Sunday, 25 October 2015

Review - 'Doctor Who', S09E06 - 'The Woman Who Lived'

If the previous episode of Doctor Who had any real flaw (other than the border-line goofy inclusion of barrels of electric eels, of course), then it's probably the fact that it became increasingly clear, by the end, that setting the scene for Maisie Williams's return this episode ultimately seemed to be more important than the previous episode's own story. The village of lovable Vikings, and the alien threat that they were forced to confront, were ultimately set to be entirely forgotten as we moved forward.

Of course, while that was definitely a shame (I would definitely have liked to see more of those characters), that also quickly proved to be the entire point. As we discovered at the end of the previous episode, the Doctor's use of alien technology to save the life of the young Viking girl, Ashildr (Maisie Williams), had the consequence of making her, effectively, immortal. She could still be injured and killed, sure - but, barring that, the alien technology operating inside her could essentially keep her young and healthy forever. The episode even ended with the Doctor clearly feeling as though he might have just made a terrible mistake - a feeling that only seemed to be confirmed by that fantastic ending sequence which showed us the toll that the years were set to take on the once innocent young woman.

By the time that the Doctor meets Ashildr again, as the episode opens, it seems that the Doctor's worst fears are destined to be confirmed. Now making a living posing as a highwayman in the 17th Century, centuries of life seem to have gradually worn away everything about the creative and intelligent girl that the Doctor had been so determined to save. Instead, the woman (who clearly isn't a 'girl' anymore, despite her youthful appearance) the Doctor meets seems callous and cold - and, determined to keep herself separate from the world around her - something which the Doctor clearly seems to take personally, as he obviously had higher hopes for her. The Viking village that was once so important to her has become a distant memory to her, as has the people she had once cared. 'Ashildr' has become a name that she does not even use, anymore - being just the first in a long line of identities that she has taken, and abandoned, over the years as the people who knew her by them have passed away. Instead, she has come to think of herself just as 'Me' - a solitary figure determined to keep the rest of the world at arm's length.

There is a great mix to the brief glimpses we are given of Ashildr's experiences over the centuries in this episode. Some are, clearly intended to add a bit of levity to the episode. There's the time that Ashildr found herself placed in position as a medieval queen, for example - a role that she found to be so dull that she eventually faked her own death just to escape it. Or, there's also the time that she worked her way into the battle of Agincourt, seemingly for no other than the fact that she thought it would be a worthwhile adventure. Both of these moments are, obviously, intended to be played for laughs - but, they are balanced out by other moments of pure drama. It is, after all, made very clear that Ashildr's current callous apathy, and her almost hedonistic devotion simply to her own enjoyment is the direct result of centuries of pain and loss - as well as the deaths of many friends, lovers, and even children.

The episode also features a sub-plot concerning Ashildr alliance with a stranded alien creature as they work toward a plan which, Ashildr believes, will allow her to leave Earth behind and take her explorations elsewhere - something that she clearly desperately wants after so long on a world that feels increasingly primitive to her. The lion-like creature Leandro (Ariyon Bakare), despite his name and appearance bringing to mind something from a live-action version of Thundercats, is another great example of the make-up and costume design talents of the crew of Doctor Who - but, his role is, unfortunately, too limited to make much of an impression. Obviously, the decision was made that the episode needed an element other than simply the Doctor and Ashildr, though - a more overt from of tension as the Doctor, naturally, has reasons to be opposed to Leandro's plans. In that regard, he his a serviceable enough addition to the episode - and, Ariyon Bakare is able to make the creature into a genuinely formidable figure, even with such limited screen-time (although, did the lion-man really need to be able to breathe fire, too? That might have been a bit much).

As you might expect, though, it is the interaction between the Doctor and Ashildr that is the true high-light of the episode. One one level, there is the obvious elements of sorrow that the Doctor clearly feels at the thought that his act of kindness inadvertently caused her so much pain, as well as his clear disappointment with the veneer of callous indifference to the people around her that she has developed over the centuries. But, on another level, there is also the issue of what, exactly, the Doctor may see of himself in her. There is a definite sense, here, that Ashildr has become exactly what the Doctor has always feared he might become, himself, if he wasn't careful - something which definitely gives a personal stake to his desire to help her. Maisie Williams, after essentially playing what could have been taken as an alternate version of Arya Stark in the previous episode, is given a much greater challenge this time around - finding herself cast in a role very similar to that of the Doctor, himself. It was genuinely impressive to see exactly how well she was able to match Peter Capaldi in what, I imagine, would have to be a challenging task - playing a character who is centuries old in a way that the audience finds convincing.

In all, this was a fantastic episode of Doctor Who. Even the weakest element of this episode, that being the sub-plot involving Leandro, was only really a weakness because it took screen-time away from the Doctor and Ashildr - in any other episode, Leandro would have been an entertaining villain. Also, while I still think it is a bit of a shame that the supporting cast from the previous episode were left behind, this episode still manages to do a great job of picking up the central plot-line of Ashildr's development over the centuries and taking it in a fascinating direction. It also, as a side-note, does leave things open for Ashildr to make another appearance in the future - which is something that I'd definitely like to see.

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