Doctor Who Series 9, Episode 6
“The Woman Who Lived”
Posted by Kim
It’s fitting that “The Woman Who Lived” fell to me because I’m currently in the midst of watching Torchwood for the first time (I KNOW) and therefore spending a lot of time with the immortal Captain Jack Harkness. Catherine Tregenna wrote four episodes of Torchwood, so it’s very interesting to me that she made her Doctor Who debut writing a beautiful character study on another immortal, the woman formerly known as Ashildr, now simply known as Me. Jack and Me are two sides of the same coin. Jack may have his moments of darkness regarding the burden of immortality (I have wept multiple times on the treadmill as I stream Torchwood during my workouts) but he has always clung to the good. He has always surrounded himself with people, even though he knows he will outlive them and deal with the pain of losing them. The pain is worth it to him because he has the memories of the good. Me, on the other hand, after lifetime upon lifetime of loss, rejects human connection as a means of protecting herself. Better to be alone than to hurt all the time, right?
The plot of “The Woman Who Lived” is a bit thin (thank GOD because my brain still hurts from “Before the Flood”) but it’s heavy on insight into immortality, the fleeting nature of human life, and the ramifications of the Doctor’s adventures through time and space. In “The Girl Who Died”, Clara called the Doctor a tidal wave. What do tidal waves do? They leave a trail of destruction in their wake. It’s rare that the Doctor revisits those he’s had an impact on (Ten’s farewell tour not withstanding). He meets people, changes their lives, and moves on to the next adventure, not giving a second thought to how those lives change (for better or for worse). With Me, he comes face to face with what his tidal wave has wrought. Does he like what he sees? Well, that’s the very point, so let’s get on with it, shall we?
The episode opens with a horseman chasing down a carriage on a foggy night and for a second I’m worried that I’m accidentally watching Sleepy Hollow when I’m supposed to be watching Doctor Who. A bandit known only as “The Nightmare” is attempting to rob a couple (the woman totally looked like Reinette, no?) when the Doctor (who is flying solo because Clara has taken the Year Sevens for taekwondo) interrupts the shenanigans. He claims to only be passing through like
fish ships in the night (YOU KEEP PASSING ME BYYYYYYYYY) but it’s clear that he and the Nightmare are after the same object. As the Nightmare and the Doctor bicker, the carriage speeds off. Once they are alone, the Nightmare’s voice switches from male to female and she calls him “Doctor” and the Doctor’s face changes instantly because he KNOWS. It’s like he’s been preparing himself for this moment ever since he brought a dead Viking girl back to life. “It is Me,” she says (introducing herself?). “What took you so long, Old Man?” She has been waiting too, you see.
“The last time I saw you, you were founding a leper colony,” the Doctor says. “I was so proud.” So the Doctor HAS been checking in on her from afar unbeknownst to her. “And you left me there?” she says, with a flash of resentment on her face. The Doctor tries to play off THIS encounter as a coincidence (though surely the TARDIS led him to her, right?) and her face falls even further. “You mean you haven’t COME for me?” Surely the Doctor can’t be surprised by this reaction…this must be what EVERYONE who has ever encountered him thinks, right? Every single person, be it long time companion or the briefest of encounters waits to hear that wheezing groaning sound that brings hope where ever it goes again, don’t they? (I wait for it EVERY DAY.) The Doctor should KNOW this…yet he seems surprised and even embarrassed that she has been WAITING for him. Oh Doctor…for someone your age, you certainly can be daft.
