Doctor Who series 9: geeky spots in The Woman Who Lived

Highwaymen, cat people and Winston Churchill. Here are the geeky bits and pieces we noted in Doctor Who's The Woman Who Lived...

The Woman Who Lived is a fascinating episode of Doctor Who, filled with philosophical discussions and ruminations on the nature of immortality. In truth, on first viewing we weren’t sure there’d be very much to write about in this column this week. However, as a great man once said, ‘life finds a way’. So here are all of the callbacks, similarities and tenuous-but-interesting geeky things we spotted in this week’s episode. If we’ve missed any, make your way to the all-important comments section below!

Your References Or Your Life

Ashildr isn’t the first highwayman to team up with the Doctor; 1982’s The Visitation saw the Doctor and his companions befriend highwayman Richard Mace. Together they thwarted the reptilian Terileptils, who the Doctor blames in this episode for starting the Great Fire of London. In fact, that’s not entirely true; though it was indeed a Terileptil weapon which caused an existing small fire to expand out of control, it was a torch dropped by the Doctor that sparked the first flames… The fourth Doctor claimed in Pyramids Of Mars that he was once blamed for starting the fire, but it’s unknown whether the two events are connected.

The Woman Who Lived spends a lot of time exploring the idea that immortality isn’t more of a curse than a blessing; this was a realisation also reached by Time Lord president Rassilon, who was believed in The Five Doctors to have previously found a way of achieving immortality. Rassilon was later awoken from his eternal sleep and regenerated into Timothy Dalton, who tried to destroy the Earth to save Gallifrey in The End Of Time.

This is the first time since 1986 that a multi-part story has been written by different authors; though internally split into four separate tales, the 1986 series was broadcast as one 14-part story, The Trial Of A Time Lord.

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The Doctor has helped recover a powerful amulet before; in the classic sixth Doctor tale Timelash, the Doctor’s companion Peri is held hostage by Avon from Blake’s 7 and in order to secure her release he must travel back to Scotland in 1885, where for some reason he picks up both the amulet and a teenage HG Wells.

The Leonians are far from unique as a race of humanoid felines; in the seventh Doctor story Survival, the Doctor discovers the Master on the planet of the Cheetah People, having started to become one himself – a fate narrowly avoided by the Doctor and his companion Ace. And of course, the Catkind of Earth’s future have made several appearances since their debut in 2006’s New Earth.

Ashildr mentions being present at the Battle of Agincourt; in 1977 story The Talons Of Weng-Chiang, the fourth Doctor tells his battle-minded savage companion Leela that she ‘would have loved Agincourt’.

The Doctor has long been a skilled horseman, and was first seen on horseback in 1976’s The Masque Of Mandragora. Horses have been a more frequent fixture in the Doctor’s lives since 2005, and perhaps his most memorable equestrian moment came in tenth Doctor tale The Girl In The Fireplace, in which he spectacularly burst through a mirror on horseback to rescue Madame Du Pompadour.

Future Indiscretions

The major theme of this episode is the idea of both the Doctor and Ashildr outliving their friends and loved ones time and time again. This was previously explored in 2006’s School Reunion, which saw the Doctor reunited with former companion Sarah Jane Smith after 30 years. In it, he described having to live on alone as his friends wither and die as ‘the curse of the Time Lords’.

The Doctor mentions having observed Ashildr helping a leper colony, but not letting her know that he was there. When the tenth Doctor was close to death in The End Of Time, he paid similar visits to his companions (later revealed in The Sarah Jane Adventures story The Death Of The Doctor to have been all of his past companions), checking on them and even helping them, but not stopping to talk. In the same story, the tenth Doctor remarks to companion Wilf that he sometimes thinks Time Lords live too long – a sentiment echoed by the twelfth Doctor here.

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Clara is largely absent for this episode, having seemingly taken time off to learn tae kwon do. Prior to Clara, Amy and Rory became transient companions after their first couple of years with the Doctor, coming and going as they got on with their lives. Clara picked up where they left off, juggling her ‘real-life’ responsibilities as a nanny and then a teacher with her adventures with the Doctor. The difficulty in keeping these strands separate was a major plot arc last year, as she added her relationship with Danny Pink to the mix.

Ashildr joins the ranks of prolific Doctor Who diarists in this story, alongside the Doctor himself and River Song, who use their diaries as a way of working out where each of their meetings comes in the other’s timeline.

