Sunday, 25 October 2015

Review: Doctor Who - The Woman Who Lived

The Doctor revisits Ashildr in 'The Woman Who Lived' but did this episode stand and deliver?

'You didn’t save my life, Doctor. You trapped me inside it.'

When promoting Series Nine, Steven Moffat said it would blur the lines of what makes up a two-part story. After a pair of clearly defined double-decker adventures, 'The Woman Who Lived' finally introduces this idea. Forgetting the syntactical symmetry of the titles, is it the same story if the only link is the guest character (and director Ed Bazalgette, of course)? We could argue this 'til the Time Lords come home but it is a certainty that in execution 'Woman' is as far from 'The Girl Who Died' as it possibly can be. 
It's a leisurely-paced contemplative story that is big on character and themes, with a hefty dollop of loaded discussion - so fans who enjoyed 'Girl' due to its light-heartedness might struggle to like it. For this reviewer, however, it's a success. Catherine Treganna wrote some of the best of Torchwood's first two series and, while it was no guarantee her skills would translate (Doctor Who is tricky to get right for a new writer), she knocks it out of the park here with hopefully her first, not only, episode for the show.
Unlike the last few weeks, that have had large supporting casts, this one was practically a two-hander, with only two other characters having any worthwhile amount of screentime. The lovely looking monster Leandro, halfway between a Tharil and the Beast from classic French film La Belle et le Bette, is underused to be sure but, unusually for a Who monster, he's suffered a personal loss. Rufus Hound imbues Sam Swift, the Knightmare's rival higwayman, with likeability and enjoys a great bit of banter with the Doctor (that old hypocrite) as well as delivering one of the dirtiest jokes ever in Doctor Who.

But the star of this episode was the much vaunted Ms Maisie Williams. She is superb here, building on her performance from last week in a hugely tough role. I loved the glimpses of Ashildr's (I'm not going to call her Me) previous lives, evocatively captured in her journals. It sort of makes me wish this had been a portmanteau episode split between different points in history. Likewise, no offence to Jenna Coleman, but it was great to see Peter Capaldi paired with someone else, creating a fresh dynamic. Despite the difference in age of the actors, they were required to play kindred spirits, two ancient immortals unsure of who they are, and they both pull it off with a brilliant rapport.

Though thinner on the sci-fi plot than we might expect (speaking of which, that's two mythologies manipulated/inspired by aliens in two weeks), it was refreshing to have a smaller scale story - the danger, for the most part, was for a single life - that built on the themes from last week. There were also some serious hints at what's to come. There was more talk of how friends can be enemies (just as in 'The Witch's Familiar') while the final scene again hints at Clara's tragic exit. And just who did tell Ashildr about the Doctor? We shall have to see where these lead, as Series Nine continues to challenge not just two-part stories but what a Doctor Who episode can do in general.

The Doctor faces a never-ending Knightmare in 'The Woman Who Lived.'
Next week: When millions of shapeshifting Zygons inhabit the Earth, who can you trust? The Doctor learns the hard way when he faces 'The Zygon Invasion.' 8.15PM. Halloween. BBC One. 

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