Tag Archives: Doctor Who

Doctor Who: “Hell Bent” is a hell of a finale after a rocky season

“Hell Bent” is a hell of an episode of a show that I have largely lost faith in over the last few years. My expectations for Doctor Who under the leadership of Steven Moffat have pretty much completely evaporated, and Moffat’s handling of the Doctor’s history, especially as it concerns Gallifrey, has consistently been one of the least interesting-to-me hallmarks of the Moffat era. The previews for this episode showed that Gallifrey was exactly where the Doctor was going in this finale, so my expectations of enjoying it were correspondingly low. I’m happy to have been pleasantly surprised.

Of course, I say “pleasantly surprised,” but the truth is that “Hell Bent” blew all my expectations out of the water. While it doesn’t redeem multiple seasons’ worth of bad writing, poor characterization, whiz-bang endings, and a general trend towards “style” over substance, this episode—especially in conjunction with the previous two—stands out as a stellar accomplishment, the type of truly excellent storytelling that Steven Moffat is, sadly, only all-too-occasionally capable of.

The framing device for the episode is the Doctor in a 1950s style diner in Nevada, telling the story of Clara to…Clara herself. This is the first surprise of the episode, which I had thought would be another no-companion episode that would deal with some kind of epic storyline on Gallifrey. It turns out that is not at all the case. The Gallifrey stuff, honestly, ends up being almost incidental rather than integral to real story, which is an exploration of the Doctor’s unhinged grief over Clara’s death and a way to provide an even better ending for Clara than the quite serviceable one we got in “Enter the Raven.”

That said, it takes until about halfway through the episode before we actually learn what the Doctor is on Gallifrey for. Spending nearly thirty minutes with the Doctor dicking around in a barn, prevaricating about what he knows about the Hybrid, and banishing all his political enemies is a shameless waste of time. Though I suppose this is Moffat’s attempt to establish Gallifrey’s place in the show’s current mythology, it’s a tiresome and senselessly circuitous route to take to the crux of the story: The Doctor is really on Gallifrey to gain access to an extraction chamber that will allow him to remove Clara from time at the moment of her death in order to save her life.

Once the Doctor has safely rescued Clara, we get more of the same speech that she gave before she walked out to meet the raven in the first place, which is a nice bit of emotional continuity while the Doctor steals another Tardis so he can take Clara to the end of the universe. He’s convinced that this journey will give time a chance to heal and set Clara’s heart beating again, which is a weird piece of mysticism, but it gets us to where Ashildr/Me is waiting for the Doctor with some perfectly delivered philosophical advice. This is also where things get really interesting, as the Doctor spills his plans to Me while Clara listens in from inside the Tardis.

In a sometimes incoherent discussion, we learn that it’s possible that the “Hybrid” that is supposed to be so dangerous might actually be the combination of the Doctor and Clara, something the Doctor acknowledges as a possibility. This, you see, is why the Doctor’s big plan is to resurrect Clara only to then remove all her memories of him and then leave her forever, something like what happened to Donna Noble, only even more infuriating because the Doctor’s decision here isn’t motivated by a desire to minimize harm. He’s just being high-handed and, frankly, selfish, which Me reminds him of.

Even better, when the Doctor and Me enter the Tardis, Clara is prepared. She’s used the Doctor’s sonic sunglasses to reverse the effect of the memory erasing device so it will work on the Doctor instead of on her, and she’s adamantly opposed to giving up her past. It’s a scene that finally brings home the idea that Clara really is perhaps too much like the Doctor for anyone’s good, and it’s also the first time since Martha Jones’ departure that a companion has left the Doctor so entirely on her own terms, and it’s really wonderful.

Jenna Coleman really shows her range in this episode as she refuses to have her own life and experiences subordinated to the Doctor’s will, and it doesn’t hurt that the Capaldi’s performance is absolutely superb both in his final scene on the newly stolen Tardis and in the scenes in Clara’s diner that bookend the main storyline. The best moment of the night, though, is a tie between the bittersweet instant when the Doctor insists that he will know Clara if he ever sees her again and Clara realizes that he’s really forgotten her and the moment very shortly after that when we get to see Clara fly off together with Me in the extra absconded-with Tardis.

