Tony wishes the girl had lived. The woman, notsomuch.
I’m calling it – The Woman Who Lived is my worst episode of Series 9 so far.
The perverse thing is I’ve watched it more than any other episode, trying to see if I can get it to be better in my mind. Ultimately – meh.
Obviously, there’s some good stuff here – Capaldi’s Doctor is still on form in both dramatic and comedic scenes, and I personally was quite impressed with his curio-finder as an example of the doohickey-maker’s art. The scenes showing moments from the diaries of Ashildr were moving enough, and actually brought home the price of living forever, although arguably, we’ve seen this lesson played out many a time, and frequently better – Captain Jack walked this road in both Who and more particularly Torchwood. Come to that, we’ve seen the price of living forever as far back as the 80s – remember Highlander, anyone? The particular idea of watching your children die was a new essay on the subject, but it was the work of moments. For the most part, this episode took the potential of Ashildr and turned it into a period swashbuckling bodice-ripper – Dick Turpin meets Beauty and the Beast. With aliens and death and Rufus ‘largely pointless’ Hound. Oh and of course, for the Blackadder fans, an homage to Miranda Richardson’s Shadow. I was half expecting an unconvincing grassy knoll to show up at some point.
The idea of an eternal life and a normal sized memory was actually a fascinating one to bring to mind – albeit one that flew in the face of Captain Jack being able to remember his past – and it could be said to account for the radically different performance this time round from Maisie Williams, the sense of vacancy and tra-la-la with which she sauntered and swaggered through The Woman Who Lived, as compared to the naturalistic young girl she played just the episode before. This time out, by virtue of Lady Mee’s forgetfulness and apparent amorality when it comes to the lives of we mayflies, there was little for Williams to hang her performance on in terms of character, meaning the whole thing – the character and her actions – felt like bluster, and even when she tuned in for the angry, demanding scenes, determined that the Doctor should take her with him to the stars, it was difficult to invest in that emotion because it seemed based on the need of a moment, rather than, as perhaps it should have been, a determination that went all the way back in her diaries: “Soon, the Doctor will come for me. Soon he will free me from the smallness and slowness of all this.” Having none of that underpinning made her demand seem unrooted and lacking in impact.
As for the Cowardly Lion and his escape plans – the point there surely is that the plan was so obvious that Catherine Tregenna couldn’t in all conscience have him in a scene with a character as intelligent as the Doctor without covering the plan in scorn and ridicule: “You trust him?” That meant that even had we been inclined to do so, which we weren’t, based on anything we’d seen, we couldn’t take the possibility of his plan seriously, and we knew the double-cross was coming as soon as he met the Doctor. That meant there was no real alien suspense, no real depth of characterisation in Williams’ character, much godawful bantering in the highwayman-off between Williams and Hound, a housebreaking scene that went on way too long and with its tension evaporated by the antics of a drawing-room farce and the almost inevitable clumsiness of a Bertie Wooster story, Hound telling awful jokes on the scaffold, an instance of telling, rather than showing when it came to Lady Mee’s sudden realisation that she cared about the people around her – “I do. Oh God, I do care!” – an inevitable conclusion where the two highway rogues would probably live forever, and all in all a story that felt relatively weakly plotted and weakly realised.
In fact, double-but. There are two things that save The Woman Who Lived from being, say, this year’s In The Forest Of The Night. Firstly, there’s the case of the torn-out pages. If you imagine the death of your young babies while you watch, so traumatic an event you swear never in all your immortal life to have any more, and then you try and imagine what might be worse even than that, it gives you scope to think that this two-part story might actually yet be a three-parter, that there might be some meeting in between the Viking village and the deadly highwaywoman, which would also explain directly how Mee comes to know the Doctor as the man who stays for the battle and runs away from the consequences (and how she knows the phrase “OK” – I’d hate to think that was merely poor research). We wonder if there might be a darker time ahead (or behind) for both the Doctor and his immortal creation. Quite apart from anything else, we’re not sure you can get away with creating an immortal the way he did it, for the reasons he did it, just like that. We get a sense of a reckoning to be made for that rash act, and maybe, just maybe, Ashildr or Lady Mee sees him pay it in the past, and then, conveniently, forgets, destroys the written evidence of that dark day.
And then there’s the ‘Patron Saint of The Doctor’s Leftovers.’ Even as an idea that sends a shiver down the spine, voicing a necessity that hasn’t been spoken in 52 years. Where Torchwood was devised to protect the Earth from threats the Doctor would not be there to save us from, this feels like Torchwood’s Peace Corps (headed up by another immortal) – reaching out to deal with the carnage and the baggage that the Doctor’s interventions can sometimes leave behind. It’s an idea that has Ashildr (who, not for nothing is a hybrid of two great warrior races, the humans and the Mire, just saying) echoing Missy’s idea on the duality of friendship and enemyhood – enemies are easy, it’s your friends you need to watch out for. It’s also an idea that screams spin-off, and allows fans to fantasize about all the meetings that Ashildr will have – will she comfort Tegan Jovanka after the Dalek decimation? Will she be waiting for Lady Christina De Souza to help her process the Doctor’s rejection? Will she visit Amy and Rory in the States to tell them she’s seen the Doctor’s future? Martha and Mickey? Ben and Polly? Ian and Barbara? The list goes on. And as we see her there in the selfie of Clara’s pupil, we’re left again to ponder – what could it possibly be that pulls the Daft Old Man and the Impossible Girl apart?
Overall then, sadly, Tregenna’s story feels like the least inspiring and least exciting story of Series 9 so far – but there are still moments that raise it above several other stories of recent years and promise much to tease our minds with, so overall, Series 9 has yet to lower its bar too far. And there are Zygons on the horizon. Keep the faith, folks, the ride’s not over yet.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk