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Monday, 18 July 2016

Doctor Who 9-06: The Woman Who Lived

Episode:820|Serial:257|Writer:Catherine Tregenna|Air Date:24-Oct-2015

This week on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm going to be watching, commenting on, analysing, criticising and sharing every thought that strays into my brain about The Woman Who Lived. Series 9 has been split up into two-parters so far, and with this following an episode called The Girl Who Died I doubt it'll be the exception. But then again Girl didn't exactly end on a cliffhanger and this episode's by someone who's never written for the series before. Though Catherine Tregenna did write for the two worst series of Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. Possibly a cause for concern, I don't know, I never watched the show.

On that topic, here's some shameful trivia for you: for whatever reason this is the first episode of Doctor Who in seven years to be written by a female writer. Plus my cursory research has revealed that it's only the 11th Doctor Who story credited to a woman in the series' entire 52 year run so far (that's over 250 serials). To make things worse, it seems a couple of those credits are lying, because apparently 2 of those 11 stories were actually written by men!

There may be SPOILERS for prior episodes and I'll definitely be spoiling this one, so be aware. Everything after it is safe though.



The episode begins around the time when highwaymen were fond of robbing stagecoaches, so the 1700s maybe?

These are some fantastic looking night time shots by the way. Doctor Who has been looking consistently great this year and it doesn't seem that this episode's going to be the one to break the streak.

The thief barely gets as far as "Stand and deliver" though before the stagecoach driver interrupts with some helpful exposition for the occupants/audience, explaining that this particular brigand is called the Knightmare. He's faster than Sam Swift the Quick and he's Deadlier than Deadly Dupont apparently. The man rattled his line off so fast I have to wonder if he's in on it.

Knightmare is a terrible name for a highwayman by the way. People would always be spelling it wrong on the wanted posters.

The male occupant of the coach isn't keen on handing over his valuables to a lone criminal, but a growl from the trees and a pair of glowing orange eyes in the darkness gives him cause to reconsider.

Elsewhere in the same forest the Doctor steps out of his TARDIS alone, his attention focused on this gadget. I guess Jenna Coleman may have been busy filming Me Before You, as Clara's sitting this one out.

That's bit on the bottom is so obviously part of PlayStation controller that I expect we're supposed to recognise it instantly and realise he sacrificed a gamepad for science. This isn't one of those situations where we're meant to think he bought this from an alien shop in the year 5941. I hope.

Then again you can buy dental cameras made using the molds for the Atari Jaguar's casing, so who knows what future-tech will be built out of.

Ah, it's half Dreamcast controller too. Plus those look very much like third-party Joytech memory cards to me. I guess this thing needs a full 8 megabits of RAM.

Also I'm pretty sure this means absolutely nothing, but this is the third pair of red/orange lights to appear in this forest tonight, after the lanterns of the coach and the eyes of the monster. Though this is the first that beeps.

The Doctor follows the beeps to the coach, coming in through the other door and walking right through into the robbery in progress seemingly without noticing. If this was Tennant or Smith's Doctors pulling this I'd know that they were up to something, but with Capaldi's Doctor I'm not so sure. It's not hard to believe that he really is so focused on his own thing that he's not consciously aware of what he's wandered into.

The Doctor apologises for not listening to Knighmare's threats (they're very distracting beeps), and reveals that Clara's not around to admonish him because she's taking her Year 7s to taekwondo. Or she will be in 300 years. Why he couldn't just jump ahead a few hours in his time machine and meet up with her afterwards is a mystery, though this does confirm that Clara's still a full time teacher and part time TARDIS traveller.

Turns out that the thing the Doctor wants is on the stagecoach, but it rides off while the two of them are arguing over who gets to rob it. You'd think the monster would've stepped in and stopped it, but I guess it's shy.

Surprise, Knightmare is actually Ashildr the immortal Viking from part 1! That's a twist the Doctor didn't see coming.

People who'd seen the series 9 trailer might have had a clue though, as a clip from this scene appeared at the end. The moment where she says "What took you so long old man?" to be precise, which seems like it was put there to make us think that Maisie Williams here would be playing a returning character we already know. Like his daughter Jenny, granddaughter Susan, or maybe his Time Lady protégé Romana. But nope it turns out that she's someone returning from the previous episode! Misleading is what it is.

