What does it really mean to live forever?
This is the big question at the center of “The Woman Who Lived.” Such is a question that has come up before in the Who universe, most notably via the character of immortal time bandit Captain Jack Harness (who is mentioned by name here for what seems like the first time since the David Tennant years). What’s more, it’s an ever-present question, given that the titular character is, in essence, an eternal constant. He may change faces, clothes and attitudes, but he remains the same person through-and-through. And though it all seems to be fun and games, it hasn’t been without a good deal of sadness in pain. After all, in the 50 years since we first started following The Doctor, he’s lost countless people he cared about, whether through death or simply because they decided to move on. Indeed, though he’s amassed an army of friends and allies, The Doctor is destined to always be alone. Certainly, if the press reports are to be believed, he will be saying goodbye to current companion Clara Oswald later this year. As Davros pointed out way back when, perhaps that’s why The Doctor’s always running away—he doesn’t wish to look back.
Ashildr has not had it so lucky. Whereas The Doctor has all of time and space to escape his emotional hang-ups, she has spent nearly 800 years stuck on one planet. She has watched as empires are built and crumble, wars are fought and loved ones die. The experiences have left her drained and seemingly bereft of anything approaching compassion or empathy. Such coldness is as much a survival tool as any shield or sword. As she rightfully points out at one point, The Doctor did not save her; rather, he trapped her.
The episode commences with The Doctor arriving in 17th Century England in search of a mysterious alien force. He proceeds to interrupt Ashildr, who is now working as a masked highwayman (highwaywoman?) robber called “The Nightmare.” Turns out, the alien artifact he seeks is the amulet that Ashildr was trying to steal. The two proceed to play catch up as they enact a successful plan to retrieve the amulet through good old-fashioned burglary. Needless to say, Ashildr has had an eventful life since her resurrection, including posing as a boy and almost single-handedly winning the Battle of Agincourt. Through it all, she longs for something more and begs The Doctor to take her on his TARDIS. When The Doctor refuses, she stomps out of the room and confers with a mysterious being with glowing eyes in the her garden.
While “The Woman Who Lived” certainly has a plotline, it’s mostly pushed to the side in favor of delivering a series of heated discussions between The Doctor and Ashildr (who has decided to go by the name of “Me”). In this way, Maisie Williams’ performance becomes central to the success of the hour. Given what we know of her abilities from Game of Thrones, she predictably knocks it out of the park. Whereas Ashildr from “The Girl Who Died,” was a plucky, yet mature go-getter, the Me of “The Woman Who Lived” is, by all accounts, a cynical old woman. Much like Matt Smith during his tenure, Williams expertly demonstrates a youthful vigor, whilst never betraying the fact that there are centuries of experience behind her childish face. More importantly, the show wisely avoids making her the kind of quip-friendly, flirty River Song-esque character that has defined many of the other “powerful, yet quirky” female characters in the Steven Moffat era thusfar; instead, the episode paints her as a woman with serious baggage. In one gut-wrenching scene, The Doctor examines her library of diaries and discovers a tear-stained section where she discusses losing her children to the Black Death.
It’s also worth noting here that Clara is almost completely absent from this particular story, with The Doctor giving some excuse about her being involved in taekwondo. With all respect to the charming Jenna Coleman, it’s for the best that Clara sit this particular adventure out. For one, the episode works so well precisely because of the odd, unorthodox relationship that exists between The Doctor and Me. Indeed, they can relate to each other so well because they are immortal beings that boast a perspective that no one else shares. Having Clara along for the ride would have, at worse, diluted these encounters and, at best, pushed her character almost entirely to the margins.
As Capaldi and Williams parry back and forth, the ominous, shadowy threat from the garden reveals itself to be a lion-man creature named Leandro. The Doctor is soon horrified to discover that the amulet he and Me stole is, in fact, a bit of alien technology capable of creating in a rip in space, thus allowing Leandro to escape Earth. With The Doctor unwilling to take her on as a travel companion, Me has decided to team up to help Leandro so that she might be able to leave this world as well. The problem? The amulet requires a human sacrifice to function. Me soon deduces that Sam Swift, the scoundrel robber who she and The Doctor captured earlier in the episode, could work as a sacrifice, given that he’s scheduled to be hanged anyway.
Swift is played by British comedian Rufus Hound, which makes complete sense when we cut to the gallows and see him basically delivering the equivalent of a 17th century Catskills comedy routine in an attempt to gain just a few more seconds of life by making the audience laugh. The Doctor, having escaped Me’s guards, eventually joins in on the act, delivering what may be the first proper “dick joke” in Who history (“You know what they say—big nose…” “big handkerchief!”). Unfortunately, Me shuts down the proceedings by touching the amulet to Swift’s heart, bursting open the portal in the sky, which reveals an armada. As it turns out, Leandro’s intentions were less than noble, and he planned to use this opportunity to have his people obliterate the Earth.
Looking around at the people running and screaming from ship fire, Me suddenly finds her inner Ashildr and recognizes that she doesn’t want this and, indeed, does care about the people of this world. Taking that as his cue, The Doctor takes the other Mire medical contraption (Me said she never found another person she was willing to use it on) and places it on Swift, bringing him back to life and, subsequently, making him immortal as well. The portal closes and Leandro is zapped to death for his failure. And…that’s really about it. If the episode has any major flaw, it’s that this invasion plotline feels like a half-baked afterthought with a tacked-on conclusion that, while perfectly sound, fails to be even the slightest bit memorable or different from a dozen or so other similarly themed Who episodes.
Indeed, “The Woman Who Lived” is, first and foremost, a character study and, as such, the true climactic point to the episode is not an alien invasion but a final exchange between The Doctor and Me about their relationship going forward. Me, for her part, finally realizes why The Doctor refuses to take her on his adventures—they are much too alike. The Doctor emphasizes that people like them need to surround themselves with regular people (or “mayflies”) to gain a sense of perspective. In a way, human beings have a greater understanding of the world because they know their life is limited and that every moment is precious. For a case study, The Doctor points to the revived Sam Swift and how he was making jokes up until the last second, trying to hold onto as much life as possible. The two come to an agreement, with Me agreeing stay on Earth to be the “patron saint of The Doctor’s leftovers” who will protect the world from him. “So are we enemies now?” The Doctor asks. “Of course not,” she counters. “Enemies are never a problem. It’s your friends you have to watch out for and, my friend, I will be watching out for you.” It’s a beautifully written scene and I do hope it means we will be seeing more of Me/Ashildr, so long as Williams’ Game of Thrones schedule allows.
A somewhat dull episodic thread aside, “The Woman Who Lived” stands as perhaps the strongest entry of Season Nine thusfar. Despite its lavish production design as well as impressive stunts and effects, it’s an episode that ends up feeling highly insular and contained in a way that few Who stories do. Obviously, a big part of this is the compelling back-and-forth between Capaldi’s Doctor and Williams’ Me, which eschews light banter in favor of actually articulating some very astute points about human life and the nature of heroism. It’s a crowning achievement to an already strong half-a-season.