If the first half of “Hell Bent” is an exercise in self-important grandstanding (it really, really is, on the part of Moffat and the Doctor both), the second half is a well-conceived, beautifully acted, and deeply resonant conclusion to Clara Oswald’s tenure as companion. “Face the Raven” was the best ending it was reasonable to expect for Clara, but “Hell Bent” is the ending that she deserved.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • I love Donald Sumpter, but I miss Timothy Dalton as Rassilon.
  • I’m don’t understand why Moffat seems to like Ohila so much, and I’m not sure why the Sisterhood of Karn is on Gallifrey this week.
  • The old-style Tardis that they steal is apparently the original design, and it looks kind of surprisingly great in color.
  • Clara and Me turned loose on the universe, taking the long way back to Gallifrey in a Tardis of their own, is basically my favorite thing that’s happened on Doctor Who in ages. However, this is the second time (The first time was when he gave us Lady Vastra and Jenny.) that Moffat has created a premise for a spin-off series that I want to see more than I want to see more Doctor Who. I desperately want to see Clara and Me’s adventures in time and space—as long as Steven Moffat isn’t anywhere near them.

Doctor Who: “Heaven Sent” doesn’t quite hit its emotional targets, but it’s still good

“Heaven Sent” is a near-perfect episode of Doctor Who and a reminder that Steven Moffat isn’t completely and irredeemably awful and a blight on the history of the show, but is in fact a very good writer capable of creating truly compelling television. It’s by far the best episode of Doctor Who in recent years, though perhaps that’s because the Doctor is the only character on the screen for the vast majority of it—something that I would suggest is Steven Moffat’s ideal for the show, judging by the show’s increasing disregard for and neglect of all characters who aren’t the Doctor.

That said, Steven Capaldi has been the show’s strongest asset for some time, and “Heaven Sent” finds him imprisoned in a mysterious castle and pursued by an actually quite frightening, if also mysterious, creature in a voluminous robe. This creature can only be outrun temporarily, though it moves slowly, and the only thing that will stop it (also only temporarily) is the Doctor offering it a truthful confession. Something, something, the Doctor has a mind-palace—I mean mind-TARDIS—where he’s working through his feelings about Clara’s death and figuring out how to “WIN,” and also he has to spend literally billions of years punching through a giant harder-than-diamond wall with his fist. It’s a much better episode than it sounds, though, and Capaldi is at the top of his game here as he explores the castle and talks at Clara inside his head.

The problem that I have with this episode is a problem that is ongoing and omnipresent in Moffat’s work as both a writer and showrunner. While “Heaven Sent” could be read as a great episode that gives the Doctor time to grieve his lost companion, it just never manages to feel really real, and this is entirely due to Steven Moffat’s unwillingness to do the actual work required to actually elicit the emotional responses that he wants the audience to have. Instead, Moffat tells us how he thinks we ought to feel, regardless of whether or not it’s supported by anything that we’ve been shown so far.

The overall effect of this is that, while it’s possible to sort of objectively understand what Moffat is trying to communicate, it’s difficult to actually really get it. It’s unfortunate, particularly in an episode as well-written as this one. If Clara had been utilized more intelligently and developed as a fully-realized character over the past couple of seasons, this episode (and “Enter the Raven,” for that matter) would have been absolutely devastating. As it is, it’s not even enough to bring a tear to the eye.

Steven Moffat is a capable writer and can come up with clever ideas from time to time, but he’s never quite managed to learn that he can’t script the audience’s reactions. The most emotional moments of a Moffat episode always rely on implications, narrative shorthand, and straight up telling the audience what feelings to have. This is as true now as it was all the way back in “Blink” and “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead.” I don’t suppose I can reasonably expect this style to change after all this time, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.

“Heaven Sent” could have been perfect, but instead we have to settle for close-but-no-cigar.

Doctor Who: I only wish that “Face the Raven” was the end of an era (namely, Moffat’s)

“Face the Raven” was as good as it could be, but by no means as good as I would have liked it to be. This looks to be Jenna Coleman’s last episode in the role of Clara Oswald, which had been the rumor before the season started, and it’s frankly a relief to have it over with. The facts that it’s the second episode of the season written by a woman and that it’s actually pretty well written—both nice changes for Doctor Who—are really just a bonus.

