Doctor Who – “The Woman Who Lived”

A deadly highwayman called ‘The Knightmare’ roams in the dark streets in England, 1651.

As the Doctor searches for an unearthly element, the two come face-to-face. The Time Lord finds that things are not all as they appear.

Who is the Knightmare’s sidekick? And can the Doctor protect theEarth from an enemy that has secret intentions?

Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in The Woman Who Lived

X X X X X

Cast
The Doctor – Peter Capaldi
Clara – Jenna Coleman
Me – Maisie Williams
Sam Swift – Rufus Hound
Coachman – Gareth Berliner
Lucie Fanshawe – Elisabeth Hopper
Mr Fanshawe – John Voce
Clayton – Struan Rodger
Pikeman Lloyd Llewelyn – Gruffudd Glyn
Pikeman William Stout – Reuben Johnson
Leandro – Ariyon Bakare
Crowd 1 – Daniel Fearn
Crowd 2 – Karen Seacombe
Hangman – John Hales
Voice of the Knightmare – Will Brown

Written by: Catherine Tregenna
Directed by: Ed Bazalgette

Gifs by: J-Ru

X X X X X

The Woman Who Lived is an important episode for several reasons.  It’s not a great episode by any means – the plot and associated alien menace feel shoehorned in and the climax is incredibly lackluster. But underneath the shortcomings are great performances by Peter Capaldi, Massie Williams, and Rufus Hound that serve to elevate the story above its flaws and give dramatic weight to the episode’s central theme – what’s the point to immortality if one is physically unprepared for its long-term ramifications?

There’s a dangerous alien artifact bouncing around mid-17th century England and the Doctor is determined to find it, going so far as to politely interrupt a highwayman’s robbery in order to obtain it and remove it safely from the planet.  It turns out however that the highwayman, known as the Knightmare, is after the same alien artifact.  The Doctor’s interference causes the artifact to slip from the clutches of both would-be thieves, forcing the Doctor to ally with the Knightmare in hopes of recovering it.  But there’s more to the Knightmare than meets the eye.  The Knightmare has been waiting for the Doctor for over 800 years, ever since he saved her life in a desolate Viking village granting her immortality in the process…immortality that had become a curse, leaving her unable to feel or empathize.  Only the Doctor can save her by taking her from away from her bleak, meaningless existence.  But if he won’t take her with him, than her only option for the future will see her playing with fire…

Welsh screenwriter Catherine Tregenna has penned scripts for several British series including Casualty, EastEnders, and Law and Order UK.  Among fans of Doctor Who she’s known for her work with Torchwood, writing the episodes Out of Time, Meat, Adam, and the Saturn-nominated Captain Jack Harkness.  As someone who never really cared for Torchwood, I have to admit those episodes are the ones that stood out to me as being…well, enjoyable episodes of television (they’re no Countrycide though).  While Tregenna’s bibliography is just as robust as any other scriptwriter’s, it has be pointed out that The Woman Who Lived is the first Doctor Who episode written by a female since Helen Raynor’s The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky way back in 2008.  Considering the constant accusations (and several rumors) direct towards Steven Moffat about sexism over the years, Tregenna’s script, when combined with the upcoming Face the Raven by Australian screenwriter Sarah Dollard and Hettie McDonald’s directing work this season, will hopefully stand as a watershed moment for the show’s behind-the-scenes production.

With that said, the actual script itself could have used a little work. The Woman Who Lived is afflicted with two glaring flaws; an incredibly weak main plot and an equally poor villain. This episode suffers from the one informal rule that has hindered other episodes throughout the show’s history – the absolute need to stuff an alien into every plot. While the feline-featured alien Leandro conjures up images of the Kilrathi from Wing Commander or Ron Perlman’s Vincent from Beauty and the Beast with a stunning make up job and the fire-breathing WAS kind of cool, the portrayal by Ariyon Bakare falls flat thanks to the writing. Leandro’s words and actions towards Me are straight-forward and utterly predictable. There’s nothing worse than a villain whose actions can be called with nearly 100% accuracy because it robs the story of any tension. When the villain’s big plan is set in motion, there’s just no surprise to it. It doesn’t help that the big alien attack that Me was tricked into summoning is portrayed by a wormhole and some great balls of fire…it’s an alien invasion done so cheaply it might have belonged in a budget-conscious Hinchcliffe story…and that said invasion is defeated in a simple manner that also causes the head-scratching demise of Leandro. The Eyes of Hades is nothing more than the episode’s MacGuffin that everyone is searching for, but its given more importance and relevance than the the actual plot itself! While there are plenty of episodes where the plot is secondary to other themes and concepts, the plot to The Woman Who Lived barely passes muster as anything but the barest of one.

Where The Woman Who Lived succeeds is with the interaction between the three main leads – the Doctor, Me (formerly known as Ashildr), and the bandit Sam Swift. From the moment the Doctor interrupts Me’s attempted robbery of the Eyes of Hades, the banter and dialogue between the two is simply off the charts thanks to the chemistry between Peter Capaldi and Massie Williams. The ending to The Girl Who Died sees the Doctor worry about his impulsive resurrection of Ashildr. When the Doctor realizes just who the Knightmare is, Capaldi sells both the concern and the curiosity of the Doctor. For the man who runs away (something Me calls him out on repeatedly), here is a chance to see the consequences of his actions up close and personal. There’s a hint of the Doctor’s scientific nature as he queries Me about her life, something Capaldi has shown time and time again throughout his tenure as the Doctor in a way viewers haven’t seen since Jon Pertwee’s era. Then, there’s the alien nature of the Doctor as he turns Me away despite her repeated pleas to take her with him. It’s HIS fault and he owes her she states time and time again, but the Doctor knows that two immortals traveling together is just…wrong. The Doctor has been around for who knows how long (I’ll say 1200 years and leave it at that) and has stated time and time again that its his companions that allow him to see the wonders of time and space that he has become indifferent to. Capaldi tries to drive this fact home time and time again that Me, with her inability to feel and care burned out of her, would be a horrible companion…but he also tries to drive home that just because she doesn’t care anymore doesn’t give her the right to see human life as anything less than precious. One can sense both his frustration as Me refuses to listen as well as his anger when she casually threatens to shoot Sam Swift, growling “you would make an enemy of me.”