Cut to opening credits!

Ashildr's drops the act now that the carriage is gone, explaining that she's able to perfectly mimic a male voice because of practice. She's an immortal talking to an alien time traveller, and somehow that's still the hardest part of this to believe.

She's definitely had time to work on it though, as it's 1651 and she's been alive during 800 of those years. She's not as old as the Doctor or Rory Williams (or Yoda) but she's pretty damn old. Old enough to only vaguely remember the Viking village she grew up in and even her own name.

Now when she's not in costume as the Knightmare, she's taken the name 'Me', because choosing names is hard. Actually names are for people are for other people to know you by and she's isolated herself from all that; her sensible identities died with the people she cared about.

Ashildr/Me has a gigantic house, incredible wealth and an immense amount of solitude. She robs the rich to give to herself, to stave off boredom mostly, but tonight she was after a particular amulet. The same one the Doctor's game controller is pointing towards in fact.

She's become a lot like the Doctor with her giant lair full of bookcases and reminders of past adventures. It's not a time travelling phone box though, so she has to get to those adventures the long way. And then we get to see some of them, in slightly too fast comedyvision!

Like the time she was at the Battle of Agincourt disguised as a male soldier (after knocking one out and stealing his armour.) No-one will ever know that a mere woman helped end the Hundred Years' War! 10,000 hours is all it takes to master any skill and she's had over 100,000 hours to practice so she's pretty damn good in a fight. She's killed more people than she can remember.

Hang on, I admit I know next to nothing about the Hundred Years' War, but wasn't Agincourt an English victory in a war that was ultimately won by the French 38 years later? Also has she not heard of Joan of Arc?

On another occasion she saved a whole village from scarlet fever using her accumulated science skills. Nearly got drowned as a witch for her trouble though. This is like a 'Doctor and his companion get into hi-jinx across time' comedy montage, except without the companion.

The thing is, the Doctor's a genius alien with a naturally epic lifespan and even he has trouble remembering things like British Sign Language or where his face came from. Me only has a human-sized memory so she had to learn about her own past by reading her diaries.

That's what the bookcases are full of by the way, shelf after shelf packed with her journals. The Doctor only needed a single small 2000 Year Diary in The Girl Who Died, but I suppose with him it could be bigger on the inside.

When Me goes outside for a while, the Doctor takes the opportunity to browse her history, the bits he's not already aware of from keeping an eye on her over the centuries, and the episode takes a jarring tonal shift. Inside the books he finds tales of lovers grown old and children dying young of the plague. And that's from the pages she left in. Her most painful memories have been torn out entirely.

She's outlived everyone she's ever loved, and like the Doctor she's grown thoroughly sick of being stuck on her boring planet.

Which may be why she's conspiring with a monster in her garden. They have secret plans involving the amulet and she plans to recruit the Doctor to get it.

I think this guy's trying to stay out of sight here, but with eyes like that he might as well have a flashing police light on his head. Interesting that he has a different lens flare on his eyes than the other light sources have. It's like he's shining lasers into the camera.

The Doctor and Me decide to have a second go at stealing that amulet in the same night, this time from the owner's mansion, and he's got a second pair of sonic sunglasses to wear as his mask! I figured they were gone for good when that Viking snapped them, but it seems that they'll be sticking around for a while, performing exciting new functions the screwdriver never could (like covering his eyes).

The two of them have a whole conversation in the house while trying to sneak around, which is almost (but not quite) as ridiculous as the comedy music infesting this episode. But it does give her a chance to reveal that after 800 years she's still got the other immortality device he left with her in the last episode. She carries it with her everywhere, just in case she needs to make someone immortal in a hurry I guess.

Yeah, hide the flame with your hand Me, that's definitely helping! It's a beautiful looking episode this, I might have mentioned that already.

The two of them find the amulet but to escape they'll have to creep around a man asleep on the couch.

You know, with that mask on Maisie Williams would make a good Robin, even if she does look a bit young to play a teenage sidekick.