Given the state of the show after over five years of Steven Moffat doing his best to destroy everything good about it, my expectations of it are pretty low, and “Face the Raven” exceeded them. That’s not saying much, and the episode did have some great moments, but it’s all tempered by my general dissatisfaction with the series and with Clara’s tenure as companion in general.

In “Face the Raven,” Clara and the Doctor receive a phone call from previous acquaintance Rigsy, who has a problem: he’s got a mysterious counting-down tattoo on the back of his neck. In a somewhat senselessly convoluted plot, it turns out that Rigsby has been framed for a murder at an alien refugee camp in London that is being run by the Doctor’s most recent frenemy, Ashildr/Me (Maisie Williams), who has contrived this scenario to draw the Doctor into a trap because she’s decided to trade the Doctor to some unknown “them” in exchange for protection for her little alien enclave.

It’s nice to see Maisie Williams returning so soon, and I suspect that we could see her sometime in the next couple of weeks as well, judging from the “…to be continued” at the end of this episode. Her performance here wasn’t as strong as it was in “The Woman Who Lived,” but she wasn’t given nearly so much to work with here. Still, I adore Maisie Williams, and Me/Ashildr is as good a recurring character as has been introduced during the Moffat era. Me’s plan in this episode may be a little silly to start with, but once it all goes sideways, Williams does an excellent job of portraying the character’s conflicted feelings, her regret, and her fear of the Doctor’s wrath.

Peter Capaldi turns in a much more understated performance this week than I expected. I rather thought we would see a fit of overly verbose histrionics over Clara’s death, but instead his reactions here stick to the realm of the believable, and it’s gratifying to see that Clara’s final moments weren’t entirely focused on the Doctor—at least not for his part.

Clara, of course, is (as always) a mixed bag this episode. She oversteps the bounds of her role as companion and does something that is, honestly, wildly stupid and results in her death. Even within the questionable logic of the episode it’s a decision that only makes marginal sense. However, Clara’s courage and kindness as she faces her death, talking the Doctor down from his desire for vengeance and doing what she can to protect Me and reassure Rigsy, is well-done. At the same time, though, it’s terribly frustrating that, in her final moments, Clara thinks almost entirely of the Doctor and his feelings. It’s frustrating that Clara’s death was so clearly a result of her own poor decision making, and it’s infuriating that years of piss-poor characterization diminish the emotional impact of it all. Worse, Moffat’s inability or unwillingness to truly kill characters off ensures that Clara’s death doesn’t have the feeling of finality that would make it really tragic.

Make no mistake. I’ve never disliked Clara herself. I’ve only been incredibly disappointed and dissatisfied by her treatment in the narrative of the show. Jenna Coleman is a talented actor, and she brought a great deal of charm to the role, but she’s never been enough of a superwoman to overcome as much awful writing as her character has been subjected to. No one could be, and it’s an unmitigated shame that my strongest feeling about Clara’s final episode is gladness that this chapter of Doctor Who is finally done with. I’d like to say that I’m hopeful that a new companion will provide just the sort of fresh start the series needs, but I don’t expect any real change as long as Moffat holds the reins.

Doctor Who: “Sleep No More” is a disaster in every possible way

“Sleep No More” definitely numbers among Doctor Who’s worst episodes. Although it may not be the absolute worst in history, I can’t think of one that I’ve disliked more. That said, it’s not an episode to inspire a great deal of, well, anything. My singular thought as the episode ended was just “What the fuck did I just watch?”

The episode begins by skipping the opening credits in favor of jumping straight into a confusing and frustrating forty-five minutes of found footage nonsense. The story—a pretty standard base under siege plot—is introduced by creepy scientist Rasmussen, who is too-obviously some kind of villain, and we’re then introduced one by one to the unfortunately forgettable members of a doomed rescue party.

The only character this week who got anything like a development arc was Chopra, but even he was sadly one note. The show cast its first transgender actor, Bethany Black, as genetically engineered “grunt” 474, but her talents are largely wasted in the role, and the secondary plot where 474’s self-sacrifice helps Chopra to see the grunt’s humanity is underdone, unconvincing, and ultimately irrelevant as both characters involved die within moments of each other. Deep-Ando is separated from the rest of the group early on and dies alone as well. Rescue party leader Nagata was barely present and contributed little, but she did at least get to escape with the Doctor and Clara in the Tardis at the end.