On the other side of the dynamic, Massie Williams absolutely shines as Me, her real name long forgotten and discarded. Her pedestrian performance in The Girl Who Died appears to have help set up the shocking 180 in her personality in The Woman Who Lived, the proud, self-sacrificing Viking girl having given way to a older, jaded, bitter person who has seen lovers spurned, her children dead of the plague, and seeing her skills and hobbies reduced to nothing more than well-honed muscle memory. The concept of someone whose body is immortal but whose mind simply doesn’t have the mental capacity for centuries of memories is one of the most disturbing concepts ever discussed in Doctor Who. Imagine living for centuries, but having to keep diaries to remind yourself of people and places that were once dear to you, including memories so painful that simply ripping those pages out will cut them out of your life entirely. Life is built from memories, both the good and the bad. Forgetting the good is sad. Being able to completely exorcise the bad is horrifying. Me has been waiting for the Doctor because she truly believes he could take her away from her banal existence, and she’s giddy as she works alongside the Doctor to break into a nobleman’s house to steal the Eyes of Hades in a great scene of both physical humor and snappy dialogue, raising hopes that perhaps the Doctor will take her with him. When he turns her down, it’s not a petulant 18-year old child railing against the Doctor – it’s a woman with 800 years of experience, 800 years to craft the perfect argument, and 800 years of anger when she realizes her one dream has been thwarted. It’s an amazing piece of acting by Williams, one that fans were waiting to see when her casting was announced earlier this year.

It’s not all perfect, though. Her big moment of realization as she sees the damage her actions have cause. Her emotions come flooding back to her as she feels the pain and suffering that the alien attack is causing. But it feels incredibly rushed. Shouting your emotions isn’t the same as acting upon them. Thankfully, this scene is forgotten (especially as it’s part of the forgettable plot) with the closing scene between the pair, two immortal beings putting aside everything for an honest chat over a few pints in a tavern. All the posturing is put aside as both lay out their fears and concerns, two fantastic actors laying it all on the table. It’s the perfect coda to the story, summing up the central dilemma of immortality for the final time with both actors just crushing it.

I would be remiss is not mentioning the main secondary character, dashing bandit Sam Swift as played by British comedian Rufus Hound. His purpose is to be a sort of biological MacGuffin for Me and Leandro’s plan, someone that Me “kills” solely to kickstart the climax and “saves” to tell (not show) character growth. But Hound takes what could be a simple part and RUNS with it. He’s everything a comedic foil should be; loud, bombastic, self-depreciating, and facing death with a smile and acceptance, and his “gallows humor” scene with the Doctor is simply fantastic. Hound is a two-scene wonder in this episode, the type of character who viewers will remember after this season is long concluded.

The Woman Who Lived shouldn’t have been at this place in the broadcast order. While it’s considered the second episode of a two-part story, it was penned by a different author than the “first part” and the 800 year gap serves to hurt the episode as compared to the time “jump” in Under the Lake/Before the Flood. If I was showrunner…pause for laughter…I would have placed The Girl Who Died between The Witch’s Familiar and Under the Lake and kept The Woman Who Lived where it is. As it lays however, The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived dies and lives on the character of Ashildr/Me. You don’t have to put aside the plot for this episode; it does a good job of that on its own. Massie Williams does a top notch job as the jaded, bitter immortal, a sharp contrast from the happy go lucky, eternally optimistic Captain Jack Harkness and the secure, confident River Song. These episodes do a very good job of outlining just how unique the Doctor’s immortality is by using Me as a contrast and how being a Time Lord is both a blessing and a curse. I’m hopeful to see this character again down the road, which is a testament to Williams’ acting and Mathieson’s/Tregenna’s character concept. For its flaws, The Woman Who Lived has a very good chance of being one of the more influential stories in Doctor Who’s history.

Random Thoughts
– The concept of a “Patron Saint of Companions” is kind of neat. Though Turlough is still out there on Trion because he doesn’t need anyone watching over him. Vislor REPRESENT!
– An immortal being becoming bitter and jaded as memories and experiences fade away and taking responsibility for creating another of their kind…a couple of unexpected allusions to Vampire: The Masquerade in this story…
– The Radio Times poster for this story might be the best one Stuart Manning has done to this point!
– I might just me an old softy like the Sixth Doctor, but if this scene doesn’t twinge your heartstrings, you have no soul.

Cobi’s Synopsis – Ignore the plot of The Woman Who Lived…the script does…and focus on the great interaction between Massie Williams and Peter Capaldi (with an assist from Rufus Hound) that touches upon the physical and mental limitations of immortality.

Next up – The Zygons, a race of shapeshifting aliens, have been living in secret amongst us on Earth, unknown and unseen – until now…

Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in…The Zygon Invasion.

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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