Season 9, Episode 6 “The Woman Who Lived”
Directed by Ed Bazalgette
Written by Catherine Tregenna
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Maisie Williams, Rufus Hound
Air date: Saturday, October 24, 2015
If I talk to my mother about growing old, one of the things she reports about getting old is the annoying sensation of seeing people make the same mistakes over and over again. It is that sort of insight that raises questions about immortality in Doctor Who 9.6, “The Woman Who Lived.” How do you deal with the fear and ignorance of those around you? How do you form relationships with individuals whose status can only be transient? Do you have children when you know that you may see them grow old and die? How do you react to a world that seems to lurch often backward and only occasionally forward? These are all tremendously fertile questions to examine through drama, and while the episode frequently does a more than competent examination, it is let down by some uninspired elements that pop up in its last half.
With half of the current season now accounted for, perhaps it is time to take stock of what Steven Moffat is up to this year. First of all, I think it’s safe to say that he and Peter Capaldi have transformed this incarnation of the Doctor. The Doctor of last season showed some indication of being something of a homage to William Hartnell. He was at times stiff, irascible, and that most Harnellian adjectives, tetchy. His more formal buttoned down look with black coat and red coat lining clearly evoked the costume influences of the first three Doctors.
While that offers some fine dramatic possibilities in theory, it drags some real problems into the picture in practice. The Doctor of William Hartnell (in many senses, the original) is not the Doctor that’s evolved in public conscious in the intervening forty years. Look at the two most popular Doctors over the course of the series, Tom Baker and David Tennant. Baker’s Doctor looked a bit like a bohemian college student, and was always the charming rebel. Unlike so many of the charming rebels you meet in real life, he also had the fortunate habit of nearly always being the smartest person in the room and being right. David Tennant was a bit more the dashing leading man, but he was equally charming and rebellious. It points to the fact that the popular perception of the Doctor features someone who uses personal magnetism and intellect as his primary weapons and someone who has so much empathy that he rebels when his internal emotional compass demands it. Peter Capaldi is a very capable actor, with tremendous range, but he came off a little too stiff, or uncaring, to really feel like he was playing a Doctor familiar to us.
That’s changed this season. As John Nathan-Turner and Andrew Cartmel did in Season 25 of Classic Doctor Who, the summer break was used to re-tool the Doctor. In the case of Sylvester McCoy, they gave the character more darkness and a tendency toward manipulation. The case of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, Moffat made him more eccentrically hip, giving him a hoodie, sunglasses, and a Stratocaster. While he’s still doesn’t necessarily express his empathy well to others at all times, you never doubt for one minute that it is there. Combined with a sense that Capaldi has settled more into the role, I think the Capaldi/Moffat partnership plays out a lot better this season.
I think a streamlined show format also serves the show well this season. After all the agony of “does she or doesn’t she want to be with the Doctor?” last season, Jenna Coleman‘s Clara and the Doctor have finally found what they want and need from each other. For Coleman, that’s abbreviated some opportunities for drama and character development created by this dual life she’s led with the Doctor for the last two seasons, it’s helped the show enormously by returning it to a dramatic format used effectively since the mid-1960s.
While I have much respect for Coleman’s skills as an actress, I still feel like Moffat and the other writers don’t quite know what to do with her. What are Clara’s core strengths? What skills does Clara bring? Who are she and the Doctor to each other? The answers to those questions have meandered widely. They’ve gotten closer to getting Clara right this season than ever before, however, by just letting the Doctor and Clara be with each other this season. That’s let more of a quiet chemistry develop, and that stabilizes the show a lot.
This brings us to this week’s episode, “The Woman Who Lived.” After some inspired story telling last week in “The Girl Who Died,” I feel like it’s transitioned into something a bit like another experiment in who Clara could be. In it, Ashildr (now calling herself simply Me) played by Maisie Williams has now lived for several hundred years. Like Amy in “The Girl Who Waited,” she’s desired the Doctor’s return, and it hasn’t gone well for her. Like Clara in “The Snowmen,” she feels that she doesn’t fit in with the current place and time. Also like Clara, her state is a consequence of the Doctor’s actions, though in this case it’s his actions from the past going forward, not his future affecting his past. As such an experiment, Clara is not here because that would be two versions of Clara and one Doctor. That just can’t work.
Like Coleman’s best work, Williams’ Me is formidable foil for the Doctor. Though possessing profoundly different origins, they now have lives that are recognizable to each other. They are both practically immortal, and that profoundly influences how they interact with the Universe.
In Me’s case, it causes her to cut herself off, emotionally and intellectually. Her existence is purposeless and agonizing to some degree. Her brain is not designed for extended life, so all she tends to remember are the bad things. She withdraws. Without companionship, she becomes dedicated solely to her own self excitement to keep her mind off the boredom and the bad memories. This leads to some very interesting sparring with the Doctor over the nature of existence and what she really needs from him. Could this mean that Maisie Williams will replace Jenna Coleman next season? Honestly, I hope not because Me is just a little bit too much of Clara all over again.
If the episode stopped there, it would be fine, but the episode can’t. It needs jeopardy for planet Earth for Me to reconnect with her fellow humans and here it falls apart. With all the time given (quite effectively) to Me and the Doctor, the extraterrestrial monster that brings the jeopardy reminds a one dimensional cross between a Thundercat and the Beast from a couple different versions of Beauty and The Beast. It’s fascinating to consider whether or not Moffat could have rectified this problem by making this the middle section of a three-episode arc; that would have created enough space to give the Me story a proper villain. With the two-episode arc format used in this season, that idea is out… It also begs the question of dispensing with such a villain at all, and letting events that he know as history set jeopardy. That would revert this episode back to nearly a pure historical, and that’s pretty much out, Outlander be damned.
This ends the first half of Series 9. By my tally, it’s got two really great episodes in the season — Episodes 2 and 5 — with the rest being OK to good. This week’s episode largely fulfills the promise of what we saw last week, with Maisie Williams turning in another fine performance. Past her and comedian Rufus Hound playing the intriguing bandit Sam Swift, the episode offers little in the way of compelling characters or ideas. That renders something with the potential to be great into something that is merely good. Given the settling that the show is doing into a more accessible (or at least comprehensible) Doctor and a more traditional format, “good” gets the job done and should make viewers look forward to next week.