Aired 24 October 2015
‘The Woman Who Lived’ comes as something as a surprise; even though it is presented as a second part to ‘The Girl Who Died,’ the tone and story it offers is radically different in almost every sense. Maisie Williams returns but has long forsaken her name Ashildr, here playing a highwayman who has little memory of her earlier life.
What follows is a relatively sombre affair, a study on just what immortality means to the girl living forever. No moment is more touching than when Maisie explains that, although her body may be immortal, her mind is not, and the vast number of books that she has written in order to keep some semblance of recollection of herself is a haunting visual of just how much- both good and bad- she has been through and lost.
Interestingly, Clara is largely absent from the episode until the end, and in the process Ashildr becomes a sort of mirror for the Doctor himself. The Ashildr here is often cruel and harsh with her humanity only showing up at the last possible moment to save her tortured soul, a reflection of this incarnation of the Time Lord, and it’s telling that Ashildr asks him just how many Claras he has gone through in his time. It’s not often that the Doctor gets to see the fate of someone he leaves behind, but Ashildr gives him plenty of opportunity up close, and it’s interesting that he turns down her repeated requests to travel with him whether he sees in her himself or an amalgamation of friends and companions past. The question that comes of this is what parallels Ashildr will draw with Clara’s ultimate departure of the show, the imminent arrival of which is hinted at as the episode ends with Clara telling the Doctor she’s not going anywhere.
‘The Woman Who Lived’ is very much a character study, and as such it devotes a significant portion of its running time to conversations between the Doctor and Ashildr. However, being a Doctor Who episode, there also has to be a more action-driven element to the plot as well, and so thievery, artifacts, and a fiery feline foe all make their due appearance. They all serve to move the plot along well enough, and Rufus Hound’s now-immortal Sam Swift will surely come back one day, but ultimately they all seems quite forgettable and feel like secondary filler material meant to appeal to those not interested in the talking.
‘The Woman Who Lived’ is an episode that hinges on its dialogue, and in that respect it’s a resounding success. This series of Doctor Who has not been afraid to take chances and change storytelling format and tone, and even within this two-parter that’s abundantly apparent; this episode is all the stronger for it. By toning down the comedy and amping up the genuine emotion between two very good foils, ‘The Woman Who Lived’ becomes one of the most heart-wrenching and lasting stories in recent memory. The departure of Clara looms large, and certainly the Doctor has not seen the last of Ashildr/Lady Me yet.