Doctor Who series 9: The Woman Who Lived review

Doctor Who series 9 is still refusing to be pinned down, and offers yet another left turn in Catherine Tregenna's The Woman Who Lived...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

9.6 The Woman Who Lived

“You mean… you haven’t come for me?”

Readers of a certain age may well have indulged in the computer game of The Hobbit once upon a time. It was a text adventure, released in the early 1980s, and I always came a cropper when I happened upon the pale bulbous eyes.

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You’ll forgive me, then, for shining eyes coming out of the darkness still managing to unnerve me in film and TV shows, and the few moments where The Woman Who Lived opted to creep me out hit pretty much every time.

The Woman Who Lived is a surprising episode, though, that resists being tonally pinned down by the apparent part one that preceded it. The Girl Who Died was three parts enormous comedy fun in the forest, one part who-the-hell-is-Maisie-Williams playing. And as it turns out, her name from last week – Ashildr – appears to be long gone. In fact, when we meet her at the start here, as a highwayman, her voice has changed, and she has little recollection of her previous life.

As we discover later in the episode, she keeps books to keep on top of all the memories she’s forgotten. We’re seeing here the consequences of the immortality that the Doctor afforded her in The Girl Who Died, and the heavy price that she’s paid for it.

Writer Catherine Tregenna is an ideal author of this week’s script. She’s already written for the near-immortal (in, surely, every sense) Captain Jack Harkness in Torchwood several times. Here, she’s given the time and space to put at the heart of her episode a dissection of what that immortality means.

She makes several haunting points, none more potent than when Ashildr says that her body may be immortal, but her mind is not. Her copious notes, then, are her struggling to keep on top of what’s happened to her, and in some cases, trying to erase the many tragedies she’s loved through.

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This is not always a cheery episode.

“How many have you lost? How many Claras?”

Elsewhere, it’s interesting that Clara takes a back seat here, popping up just at the end. There does feel, after all, an acceleration in the foreboding of her fate. “How many have you lost? How many Claras?” Ashildr questions at one point. Lots of them, is the obvious answer, and inevitably, there’s a direct line between the tortured life that Williams’ character has lived, and the one the Doctor still goes through.

In fact, Ashildr becomes a parallel of sorts to the Doctor, teetering on the edge of cruelty before her humanity pulls her back. That’s a recurring theme of Doctor Who, particularly in the Capaldi era, and I wonder if 12 seeing someone else going through the same thing will alter his approach? I’d be surprised if it did, mind, nor do I want a cuddly Capaldi. Which is the spin-off merchandise BBC Worldwide is missing a trick on.

Even though Clara was largely absent here, though, there’s a sense that we’re seeing her future again here, too.

We’ve already had the order of everyone’s demise in Before The Flood, which may hold a clue as to her ultimate fate. But through Ashildr, the Doctor gets a(nother) clear lesson as to what happens when someone is left behind.

He resists, numerous times, Williams’ request to take her where he’s going. I wonder if, when it comes time for Doctor Who’s next companion, we’re going to get the kind of casting left turn we got when Capaldi landed the keys to the TARDIS.

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Anyway, that the episode ends with Clara assuring the Doctor “don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere” tells its own story. The episode ends on that moment for a reason. We can guess already what that reason is likely to be.

“You think you don’t care, then you fall off the wagon”

I’ve made little secret of the fact that I love the episodes of Doctor Who that make room for characters to have a long conversation, and thus the fact that The Woman Who Lived was structured around the Doctor and Ashildr talking made it my cup of tea. It wasn’t to the liking of my 11-year old Who fanatic, who got a bit fidgety with this one, though.

Furthermore, the problem with weighting the sort-of second part of a story towards something calmer and talky is that eventually, some kind of story wrap-up is needed.

As such, at first there’s a light caper going on in the background of all of this, as the Doctor and Williams break into places and creep around a bit. This comes to fuller fruition later in the episode, when things ultimately start coming out of the sky.

Enter, then, Rufus Hound, an artefact, and a rushed collection of plot elements that, for me, were the least interesting parts of the story. Although the fact that we’re left with another immortal at the end of things suggests that Hound’s time on Doctor Who may not be limited to just one appearance. Sam Swift The Quick may yet be back.

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The feline foe is less likely to make a reappearance, though, although I couldn’t help but think of the Cheetah People (albeit with added fire) from Survival when we saw him (although I love Capaldi dismissing him as “Lenny the lion”). That said, he’s a character too who, it turns out, has struggled with loss. That’s a running theme in the conversations throughout this one.

“This is banter. I’m against banter”

Catherine Tregenna’s dialogue is strong, and her patience with the two main characters of this episode really shines through. There’s something almost Shakespearian about the fact that the Doctor and Ashildr are foils for one another. I couldn’t help but think of Hudson Hawk, meanwhile, as they wandered along corridors, breaking into places, whilst having a natter. That’s not a negative. I’m the person on planet Earth who likes Hudson Hawk.

What’s more, I love that Doctor Who series 9 refuses to be pinned down, and that we’ve now had three extended stories, that have, in different ways, made different uses of the space that a double episode affords the show. There also seems to be an absence of a broader, major underlying theme this year, at least so far. Unless there’s a hidden Bad Wolf or two I’ve not seen yet.

It’s a familiar theme, that the Doctor lives a lonely life, but, reflected via a different character, it does invite a slightly different way to explore it. Likewise, the ‘monsters’ have varied too, in interesting ways. Pack Missy, Davros and the Daleks in the opener, and it means episodes such as The Woman Who Lived can take a left turn.

“You didn’t save my life, Doctor. You trapped me inside it”

I don’t think The Woman Who Died is 100% successful, but I did enjoy it. For the first two thirds in particular, I thought it involving, interesting and intelligent. Capaldi and Maisie Williams play off each other superbly well, and it’s not afraid to end on quite a downbeat finale either. And heck, the banter isn’t bad either.

Next week? The Zygons are back. The countdown starts right here…

Our review of the previous episode, The Girl Who Died, is here.