October 24, 2015, 8:00 p.m. (EST), BBC
“The Woman Who Lived” is a marvelous episode of television that exists in little moments and quiet spaces. The episode takes place largely at night, and for long stretches it felt like The Doctor had snuck out of The TARDIS while Clara was sleeping, like we were privy to the sort of solo adventures that have often been referenced in the Moffat era. It features the return of a character, but so wholly transformed as to act as a story independent of “The Girl Who Died.” Ashildr died, if not in that village during the Mire invasion, than a long, long time before “The Woman Who Lived” takes place. She has been replaced by Me. And what Me means to The Doctor is fascinating and multi-layered.
To begin with, we should discuss Maisie Williams, who was great last week but really reveals what an incredible actress she is here. Not only is Me a fully separate character from Ashildr, but she feels every bit the wise immortal who has been broken by the pain of feeling for too long and now detaches herself from the world. Both William and Catherine Tregenna’s script walk a fine line. It would be easy for the episode to just stick with lines that amount to the idea that Me stopped caring because she saw too many people die. But while there are plenty of those here, the script is also peppered with moments of aching sadness and emotional truth, like Me leaving the worst of her diary entries intact to remind herself not to have any more children. The idea that humans value life because it is fleeting is an obvious one, but the way The Doctor connects with Me by telling her caring is like falling off the wagon is absolutely revelatory, giving us new insight into The Twelfth Doctor and Me at the same time, while moving the story forward.
“The Woman Who Died” doesn’t totally work as a Doctor Who story, but then it is one of those format breaking feints that doesn’t really have to. The actual mechanics of the story are fairly rote, with Leandro wanting to open a portal so his people can invade, and tricking Me into helping him until The Doctor convinces her to care and the two save the day. It’s pretty boring stuff, and it’s a shame the episode devolves into this after its first act, which is basically a heartbreaking two-hander in which The Doctor visits an old friend who has complicated feelings for him. It’s basically a Doctor Who riff on The Sandman issue “Men of Good Fortune,” which is one of my favorite stories in one of my favorite pieces of serialized fiction ever, and I wanted that late night talk between the two to last the whole episode. This show has a sometimes crushing problem with deviating too far from its formula, which can make even its most dizzingly ambitious episodes feel somewhat underwhelming. “The Woman Who Died” begins as a stone-cold classic, and dials its way down to just very good as it works its way through a pretty obvious and undercooked monster of the week plot that feels ultimately unearned and unnecessary
The episode does what it needs to do well at an astoundingly high level, but it sort of screws up a lot of what it would need to do passably to be an all-out classic story. The relationship between The Doctor and Me redeems the back half of the story to a large degree when they converse in that tavern at the end, and when he catches a glimpse of her in the background of Clara’s student’s selfie, reminding him to care for someone he was about to dismiss entirely, and also reminding him that she is out there, watching out for the way he callously dismisses the people he leaves behind.
We also get a lack of Clara that allows for her to hang over the episode and underlines its central tragedy for The Doctor. The show is dancing perilously close to overplaying the impending departure of Jenna Coleman, but everything this episode has to say about the tragedy of the Doctor losing Clara worked for me.
Ultimately, “The Woman Who Died” is a near miss, coming very close to being an out and out masterpiece, and screwing up by adding an awful monster and an annoying caricature in the form of Sam Swift. The emotional and thematic terrain here is frequently breathtaking. But the story laid over it has serious problems that keep this from being an all-time great Doctor Who story.
- “I’m just passing through. Like fish in the night. No, not fish in the night. Something like that. Ships!”
- “Sorry, sorry, I really was planning to listen that time, but basically, I didn’t.”
- “This is my robbery!” “Well can’t we share it? Isn’t that what robbery is all about?”
- “What took you so long, old man?”
- “Me is who I am now. No one’s mother, daughter, wife. My own companion. Singular. Unattached. Alone.”
- “My curio scanner. It, uh, it sort of scans for curios. I just realized how it got its name.”
- “Ten thousand hours is all it takes to master a new skill. One hundred thousand hours and you’re the best there ever was. I don’t need to be indestructible. I’m superb.”
- “How many people have you killed?” “You’ll have to check my diaries.”
- “It can’t be easy outliving the people you love.” “According to my journals, hell.”
- “Little ones. Such pain. And yet still, they are not brave enough to die. Wretched life. I will endure. But no more babies.”
- “Humans need shared experiences.” “I’m regretting sharing this one.”
- “How many have you lost? How many Claras?”
- “Kill him and you make an enemy of me.”
- “How do I look?” “Pink. Are you coming down with something?”
- “Kill me.” “Why?” “If you intend any harm to this planet or its people, then killing me is your best move.”
- “I’m not looking for a husband you oaf. I’m looking for a horse to get me out of town.”
- “What happened to you?” “You did, Doctor. You happened.”
- “You gad about, while I trudge through the centuries, day by day, hour by hour. Do you ever think, or care, what happens after you’ve flown away? I live in the world you leave behind, because you abandoned me to it.”
- “Why should I be responsible for you?” “You made me immortal.” “I saved your life. I didn’t know that your heart would rust because I kept it beating.”
- “I’m an undercover constable for Scotland Yard. Do you have Scotland Yard yet?”
- “It’s a good job you’re here. I may kill me.”
- “It’s awful. It’s infuriating isn’t it? You think you don’t care, and then you fall off the wagon.”
- “So are we enemies now?” “Of course not. Enemies are never a problem. It’s your friends you have to watch out for.”
- “I’ve got a present for you.” “Why? Am I ill?” “No.” “Are you ill?” “No.” “Are you never going to travel with me again because I said a thing?”
“The Woman Who Lived” is a marvelous episode of television that exists in little moments and quiet spaces.