The Doctor claims in this episode that he doesn’t like puns, and that he is on record as being against bantering. The latter is certainly true; in last year’s Robot Of Sherwood he objected to the banter of Robin and his men. However, in the episode prior to that, Into The Dalek, Clara criticised the Doctor for his own puns.

Based on what we’ve seen on screen, it would be a stretch for the Doctor to claim the immortal Captain Jack Harkness as a travelling companion. It was very much a mortal Jack who first joined the ninth Doctor and Rose in the TARDIS in 2005’s The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances; he didn’t become immortal until several episodes later, when he was resurrected by the Bad Wolf version of Rose in The Parting Of The Ways. The pair quickly abandoned Jack, and it wasn’t until the first episode of spin-off series Torchwood that his inability to die was revealed.

Jack later caught up with the Doctor in 2007’s Utopia, but Jack’s nature as a fixed point in time and space caused the TARDIS to travel to the year 100 trillion in an (unsuccessful) attempt to get rid of him. After this adventure, which saw Jack, the Doctor and Martha Jones awaken and then thwart the Master in his guise as prime minister Harold Saxon, Jack returned to his spin-off. He returned for one more adventure in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End the following year. Jack briefly lost his immortality in Torchwood: Miracle Day but regained it by the end, seemingly sharing his ability with CIA agent Rex Matheson…

Jack was/is notorious for flirting with everyone he meets – which, we’re sort of hoping, does not explain the Doctor’s line “He’ll get to you eventually.”

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The Doctor helps one of Clara’s pupils by taking her to meet Winston Churchill. Churchill was revealed in 2010’s Victory Of The Daleks to be an old friend of the Doctor’s, and various spin-off media – including upcoming Big Finish audio drama The Churchill Years – have proceeded to give glimpses of Churchill’s adventures with previous incarnations of the Doctor.

In what would seem too much like tempting fate even if we didn’t already know she was leaving, Clara tells the Doctor she’s ‘not going anywhere’. Rose Tyler made a similiarly ill-timed declaration in Army Of Ghosts when she told the tenth Doctor she would stay with him ‘forever’. She left in the following episode.

Holding Up The Multiverse

‘Stand and deliver’ is a real phrase used by 17th century highwaymen; its first recorded use is in Alexander Smith’s 1714 reference work The History Of The Lives Of The Most Noted Highwaymen. However, to readers of a certain age, the phrase ‘stand and deliver’ will likely be more closely associated with the 1981 song of the same name by Adam And The Ants.

Appealing to a slightly younger age group, Ashildr’s pseudonym ‘The Knightmare’ will no doubt remind some readers of the 1987-1995 children’s game show Knightmare, which saw a child being led around a dungeon in a horned helmet (of the same kind that the Vikings apparently didn’t wear).

Ashildr displays knowledge well ahead of her time by quoting the 10,000-hour rule; in his 2008 book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell stated that 10,000 hours was ‘the magic number for true expertise’. This was based on a 1993 research paper by Professor Anders Ericsson, who has since disagreed with Gladwell’s generalisation of his work.

The Doctor compares Ashildr to masked outlaw Zorro, who was created in 1919 by Johnston McCulley and has featured in all manner of TV, radio and film adaptations in the century since. The Doctor also refers to Leandro as ‘Lenny the Lion’. Lenny was the leonine puppet creation of English ventriloquist Terry Hall, and he made regular appearances on television, including a guest spot on perpetual Den of Geek-favourite Rainbow.

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For those wondering, the Doctor was a couple of centuries early with his reference to Scotland Yard; the Metropolitan Police first occupied the building which backed onto Great Scotland Yard when they were formed in 1829.

Actor Struan Rodger, who plays Clayton, makes a return to Doctor Who after eight years; in 2006 and 2007 he voiced the Face of Boe. He also appeared alongside Maisie Williams’ on-screen brother as the Three-Eyed Raven in Game Of Thrones. Meanwhile, Sam Swift is played by comedian and actor Rufus Hound. His jokes in this episode include one about being ‘well hung’ ahead of his impending execution; a similar joke was narrowly averted in the Blackadder The Third episode Amy And Amiability, in a scene not dissimilar to the hold-up scene at the top of this episode.

And finally, for those following the possible Chronicles Of Narnia subplot postulated by one of our readers a few weeks ago, this story featured no shortage of horses, both real and metaphorical. We’ll leave it to you to debate among yourselves whether either the Doctor or Ashildr count as a ‘boy’ at this stage…

When he’s not analysing Doctor Who in too much detail, Pete presents and produces Geeks Say Things, the Den of Geek podcast. You can subscribe and download all four episodes so far here.