“Oh, Ashildr. I’m sorry.” I GENUINELY believe he means it too. Sage pointed out last week that the Doctor knew he was being cowardly when he ran away without telling Ashildr just what he had done to her. The Ninth Doctor had the excuse of a little thing called regeneration when it came to Jack Harkness, but Twelve? He just didn’t want to face the consequences of what he had done. TIDAL WAVE. The Doctor gets his first taste of the damage he’s done when not only does she not recognize the name Ashildr, but she has no memory of the village she loved so much that she DIED saving it. “You loved that village,” the Doctor says with a stricken expression. “If you say so,” she shrugs. She’s so detached from EVERYTHING. Ashildr was so vibrant and alive…this woman is a shell of what she was. When the Doctor asked what she calls herself now, her simple answer is “Me”. “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.” It sounds SO MUCH like the Ninth Doctor, it physically hurts. What I loved about this episode is the way that the Doctor’s role was flipped. The role of caring often falls to the companion (“She’s my carer, she cares so I don’t have to.”) and Me’s extreme emotional detachment forces the Doctor into the role of carer. It’s like he’s seeing himself through the eyes of all of his companions, learning everything about Me AND himself at the same time. But sure, this is just a children’s show.
Back at her massive estate (where someone/something watches from the hedges), Me fills the Doctor in on what she’s been up to for the past 800 years. “I’ve had 800 years of adventure,” she says and it’s true. She was a queen, a soldier, a healer, and an accused witch. But still she tells the Doctor all of her stories with a sense of detachment, as if she was just recounting a story she was told once rather than sharing things that she actually lived through. She keeps referring the Doctor to her journals because she can’t actually remember all the details on her own, so she writes them down. “That’s the trouble with an infinite life and a normal size memory.” So…she’s still a storyteller. Some things are so ingrained into your DNA that 800 years of adventure and pain can’t even erase that. The Doctor is SO TENTATIVE as he says that it couldn’t have been easy for her, outliving everyone she knows. She shrugs and says that according to her journals, losing people was hell and it’s so chilling the way she states that plainly, with no evidence of the actual hell she went through. All the Doctor can say to that is that he’s sorry because really what else is there to say? “You’ll have to remind me, what’s sorrow like? It all just runs out, Doctor. I’m just what’s left. In fact, I’ve done all I can here. I look up to the sky and wonder what it’s like out there. Please, take me with you. All these people here, they’re like smoke, they blow away in a moment. You don’t know what it’s like.” BUT HE DOES. The Doctor knows more than anyone else what it’s like to soldier on. But this is what makes the Doctor (and Jack) different from Me: even with all their losses, they continue to connect with others, even though they know it will hurt. Because the connection and the companionship, when you have it, is worth the pain.
It is important to note that Me wasn’t always like this. The Doctor reads her journals and learns that she fell in love. She had children. But she lost all of it. There are pages ripped out, there are pages stained with her tears. It’s a life full of pain and loss and the Doctor’s FACE as he realizes the enormity of her pain is heartbreaking. No wonder she turned her back on connection. No wonder she decides that “from now on it’s me against the world”. Albert Einstein said that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. After centuries of always losing, Me has learned that the only sane thing to do is to stop caring. It’s the only way she can get by. Does this mean the Doctor is INSANE because he continues to seek out companions that will inevitably leave him? Sure. But we knew that already.
While the Doctor spends some quality time in the library, Me sneaks out and speaks to the creature in the hedge. She assures it that the Doctor has no idea about what their plans for the artifact they are both seeking are. Ruh roh.
The Doctor confronts Me about the missing pages to which she simply says that when things get too bad she tears out the pages. (I totally feel her on this because I intentionally leave things or people out of my scrapbooks when I don’t remember them.) The entries about the children, however, remain to serve as a reminder not to do it again. “I’ve left you alone too long,” he says. HM. WHERE HAVE I HEARD THAT BEFORE?
Donna: Just promise me one thing. Find someone
The Doctor: I don’t need anyone.
Donna: Yes you do. Because sometimes I think you need someone to stop you.
THANKS I REALLY NEED MORE DONNA NOBLE FEELS AFTER LAST WEEK SHOW.
In all seriousness, if there is one thing the Doctor has learned in his travels, it’s the importance of having someone to ground him. Without a companion, he goes all Time Lord Victorious and forgets who he really is. It’s no way to live, being desensitized to the world. It’s WHY the Doctor continues to call her Ashildr, even when she rejects the name. “I remember who you used to be. She’s still in there.” Me is having none of it though and her rage here is totally justified because she KNOWS that the Doctor is doing this (somewhat) to assuage his guilt. “So you intend to fix me? Make me feel again, then run away?” She’s forcing the Doctor to face everything he hates about himself because it’s true. He’s the man who runs away. Sure, he saves people but what happens AFTER he saves them? He’s on to the next person to save. He runs. He always runs…it’s HIS coping mechanism.
