25 October 2015

Doctor Who: The Woman Who Lived

Review by Tom Newsom

The second in a two-part story - or is it? Regardless, it’s one of those uncommon episodes of the show - one where characters and themes and messages take over an otherwise standard plot, this time with magical results.

At first you might think you’d skipped an episode, what with the sudden change in setting. But this one complements last week’s “opening” part to the story rather more closely than you’d expect. The action-adventure strand in both is slight, but there are big discussions on life and death. Bravely, this episode is for the first half a lengthy two hander (no Clara!), before the action widens out. It’s great to have a smaller episode that still manages to be very compelling - I was captivated.

Much of it’s down to Maisie Williams’s character - what a part! The range is extraordinary - going from Viking girl last week to seventeenth century woman... probably because it’s basically two separate characters. It’s an inherent weakness that this episode doesn’t naturally follow on, and that’s the point. The character of Ashildr has grown up, hundreds of years older, and can’t even remember when she was born. Her morals have changed beyond recognition - as has her style! - and she’s become an interesting, headstrong figure who has run away from her past.

Oh, but it’s here where the best, deepest part of the episode is. Ashildr’s assumption that the Doctor has come back especially is undercut by the alien artefact plot; she’s just a coincidence, and plenty of adventures have happened since. But the Doctor’s well-meaning gift of an second “immortality charge” incase she meets someone she likes is undercut by the reality- she’s immortal, she doesn’t get close to anyone and she’s only got one patch; as she says, simply, “nobody’s good enough”. There’s plenty of touches here, quickly told to us - her mastering every skill through being alive longer; her disregard for her own species coinciding with becoming a highwayman; seeing her life through history culminating in tragic loss.

And then there are the parallels between her and the Doctor - it’s not particularly subtle by the end of the episode, but it makes the whole thing sing. The Doctor is advising Ashildr to notice the little people, the “mayflies”, an about turn perhaps from last year into the Doctor we know and love. He admits, though, he hasn’t made Clara immortal in the same way, even though he’s said he won’t bear to lose her. It all adds to the foreboding mood this series.

It’s a very handsome Doctor Who episode, thanks to some great imagery from the script (picking a very fancy period of history, and adding in a big kingly lion too). It looks stylish, with the night-time scenes lit blue with orange candles reminding me of Poldark’s house style, by the same director. But it’s not just the look - combined with the previous episode, Ed Bazalgette has managed to produce the ultimate Who calling card, with two perfectly paced adventures (in my opinion), telling a story on a grand scale.

The plots in both this and last week’s were admittedly slight - or simply a foreground to a wider canvas of the immortal, eponymous Ashildr. Leandro the Lion is both a cool monster and a fearsome foe, though his purpose sticks out more obvious than most this week - to provide a test of Ashildr’s character, as well as the obligatory monster of the week. He keeps to the shadows (unfortunately -the make-up is nice), and gets about as much screen-time in the end as the controversial Sam Swift the highwayman. I like Rufus Hound, and I like a rude joke as much as the next man - but I expect the “gallows humour” scenes will get some stick, in an otherwise grown-up episode. Personally I found it the best kind of silly jokes, even if it all goes on a bit too long, necessary to lighten the mood, with a performance containing all that sadness behind the humour.

If it invites comparison to Doctor Who of old - not that every episode does - then Enlightenment jumped out at me, and not just because it’s one of the increasingly rare examples of a TV episode written by a woman. Both are different from the normal stories the show tells, and curiously they both end up mixing poetic, immortal characters with history and aliens. Not that poetry and big ideas is limited to those two - look at Warriors’ Gate, Kinda, or Survival, or Vincent and the Doctor, Kill the Moon or In the Forest of the Night. The Woman Who Lived is one of those rarefied, unusual slices of Doctor Who that works on both levels - as a family adventure and a sweeping, engaging drama.

At the end, we have Maisie Williams - a very successful, commanding performance, even when it’s hyped beforehand - joining the pantheon of potentially recurring Doctor Who characters, and an immortal one at that. The sorts of people he considers to be his friends, who can pop up whenever and wherever the writer wants - Moffat’s a fan, of course. I didn’t quite buy the rather Torchwood-esque group Ashildr was going to set up, nor do I think it will be returned to any time soon. Because one of the clever things about the show, is that in following episodes, if a writer wants to feature her again, they don’t have to stick to the established events at all. Like the Doctor, the show can write its own history as it goes. Whether this episode sinks or swims in that history remains to be seen.

No comments:

Post a Comment