Speaking of Clara, she fades into the background here almost as much as any of the secondary cast members this week. With Jenna Coleman’s definitely impending departure from the show and Clara’s possibly impending death (hey, it is rumored) coming as soon as next week, it’s incredibly saddening to see her once again marginalized in the story with almost nothing to do. It’s no comfort, either, that the Doctor is just as ineffectual this week. It only makes me wonder what the point of this episode is at all.

I have seen some posts praising the found footage format and the horror elements of the episode, but I didn’t find it compelling or frightening in the least. The shaky camera work was occasionally nauseating, but never managed to convey the sense of panic that I think was intended. The monster of the week was more silly than anything else, and if the sleep dust monsters weren’t absurd enough to look at, with their rather disgusting-looking heads like huge gaping (and vaguely scatological) orifices, the Doctor’s various theories and explanations made the monsters just plain ridiculous.

It’s not a great sign when even the Doctor ends the episode with an exasperated exclamation that none of it makes sense, and that’s exactly what happened here. The whole way through the episode, I kept waiting for it all to finally congeal into something resembling a coherent story, but it just never happened.

Doctor Who: “The Zygon Inversion” is great, but only if you turn off your brain

“The Zygon Inversion” was not at all what I was expecting, but the more I think about it, the more I think that it’s probably exactly the sort of thematically confused, unsatisfying pablum I ought to expect from this show by now. Frankly, it was just a kind of bizarre episode made all the more frustrating for being technically very good.

We start with getting a different perspective of last week’s cliffhanger. It turns out that, while Clara’s being body-snatched she’s actually trapped in a sort of weird nightmare house where she is somewhat aware of what Zygon-Clara is up to and slightly capable of influencing Zygon-Clara’s actions. Nonetheless, she doesn’t have enough influence to prevent Zygon-Clara from destroying the plane carrying the Doctor and Osgood.

Straight from there, Zygon-Clara goes to destroy the life of, apparently, the first other Zygon she finds. Though he tries to escape, she succeeds in disabling the poor fellow’s ability to shapeshift, forcing him to reveal himself as an alien to a rather unimpressed-looking group of teenagers outside his apartment.

Meanwhile, real Clara is rewinding Zygon-Clara’s memories and sees that two people (Osgood and the Doctor, natch) managed to parachute out of the blown-up aircraft. Cut to Osgood and the Doctor, who have landed on a beach surrounded by wreckage that is curiously devoid of any other people. This sort of glossing over and trivializing of tragedy is both annoyingly characteristic of the show and rather at odds with the pacifist message of this episode in particular. The Doctor may profess all he likes that he doesn’t like this sort of thing, but his silence here is telling. He’s more concerned with Osgood’s broken glasses than with anyone else who might have been on the crashed plane.

Speaking of Osgood, I’ve never much liked her, but I found myself falling a bit in love with her this week, perhaps precisely because she’s such an unusual and slightly irritating character. I still can’t stand her silly costumes, but I love how much thought she’s clearly put into the idea of how she would go about trying to take over the world. It’s also worth noting that Osgood and her strict insistence on not revealing whether she is human or Zygon is possibly the single thing in this whole two-parter that makes proper sense. Goodness knows, the new mythology introduced here, with the Zygon pods and their needing a “live feed” to what’s in Clara’s brain (because apparently the Zygon’s aren’t just shapeshifters now) is more than a little silly.

Elsewhere, Zygon-Clara thinks she’s found the Osgood box, a device that will supposedly end the cease-fire, but instead she’s only got a laptop with a pretty mocking video telling her that she hasn’t got the box at all. She soon receives a call from the Doctor, during which he tips her off to Clara having the information that Bonne (Zygon-Clara’s real name, it turns out) wants.

This leads into another scene of weird and nonsensical lore-expansion as Bonnie goes to Clara’s pod to interrogate her. Bonnie is able to psychically link with Clara to chat, and we learn that even their heartbeats are linked, so they can’t lie to each other. Clara tells Bonnie about the Osgood box, although it’s pretty obvious that Clara is telling the truth very cleverly, and Bonnie sets off (with Clara’s pod in tow) to find the box for real.