But there's something really weird about this scene that doesn't match the rest of the episode. Not the frozen background, that's my fault, I'm talking about the quick cuts mid-sentence. It's like they couldn't get a good take of Peter Capaldi saying "Let's just go round and see if we can't get out the back," and had to work some editing magic.

Anyway they manage to go around but getting out the back isn't an option and they're discovered, so Me decides she'll start shooting. It's kill or be killed! The Doctor decides she won't and together they climb up through the gigantic chimney instead. Which gives her a chance to question him on how many Claras he's lost during his long life. The episode loves to lurch wildly between comedy and misery.

During the long walk back home the duo are accosted by Sam Swift the Quick who somehow knew the Knightmare would be coming down this particular road in broad daylight and presumably that she'd be on foot as well. That's a point, she owns a horse and had no problem giving the Doctor a lift earlier, so why aren't they riding now?

For some reason she's left her male voice at home too but she's more than willing to get involved in a bit of banter, with lines like: "Is that a fake nose, Sam? They should call you Sam Sniffed!" Then Sam breaks out the puns and it escalates from there, to the Doctor's horror. "I'm against banter. I'm on record on the subject of banter."

My horror too.

She takes his gun, he turns the tables on her, she turns the tables on him, and eventually when all tables have been turned she's the one with him at her mercy. Or the Doctor's mercy in this case, as he steps in to save his life.

I don't get it though, his nose looks perfectly normal! Was she just trying to use his vanity against him? Plant a seed of doubt into his mind to throw him off his game?

Anyway they get home with the artefact and run into the lens flare monster from earlier, who turns out to be a lion man with a crown.

Hang on, he could turn off the glowing eyes whenever he wanted?

The mandatory monster of the week is called Leandro and he has a sad tale to tell. Basically his whole world was destroyed and he used the amulet to escape to Earth... but then he lost it! Though now that he's got it back he can travel to planets that don't suck and take Me away from this mundane world she's stuck on. They couldn't tell the Doctor this until now though as the amulet... kind of requires a sacrifice to work.

The Doctor: "Of course. Every single death is a tiny fracture in reality."

Wait, what? Seriously, what?


But she's not going to kill the Doctor just to get a lift off this rock, she's not that mean yet. She's actually planning to kill her faithful elderly servant, but she shouted him like five minutes ago and he still hasn't appeared.

Eventually two comedy pikemen turn up at the door to give her the news that Sam Swift has been captured and shall be hanged in half an hour. The man's guilty of his crimes and destined to die, so she's been handed a guilt-free alternative to murdering her manservant! Of course the Doctor could just take her wherever she wants to go without portals or sacrifices, but he won't because "it wouldn't be good."

So she mentions to the soldiers that she's got the Doctor tied up in a room behind her, and they just happen to be carrying a printed wanted poster of him doing that thing with his fingers he was doing in his first publicity shot.

Wow his series 8 look seems so sinister now, with his short hair and his smart clothes. I barely recognised him without his hoodie. Though I can identify him much better from this than from that silhouette up there.

Okay, Sam Swift was captured this morning and he's going to be hung at noon, so that means they would've had around 3-4 hours to get the Doctor's description from him, draw that picture, print up wanted posters, and get them handed out to comedy pikemen. I... don't actually know if that's plausible or not.

Oh these two are just the human personification of obnoxious comedy music aren't they? Now they've gone and accidentally shot a hole in the ceiling! Shouldn't you people have swords for this kind of work? Or maybe pikes.

Anyway Me leaves them in charge of keeping the Doctor under guard while she rides off with the Lion King to watch Sam's execution.

By the way, if you look at the bottom of pikeman #1's shirt you'll notice something that probably shouldn't be part of anyone's uniform during 1651.

I guess having a microphone bodypack dangling out is the stylish and modern alternative to catching the boom mic in shot.

Me pointed out earlier that it takes 10,000 hours to master something and after 100,000 you're the best there ever was. The Doctor is over twice her age and he never shuts up, so if anyone should be able to talk his way past a couple of idiots, it's him. And yet he fails.

But when he realises how keen on they are to get the £20 bounty on his head he tries a different tack, revealing that he knows where Me keeps all her money. A full £30! She's far wealthier than that, but sometimes it's better to go with a convincing lie than an implausible truth. Like when you're bribing asshole pikemen for instance.

