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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Doctor Who blogging: “The Woman Who Lived”


[previous: “The Girl Who Died”]

warning: spoilers!

So my Let’s Wait and See Plan after last week’s episode did not pan out. That’s never a great level for fiction to operate on — stories should stand on their own, regardless of how the characters and situations might develop later — but I’m really doing my best to give this show that I love so much, but which has been deeply disappointing me lately, the benefit of the doubt. That doesn’t pay off here, though, and I’m now really beginning to despair.

It’s not that there isn’t some good stuff here. The sweep of Ashildr’s life is intriguing: going to war disguised as a man, grieving so much for lost children that she vows never to have any more, witnessing the unfairness with which clever women are treated (drowned as a witch?!). Her mastering of so many skills: “I don’t need to be indestructible: I’m superb.” Even her diaries are interesting, despite the fact that she would almost certainly have been illiterate when she met the Doctor and probably couldn’t have begun her diaries until much later. But never mind that.

The real problem with this portrait of Ashildr is how quickly her long life is dispensed with. Maisie Williams is a brilliant young actor, but it’s still tough to feel even a hint of what Ashildr has been through when it’s glossed over like this. We feel the weight and the pain of the Doctor’s long life because we’ve been sharing his adventures for half a century now, through thousands of hours of stories, and still, much of what afflicts him in this regard has only been approached obliquely.

But it gets worse still. There’s also some very good stuff going on in how she chastises the Doctor for thoughtlessly making her immortal and then running away, and then acting surprised that she has turned cold, uncaring, heartless, and even murderous as a result: “Oh, Ashildr, what happened to you?” he asks. “You did, Doctor…. I live in the world you leave behind.” She sneers, “Do you intend to fix me, make me feel again, and then run away?” She has him pegged, the cruelty with which he acts and then convinces himself it was all for the good. He deserves this, deserves to have the upshot of his behavior thrown back at him.

Except… this is exactly what he does: he fixes her, makes her feel again, and then runs away again. And this is not depicted as a bad thing. This is depicted, unironically, as the Doctor triumphing yet again. Earlier, Ashildr had suggested to him, “I think the alternative” — that she has turned into a monster — “frightens you, that this is who I’ve become.” And he should be frightened, and chastened. But no! He is vindicated. His actions are vindicated. She turns out to be okay in the end. I mean, never mind that she turns back to niceness only because she’s been lied to by the lion alien and isn’t going to get what she wants out of her deal with him. All is right in the end with everything and everyone.

It’s too easy. And it’s not convincing in the least.

Doctor Who of late always takes the easy way out. It keeps running right up to the darkness and then running away again.

What if the lion dude hadn’t turned on her, and Ashildr had to find her own way back to niceness? What if she was responsible for the deaths of all those townspeople, and the Doctor took her away from Earth not because she wanted it but because he saw the necessity of trying to bring her back around to her humanity? Ashildr could have been an incredible companion, a true foil for the Doctor, someone for him to fight with constantly over how to accomplish whatever the adventure they were on required, and slowly came back around to being the person she once was?

(Maybe her interest in storytelling could have become a thing. Humans are storytellers, and story-listeners: we love a good story. Imagine the stories immortal Ashildr could tell!)

But instead, now, we have a Problem with Ashildr: she has been around all this time,


all through the many years we have been observing the Doctor’s adventures — including in the 1970s and 80s, when he was on Earth, in and around London, a lot — but she hasn’t made her presence known. This is an issue with Jack Harkness as well, but his immortality and his looking-for-the-Doctor is far from the only thing that character was about.

So now we just wait some more to see what Ashildr may (or may not) ultimately be about.

Random thoughts on “The Woman Who Lived”:

• So, the Doctor refers to The Knightmare as “he” in the confrontation with the other bandits. I was pretty sure this was what I was hearing in the dialogue, and the BBC subtitles confirm it:


But Ashildr is speaking with her own voice here, not with the put-on male voice she used in the opening scene. Did they mean to add the male voice in postproduction and it got overlooked (though it’s hard to imagine how that could happen), or they ran out of time or money? She is clearly a woman, so who is fooled? Weird.