In the meantime, Osgood and the Doctor go searching for the Zygon that Bonnie forcibly revealed after video of the incident has gone viral. They manage to find him, hiding a shop and completely devastated by his affliction. In a powerfully affecting scene, they confront the unmasked Zygon only to have him kill himself right before their eyes. Unfortunately, we’re not given much time to be affected by this turn of events because that’s when Zygon-Kate and a couple of Zygon-UNIT officers show up to take Osgood and the Doctor to the Zygon command center where Clara’s pod was stored. By the time they get there, Clara’s pod is gone and Bonnie has discovered the problem with the Osgood box—there’s two of it. In a tense scene, we learn that Zygon-Kate is actually real Kate, which is good (although it begs the question of how Bonnie didn’t know that Kate wasn’t a Zygon all this time), but also quickly compounds the problem. The Doctor, Osgood, and Kate rush off to where Bonnie is, where Kate immediately tries to figure out how to use the second box.

The last fifteen minutes of the episode are dominated by what is essentially one long, impassioned monologue by the Doctor as he talks us through this standoff. Peter Capaldi is absolutely at his best here, and the monologue itself is well-written, but it pretty much completely ignores the crux of the matter that was supposedly at hand last week—the desire of at least some of the Zygons to live openly among humans without having to hide their true selves, which led them to some regrettable and ill-advisedly radical and violent actions—in favor of addressing an altogether different issue. Namely, the general destructiveness of war and the ultimate futility and counterproductivity of violence as a way of resolving disagreements.

It’s a great speech, as far as it goes, and certainly Capaldi’s performance is superb, but it feels disconnected from and insensible of the underlying issues, and the return to the status quo at the end of the episode is profoundly unsatisfying as it solves nothing. The truth is, if you think about it much at all, the speech doesn’t go very far at all, and on rewatching it to write this, I was struck by the degree to which the Doctor entirely ignores the quite legitimate concerns and anger and fear of both Bonnie and Kate. Instead of actually engaging with the two women, the Doctor berates and shames them into compliance with his wishes by insulting and infantilizing them in turn.

Earlier in the episode, the Doctor quipped to Bonnie that he is old enough to be her messiah. This seemed like a weird thing to say (not least because he wouldn’t be Bonnie’s messiah, what with her not being human), and it becomes plain to see by the end of this scene that the Doctor has some very strange and inflated ideas of himself. I’m not quite ready yet to call it a messiah complex, but it’s decidedly odd and unfortunately grating, mostly because the Doctor seems absolutely incapable here of empathizing with or even granting basic respect to either Kate or Bonnie, although most of his ire seems to be reserved for the Zygon woman.

It’s downright uncomfortable to watch as he shouts Bonnie down, refuses to call her by her chosen name, and belittles her, only to then turn around and condescendingly offer her forgiveness for the things that she’s done. The spiritual connotations here are very clear, and unpleasant. They are also, so far, unexamined, and the overall tone of the episode is that the Doctor is the hero of this story.

In the midst of the Doctor’s rant, Bonnie accuses him of creating an untenable situation with his original peace agreement, which she insists is unfair to the Zygons—and it is unfair. In response, the Doctor denies any responsibility for the problems and blames Bonnie for the current impasse. The thing is, Bonnie is right. The terms of the peace agreement, like the terms of many agreements throughout history, may have been the best short term solution to an immediate problem, but they clearly are not perfect. While Bonnie’s argument that the Zygons have been treated “like cattle” doesn’t hold much water, and in fact seems to have been written to purposefully portray the character as unreasonable and even hysterical, the basic complaints introduced in “The Zygon Invasion” last week—in short, that the Zygons wanted to be free to be their authentic selves—were not unreasonable at all. It’s only by almost entirely refusing to engage with this reality that the Doctor is able to be seen as the voice of reason, and in the end Bonnie’s complaints are swept aside as she becomes a new Osgood dedicated to keeping the peace. The Doctor has succeeded in browbeating her into capitulation to the point where she gives up her own identity and adopts one that is shaped around creepy worship of the Doctor.

Needless to say, the messaging here is confused at best. Personally, I find it all a little creepily sinister. Most of all, though, I find it to be predictably reflective of Steven Moffat’s own uncritical fanboy views of the Doctor. Unfortunately, Steven Moffat’s dedication to Doctor Who doesn’t extend to preserving the things that have made the show such a long-running institution, and the biggest problem that I have with this episode, aside from the oddly religio-fascist messaging, is Moffat’s willingness to abandon canon and reshape it to suit his immediate needs with no thought to the long-term viability of the changes that he makes.

