The Story That Gives (More on New Doctor Who)
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.
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: