Doctor Who: “The Woman Who Lived”

For a moment in this season’s opening two-parter I got the ghastly fear that by the end of this year we’d have a definitive, boring answer to the question of “why did the Doctor run away from Gallifrey?” Something like “he felt ashamed of his role in developing a hybrid warrior.” This episode gives some hope that we’re not headed there, simply by providing an excellent answer on its own. The Doctor ran away, always runs away, because if you live too long in one place and time, you risk burning out whatever it is that makes you who you ought to be.

It helps, of course, if you’ve had quite a long time to practice being who you ought to be. The Doctor has been stuck in one place and time for a couple of stretches of his life; most of his third life, for example, when he was exiled to Earth by the Time Lords, and a pile of centuries at the end of his eleventh (twelfth, I don’t know, whatever) defending the planet Trenzalore from invasion. In the first case, he had plenty of friends around to help him — Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Jo Grant, and Sarah Jane Smith foremost among them — and wasn’t there long enough to see any of them grow old and die. And in the second, he had already lived out a full Time Lord lifespan, believed he was at the end of it, and had a job to do. He didn’t have to survive on his wits alone, pretending to be a normal person, starting over every 25 years or so and struggling through Dark Ages European culture, loving and losing over and over with no end in sight. He didn’t come from humble beginnings with no one around like himself, figuring out all the ropes of being functionally immortal with no one to help him. If he had, he might very well have turned out like Ashildr.

Her life hasn’t been all bad, it seems. Like all lives, it’s had its ups — stints as royalty and as the most skilled archer imaginable — and its downs, what with the leper colonies and the losing lovers and children. In 1651 we find her a wealthy landowner and a successful highwayman. She’s a shrewder, worldlier take on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, with maybe a soupçon of Lady Johanna Constantine. It’s no surprise that after 800 years of human lives, she’s outgrown her planet and is ready to run away herself — to flee the banality of her own people, just as the Doctor did, and escape beyond the stars.

Maisie Williams is even more fantastic this week, outwardly a young woman and inwardly older than the Doctor when we first met him in 1963. Apart from maybe Kirsten Dunst as Claudia in Interview With the Vampire, it’s hard to think of any other young actor who’s pulled this trick off in a comparable way. Her attitudes, aptitudes, and circumstances seem fully believable, faltering only slightly toward the end when she’s called upon to jerk the wheel a hard left into Doctor Who Villain Lane and then pull a hard right back into Redeemed White Hat Street. That’s partly the script, though, which otherwise is a scintillating jewel from Catherine Tregenna, the very first female writer of the Moffat era and the first on the show in seven years. If you slogged through Torchwood you know that she was a standout on that show as well, and an old hand at writing people who were supposed to die but didn’t. The combination of the two make this a highlight on par with “Dark Water,” “Listen,” and “Hide” in my book.

Peter Capaldi is in top form as well, bringing exactly the right deftness to every scene, never overplaying his guilt for having doomed Ashildr by saving her, or his judgment of the person she’s become, or even his determination to tolerate a few bad puns and some banter to save a man’s life. He’s mellower than we’ve been told he’s supposed to be, and it suits him, whether he’s discovering why he has a device called a “curioscanner” or bribing a pair of guards with a fortune of 30 pounds.

There are a few slightly goofy Whoisms threaded into the plot, of course. It’s not clear why death should rip open the fabric of the universe even a little bit when part of the point of Ashildr is that death is the most natural aspect of life. It’s also not clear why a perfectly lovely color like purple should be “the color of death” (should someone notify Prince?), why a device that can create a transdimensional rift requires only one person to die in order to power it, or indeed why a feline-faced alien (“a lion man!” as one villager charmingly exclaims) who can breathe fire should need to wait for a hanging in order to arrange a human’s death. Here’s where aesthetics (including the never-not-welcome allusion to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête in the alien’s appearance) win out over logic, and I for one am happy this time to let them do so.

This is the first episode of series 9 that didn’t feel significantly indebted to any classic story or era of the show I can think of. In naming immortals or near-immortals the Doctor has traveled with, in fact, it names Jack Harkness (new series) while skipping over Romana (classic series), the Doctor’s Time Lady companion who also left him to head off into the sunset with a lion-faced alien (a benevolent member of the Tharil race; see “Warrior’s Gate”). It does, however, drop a reference to 1982’s “The Visitation,” in which the Terileptils really do start the Great Fire of London. And it does share a theory about immortality with one of the other rare and top-flight Doctor Who stories written by women, Barbara Clegg’s “Enlightenment” (1983). If you live too long, like that story’s Eternals (and in fact the Gallifrey-bound Time Lords), you need “ephemerals” — people who live short, brightly burning lives — to remind you of why life is worth living.

It’s actually nice to see Clara at the end of the episode, but it’s not because she would have enriched it. The joy of many companion-lite episodes is that they let us see the Doctor with new eyes, belonging to someone who doesn’t have to be generic enough to be a recurring co-star, and it’s a breath of fresh air. And in this case, it reminds us of why the Doctor travels with companions whose lives are short enough that he can and will lose them, companions for whom even a selfie, a captured image of one of very few moments we have to capture as mortals, can be a precious gift. And it prepares us for why he’ll eventually have to resign himself to letting her go.