Sunday, October 25, 2015

Quietly Exploring The Consequences Of Doctor Who With "The Woman Who Lived!"

The Good: Excellent acting, Good character work, Decent pacing
The Bad: Somewhat obvious plotting
The Basics: In a rarity for Doctor Who, The Doctor finds that the woman he made immortal is hardly living her life in a way he would approve in "The Woman Who Lived!"

Every now and then, there is an episode of television that is overwhelmed by the guest star or stars that appear in it. While sometimes the guest star is done as a cheap promotional ploy - Robin Williams and Billy Crystal appearing for an otherwise unrelated teaser in an episode of Friends comes instantly to mind! - the BBC is generally outside such concerns. But even the BBC is not entirely immune. The big casting news for this season of Doctor Who was the appearance of Maisie Williams in two of the episodes. The second episode Williams is featured in is "The Woman Who Lived."

"The Woman Who Lived" is the second part of the story that began in "The Girl Who Died" (reviewed here!) and the common element between the two episodes is the character portrayed by Maisie Williams. It is impossible to discuss "The Woman Who Lived" without referencing how Williams's character of Ashildr was left at the climax of "The Girl Who Died." As the name of the prior episode suggests, Ashildr died in the episode, but The Doctor resurrected her using an alien medical kit. The net effect was that Ashildr was left immortal and The Doctor and Clara went on their way.

Because of the mediocre nature of "The Girl Who Died," my expectations going into "The Woman Who Lived" were rather low. Fortunately, this was an episode that became an entirely pleasant surprise as a result.

On a lonely road in England, a carriage is held at gunpoint by a lone rider on a horse. The rider is identified by reputation as The Nightmare and they do not come alone - as the glowing eyes of the Nightmare's companion help scare the occupants of the carriage into acquiescing to the highwayman's demands. But the robbery is interrupted by the arrival of The Doctor, who literally walks through the carriage with a scanner, looking for a piece of alien technology. When the carriage moves along, The Doctor confronts The Nightmare and discovers the highwayman to be none other than Ashildr, now going by the simple name Me.

Me fills The Doctor in on her activities since the last time he popped into her timeline to observe her setting up a leper colony. Me is now after a rare gem that one of the locals has been bragging about and The Doctor suspects that it is the alien artifact that he himself is after. The two team up to rob Lucie Fanshawe of the gem. But after recovering it, The Doctor learns that Me is not working alone and her companion represents a danger to Earth that The Doctor must stop.

"The Woman Who Lived" is a quiet, character-centered episode much like the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode (reviewed here!) that works best when it is tightly focused on consequences of past actions. Consequences are seldom explored in a compelling way in Doctor Who. Die-hard fans might argue that many of The Doctor's actions in the Last Great Time War have real consequences that resonate throughout the first several seasons of the rebooted Doctor Who, but the truth is, those consequences never truly stick and they get rewritten over and over again with a sense that becomes nonsense when one tries to create any sense of continuity (just look, for example, at the Daleks!). "The Woman Who Lived" is all about consequences and it works for that.

The Doctor made Ashildr immortal and tried to provide for her by giving her the option to make another person immortal as well. While The Doctor accounted for loneliness, he did not factor in the boredom a smart person might face with 800 years in times before humans developed interesting technology or could easily get away from an area they felt trapped! Me complains to The Doctor and she has a very simple, reasonable solution: to be able to leave Earth with The Doctor after they recover the gem. She just wants off Earth and that makes a lot of sense.

The Doctor is unsettled by Me and Peter Capaldi plays that quite well. It's unclear why he rejects taking Me with him, especially given that he could easily wait until his relationship with River Song has run its course in his timeline before taking up indefinitely with Me. The only other aspects of "The Woman Who Live" that do not truly work are the caper scene and the overly complicated explanations. The Doctor seems surprised that Me knows he came in a ship and is "the one who leaves;" but Ashildr spent time with Clara and it seems reasonable that they talked. Plus, Ashildr's people found The Doctor at the TARDIS and it seems reasonable some of her people told her about it. The break-in of the Fanshawe house seems utterly ridiculous. The pair lights a candle and talks while inside a chimney, both of which would carry sound and light . . . and Mr. Fanshawe awakens ridiculously easily in a manor house that would have carried the sound of the servants moving around and was probably not modern weathertight.

The minutaie falls away against the strength of the performances by Peter Capaldi and Maisie Williams. "The Woman Who Lived" is the reason Williams was cast; Ashildr might have been a simple, unremarkable character who baffled viewers as to why The Doctor bothered to save her, but Me is clever, smart, and Williams infuses her with the appropriate amount of sadness to her. Williams and Capaldi have excellent on-screen chemistry in the episode and "The Woman Who Lived" leaves fans hoping that after Jenna Coleman's inevitable departure, and after The Doctor's tenure with River Song, the writers will have The Doctor revise his final monologue to Me and take her as a Companion.

Ultimately, "The Woman Who Lived" does what good science fiction is supposed to do: it makes a statement on the human condition and relationships, using the fantastic setting or concept to make those statements. The Doctor is seldom reflexive, but "The Woman Who Lived" forces him to put a face to his actions and beliefs and it becomes an engaging hour of television. In fact, "The Woman Who Lived" does what ignoring Danny Pink('s death) has failed to do this season, which is show compelling repercussions for the way The Doctor moves through the Universe. And the episode proves that mining that territory can be pulled off exceptionally well with the right talents in play.

For other works with Gruffudd Glyn, please check out my reviews of:
The Martian
The Theory Of Everything
Thor: The Dark World

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Ninth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sophomore season of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor here!


For more Doctor Who reviews, please check out my Doctor Who Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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