‘You did not save my life, Doctor. You trapped me inside it.’
Just like its titular guest star, The Woman Who Lived should not work. On one hand, writer Catherine Tregenna delivers a bawdy historical romp, all housebreaking and comedic highwaymen. At exactly the same time, it’s an unutterably bleak, sometimes stagey, meditation on the nature of (im)mortality, the consequences of his “saving” of Viking woman Ashildr last week coming home to roost.
And perhaps it wouldn’t work if it were not for guest star Maisie Williams’s remarkable ability to do what’s demanded in the script, to turn on a pin between those two genres, a style which, in other hands, might jar horribly.
She inhabits the contradiction with considerable poise. There isn’t exactly a lot of material available with which to research a Restoration-period lady who doubles up by night as a feared highwayman, who 800 years before was a Viking girl, turned by an eternity of watching everyone around her die. It’s a niche role, but Willams sells it, as the amusing montage of her journey through history gives brutal way to the memory of watching her children die, and we hear the story of her unusual name. “All the other names I chose died with whoever knew me, Me is who I am now. Nobody’s daughter, sister or mother, just Me.”
Much like last week, the adventure itself feels like the “B-story” backdrop to the big series-arc stuff that Williams is clearly central to, which will likely frustrate exactly the same people it did last week; things also feel like they hold together better here.
Capaldi once again proves that he’s a lot better as “Funny Doctor” than he was as “Dark Doctor” last year; overcoming his aversion to punning in order to buy valuable time. And as his verbal sparring partner Sam Swift the Quick, Rufus Hound brings the same infectious glow of an actor clearly having the time of his life that Frank Skinner did last year. And since he may or not now be Me’s immortal companion, there’s plenty of scope for a return.
Ultimately, whether you think it has worked or not, this loose two-part story has certainly come up with a novel way of bringing some heft to the fun, frothy ones.
‘How many Claras have you lost?’
Ms Oswald was off teaching the year sevens Tae Kwondo this week, giving Maisie more room to shine in this “Clara-lite” episode. But it also adds to the feeling that Jenna Coleman has been somewhat underused this year. Between Missy and Me, the companion has been upstaged, especially after her roller-coaster story arc last year. And with fan favourite Osgood back next week, that looks set to continue.
I suppose, given that the rhythm of this series is how famously the pair are getting on this year, there’s inevitably going to be less story to mine as Clara just gets on with being great at the hero job. Presumably, that means that her big story will be all about her exit. The foreshadowing of Clara’s certain doom is getting alittle bit heavy-handed; so much so that death is maybe too obvious. Doctor Whohas specialised in inflicting on its companions fates worse than death, and Russell T Davies once said that it just isn’t the sort of show where you kill off your leading lady. But could this gritty urban iteration be the one to do the unthinkable?
This week’s monster, a louche lion-man called Leandro, isn’t going to be topping many scariest-ever lists, fun though he was. Amid all of the riotous comedy, the tone was bleak rather than scary. Quizzed by the Doctor as to why she has ripped pages from her diaries, Me reveals that when things get really bad, she tears them out. “What could be worse than losing your children?” he asks her. “I keep that entry to remind me not to have any more.”
Mysteries and questions
At the end, Me remarks to the Doctor: “Enemies are never a problem. It’s your friends you have to watch out for.” Which normally might just be so much stagey dialogue, if it did not echo Missy’s “a friend inside an enemy, an enemy inside a friend”. Which clearly brings us back to the Clara question. If there is a theme developing here to foreshadow Clara’s exit, then it’s maybe worth considering that next week’s story concerns those shapeshifting aliens the Zygons, with duplicate insurgents apparently walking among us (as established in the 50th).
Meanwhile, when Me shows up at the back of Clara’s pupil’s selfie, she is as difficult to read as ever …
A niche reference even for us, but the Great Fire of London was indeed within the Whoniverse, started by the Terileptils, in the 1982 story The Visitation. A reptilian, fish-like race, their invasion plot to wipe out life on Earth by releasing rats infected with an advanced strain of the great plague went haywire when one of their weapons overpowered inside a bakery on Pudding Lane.
Deeper into the vortex
- Life as a medieval Queen? “Mainly paperwork and backgammon, as I recall.”
- Whether this is relevant or not is a conversation for another day, but it’s worth pointing out that Catherine Tregenna is the first woman to write for Doctor Who since Helen Raynor penned The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky in 2008; and only the second since the show’s revival.
- But it was a woman who helped end the 100 years war.
- The hanging of Sam Swift was played for laughs, but there are accurate historical roots here. These highwaymen were the celebrities of their day, and people would turn out to watch their hangings.
- “I have waited longer than I should ever have lived. I’ve lost more than I can even remember.”
- Me knows what she’s talking about when she says it takes 10,000 hours to perfect any skill. The so-called “10,000-hour rule” is central to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which looks into the factors behind expertise, and takes as its premise the results of a study by K Anders Ericsson which found that to be the optimum period of practice needed to perfect any skill to top levels.
- If “purple is the colour of death” then is there maybe more than meets the eye to that purple velvet jacket which, yes, I am still going to keep banging on about?
- The whole of Greek mythology having alien origins? Well, that is certainly something to explore.
It’s the return of an all-time design classic, as Earth faces The Zygon Invasion.