The Doctor and Me set out to steal the artifact from the Fenshawes but the robbery is secondary to continuing their heart to heart. The Doctor asks the million dollar question…why is Me still alone? Why hasn’t she used the other immortality charge so she could have a partner? That was, after all, what he intended for her to do. “No one’s good enough,” she scoffs. REALLY? The man she fell in love with wasn’t good enough? Later, as they scurry up the fireplace to hide from Fenshawe (having retrieved the artifact, which is an amulet called the Eyes of Hades), Me tosses the question back to the Doctor. What about Clara? The Doctor is surprised that she remembers Clara but Me just replies that she takes particular note of anyone’s weaknesses. (UM. NO.) So why HASN’T The Doctor made Clara immortal if she’s so important to him? He tries to brush it off with a joke (“Well look how you turned out.”) but the question does stand. Why hasn’t the Doctor made Clara (or Rose or Martha or Sarah Jane or any of them) immortal? Because the Doctor knows that it would be selfish of him to do so. He would be doing it purely to comfort himself and he would be robbing the companions of their right to live and their right to die. He loves them too much to do that to them. He would rather suffer their deaths than curse them with immortality. My heart hurts. “She’ll die on you, you know,” Me taunts. (OBJECTION THAT’S RUDE.) “How many have you lost? How many Claras?” The Doctor thought about every single one of them in that moment, I know he did. All of them so important. Clara is the here and now but his love for her doesn’t lessen the love he had for any of the others. He carries them all with him in his hearts.
Having escaped the Fenshawes, Me and the Doctor make their way back to her estate on foot. They encounter a bandit named Sam Swift and initially all the scene was to me was an opportunity for banter and for Peter Capaldi to be delightfully grumpy. The scene takes on weight when Me threatens to kill Sam Swift. “Kill him and you make an enemy out of me.” There will be no killing for the hell of it, not while the Doctor is around. “I know their lives are short, I understand,” he explains to Me. “But those lives DO matter.” (In 900 years he never met someone who wasn’t important. I’m fine.) Me is not here for life lessons. She’s so past that and nothing the Doctor tries to teach her matters to her. Why is this episode trying to murder me with feels?
Back at the estate, the Doctor offers to stay around for a bit so they can figure out the purpose of the amulet together. Again, Me sees right through him and calls out his refusal to take her with him, despite her pleas. “You have this whole wonderful planet to play on!” It’s bullshit and he knows it. He offers her platitudes about the future but the problem is that the future is SO FAR AWAY. What is she supposed to do in the here and now? “I want to fly right now. I have waited… longer than I should ever have lived. I have lost more than I can even remember. Please, Doctor… just get me out of this. I want more than this. I deserve more than this! Why not? Why not?!” Did anyone else get echoes of Clara’s meltdown in “Dark Water” because I sure did. That’s the problem with encountering the Doctor. Once you’ve experienced the extraordinary, how can you ever go back to the mundane without feeling like you deserve more than it? TIDAL WAVE. Me completely shuts down and any progress the Doctor may have made with her goes away the moment he denies her with a “it wouldn’t be good”.
Enter the creature from the Hedge, who is a Lion Man (it was not your fault but mine) named Leandro. Me turns on the Doctor saying that he has played exactly into her plans for the amulet. The amulet is Leandro’s and he lost it when he crashed to earth from his planet Delta Leonis. The amulet can open up a portal to travel to another galaxy, which is exactly what Me needs to get off this godforsaken planet and see the stars. This infuriates the Doctor and he asks her if she fancies herself to be Leandro’s new queen, which insulted me on Me’s behalf. “Oh, dear God… You’re just like every other man. I’m not looking for a husband, you oaf. I’m looking for a horse to get me out-of-town. You said no.” YAS. Me thinks she can trust Leandro because he knows what it’s like to be alone. Which come on. First of all, the Doctor has been trying to tell you the whole time that HE KNOWS TOO. Second, you know what people do when they are alone? They get desperate. And desperation is not to be trusted.
