Monday, October 26, 2015

The Story That Gives (More on New Doctor Who)

The Story That Gives (More on New Doctor Who)  

***Spoiler Alert!***
At last! Finally, fans are treated to a story this season which actually dares to explore the complexity of character within a science fiction format. Well done screenplay author Catherine Tregenna and director Ed Bazalgette! 

With the set-up story to The Woman Who Lived being a bit on the uneven side, our hopes for the sequel showing what became of the young Viking girl, Ashildr, weren’t all that great. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find a tale about the meaning of immortality and how tedious life must be for a human being forced to live one day at a time for over 800 years while everyone and everything around her fades away. 

While the Doctor represents a long-lived (but probably not immortal) character who is able to bounce about space and time at will, “Me” (as Ashildr renames herself) is forced to live one day at a time and limited by primitive technology to staying put in medieval times and then finally in Cromwell’s England of the 1650s when she encounters the Doctor again. Is it any wonder she’s taken to being a highwayman for the cheap thrills to lighten her otherwise dreary existence?

But the story doesn’t stop simply there at Me’s superficial existence as a robber—no, it actually treats the viewers as thinking individuals and gives us more. Much more. The Doctor scans her journals of 800 years and learns just how much the Viking woman has suffered as she’s loved and lost and loved and lost over and over again. We understand how painful it is for her to lose her children to the plague, as she is able to survive it while her family about her dies a horrible death. This is what good science fiction is—it’s about showing character and suffering, wonder and hope. It’s not just about piling on the special effects or the monster costumes or dumping sometimes puerile, sometimes nasty non sequiturs into the script just for laughs. Science fiction is at its best when it’s used to demonstrate what it means to be human, even when the characters aren’t quite “human” themselves.

There are a few weaknesses in the production, but the strength of the acting and story itself more than offset them, as was often the case in the classic series. After all, how many fire-breathing “lions” have you ever seen? (We wondered why the alien couldn’t have been a fire-breathing dragon-like humanoid, instead of a Beauty and the Beast clone.) How can a petite woman sound like a baritone highwayman without access to more advanced technology to alter her voice? And, if Ashildr/Me has an alien chip that could have made at least one of her lovers or her children immortal, why hasn’t she used it before now? (Is it because she sees immortality as a curse but can't bring herself to destroy herself?) Stronger reasoning here would have been appreciated and possibly given us some more insight into the immortal woman’s character and motivations. 

Still, overall, the costuming and sets are well done and give the viewer a great feel for mid-17th century England. The acting by Peter Capaldi and Maisie Williams is superb. We never doubt Me’s inner torment for a second or the Doctor’s growing concern that perhaps he’s done the wrong thing by helping this young woman live as an immortal. In fact, she makes it obvious later that “friends” can sometime be more dangerous than enemies. 

As a “Clara light” episode, The Woman Who Lived gives the audience some hope that perhaps better things are yet to come for Capaldi’s Doctor, that perhaps we won’t have to wait 800 years for another decent episode in which he can shine.

What do you think? Please leave your comments below. And check out my reviews of earlier episodes of this season of Doctor Who:


A J said...

I rather liked this episode, which certainly sticks out from a mediocre series so far. The writing works, the characterization is three-dimensional, the problems and heartbreaks 'Me' goes through are heart-wrenching. My only quibble is the highwayman costume appears to be from the mid-18th century and not mid-17th.

Cynthianna said...

Yes, I did wonder if the highwayman costume was correct. Such a petite woman convincing others that she was a big burly guy was a bit of a stretch, too. I think it would have been better just to allow her to be a female highwayman in the manner of female pirates. They actually existed, you know? ;)

Three-dimensional characters in a show about the fourth dimension is nice, isn't it? ;)

Ann Carter said...

I thought the writing (especially the lines attributed to Ashildr) was much more insightful in this episode. It was certainly a change from the plot-moving/just-fer-lafs scripts we have been offered in the past. It was something I noticed immediately Ashildr started speaking. I did however think her change of attitude from feisty to guilt-ridden repentance when the laser bolts started raking the crowds a bit too convenient, considering she was prepared to kill all and anyone earlier on. For a moment there however, the writing was pure gold.

Cynthianna said...

I agree with you, Ann, that Ashildr/Me did have a very quick "repentance" and she too readily expressed a desire not to be a heartless type at the end. Was it because she was sincere in her regard for humanity, or was it because she felt she had to say these things in order to get the Doctor to help out and to save her as well? And how did she know so much about the Doctor's character? Did her alien contact tell her this information or has she been in touch with other aliens, immortals or Time Lords before this point? That wasn't made very clear.

I think the ending shows some of the limitations of the 45 minute story format. Possibly, if the story idea had been given more time to develop like Classic Who with multiple episodes per storyline, we might have seen a slow but sure change in her attitude, making that "convenient" ending a bit stronger. Then again, this is Moffat producing Doctor Who, so maybe not.

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