Doctor Who – Season 9 Episode 6
“The Woman Who Lived”
There’s a proverb that most of you will be familiar with – “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. It normally means that some of the worst acts are committed through a desire to do good but Doctor Who brings an alternative meaning in this episode. The “good intentions” come from the Doctor wanting to save the life of an innocent young woman after being indirectly responsible for her death and the “hell” would be the curse of immortality put on Ashildr who is very much a shadow of the person she was when the Doctor saved her.
It’s interesting that this episode isn’t quite a direct follow up to the previous one. It does return to the character of Ashildr and shows the effect immortality has on her but the two episodes largely stand alone beyond that connecting thread. This could easily have been a stand alone episode later in the season that brings this character back. I do wonder if it might have been more poignant if it had been as the audience would have had some distance from Ashildr which would have helped see the Doctor’s point of view a little more.
I found the approach to immortality taken by the episode to be pretty unique, certainly when compared to what I’ve come across. Immortality being not as good as it sounds is a common emotional hook when dealing with immortal characters. You need look no further than the Doctor himself to see an obvious example of that. There have been many stories that deal with how old the Doctor is and the wreckage that has been left in his wake as a result. This episode picks up this theme and gives it a new perspective.
Ashildr has lived so long that she has abandoned the concept of names because they are meaningless when someone lives so long. She refers to herself as “Me” to save any confusion and continues to live through the ages becoming all the more distanced from humanity as she goes.
There’s almost a Shakespearean tragedy element to Ashildr -I’ll call her that because that was the name she was introduced as- who feels less alive the longer she lives. As the decades pass more and more of who she is erodes away. I liked the idea of her keeping detailed journals about her own personal experiences because her long life causes her mind to erase memories in order to make room for others. It’s actually quite similar to Wolverine who forgets the events that might cause him mental anguish which in turn causes him mental anguish. For Ashildr it’s less deliberate and not exclusive to painful memories. She simply forgets everything and reads over her own journals sometimes to then feel as if they were written by someone else.
The fact that the pages were stained by tears is really powerful and the removal of pages that contain things that she never wants to remember shows the depth of sadness in her life. Even the happy memories become painful the more distance she gets from them.
When the Doctor reads her journal and learns that she had children at different points in her life it is really heartbreaking. The weight of the tragedy can really be felt and I like the idea that she isn’t brave enough to take her own life so chooses to live it completely alone.
Her mention of seeing humans as if they are smoke that blows away through the ages leaving no lasting impression shows just how much distance she has from those around her. It’s interesting how she hasn’t used the other dose of immortality because she doesn’t want to curse anyone else with it. The Doctor can’t understand why she wouldn’t want someone to share it but she definitely feels that the Doctor hasn’t done her a favour by saving her life all those years ago.
It’s easy to draw a parallel to the Doctor who has lived longer than he should have thanks to his new lease on life from the Timelords and understands exactly what it means to keep on living while everything else around you dies. His reasoning for not brining Ashildr with him despite her begging him to makes a lot of sense. Part of the reason the Doctor has a companion is to remind him of the fleeting nature of life and encourage him to care enough to preserve it. If Ashildr joined him in the TARDIS then having another immortal around would likely cause him to lose perspective and be less effective.
Ashildr does a good job of challenging the Doctor by not accepting what he has said at face value. She answers back on everything he says and constantly reminds him that he is completely responsible for what has become of her so it should be his responsibility to do something about it. She even asks him why he hasn’t made Clara immortal and how many like her there has been. This idea was explored in the David Tennant episode “School Reunion” which brought back former companion Sarah Jane Smith who sees that the Doctor has moved on with new companions.
The reality of being the Doctor’s companion is that there is rarely a happy ending. It has been mentioned on repeated occasions that the Doctor destroys lives just by entering them and Ashildr provides a very physical representation of that. Everything she says to him is one long guilt trip for him and it weighs on him heavily as evidenced by Capaldi’s excellent performance in every scene.
