Writer: Catherine Tregenna.
Director: Ed Bazalgette.
Main Cast: Peter Capaldi, Maisie Williams.
Hello, Whovians! Following last week’s rather immense cliffhanger in ‘The Girl Who Died’, the Doctor’s due his second meeting with a rather unique young Viking girl, though we are jumping ahead a few centuries. It’s 1651 in England and a mysterious highwayman is hunting for a very specific item, so let’s get into things right away! This is ‘The Woman Who Lived!’
POSSIBLE MILD SPOILERS AHEAD!
Many have noticed that a recurring trend of the opening scenes of Series 9 thus far has been that they almost serve as small contained episodes in and of themselves, and ‘The Woman Who Lived’ keeps that trend going. The pre-credits sequence sees a carriage being held up by an apparently infamous bandit type known as “the Knightmare”, regarded as the most feared in the region. The Knightmare is demanding something very particular from the carriage’s occupants; this is clearly no random heist and the folk currently being robbed seem to know exactly what the highwayman seeks. Nearby, the TARDIS materialises and the Doctor emerges, a fancy new gadget in hand that appears to be some sort of tracking device. Naturally, he quickly crosses the path of the robbery and, after a brief argument, is left alone with the Knightmare while the carriage gets away. Irritated, the Knightmare unmasks…and the Doctor realises that this isn’t their first meeting.
It’s a very funny opening, full of quick-witted quipping and jest, and that holds true for quite a large part of the episode. ‘The Woman Who Lived’ is, much like last week’s story, not shy about giving the audience amusing scenes in the midst of an otherwise-serious situation. Writer Catherine Tregenna (in her first story for Doctor Who but not her first as part of the Whoniverse, having previously written several of Torchwood‘s most notable episodes) utilises the tropes and clichés of her chosen setting marvellously. There are various bandits and thieves with increasingly awful pseudonyms, the line “stand and deliver” is used completely devoid of irony, and of course the Doctor quickly finds himself becoming a wanted criminal (as he so often does whenever there’s robbery afoot). The dialogue flows fast and constant throughout the story to the point where there’s rarely a quiet moment (something which this incarnation of the Doctor, previously established as very against banter, is quick to comment on).
The humour, however, is not really the story’s defining point (though it is extremely prevalent throughout). ‘The Woman Who Lived’ is a very poignant story beneath all of the jokes with a powerful series of character interactions driving it along. Last week’s story briefly touched on the severe downsides that immortality can have on a being like the Doctor; this week’s story shows how much worse such things become when a human becomes immortal. This is a tale incredibly suited to Tregenna’s writing, and echoes of her stellar work with perennial Doctor Who immortal and fan-favourite Captain Jack Harkness can be seen throughout this episode. It’s a story that heavily involves the loss of humanity to the ravages of age, and while we’ve often seen it happen to the Doctor over the course of the series, to see it explored with a different character altogether offers up a fresh perspective.
Choice use of flashbacks and diary entries allow the episode to neatly adhere to the “show, don’t tell” guideline and as a result everything feels altogether more impactful, more real. I did mention above that the dialogue in the story is almost constant, and this applies even in the episode’s numerous more emotional sequences. I’ve said this now a couple of times over the last few weeks of reviews, but it feels almost like the actual plot of the episode comes second to the more philosophical quandaries it features on the Doctor’s part, which really suits this particular incarnation. While the events of the story revolve around what is, essentially, a fairly standard alien invasion with a few neat twists, the real meat of the tale is to be found in the debates regarding the numerous issues of immortality and how hard it is to retain care for other things when one inevitably outlives them. It’s ostensibly nothing new for Doctor Who, but the manner in which it’s delivered feels fresh due to the new perspectives on the matter.
With that, we’ll jump over to the cast and characters. ‘The Woman Who Lived’ is an unusual episode for the Twelfth Doctor era as, despite Jenna Coleman‘s name sitting in its usual place regarding billing, Clara Oswald is practically nowhere to be found throughout the tale save for a single very brief scene. Instead, this story focuses on a very different duo of characters; the Doctor and Ashildr. Peter Capaldi plays a rather different Doctor in this story, something I think the audience will find quite interesting at first. He’s extremely reticent and reserved for a large portion of the episode, due to the fact that his actions are indirectly causing the problems of the episode to occur (something he was fully aware would happen, to boot). He’s almost penitent for most of the proceedings, I would venture. As ever, Capaldi manages to not so much play the Doctor as become him throughout, and to be honest I feel as if this episode combined with those before it might be starting to push him into the realm of ‘fan’s favourite Doctor’. It seems to be a common sentiment at this stage!
Taking on the pseudo-companion role, then, is Maisie Williams returning as Ashildr/the Knightmare, though she has long abandoned her Viking name at this stage. Having become immortal at the end of the last episode due to the Doctor, time has made her embittered and almost venomous. She serves as something of a dark reflection of the Doctor in some ways; a person who can outlive countless generations of humanity, a reckless individual. The key difference is that her recklessness and abandon is not tempered by the wisdom of the Doctor, or the unique ways of perceiving time that a Time Lord innately possesses.
Her human mind struggles, it seems, to comprehend the situation that she has forcibly been placed in. Williams’ performance is a standout, able to deliver on Ashildr’s anger and abandonment perfectly (plus, given Williams celebrated her 18th birthday during the filming of the episode, having such a young actress playing a timeless immortal is a wonderful exercise in contradiction). In her, the story finds a thoroughly intriguing character (both to us and to the Doctor), one who doesn’t fit neatly into the category of hero or villain. She commits villainous acts aplenty, that’s for certain, but all for good reason. The episode leaves her in a most interesting position indeed, and where that will take her is unknown (…until episode 10 of this season, so wait for that!)
Also featured in the story is comedian and noted Whovian Rufus Hound, playing (not-so) notorious highwayman Sam Swift. Despite having a comparatively minor part, he’s easily one of the episode’s standouts and his considerable comedy chops are put to good use in his character. He’s consistently funny on-screen and delivering his lines, one of which is without exaggeration the least subtle sexual joke I can remember possibly ever seeing in Doctor Who, to the point where my jaw actually dropped a bit in a real “…how did they get away with THAT?” moment! I’m sure we’ll be seeing him again at some point, no doubt, and I look forward to it!
All in all, it’s a slightly shorter review than usual down to the lesser cast, but certainly not a lesser episode by any means! I think ‘The Woman Who Lived’ might take a couple of watches to really enjoy, there’s a lot to it and it’s quite different to the stories we’ve had thus far, but it’s worth it.
A great and rather poignant character piece.
Do join us next time for a long-awaited follow-up to events gone by, in ‘The Zygon Invasion’!