‘Doctor Who’ Review: All Lives Matter In the Compelling ‘The Woman Who Lived’
Recap and review of Doctor Who – Series 9 Episode 6 – The Woman Who Died:
Doctor Who isn’t always a subtle show, and that’s often to its benefit. “The Woman Who Lived” doesn’t beat around the bush about the perils of immortality. Sure, you gain eternal life, but you’re losing far more than you’re actually getting. And yet, the message of the episode itself isn’t about immortality being a bad idea. Rather, it’s a tale about valuing life, in whatever form it comes. In short, all lives matter, whether it’s a short-lived human, an immortal being from another world, or even a mayfly.
So, while on the hunt in the past in what appears to 17th or 18th Century England, The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) encounters a very different Ashildr (Maisie Williams), who’s survived for 800 years and now robs people under the guise of the mysterious bandit known only as The Knightmare. She’s had several lifetimes of adventures and, in the process, has forgotten almost the entirety of her former life in the Viking village. The only things she really recalls are The Doctor and Clara (Jenna Coleman), who mostly sits this episode out. It’s telling not only that Ashildr has forgotten her past, but also that she doesn’t appear to have feelings of any sort either. Last week’s preview suggested that Ashildr would become a villain for this week, but the truth is far sadder. Ashildr, who now goes by Me, has basically given up on life. She no longer sees it as this valuable, sacred thing. She doesn’t remember the sacrifices of the people from her former viking village, each of whom, The Doctor says, “would have died” for her. “Well, they’re all dead now,” she responds, with a coldness and lack of affection that stuns The Doctor. To make matters worse, Ashildr has apparently killed a LOT of people over her 800 years of life, some as part of her role as a soldier in such conflicts as the 100 Years War, and others in service of her burgling career. Whatever humanity Ashildr once had has largely vanished in the eight centuries of loneliness and tragedy she’s endured. It isn’t just that she’s been alone all this time, since she’d probably have just gone insane by now if that were the case. No, it’s far more heartbreaking than that.
Ashildr has had love, friendship, camaraderie and joy over the course of her eight hundred years — but, tragically, she’s lost it all. She’s lost lovers, husbands, friends, and even children to the pains of time and mortality. In one poignant flashback, we witness Ashildr grieving over the cradles of her three children following the spread of the Black Death. In the years since, she’s kept extensive journals to remind her of who she is, and what to avoid doing in the future (namely, ever having children again). It’s an absolutely devastating story, and yet — well, this is kind of what would happen, no? The Doctor is stunned that the old Ashildr is gone, but when you’ve been alive for 800 years, why would she still be anything like the girl she was for the first 17 of those years? Experience and tragedy have shaped her into something wholly unrecognizable, and Ashildr clearly blames The Doctor for it, noting that he didn’t save her life, he trapped her inside it. It’s no big revolution in storytelling for Doctor Who to portray immortality as a sort of prison, considering we’ve been getting variations on that story with The Doctor himself over the years. The ongoing theme of loneliness against the wide expanses of time and space come to the fore any time The Doctor muses about a companion, or finds himself accused of caring too much about humans. The Doctor invests his faith in people like Clara and Ashildr because to do otherwise would be to give in to fatalism, to ignore that life is a sacred thing worth preserving. The Doctor knew what kind of choice he’d be making when he chose to save Ashildr last week, but he did it anyway, because he felt Ashildr was worth saving. And, ultimately, he’s proven right for having done so.
To say the story of “The Woman Who Lived” is inconsequential would be a bit of understatement, since it feels more like an afterthought than anything else. Ashildr has taken up with a lion-faced alien named Leandro (Ariyon Bakare), who has convinced her that he can take her traveling through time and space if she can help him acquire the same artifact The Doctor is after. And she helps him since The Doctor, for reasons we later learn are due to their differences on the importance and sanctity of life, refuses to take her traveling with him. In the process, The Doctor helps Ashildr rediscover her humanity once Leandro double-crosses her, and she ultimately uses her one remaining modified immortality chip to revive her rival Sam Swift (Rufus Hound) to prevent his death from being used by Leandro to unlock a portal that will bring an invasion crashing into Earth. Long story short, it’s a bit of a retread of last week’s invasion story, with Ashildr once again helping to engineer the big plan that saves the day, despite having caused all the trouble in the first place. It’s exciting enough for what it is, but it’s mostly used as a backdrop to explore the ways in which Ashildr has lost her grip on what it means to be alive, and why life is as treasured as it is. When she sees how grateful Sam Swift is to have survived this whole debacle, it all seems to click for her. Maybe she doesn’t view her own life as sacred, but she’s come to a point where she now has a purpose: Ashildr vows to help the people The Doctor leaves behind after each of his adventures, claiming she will be The Patron Saint of The Doctor’s Leftovers, which sounds far more like an indictment than she probably means it to. When The Doctor asks if they’re enemies now, she insists they aren’t, adding that enemies are simple, but it’s your friends you always have to look out for. In keeping with her vow to always look out for The Doctor, we see her in the background of a selfie Clara shows to The Doctor in the present day, showing that The Woman Who Lived continues to do just that.
“The Woman Who Lived” is a terrific companion to last week’s episode, as Doctor Who continues to revitalize its storytelling with these two-parters. Seriously, this has been one of my favorite seasons of the modern era so far, and it only stands to get better, as we begin to get light foreshadowing of Clara’s eventual departure, with Clara vowing she won’t be going anywhere, only for The Doctor to have an ominous look across his face. This is a show that does foreboding well, and it speaks volumes of what’s likely in store that we’re setting it up now, at the midway point of the season. Life is sacred, but what of The Doctor’s life? What of Clara’s? That looks to be a question Doctor Who will be exploring more pointedly in the coming weeks. And I can’t wait.
But what did you think of Doctor Who, “The Woman Who Lived”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Doctor Who, check out our review of last week’s excellent, “The Girl Who Died”!