He escapes and rides off to stop the hanging, probably more because he dislikes evil alien lion portals, than because he wants to save a guilty man from his period-appropriate punishment.

Over at the noose, Sam Swift is desperately trying to come up with as many terrible execution-related jokes as he can to keep the crowd happy and postpone his hanging by a few more seconds. I'd call it gallows humour but I don't want to lower myself to his level. He should've chose the classy option and pulled a Scheherazade instead: telling them stories and ending on a cliffhanger when it got dark so he could survive to continue the tale next morning.

Fortunately Me bribes the hangman to speed things along and Swift finds he's out of material anyway.

Pictured above: a typical crowd in 17th century England, out to watch to watch a man's neck snap. 

Also the Doctor's turned up to give Sam a comedy partner (and an excuse to make doctor jokes), leaving poor Me bewildered. She knew he was heroic and compassionate, but she never could've expected him to willingly subject himself to banter to save a man's life.

He only needs to keep it up long enough to reach the platform though, as he's able to use his psychic paper to trick them into thinking Sam's been pardoned. Then the crowd starts chanting to hang the Doctor instead! No, you don't hang the man who just brought a pardon from Cromwell, I don't care how many pounds are on his head.

Then Me steps in and cuts them off, by stamping her amulet onto Sam's chest and using his life energy to open a giant portal in the sky. Now I'm worried Fake Odin's giant head is going to pop through the clouds again.

"Purple, colour of death," points out the Doctor, pointlessly.

Her Kilrathi friend's been lurking around in plain sight all this time without anyone caring, and he decides that it's time to for him step up to the stage and wow the audience with his Godzilla breath.

The poor peasants haven't got a clue what's going on now. They only came here to watch a man die and now they've got a fire-breathing lion man, an death-coloured energy beam shooting out of a highwayman and a portal in the sky to wrap their heads around... and they can't even be sure that Sam died! It must all be very vague and unsatisfying for them.

Oh and now there's fireballs coming out of the portal, that's just marvellous. I can't really be too hard on Me seeing as she hasn't seen The Avengers, but using a powerful alien artefact to open a tear in reality and leave Earth vulnerable to an invasion from outer space can definitely be considered to be a mistake. Turns out that Leo's people are very much alive and if Me wasn't so desperate she probably would've seen this coming.

Me also realises that she actually kind of feels bad about unleashing the apocalypse upon the townsfolk and her latent empathy kicks in, so she slaps the other immortality patch onto Sam to reverse the polarity of the portal, flicking it from 'death' to 'life'. So basically the only thing Me needed to find her humanity and feel alive again was... for something new and interesting to happen.

I guess England has two immortal highwaymen now, and we're going to have to repeat all this again in 800 years with a miserable super-competent Sam trying to find a way off planet.

Well that was incredibly convenient (and rushed) ending for Lion-O. I had to rewind to catch the explanation, but apparently his people killed him for his failure. I'm going to assume he was vaporised by an implanted device because I don't see any of the other characters around him going up into smoke. Funny how you could've replaced the guy with a book about magic amulets and nothing at all in the plot would've changed. Doctor Who just has to have at least one monster every episode even when it doesn't need them.

Oh and the Doctor points out that this is the colour of immortality, for the benefit of absolutely no one.

With the space lion plot resolved, the Doctor and Lady Me are able to have a proper chat about immortality at the pub. Sam might have it, he might not, the Doctor doesn't know. Either way his brush with death has left him with a new appreciation for life. But Me definitely has it and barring accidents she's going to carry on living a long long time. And the Doctor's finally willing to explain why that means he can't travel with her.

She isolated herself from forming attachments to people and that left her cold and desensitised to the world, and he knows the same thing happens to him when he travels too long without a mortal companion to keep him grounded. If the two of them travelled together, they'd just reinforce each other's worst tendencies. And they can't bring other people along because then the cast would be too big!

The Doctor's used a similar argument a while back to explain why he couldn't travel with River Song, and also to try to tone down Clara's increasingly Doctorish tendencies. You can't have two Doctors in the TARDIS, it doesn't work (except for multi-Doctor anniversary stories, and all those years he travelled with Romana). Doesn't explain why he can't drop her off somewhere though, which is all she asked from him!

