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Doctor Who (Spoilers!) Review: "The Woman Who Lived"

              Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is definitely one of the most fascinating stories and characters in literature. Its 1992 film adaptation is certainly worth seeking out for Tilda Swinton’s amazing performance and some really significant themes on gender and identity. I bring it up because this episode of Doctor Who, “The Woman Who Died” centring on an immortal who’s been living through centuries of European history, is very similar in set-up.
                The Doctor comes face to face with the consequences of his actions in “The Girl Who Died” in this follow-up which is almost as good. It explores the drama of the situation and condition the Doctor left Ashildr in as well as the overall nature of his Lone Ranger-come-into-town-solve-problem-and-leave tendency. Add to that some great set pieces, the show having fun in an era I don’t think it’s visited since “The Visitation” (referenced in this episode), and the fact that one of the things I liked best about “The Girl Who Died” were the moments between Peter Capaldi and Maisie Williams. This episode is almost nothing but those!
                The Doctor arrives in the seventeenth century where he reunites with Ashildr who has lost most of her memories and identity over the centuries of immortality, save for the Doctor. She refers to herself by only the name of “Me”, keeps to herself avoiding attachments, and recently has taken up a career as a highwayman known as the Knightmare. The Doctor is looking for a dangerous amulet and “Me” agrees to help him hoping it will convince him to take her away from Earth. But it soon becomes apparent she has an alternative more devious plan, and may not be honest about what she remembers.
                The conflict of this story comes almost entirely based on the Doctor’s decision at the end of the last episode to save Ashildr’s life. That last shot where we saw her growing bitter through the ages with the curse of everlasting life really pays off here. We find out in this episode what’s she’s been up to. She took part in some important historical events, playing a significant role in the Battle of Agincourt and saving a village during the Black Plague. But we also learn of the darker side of this life that’s stuck with her, such as the fact she had three children who common to the era, died in infancy. The idea of an immortal being forced to live on as friends around them leave or die has been covered in relation to the Doctor. At one point Ashildr asks how many Claras have there been. The answer the Doctor doesn’t give is upwards of fifty. We see this shared connection between them, but for the much younger (even with her extended life) Ashildr it feels more tragic. The Doctor also learns what she’s had to resort to, in her desperation, having killed and having no qualms with killing. He really has created another Jack Harkness (who gets a nice shout-out near the end), someone else who’s darker immortal past that was glimpsed in Torchwood is comparable to hers. Again we really see the consequences the Doctor has to face. He always seems to come, defeat a villain, and then leave without focussing much on the fallout. Generally there’s not much of a problem, but every once in a while something he does has a very likely chance of leaving devastation. I think back to stories like “Resurrection of the Daleks” which had a fairly dark resolution resulting in the departure of one traumatized companion. At one point Ashildr says she’s had to live in “the world you leave behind.” And there’s some truth in her statement. Clara may give the Doctor a comforting hug at the end, but it’s not going to change that truth.
                Yeah Clara doesn’t show up until the last minute and her absence is notable but not unwelcome. It allows for a lot more great sequences between the two leads. Capaldi and Williams are fantastic in their chemistry and every time she asks that he take her with him you just want him to agree. She’d be a terrific companion and their performances really help you invest in the drama. But then again despite her age, Williams really brings a surprising gravitas to her character that eclipses the role of merely a companion. Ariyon Bakare is fine as her secret lion partner, looking a lot like Ron Perlman from Beauty and the Beast. And Rufus Hound plays basically himself in the 1600s: a lackluster comedian working in the shadow of another. That “don’t leave me hanging” joke was too painful. Though there was some good humour. The opening highwayman sequence reminds me (almost too familiarly) of a similar scene in the third series of my favourite television series Blackadder. In fact when Ashildr revels in her deep voice I’m certain writer Catherine Tregenna is paying homage to that episode. In addition to that we saw the Doctor express irritation with puns and banter, and Maisie Williams say “shut up! You’re not my dad!” It was also interesting seeing the Doctor and Arya Stark on a seventeenth century heist which was quite fine, and knowing her character from Game of Thrones, it was odd to see her dressed regally for a change.
                The ending was very hopeful too. The lion-alien is apparently on some sort of suicide mission, uses the amulet to open a portal that will kill everyone, himself and Ashildr included, allowing his species to come and invade. Ashildr realizes this is too far and she and the Doctor team up, close the portal, and save the day. Afterwards they have a very interesting conversation and while they’re on good terms, Ashildr promises that while the Doctor saves the world, she’ll be saving the world from him. Both are going to keep an eye on each other. What I love is neither is in the right or wrong, neither is evil nor good, both are understandable in deciding to watch out for the other. This series has focussed on the consequences of the Doctor’s actions and now he has someone watching over them. It’s no wonder it would make him uncomfortable, especially in seeing her grinning knowingly at him in the background of Clara’s selfie. But it means that Ashildr is sticking around which is exactly what I hoped. 

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