series of Doctor Who.
- The sonic sunglasses appear to have been repaired, so sorry if you were ready to cheer their demise.
- The ending of the episode certainly leaves open the possibility of a reappearance by Ashildr. Maisie Williams is up for it, so that may indeed happen.