(“The Woman Who Lived” is indeed last week’s episode, I’m just behind. Yesterday’s episode will be reviewed in the next day or two.)
“The Woman Who Lived” is blessedly quieter than “The Girl Who Died.” For much of the episode it’s just two characters talking, but the whole thing is still a bit funny, with snappy dialogue and even a standup comedy bit. The focus, though, is on the characters, and that’s the way I like it.
I love Ashildr/Lady Me as a counterpoint to the Doctor. She’s small and innocent-looking, yet effortlessly nefarious, while the Doctor seems more threatening to those around him but if he actually considers anything shifty, his angst over it will probably take up an entire episode. I like the idea that her memory is just “normal-sized” and she physically can’t remember all the parts of her long life. It makes sense that she’s desensitized herself — I think that’s a perfectly reasonable reaction, although the Doctor seems to think it’s unexpected. It’s certainly troubling for those who cross her path, but reasonable. I also like that she’s become ambiguous and indeed troubling, but not crazy and not scene-chewingly evil. I knew she was veiling the extent of her villainy, but it’s a more realistic development of the idea. She could’ve been another boring version of the crazy Master/Missy, but she’s not. She’s something new.
Thoughts on the middle:
- Ashildr’s gendercrossing is understated — perhaps too understated, given the preponderance of “disguised as a boy” stories, but still. It’s interesting, and it could develop nicely, and no one says anything wildly offensive, so it’s a step up from previous stories.
- The exchanges of Ashildr asking to travel with the Doctor are well done. Her desperation and the Doctor’s reluctance are well matched and nuanced. Clara’s unexplained absence adds tension.
- Beauty-and-the-Beast Alien drops a little silliness, but okay. It’s really just the costume design, as a thematic element it works nicely. Ashildr’s whole plot reminds me of something the Master would do, in a good way — he was always trying to work with alien invaders and then getting double-crossed.
The big annoyance is yet again, we have the supporting characters blaming the Doctor for everyone else’s villainy and everyone else’s pain. It is actually moving in this context, and Maisie Williams invests it with a distinct air of “trying to find someone to blame,” but it’s less meaningful because it happens ALL THE DAMN TIME. I appreciate the Doctor’s position, though. His grief, yet refusal to take her villainy as his fault. Then Ashildr’s change of heart is a bit sudden, but again, Williams did a nice job portraying a woman trying to stifle her own conscience the whole way through, so I can believe it. I also liked her line in the denouement, “The last thing we need is each other.” For once, the insightful comment is really true. They’re too well-matched, and too much inversions of each other. She couldn’t travel with him largely because she’s already too much her own person, and it’s not enough like him. (Finally an INTERESTING thematic comment about Doctor/Clara? Or am I just wishing it is?) But still, Ashildr and the Doctor can be friends… And as she says, “It’s your friends you have to watch out for.”
The first half of the two-parter doesn’t relate to the second at all except for those seconds of making Ashildr immortal, so there’s no salvaging “The Girl Who Died” in my esteem. However, for once, they’ve successfully established a brand-new character who’s interesting, unique, and a valuable addition to Doctor Who. I hope we see her juuust often enough.