[next: “The Zygon Invasion”]

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  • RogerBW

    Not as bad as The Age of Adaline, but sounds as if it suffers from many of the same problems: if someone really has lived a thousand years they should have done many interesting things during that time. But what the show wants to do is dismiss that fascinating life as a mere background detail, a way of getting to here now and the other story that it wants to tell.

  • Paul

    Don’t like to nitpit but I’ll just point out that your claim that Ashildr was ‘almost certainly’ illiterate appears to be contradicted by the huge book she is seen with in The Girl Who Died.

    That’s the trouble with nitpicking: it just becomes pedantry in service to an agenda.

  • RogerBW

    Paul, as you know I have a lot of time for stuff you’ve said and written in the past – but I’m not currently seeing anything about what you like about the show, other than that you seem to be accusing its detractors of groupthink. Are you posting other things elsewhere?

  • Paul

    This is a good point (or would be a good point if you removed the accusation that I’ve accused anyone of groupthink. ‘An agenda’ does not imply groupthink, and said agenda can be pro or con). I will mention that Phil Sandifer’s Eruditorum is a site where I find a wide range of critical views on the current series being expressed. And here I mean ‘critical’ in its real sense, rather than being polarised into positive and negative.

    It’s this polarisation that presents one of the biggest obstacles to discussing the show. Without a swathe of qualifiers, one’s views can so easily be co-opted for one side or other of the absurd, personalised Moffat Wars.

    What I will say in general is that the current series is continuing Moffat’s highly metaphorical take. Those who prefer a more literal-minded approach are likely to find this very annoying, and in episodes such as In The Forest of the Night it’s taken very far indeed (in that case, too far for me). Kill The Moon divided along similar lines: ironically all the hooplah about was it/wasn’t it a pro-abortion metaphor arose from taking a very literal-minded reading.

    The current series has been very up and down for me (within episodes, not just across them). Episodes that I thought weak, such as the Toby Whithouse pair, seem to have been lauded by traditional Who fans. I consider this a healthy state of affairs: Doctor Who is supposed to please a wide range of people, not just me.

    The particular episode we’re looking at here was, on first viewing, perhaps my favourite of the series so far. Not without fault, by any means, but playing interesting games with the form: the Doctor becoming the sidekick, for example. And I found Rufus Hound’s performance of the desperate final stand-up before the noose strangely touching. I’ve seen it criticised for being ‘unfunny’, but I thought that was the whole point. For me it would have undermined it if he had come out with genuinely blinding humour at that point.

    Over its history, Doctor Who has veered between highly metaphorical/expressive, and a little more gritty. Think Paradise Towers vs Resurrection of the Daleks, or The Mind Robber vs the Pertwee UNIT stories. The latter was the period in which the show became ‘mine’. But as I got older, I learned to appreciate The Mind Robber and Paradise Towers. And I increasingly felt that the ‘gun’ approach of the likes of Saward was less to my taste.

    With Moffat’s run, I can appreciate what he is trying to do. I don’t have the problem that I am fundamentally at odds with the approach being taken. Doesn’t mean I like everything, of course, and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t places where I think it fails to work. But at least it means that I am not in the situation of railing against a show because I want it to be a different show. The last time that happened (actually post-1997, when it wasn’t really a show) I just disconnected myself from it completely — and that’s despite having gone to university with three of its leading writers.

    Now, even writing the above makes me feel uncomfortable, based on past experience of likely reactions. Which is why you haven’t seen me writing much here. I don’t much care for Internet argument.

  • Yeah, that book was a weird anomaly in that episode, but I didn’t mention it.

    But, pray tell, what is my agenda?

  • Paul

    That’s not for me to say. If you read my message again, you will notice that I begin it, ‘Don’t like to nitpit [sic, but I obviously meant ‘nitpick] but…’

    So I am the only person in my message that I accuse of nitpicking. And I have an anti-war agenda.

    RogerBW: with regard to the last paragraph of my reply to you, I think my point is amply made.

  • You must have some idea what agenda I’m supposedly working toward.

    Or are you just interested in randomly insulting me by suggesting that I am not simply sharing my honest opinion to what I’m watching? Because that’s what you’re saying.

