The Woman Who Lived. Which one’s that again?
It’s one of those episodes which is difficult to recall. Even more difficult to come to grips with, as it’s a gentle, mid-season character drama, more designed to push the season arc along than be a kick-ass episode on its own terms. Still, it’s beguiling… once you’ve remembered which one it is.
It’s another version of Boom Town, which sought to subvert Doctor Who’s norms by being an episode where two characters have a conversation instead of the usual hijinks like monsters invading earth or maniacal despots doing their thing. In fact, it’s an extended conversation which questions the moral tenets the Doctor holds dear, his modus operandi and the very point of him.
That extended conversation is between the Doctor (grizzled Peter Capaldi) and Me (ungrizzled Maisie Williams) about whether he should whisk her away from a life of medieval drudgery. He’s basically responsible for it because 800 years ago he inadvertently made her immortal while trying to save her life. She wants him to take her away from it all, but he’s reluctant to do so because he’s got a thing about immortal, deathless types travelling with each other (ironically, this is exactly what will eventually happen to Me in Hell Bent but, hey, that’s six whole episodes away!).
Churlish to say it, but it’s hard to take Maisie Williams seriously as an immortal, uber-competent heroine. She looks so young and slight. But I suppose that’s the point, right? The juxtaposition of youth and immortality is what makes Me such an interesting proposition. And even though she’s had hundreds of years to master every possible skill you might think of, it’s still odd to see her besting those big beefy men in hand to hand combat. Or even being a highway woman in the first place. The archetypical female highway robber masquerading as a man, may or may not be historically accurate, but it’s great fodder for a Doctor Who story. Even if Me’s overdubbed male voice does bring back unfortunate memories of that episode of Blackadder the Third. (You know the one I’m talking about and if not, here’s a linky link.)
Despite her many talents, Me is not infallible. One of the story’s weaknesses is her credulity; if she has evolved into a super competent uber-everything, why does she fall for lion man Leandro’s (Ariyon Bakare) story? Can someone that longlived really be so gullible? It takes the Doctor about five seconds to see through the leonine ruse. Perhaps being so intent on escaping Earth has blinded her to the fact that this beast may not have his beauty’s best interests in mind.
On one level The Woman Who Lived is a treatise about the Doctor’s taking responsibility for his own actions. It’s all very well to take a split second decision to save a young girl’s life just because you happened to turn up in a David Tennant episode. But what happens when the girl has to hang around in Earth’s history for, like, ever?
Writer Catherine Tregenna suggests that she’s going to lose the very humanity that spurred the Doctor to save her in the first place. The risk is that she becomes so desensitised to the plight of the human “mayflies” around her that she stops being human and becomes… something else. A woman who has mastered humanity’s every skill but can no longer connect with her fellow people. But the Doctor can’t, y’know, go back in time and let her die, so he’s rather stuck with it.
On another level, it’s saying that being human is indivisible from having connections with other humans. Me has detached herself from everyone around her. The awful experience of losing her children to the black plague has meant she’s promised herself to not get as emotionally attached to anyone again. She’s already prepared to kill her helpless old manservant Clayton (Struan Rodger, he of the uncanny ability to make anachronistic cocktails) in an attempt to leave Earth forever. When the climax of the episode arrives in a blur of scampering yokels and a big purple light in a sky, the revelation for Me is that she does actually care about the mayflies she’s had such disdain for.
But she’s forced into her not-very-well-thought-through plan because the Doctor won’t take her with him. His reasoning for not wanting to is pretty weak. He says, “it wouldn’t be good” and that immortals need ongoing contact with mayflies because with their short lifespans, they really know how to party, or something. It’s a point reinforced early on when Me points out that the Doctor really is an old man in this era when life expectancy is at 35. But still, it’s a pretty lame excuse. I mean, why not take her away and deposit her in an era where there’s wi-fi and indoor plumbing? That would be polite, at least.
How much responsibility should the Doctor take for his actions? Behind every story, there are probably consequences as long-lasting and as impactful as that explored in The Woman Who Lived, but only some explore them: The Ark, for one, and to a lesser extent, Bad Wolf. Turns out there’s a subgenre of Doctor Who stories where the consequences of the Doctor’s actions are questioned.
In those stories, the Doctor gets an opportunity to put things to rights. They’re in effect “second chance” stories. But not here. Here, the Doctor deliberately evades his chance of making things right again. In this episode, he decides to leave things as they are, even though it’s entirely within his power to put Me’s world back on track.
Except that he does help her rediscover her own latent humanity. (Which, y’know, she must be stoked about but I bet there’s still a bit of her which is longing for the wi-fi and the indoor plumbing.)
ICKY BIT: when talking about the other immortal he’s travelled with, Captain Jack Harkness, the Doctor tells me, “he’ll get round to you eventually”. Um, that’s a bit gross, isn’t it?
LINK TO The Web Planet: Anthropomorphised animals.
NEXT TIME: Have you met the French? We’re off to meet The Girl in the Fireplace.
I had the same criticism of this episode as you did. This is definitely one of those stories from the Moffat era where characters posses an appalling inability to think outside the box, to come up with any sort of alternative course of action other than A or B. I mostly like Moffat’s time on the series, but unfortunately sometimes the characters are required to be pretty damn stupid in order for the stories to work.
In my review which I wrote back in Nov 2015, I commented…
“Ashildr desperately wants to travel with the Doctor in the TARDIS because she is bored with immortality, with being stranded on a primitive planet with nowhere to go, nothing new to experience. The Doctor refuses to let Ashildr join her because he perceives the danger to his own behavior that could occur from being around another immortal. He wants to leave her in 1651.
“Well, why isn’t there a third choice? Why can’t the Doctor offer to give Ashildr a one-time lift in the TARDIS to another time or planet where interplanetary space travel exists, so that she can then go off and explore the universe on her own?”
You can read the entire write-up here…