I think what annoys me the most about the type of expansions of Doctor Who lore that we’ve seen in these last two episodes is that they are so mystical in nature. This is another thing that is highly characteristic of the Moffat era, but I just don’t like it at all. The show has never shied away from dabbling in metaphysics, and there is no doubt that Doctor Who has always been more accurately categorized as fantasy than science fiction, but still.

Moffat era Who seems increasingly content to leave its own questions unanswered and is getting more and more concerned with what kind of stories and developments might be “cool” and less and less concerned with what actually makes sense within the Doctor Who universe. While I don’t have the history with or attachment to the Zygons that I did to, say, the Weeping Angels, the devolution of the Zygons into overly mystical absurdity is following a somewhat similar trajectory as the Angels’ decline.

Much of the show, even when it did deal with ghosts and monsters and mythological creatures, was about exploring more science fictional explanations for those various phenomena, with very few things ever being explained away by seemingly magical things. Here, we have magical-seeming explanations presented unquestioned and used for what seems to be pure storytelling convenience. Something that Steven Moffat seems to have never learned is that creativity is often about working within existing constraints (such as established lore in a shared universe, for example) in order to tell a great story. Instead, Moffat is far too quick to discard parts of canon that he finds inconvenient and change things however he likes in order to tell the stories that he wants to tell, regardless of basic sense-making and completely heedless of the history of the show or the work of people who came before him.

Unfortunately, this also ends up being disrespectful of the audience. It toys with audience expectations and discounts our intelligence in a way that highlights to me that Steven Moffat truly does view the rest of fandom (i.e. every fan who isn’t Steven Moffat) with complete and total disdain.

“The Zygon Inversion” might be a great episode, but only if you don’t think about it at all. I, for one, miss the days when this wasn’t the best I had to say about this show.

Doctor Who: “The Zygon Invasion” is just kind of boring

[SPOILER ALERT]

I was so excited to see Clara have so much more to do in “The Zygon Invasion” than she has the whole rest of the season that I didn’t even realize that she was replaced by Zygon before she’d spoken half a dozen words. I only called it about a minute before it was actually revealed to the audience, and I’m usually pretty good at detecting evil twins. I’m not sure if I’m happy to have been surprised by what was really a pretty well-written episode or if I’m just terribly irritated by the revelation that Clara is once again being reduced to furniture.

Aside from that, this was (objectively) a fairly good episode and one of few in the Moffat era to pass the Bechdel test. With Jemma Redgrave returning as Kate Stewart, Ingrid Oliver reprising her role as Doctor fangirl Osgood, and several minor female characters making their Doctor Who debuts, it’s an episode that is just packed full of women in key roles. Peter Capaldi has really settled into his role as the Doctor, and he continues to be great fun to watch. I even rather like the Zygons, although I’m not sure where the show is going with this storyline.

Here’s the thing about this episode, though: I just didn’t like it. Clara being damseled is part of the reason, certainly. There’s not much that will annoy me more about any story than female characters being reduced to objects in need of rescue. But that’s not entirely it, either.

Mostly, I found the episode to be thematically muddled and, frankly, boring. Honestly? I think I’m just almost unable to get really excited about this show anymore unless it does something really fascinating, which it didn’t manage to do this week.

The peace with the Zygons that was negotiated in the anniversary special seems highly impractical, and the desire of the Zygon radicals this week—supposedly to live openly rather than secretly and in hiding—seems eminently reasonable enough that it’s hard to see them as entirely villainous. On the other hand, with the Zygons having, apparently, made no effort to resolve their problem through diplomatic channels, their violence seems disproportionately and absurdly unnecessary and counterproductive. By using language that ties the Zygons to real-world terrorists, the show is inviting a comparison that doesn’t really stand up to any real scrutiny.

Doctor Who is a show that only rarely addresses these kind of real world political issues, and it’s disappointing to see it done in this manner, if only because this shallow treatment of complex issues risks becoming incoherent. Things didn’t break down entirely this week, though, and the second half of the two-parter might make more sense of the copious set-up we were presented with this week. We’ll see.

Doctor Who: “The Woman Who Lived” is the show’s best episode in years

“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.