The only way the amulet can open up a portal is through a death which is downright offensive to the Doctor. “Who dies so you can run away?” Me offers up her faithful servant Clayton (“He loves you!” “To the end it would seem.”) and the Doctor can’t comprehend how this woman, who had cared so much about her village that she literally died for caring too much, can be so callous. “What happened to you?” The flood gates open. “You did, Doctor. You happened.” I love how Maisie Williams went toe to toe with Peter Capaldi here. It’s a brilliant performance and she’s so good that it was hard to care about anyone other than her and the Doctor for the entire episode.
Me: Human life is fleeting. People are mayflies, breeding and dying, repeating the same mistakes. It’s boring. And I’m stuck here. Abandoned by the one man who should know what eternity feels like. Who should understand.
The Doctor: I do, now, but…
Me: You still won’t take me with you. You gad about while I trudge through the centuries, day by day, hour by hour. Do you ever think or care what happens after you’ve flown away? I live in the world you leave behind. Because you abandoned me to it.
The Doctor: Why should I be responsible for you?
Me: You made me immortal!
The Doctor: I saved your life. I didn’t know that your heart would rust because I kept it beating. I didn’t think your conscience would need renewing, that the well of human kindness would run dry. I just wanted to save a terrified young woman’s life.
Me: You didn’t save my life, Doctor. You trapped me inside it.
This confrontation is so complex because there is NO right answer here. The Doctor KNOWS that she has suffered, but you know what? Suffering shouldn’t define us. But at the same time, Me has every right to feel enraged because she was abandoned. Conversely, the Doctor is not responsible for the choices she’s made and how she’s ended up here. He thought he was doing right. He’s the Doctor, he saves people. What you do AFTER you’re saved is up to you. Then again, the Doctor should be aware that his actions have consequences, that the reckless way he galavants through time and space has a lasting effect. Like I said, this is a family show.
Leandro and Me learn that Sam Swift is set to hang. How convenient because they need a death! They leave the Doctor tied to a chair, even though the Doctor warns her that Leandro probably will betray her the first chance that he gets. Her tunnel vision about getting out is too great though. The Doctor manages to sweet talk the guards into letting him go by offering them 30 pounds of Me’s money, which is 10 more than the bounty that’s on his head (“20 pounds? Is that all?”). He steals a horse and sets off for the gallows to save Sam Swift and stop them from opening the portal. At the gallows, Sam Swift is doing a comedy routine that involves penis jokes (FAMILY SHOW) because dammit, if he’s going to die, he might as well die saying he was well hung. Me offers the hangman money to make it quick. She kisses him goodbye as the crowd chants for his hanging. “All right, all right, as God is my Highwayman. He steals the most precious gift of all. Life! Magical, filled with adventures! And at least I can say I lived mine to the full.” Yes, Sam. Yes you did, you mayfly, you. The Doctor arrives and they banter about his age, trade puns and fart jokes, and the Doctor uses his psychic paper to get Sam pardoned. This is the last straw for Me, so she takes the amulet and slams it on Sam’s chest without a second thought. She doesn’t care that she just murdered someone, she only cares about the fact that she’s finally going to get out of there. The portal opens and Me is off to her new life…except she’s not. The portal reveals an army of ships that start firing on the town. Leandro was lying about being the last of his kind. It was all a set-up for them to invade. He never had any intention to take her away.
Leandro’s betrayal and the panic of the townspeople promptly wakes Me up. “What have I done?” she says in a panic. She suddenly realizes that she DOES care what happens to all these innocent people. Her heart grew three sizes in that moment. It’s so beautiful. Welcome back, Ashildr, Viking Girl of Honor. You’ve been missed (look how DELIGHTED the Doctor is). They realize the only way to stop the invasion is to reverse Sam’s death. Ashildr takes the immortality charge, the charge that she’s held onto for 800 years because no one was good enough, and uses it on Sam Swift without a second thought. Leandro is vaporized, Sam comes back to life. Just this once, everybody lives.
