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Doctor Who recap: The Woman Who Lived

This isn’t your Viking grandmother’s Maisie Williams.

Posted on

BBC America

Doctor Who

TV Show
Sci-fi and Fantasy
run date:
Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas
BBC America
Current Status:
In Season

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