I find it interesting that Ashildr vows to become something of an Anti-Doctor who will pick up the pieces of the chaos that he often leaves behind. This gives Ashildr the purpose that she had been craving and sets her up as a potentially recurring character similar to Alex Kingston’s River Song -only far less annoying- and it’s something I’d like to see happen. I’m glad that Captain Jack Harkness was mentioned as it was something of the immortal elephant in the room.
Maisie Williams gave an excellent performance as Ashildr this week. She was characterised very differently from her appearance last week where she was very naive and innocent. In this episode she plays Ashildr with a massive chip on her shoulder but also a sense of weariness. She also clearly resents the Doctor at first but starts to understand his point of view as the episode progresses.
I haven’t said anything about the actual plot of the episode as it’s almost incidental. The Lion like alien looked cool and all but this was by far the least interesting part of the story. Ashildr allows herself to be tricked due to her desire to not want to be on Earth any more. This alien threat story is so bland and uninteresting that it brings down the surrounding material slightly. Whenever the episode returned to dealing with that I wanted to get back to the long conversations between Ashildr and The Doctor as to me they were what the episode was really about and could have carried it on their own.
Tonally the scenes associated with this story directly clashed with the rest of the episode. I couldn’t get along with the caper style of these scenes as it felt completely out of place to have the Doctor and Ashildr crawling behind chairs to evade detection or the constant one one-upmanship when held at gunpoint.
The use of the Sam Swift (Rufus Hound) character had me scratching my head a little bit. I quite like the idea of immortality being granted to someone that Ashildr didn’t like an awful lot but leaving it ambiguous as to whether he is actually immortal is a little confusing. I wonder if there’s something planned for this character in the coming episodes or if he was just a part of the uninteresting alien invasion plot.
Clara was mostly absent for this episode other than a brief cameo at the end and I think this was a good choice. It allowed the Doctor to deal with a problem that he caused without the benefit of someone trying to keep him right. For once it was an episode entirely about the Doctor without his companion to distract him from making his own decisions.
The constant ironic statements in that one scene hinting at Clara’s impending departure were really clumsily done. Lines like “I’m not going anywhere” might as well have had someone winking at the character but it was somewhat saved by Capaldi’s concerned look about Clara that helps inject a sense of foreboding. Clearly his most recent experience has had a profound effect on him or maybe he knows something about Clara that has yet to be revealed.
A really strong episode that explores the notion of immortality as a curse rather than a blessing and how much of an effect the Doctor has on the world.
Ashildr has lived so long that she has abandoned the concept of naming herself because it has long since become pointless to her. Her long life is almost a Shakespearean tragedy as she feels less alive the longer she lives. I liked the idea of her writing journals to document her life as she forgets everything that has happened to her eventually. Having some of the pages stained by tears is a very powerful image as is the removal of memories too painful to be remembered.
Parallels are drawn to the Doctor who has also lived past the point that he should have. He understands what she’s going through so well that he can’t take her with him in the TARDIS as having another immortal around would cause them both to lose perspective. The Doctor needs a companion to remind him how precious and fleeting life is. Ashildr challenges him on everything he says which creates a good dynamic between the two of them.
The conclusion where Ashildr decides to become something of an Anti-Doctor who can pick up the pieces of all the damage he leaves when the TARDIS dematerialises. This gives her purpose and sets her up with the potential to become a valuable recurring character. I hope this happens as I find her very interesting.
I found the main story to be somewhat weak. It was a pretty standard alien invasion plot that could have easily been left out. It brings down the rest of the episode slightly because of its mundanity as it distracts from the interesting drama on display. The caper style of these scenes directly clashed with the tone of the rest of the episode making them stand out even more.
Clara is largely absent other than a brief cameo at the end that keeps winking at the camera around her impending departure. It was a really corny scene Capaldi’s performance helps inject a sense of foreboding into it.