Over victory beers with Sam (who hasn’t forgotten that kiss, Ashildr) at the Swan with Two Necks pub, the Doctor and Ashildr (does she take that name again? I am going with yes) have one last heart to heart. She asks the Doctor is Sam is immortal now and the Doctor just asks if she wants him to be. “I don’t think I want anyone to be.” AND THERE IT IS. She understands now. “You’re still not going to take me with you, are you?” she asks, but all of her previous resentment is gone. “People like us, we go on too long,” the Doctor says. “We forget what matters. The last thing we need is each other. We need the mayflies. See, the mayflies, they know more than we do. They know how beautiful and precious life is because it’s fleeting.” Both the Doctor and Ashildr need someone to remind them of the fragility of life. They need someone to keep them in check, someone who won’t let them forget that every single life is important. The mayflies help them see the details and allow them to see the beauty in the small moments. It’s what life is made of, after all. Life is a Seurat painting…thousands upon thousands of tiny dots that make up one big picture. The Doctor will always see the big picture…the companions remind him of the dots that are essential to it.
So how do they leave each other? The Doctor hints that he’s going to keep an eye on her, but she says it’s not necessary. Someone has to look out for the people you abandon. Who better than me? I’ll be the patron saint of the Doctor’s leftovers. While you’re busy protecting this world, I’ll get busy protecting it from you.” This sounds like a threat, but I don’t think it is. It’s more of a promise. She, more than anyone, knows the impact an encounter with the Doctor leaves on a person. She’ll be the one checking in on them and making sure they are okay (which has basically been the fandom’s head canon for Jack Harkness). “It’s your friends you have to watch out for. And my friend…I’ll be watching out for you.” The Doctor gets it…and I think he finds the thought of it comforting. “I think I’m very glad I saved you.” “I think everyone will be.”
(I’m going to ignore the ominous feeling I get from that because I’ve read the synopsis for her return in “Face the Raven” and I am in DEEP DEEP DENIAL, okay?)
Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor is pensively playing his guitar because he’s all emo and shit (LET ME LIVE PETER CAPALDI) when Clara Oswald bursts into the TARDIS with a chipper “Did you miss me?”. (Me and the Doctor: OMG YES.) They immediately fall into their typical banter and you can see the Doctor take it all in like it’s a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s day. His Clara. Clara, naturally, has no idea what he’s been through (though I certainly hope he tells her, where’s my fanfic, internet?) and goes on about a student who the Doctor helped with her homework. (NEVER MIND GIVE ME *THAT* FANFIC, INTERNET.) It turns out the student got an A on her report and took a selfie with Clara to give to the Doctor. The Doctor takes the phone from Clara and zooms in. Sure enough…there is Ashildr smirking in the background, watching over Clara. BUT WHY? Clara notices how the Doctor changes immediately and asks him what’s wrong, but the Doctor shakes it off and says nothing. He asks Clara where she wants to go because it’s easier to think about the here and now rather than the ramifications of Ashildr’s presence. THEN THIS HAPPENS.
Whouffaldi fans have been waiting all series for this hug after it was shown in the trailer. Naturally, we thought it would come after the Doctor and Clara had gone through some sort of emotional crisis but NOPE. She just hugged him because she wanted to. She hugged him like it’s something she does everyday and the Doctor just ACCEPTS it. He doesn’t shake her off claiming he’s not a hugger, he sinks INTO her comforting presence. He fucking pats her hand as if to reassure himself that for this moment, Clara Oswald is here, loving him. I’M FINE.
“I’ve missed you, Clara Oswald.” If Clara is surprised by this reaction, she doesn’t show it. “Don’t worry, daft old man. I’m not going anywhere.” (“How long are you going to stay with me?” “Forever.” LEAVE ME HERE TO DIE.) Oh, Clara Oswald, you precious mayfly. You know you just signed your death warrant, right?
What are your thoughts on “The Woman Who Lived”? Let us know in the comments.