“The Woman Who Lived” is the first episode this year that I’ve unequivocally loved. In fact, I’d say it’s the best episode of Doctor Who since 2010’s “Vincent and the Doctor.” It’s certainly the best episode so far of the Capaldi era, which has generally been lackluster to say the least. Interestingly, and I think not insignificantly, this is also the first Doctor Who episode written by a woman (Catherine Tregenna) since 2008. It shows, and in a good way as I think “The Woman Who Lived” is an episode that very much benefits from a woman’s touch.
The most important woman involved in this episode, though, is the titular one, played with rather surprising deftness and nuance by Maisie Williams. I wasn’t particularly impressed by Williams’ workmanlike turn as Ashildr last week, but this was no simple reprisal of that role. Rather, after some eight hundred years, Ashildr has taken and abandoned many names and now refers to herself as just “Me.” She’s known colloquially, however, as the Knightmare, an infamous highwayman, and she meets the Doctor when they both are trying to steal the same object in 17th century England.
At first, Me thinks that the Doctor has come back for her, and she hopes that he will take her with him on his travels, but he quickly disabuses her of this notion. It turns out that she’s got a back-up plan, involving a lion-alien and an ancient space artifact and a gateway to maybe Hell, but this is really all secondary to her interactions with the Doctor and the emotional journey that they both go through over the course of the episode.
A major theme this season has been the need for this Doctor to reconnect with his humanity, to rediscover his purpose, and after 800 years of functional immortality the woman who was once Ashildr finds herself in much the same position. She’s a perfect foil for the Doctor here and forces him to look at his own life choices and deal with some of the consequences of the decision that he made for her. This is exactly the sort of accountability that the Doctor needs and that used to be more commonly provided by his companions, but it’s nice to see here, especially handled so nicely.
I’m not back to the level of enthusiasm I had for Doctor Who, say, five years ago, but this episode is the most enjoyable the show has been for me in a long time. It was smart, funny, and hit all the appropriate emotional notes perfectly.
Some stray thoughts:
- Though the idea doesn’t make a ton of sense, I love the thought that Me’s memories fade over time, and her library of journals detailing her many lifetimes is fascinating.
- I really was impressed with Maisie Williams in this episode. It’s a little surprising to see someone so young be really believable as an eight hundred-year-old immortal.
- I could have done without the lion alien, to be honest. He was really just silly-looking, and I think Me could have easily come up with her plan some other way, perhaps using some other artifact or device.
- I love puns so much.
- I found that I didn’t really miss Clara this week. She’s had so little to do lately, that it’s hardly noticeable when she’s gone.