Wrapping up the story established in last week’s episode – although this is a fairly loosely-connected two-parter, with the only real connection being Maisie Williams’ character – “The Woman Who Lived” is an interesting exercise in dichotomy. For all the amazing character work we get from Williams and Peter Capaldi (Jenna-Louise Coleman is conspicuously absent from this story, more on that below), the writing and pacing of the episode severely lets them – and by extent, the audience – down.
WARNING: What you’re about to read contains spoilers about this episode and possibly other episodes/seasons of Doctor Who. Proceed at your own risk/reward!
RECAP: The action opens in the Victorian era, about 800 years or so since we’ve last seen Ashildr and her recently-granted immortality. The Doctor comes ‘round to this time looking for an alien artifact – flying solo, as Clara has better things to do in a Tae Kwon Do class, I guess? – and bumps into Ashildr quite by accident, or as much an “accident” as happens with the Doctor. He learns from her that her neverending life hasn’t been all it’s cracked up to be; she’s been through the frustration and pain of losing those mortals closest to her, including her own children, and since she’s an undying member of a species designed to have a specifically-shorter life span, her brain can’t keep all her memories intact, so she journals to remember. It’s not quite the Doctor’s ever-expanding 2000-Year-Diary, but it’s getting there.
Ashildr – who goes by “Me” now, as she prefers to let her names die with those who remembered them – wants out of the “immortal trapped in a mortal world” existence she has on Earth, and pretty much begs the Doctor to take her along with him. When he refuses, she reveals that she has a backup plan: an alien that recently crash-landed on Earth will utilize her help in retrieving the aforementioned artifact in exchange for taking her off Earth. Darn the luck, though: the alien is lying and uses her to help open a portal to Earth through which his race’s attack ships can come. With a little bit of Doctor-ing and the use of the second Mire medical chip that the Time Lord gave to her at the end of last episode, things are all fixed up and the crisis averted. Ashildr seems to be coming to terms with what she’d like to truly do with her life: serve as a source of comfort to those after-affected by the Doctor’s presence in their lives. The leader of the Time Lord Support Group, I suppose you’d call it – and as we see in the final scene with Clara finally returning to the TARDIS, Ashildr is definitely present and ready to do her job…
>>> For all the throwbacks and references to series lore that were contained in the previous episode (as well as most episodes so far this season), they are pretty slim here. There’s the quick Jack Harkness name drop, of course, with the Doctor finally confirming on this show that Jack is indeed immortal (it was inferred on Doctor Who but was never “officially” confirmed until becoming a plot point on spinoff show Torchwood). The Doctor mentions an alien race called the Terileptils when speaking about the Great Fire of London; the Fifth Doctor did indeed run into the Terileptils in London in the 17th Century, and they were shown in the 1982 episode “The Visitation” as “accidentally” starting the Great Fire.
>>> It’s interesting to note that this two-part tale had its parts written by two different authors, which is quite an uncommon feature on the Doctor Who television series. I believe that you have to go back almost 20 years to the 14-part mega-adventure “The Trial of a Time Lord,” which culminated in the final story for the Sixth Doctor, to find the most recent occurrence.
>>> A bit of fun trivia for Whovians: Struan Rodger, who portrayed the old-but-still-good manservant Clayton in this episode, has previously played on Doctor Who as the Face of Boe. Interesting that both he and a Captain Jack reference should pop up in the same episode…
>>> To bring us into the Closing Thoughts, I do have to admit that I thought the overall writing and presentation of this episode was fairly weak. The subplot about the “alien species of the week” and their random attempt to take over the Earth was a clear means to an end for a plot point and nothing more. While Capaldi and Williams did very well with their characterizations – and it was great to see Williams get to stretch her acting chops beyond the “medieval quirky teenager” that we always see her in Game of Thrones and last week’s episode – overall, the script felt weak and the pacing of the episode was extremely odd, shifting quickly and forcedly from serious to cheeky to downright boring at times.
CLOSING THOUGHTS: Primarily on the strength of the main actors and their portrayals, this was, at the end of it all, an enjoyable episode. It was vastly different from its “Part One” counterpart, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The key takeaway question I now have is related to the Doctor’s companion: was Clara’s glaring absence this episode simply to give Williams more on-screen time and focus to play off the Doctor, or are we being mentally prepped for life without the longest-running companion the show has ever had?
PRINCIPAL CAST FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE:
Peter Capaldi as The Doctor
Jenna Louise Coleman as Clara Oswald
Maisie Williams as Ashildr