So she'll carry on moving through space and time on the slow path, protecting the Earth from the Doctor and the waves he creates. Wait, wasn't that what Torchwood was for? The Doctor even name drops Torchwood boss Captain Jack Harkness here as another immortal he once knew.

Anyway the episode ends with the Doctor picking Clara up for another adventure and I'm surprised how nice it is to see her again. I mean Jenna Coleman's great in the role, but I didn't quite realise how much she's been adding to the last few series until she was gone for a bit.

But she's back for the last two minutes and she wants to show off a photo of her student's A graded work on her phone. The Doctor's more interested in one of the faces in the background though.

Well there's someone far too old to be hanging around school playgrounds. She did say she'd be keeping an eye on the people he'd abandoned though.

It might seem weird that Me can remember Clara despite meeting her once over a thousand years ago, but she explained that earlier in the episode by saying "I take particular note of anyone's weaknesses." I just hope when they run into modern day Me she's chosen a better name for herself. She'd struggle to do worse.


CONCLUSION

I think The Woman Who Lived works better the more I think about it, because that puts more distance between now, and the experience of watching it. I mean there's a lot of good in here, and some sharp writing, but I didn't really appreciate the execution.

Uh I don't just mean the literal hanging scene, but the highwayman's stand up delivery is kind of what I'm talking about. Humour's a subjective thing but I thought it often detracted from the subject in this case. I've got nothing against episodes swinging from tragedy to comedy and back, but when they swings to comedy music I start to lose interest rapidly. I'm against comedy music. I'm on record on the subject of comedy music. Except in Looney Tunes.

Speaking of the subject, this is definitely the second part of The Girl Who Died, even though the alien plots are entirely unrelated, as it continues to explore the Doctor's dramatically extended lifespan and how outliving all the people he cares about affects him, this time using Me as an example. Ashildr was a girl who worried so much about the safety of others that she had nightmares about losing them, while Me planned to kill her only friend just to get a ride off this planet because people don't matter to her any more. The Doctor on the other hand seems callous in his latest regeneration but he does care. He can swing too far the other way though, saving people he shouldn't because time doesn't matter so much. Though he got pretty damn isolated in his grief in The Snowmen after losing Amy and Rory, and it can't be long now before he'll have to face another companion leaving him.

So yeah it's yet another episode this season that dwells on mortality and the Doctor's fear of losing Clara and personally I'll be happier when they put that theme out to sea on a little Viking boat and set fire to it. Also, death opens a tear in reality now? What?

There's no mention of the Hybrid this time though, but I was reminded of a line in The Witch's Familiar that introduced the idea that the Doctor actually ran from Gallifrey because of his part in the creation of the Hybrid. Personally though I was always perfectly happy with the idea that he stole a TARDIS because he'd lived on the same crappy planet for hundreds of years and he was bored, and this episode kind of tells that story, with Me in the role of the grumpy genius adventurer alone amongst her own people, desperate to find a way off world. In Me's case she doesn't get to escape, but she still rediscovers her compassion after teaming up with a kind alien, just as the curmudgeonly 1st Doctor became a hero after hanging out with his first companions Ian and Barbara.

The Woman Who Lived was probably my least favourite episode of the series so far, but it'd still put it far above the abysmal Kill the Moon and Forest of the Night from the last series, and I found it worth watching just for the dialogue, and 18 year old Maisie Williams killing it as an ancient and jaded Ashildr.

Next time: an episode by the writer of Kill the Moon. Great.


I've finally reached the halfway point of Doctor Who series 9! Which incidentally will return with The Zygon Invasion. But next on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm celebrating the upcoming release of Star Trek's 50th anniversary movie by watching its 25th anniversary film, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Yes this review was written during a fixed and increasingly distant slice of time, but don't let that put you off leaving a comment and sharing your thoughts and opinions about this episode and/or my writing.

1 comment:

  1. I get the feeling with this episode that what they really wanted to do was explore the immortality thing, and everything else was bolted on later. I think that's why neither the highwayman stuff or the space lions work; they come across as padding.

    ReplyDelete