“The Woman Who Lived” was the second part of a rather unconventional two-part story. Its first part, “The Girl Who Died,” is basically a self-contained story. The connection between these two stories is that “The Woman Who Lived” shows the consequences of the Doctor’s actions at the end of “The Girl Who Died.” However, instead of picking up where the story left off and returning to the village, we follow Ashildr about 800 years after the Doctor saved her life.
While I did enjoy this episode, it was not perfect. My biggest complaint is that the alien plot was not terribly well-defined. It was basically what Alfred Hitchcock referred to as a “MacGuffin,” a plot device that serves to provide motivation for the characters and move the action along. In that case it served its purpose; the amulet brings the Doctor and Ashildr together and forces them to work together. Similarly, Leandro’s plan is what sparks the conflict between the Doctor and Ashildr and what brings about Ashildr’s change of heart. As you’ll learn in a moment, I didn’t really want more time devoted to the alien subplot, but I wish that it wasn’t so obviously just a plot device. Similarly, Sam Swift was a rather one-dimensional character. He served his narrative function, but that was pretty much it. I didn’t wish him ill, but I didn’t feel like I knew him at all.
The reason however, that I still really enjoyed this episode was the interaction between the Doctor and Ashildr/Me. Honestly, I could have done without the fire-breathing space lion invasion plot and had an episode that was solely conversations between the Doctor and Ashildr/Me (but, since Doctor Who is not made solely for my enjoyment it’s probably good that they didn’t do that). Characters with extraordinarily long life-spans are not new to Doctor Who (in this episode alone we have the Doctor and a reference to Captain Jack), but I thought that Catherine Tregenna wrote well about the cost of living so long. Of course, credit is also due to Maisie Williams for making Lady Me seem like a completely different person from Ashildr: much more self-confident, but also world-weary and emotionally detached. That transformation, combined with the changes in costuming, make her seem a great deal older than when we last saw her, even though she hasn’t physically aged at all.
Returning, however to the writing, I loved every moment of the conversations between Ashildr/Me and the Doctor. Touching on a few key incidents from Ashildr’s past was a great way to show what essentially being immortal had done to her. Even the idea of calling herself Me, which could have been ridiculous, worked with the explanation that, “all the other names I chose died with whoever knew me. Me is who I am now. No-one’s mother, daughter, wife. My own companion. Singular. Unattached. Alone.” From her first losses of her father and all the villagers she grew up with to her own children dying of the plague, she has lost more people than a normal person would even meet. Regular humans disappear from her life so quickly she can’t even remember them all.
In order to survive, she has had to develop an attitude not dissimilar from the Doctor and Captain Jack. She knows that human existence is transitory while she endures, so she, unlike the Doctor, has withdrawn from human contact. This episode explains why the Doctor chooses to travel with mere mortals that he knows he will eventually lose: he needs them to remind him how precious life is and to keep him from becoming too detached. The woman who the Doctor meets is, in many ways, what he was afraid of becoming. When he encounters Me at the beginning of the story, she seems to have stopped caring about anyone. Human life is cheap to her, having seen how quickly people die, so she thinks nothing of killing someone if it serves her purpose. She is barely human anymore, since she has knowledge and experiences vaster than those of any human (except, of course, the aforementioned Jack).
It’s also interesting that Ashildr/Me never used immortality charge on any of the people she loved and cared about. She says that she never found anyone good enough, but it’s clear that there is more to it than that. She admits at the end of the episode that she doesn’t think immortality should be possessed by anyone. As difficult as it is for her to continue through the centuries alone, she would rather not punish anyone else with her fate. It’s in choices like this that some of the old Ashildr starts to show in Lady Me. She was very selfless in her protection of the village, and a bit of that selflessness must have remained, even when she seemed to not care.
Of course, Ashildr is a hybrid of two warrior races (the Vikings and the Mire) just as in the prophecy that Davros mentioned. I’d also be willing to bet that she is a better warrior than anyone from either race a this point in her life. Could she be the hybrid of the prophecy or is she just another example of a hybrid on the way to something bigger? Will she wind up helping the Doctor or will he come to find the enemy in the friend?
This episode was mostly Clara-less, which was a good thing. As much as I like Clara, the focus needed to be on the Doctor and Ashildr/Me. However, the scene with Clara was a nice touch at the end. It was a nice coda on the story because we see Ashildr in the photo outside Coal Hill School; this reinforces the idea that she is still keeping an eye on those who interact with the Doctor. I also have to admit that I just enjoy the rapport between the Doctor and Clara, which comes through, even in this brief scene. And, of course, it continues to foreshadow Clara’s imminent departure. Not only does Lady Me mention the fact that eventually Clara will be gone, but it is even brought to mind again in the final scene. Whenever the last lines of an episode are “don’t worry, daft old man. I’m not going anywhere,” you know trouble is just around the corner.
Overall, “The Woman Who Lived” is the rare example of the second half of a two-part episode being better than the first. I liked “The Girl Who Died,” but I really enjoyed “The Woman Who Lived.” Despite being written by two different writers, the two parts of this unconventional two-parter fit together surprisingly well; they both mixed lighthearted plot elements with more serious themes. While I think “The Woman Who Lived” did it a bit more successfully, I think I appreciate the first part more now that I’ve seen the second part. It actually reminded me a bit of the first Doctor story “The Ark.” That was the first story to really make the concept of time travel and its consequences the subject of the story. At least this time the Doctor wasn’t responsible for giving Monoids the upper hand over the last of humanity. Although Clara did sound a bit hoarse in “The Girl Who Died…”