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'Doctor Who' recap: 'The Woman Who Lived'

Posted on

BBC America

Doctor Who

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
run date:
Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
SyFy Channel
Sci-fi and Fantasy

Here’s the thing about a show about time travel: Once an element is introduced to the story, it has always been in that story. It’s out there now — the technology exists to make people “functionally immortal.” So why didn’t the Doctor use a Mire medical kit, or something like it, to keep any of his previous companions by his side? Because he has a heart (two of them), you monsters. The Doctor wouldn’t wish immortality on anyone.

Wishing it on Ashildr was short sighted — a split-second response to a loss that reminded him of all the others — and he ran rather than deal with the consequences. But if you run long enough around the same planet, the consequences have a way of finding you. This one meets him on an English road in 1651. She’s in disguise as the Knightmare, a highwayman with a reputation. The Doctor interrupts her robbery in search of the same amulet. (“Well, can’t we share it? Isn’t that what robbery’s all about?”) Between the two of them, he’s more surprised by their reunion than she is.

But he’s even more surprised by what she’s become: The woman who stands before the Doctor has little in common with the young Viking he saved. She barely remembers the name Ashildr or the village that she defended with her life. She’s “Me” now: “No one’s mother, daughter, wife. My own companion.” And I’m all for calling people by the names they prefer, so this is about to get really weird grammatically.

Me is an island. She’s closed off to the people around her and traded relationships for “adventure.” She accuses the Doctor of just passing through the world, but she’s just passing through her own life at this point, which she paints as a natural byproduct of her unique state. Her memory is short — as short as any mortal human’s — so along with the names and places she’s lost, Me is constantly forgetting the emotional lessons that go along with any lived experience. In that sense, her immortality is the opposite of the Doctor’s: Even when he changes his entire personality, he holds on to the knowledge of where he’s been. 

Me’s journals, her only connection to her 800-year existence, tell fantastic stories — she was a queen; she helped end the Hundred Years’ War; she cured a village of scarlet fever. But for every victory, there was a loss — the village drowned her as a witch; she left a lover behind; she lost children to the plague. She’s torn out most of the worst memories, but she keeps that last one in there to remind her never to have kids again. The journals explain not only how Me became this way, but why: Forgetting saves her a lot of pain.

But “you don’t forget the man who saved your life.” Me begs the Doctor to take her to the sky — she’s been waiting — but he has no intention of doing so. For one thing, he’s got Clara. Clara is at school taking the year sevens for taekwondo at the moment, but he’s still not in the market for a permanent new companion, and even if he were, he’s not sure he trusts the person Me has become.

She drags the Doctor along on a robbery to recover the amulet, which he notes looks suspiciously like the eye of Hades. That’s never a good sign. Even more troubling is Me’s disregard for human life — she aims her gun at the amulet’s owner when he nearly catches them, and she aims it again at local robber Sam Swift when they meet him on the road. “Kill him and you make an enemy of me,” the Doctor reminds her — and as much as she claims not to care, she can’t have that. She lets Swift go.

But Me is still plotting something that she knows the Doctor won’t approve of. She’s allied herself with a lion-like alien called Leandro, who tells her that his planet and his family were destroyed. The amulet was his means of travel, but he lost it in the crash. Now that he has it back, he can open a portal to the universe and take Me with him — with one small sacrifice: The amulet requires a death. “It’s just exploiting an abundant resource,” Me says, as regally as if she’s inviting the starving peasants to eat cake. “There’s so much dying here.” Not on the Doctor’s watch.

Me ties the Doctor to a chair and prepares to kill her loyal, half-blind, nearly deaf butler (could it get any crueler?), but he’s given a reprieve: Sam Swift has been arrested and sentenced to hang. Me and Leandro set out to put Swift’s death toward their own end while soldiers arrest the Doctor, who’s had a bounty on his head since he was seen in the company of the Knightmare. The Doctor turns that bounty around and offers the spoils of Me’s robberies (“almost 30 pounds”) in exchange for his release.

