This, together with The Girl Who Died, is not a two-parter. It’s tempting to see them as a two-parter, given the twinned titles and the common story revolving around Ashildr/Me, but one of the prerequisites for a two-part story should at least be that the episodes were both penned by the same writer, which is not the case here. Nevertheless, it’s inadvisable to watch either of the two episodes as standalone stories: you really can’t have one without the other. I say that because, watched together, these two episodes form a riveting character story and a compelling discussion of the themes of human life and immortality, but, individually, they’re not really anything special — particularly this one. True enough, I had high hopes for this episode as the follow-up to The Girl Who Died, and find myself slightly let down by the result. To be sure, it’s a good episode, and includes a handful of utterly sublime moments, but it had very conspicuous problems that made for a somewhat unsatisfying follow-up to last week’s episode.
The headline of this episode was the transformation of Ashildr, the vivacious, spirited young Viking girl we met in The Girl Who Died, into “Me”. Ashildr is a shadow of her former self, almost unrecognisable as the endearing, sweet young girl she used to be. Eight hundred years have transformed that girl into the selfish, distant and unsettlingly cold woman who calls herself “Me”. She’s physically the same, but she exudes ages: jaded, world-weary and drained by the centuries of all compassion and feeling. It’s frankly unnerving to watch her; the relentless passage of time has turned her into something inhuman, and it’s an enormous credit to Maisie Williams that she was able to transition from playing flushing, exuberant youth to extreme age so convincingly. The sequences conveying Ashildr’s heartbreak over losing her loved ones, and, movingly, her inability to remember how it felt, were truly riveting and emotionally profound. “I keep that entry to remind me not to have any more,” is winding. There’s a poignant subtext about the Doctor’s own proneness to emotional reclusion after losing loved ones: Ashildr’s behaviour recalls how the Doctor acted after losing Donna and the Ponds.
At least in this respect, then, The Woman Who Lived was a fantastic character piece. The two-handed dialogue between the Doctor and Ashildr make up the episode’s best sequences, and make for truly captivating viewing. It’s just that that’s not enough to make a great episode. The first fifteen minutes were superlative, but the episode begins to ramble with the housebreak scene, which is redeemed only for its humour (which nevertheless felt slightly out of place in such a dark and sombre script). The altercation with Sam Swift the Quick, as funny as it was, reinforced the impression that this episode was floundering around aimlessly in search of a plot. Indeed, the absence of anything conforming to the description of a substantive plot made much of this episode feel tedious and undercooked. The thing with Leandro and the magical amulet doesn’t count: that all came off as an afterthought, as beautifully designed as Leandro was. To an extent, this episode felt like the filler episode, even though it wasn’t. And, frankly, I’ve seen plenty better filler than this.
Truly, the episode is worth watching only for the scenes between the Doctor and Ashildr that focus on Ashildr’s character, and they really are very good. The scene in Ashildr’s home following the run-in with Sam Swift was wonderfully written, and gave Maisie the chance to display the impressive range she has as an actress. Ashildr’s pleading, through anger and tears and confusion, for the Doctor to take her with him, and her demanding to know why not when he refused, was truly something to witness. Maisie really can be a presence to be contended with, as she’s shown in these two episodes. Equally, Ashildr’s redemption, her shocked realisation that she really does care and that she can feel again, as Leandro and his bros launch an armed assault upon a throng of dirty peasants, was somewhat corny writing, but, nonetheless, in Maisie’s sure hands, effective and gloriously piercing. This resolution, with Sam’s jubilation upon finding himself alive, and the Doctor’s soliloquy to Ashildr in the pub, was a really heartening and uplifting ode to the value and wonder of human life. This contemplative parting message was so effectively conveyed, it almost made me forget that much of what preceded it was aimless “gadding about” (in the script’s own words). Almost.
Some final thoughts. The episode’s ending was very open-ended. We’re left unsure whether this was a “good” ending or not, with Ashildr’s cryptic last words, and the more-than-a-little creepy image of Ashildr in Clara’s selfie, looking like something from those “When you see it you’ll s**t bricks” photos. Sarah Dollard has already confirmed, after all, that Maisie will be appearing again in her episode, Face the Raven, so it’s pretty clear that Ashildr’s story is not over, as far as the Doctor is concerned. Secondly, it’s nice to be in the Stuart period. Apart from being one of my favourite periods of history, everything just looks so sumptuous, and, really, it’s just nice to have a historical piece that isn’t in the Victorian era for once. And, gosh, doesn’t Maisie look just gorgeous dolled up as an aristocratic Stuart lady? I loved Rufus Hound’s comic relief as Sam Swift, even if his scenes were some of the episode’s poorer. Finally—cor, they’re really laying on the foreshadowing of Clara’s death heavily now, aren’t they? It couldn’t be more blindingly obvious what’s going to happen… or at least what they want us to think is going to happen. To be honest, that they’ve dropped the hints so heavily actually makes me begin to doubt that Clara’s really going to die. It would be very like Moffat. No doubt she’s going to succumb to some horrible fate in the end, but what, if not death?
Quote of the week:
“I saved your life. I didn’t know that your heart would rust because I kept it beating. I didn’t think your conscience would need renewing, that the well of human kindness would run dry. I just wanted to save a terrified young woman’s life.”