NEXT: Gallows humor and chill[pagebreak]

When the Doctor makes it to Tyburn, he finds Swift using literal gallows humor to delay his execution (successfully) and pick up ladies (less successfully). Me is having none of it. She calls out for Swift’s hanging, even indulging his request for a kiss on the lips to speed things along. Just as Swift starts waxing poetic about the “precious gift” that is life, the Doctor presents his psychic paper as a pardon from Cromwell himself. Swift is spared, but this crowd came for a hanging; if it’s not going to be Swift, it might as well be the Doctor.

Me takes matters into her own hands and shoves the amulet into Swift’s heart, killing him and releasing a death ray into the sky. A portal does open, but what Me hoped would be her way out of here is actually the way in for Leandro’s not-so-dead home planet. Spaceships come through the rift, raining fireballs onto the town, and concern for humanity hits Me out of nowhere. (“It’s awful, isn’t it? It’s infuriating. You think you don’t care, but you fall off the wagon.”) She can’t be responsible for the death of so many defenseless people. “They need you,” she says to the Doctor. “They need us.” He welcomes her back. She’s not just “me” anymore. She’s one of “us” — Ashildr again.

They both already know what has to be done: If death opens the rift, then undoing death can close it. That sort of thing is usually impossible, unless you happen to have a spare Mire medical kit in your back pocket just in case. Ashildr gives Swift the chip, and he comes back to life, closing the portal and saving the town. So is he immortal now? That’s anyone’s guess. The Doctor assumes not, because closing the rift probably drained the chip of some power, but he really can’t be sure. And there’s a more pressing question to be asked: Is he going to let Ashildr come with him?

He could. He doesn’t want to. The Doctor believes that he and Ashildr are a dangerous combination — their perspectives are too vast. “People like us,” he says, “we go on too long. We forget what matters. The last thing we need is each other.” Immortals need to be around people whose lives are short, because they’re the ones who understand how “precious” every moment is. That’s more of an explanation for abandonment than he ever gave Jack Harkness, and it’s true. But it’s also a little bit selfish — not because it protects the Doctor’s sense of perspective, too, but because of what it means for Ashildr’s future.

Unlike most immortal beings the Doctor has known, Ashildr is trapped in the slow lane. She doesn’t have a vortex manipulator at her disposal. Her life is lived day by day, and it never stops. There’s a reason the Doctor, in his own words, “comes for the battle and runs away from the fallout.” The battle makes him feel alive. He needs a companion with a small perspective, but he also needs to live a big life, full of the kind of life-or-death situations that remind him what matters — as this one reminded Ashildr today.

If Ashildr doesn’t travel with the Doctor, she’ll have to find her own everyday battles on the home front, just like everyone else he leaves behind. But those people can be her fight — she’ll be “the patron saint of the Doctor’s leftovers.” After all of that, the Doctor is ready to let Ashildr come along if that’s what it takes to keep her humanity intact, but she decides against it, choosing to live like the Doctor on a much smaller scale. “Ashildr, I think I’m very glad I saved you,” the Doctor says, and for a minute I almost agree with him.

Background radiation:

  • At least the Doctor checked in on Ashildr now and again. And now she’s checking in on him — the Doctor spots her in the background of a selfie from one of Clara’s students.
  • How long do we think it took the Doctor to shove Clara out of the TARDIS and into her own life for a few hours?
  • “How many have you lost? How many Claras?” It works both literally and metaphorically, and I’m sad either way.
  • “Sorry, I really was planning to listen that time, but basically I didn’t.”
  • “My curio-scanner? It scans for — it scans for curios. I just realized how it got its name.”
  • The sonic sunglasses were repaired by the power of your hatred.
  • “That was her fault because she should have stressed imaginary.”
  • “No, not the puns. Line in the sand. No puns.”
  • “This is banter. I’m against banter. I’m on record on the subject of banter.”
  • “Did you miss me?” “Be more specific: Who are you?”