  • RogerBW

    I would say that the show is being pitched at a mythic/fantastic style rather than a science-fictional style; I think this is roughly congruent with your “highly metaphorical take”. This reaches back before Moffat, of course; most blatantly, when Last of the Time Lords makes everything better because everybody wishes really hard, that’s pure pantomime.
    And yeah, it doesn’t for the most part work for me; since Steven Moffat is the man in charge (and is by his own claim deeply involved in every script), I am inclined to blame him for what I dislike about the show. But what I fail to see is how that makes me part of the STFUMoffat agenda. I think that that tumblr group made some interesting points (back when they were still talking about Moffat and/or Doctor Who), some of which crumbled under examination, others of which stood up. So, er?
    (It didn’t help that I found Matt Smith’s manner and style so offputting as to make him basically unwatchable.)

  • Ryan Morris

    This is a well written review, but I don’t think I could have a view that opposed yours any more. I would happily call this the best episode of the season, and one of the greatest the show has ever done. Many critics feel this way, too. The dialogue was wonderful, so loaded with emotion and intelligence but feeling entirely realistic. The cinematography, especially in the first half, was also stunning; dark frames only illuminated by moonlight or a flickering candle. The episode’s thematic content was incredibly powerful, and I felt the emotion and hurt in every word that Me said. I thought it was absolutely breathtaking.

  • Paul

    No I’m not.

  • David_Conner

    I think this episode has a lot of obvious strengths – good dramatic moments, funny moments, well-directed moments, etc.

    But like a lot of recentish episodes, the weaknesses are glaring too. For me, the most irritating problem is that the “big moments” feel unearned. I don’t buy that Ashildr became so cold and alone so quickly (especially for someone who’s unusually imaginative and a storyteller), or that she’d learn to “feel again” even more quickly. Her situation is interesting, but would’ve required a much bigger canvas to make what we’re told about her life play convincingly.

    And another common problem is that there are some genuinely intriguing ideas and possibilities raised, but then left out to rot in the sun. The bit about Ashildr being a storyteller seems to be raised only to justify the mega-puppet trick in the previous episode. But I think a tale of “Ashildr Einarsdottir, the Immortal Skald” – there’s some potential in that!

  • Ryan Morris

    Ashildr became cold and alone quickly? Maybe only seven days passed between the episodes, but she lived for potentially 1000 years between Part One and Part Two. If you feel the moments still lay unearned that’s fine, but Ashildr’s transition to Me certainly didn’t happen quickly!

  • David_Conner

    “Quickly” admittedly isn’t the right word for this, but I mean quickly on screen, in that they only spend a brief amount of screen time on the passage of time, which wasn’t long enough to sell the character development to me. They tried, to be sure, and losing children to the plague while you live on isn’t a bad choice of shorthand for showing the downside of immortality… but it still didn’t work for me.

  • Tonio Kruger

    True. But it probably would have taken a mini-series to do such a life justice. And anyway, flashbacks aren’t always the most agreeable of plot devices when it comes to storytelling.

    I remember hating much of Angel –yet another series about a long-lived protagonist — during its first run because it seemed like almost every episode from the second season on was full of flashbacks and as fascinating as these sometimes were, I was far more interested in what was happening to Angel now rather than what happened to him a hundred years ago.

    Nor did I care much for the way Once Upon a Time spent so much time on what seemed to be unnecessary flashbacks during its first season. In fact, I hated the way it overused that plot device so much that I eventually gave up on the entire series.

    Even the creators of Captain John Harkness had enough sense to not attempt to relate his whole life story in one big lump.

    As much as I would have liked to have seen more of Ashildr’s life story, I can’t help ignoring the potential drawbacks of such an approach. Though it was nice to see the writer of one of my favorite Torchwood episodes — “Out of Time” — listed in this episode’s credits. Perhaps she’ll do more work for Moffat in the near-future.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I doubt this question will be answered but I have to ask, anyway: what does the standard phrase of an English highwayman — “Stand and Deliver” — have to do with the subject matter of a certain Edward James Olmos movie of the same name?

    I’ve heard it often enough on British TV shows like this one and Blackadder that I feel silly pretending the phrase was the invention of some screenwriter but I must admit that I never once thought of English highwaymen the one time I did take a calculus course.– though admittedly that was a long time ago.

  • Her situation is interesting, but would’ve required a much bigger canvas to make what we’re told about her life play convincingly.

    My feelings exactly.

  • Chris Lockard

    While I enjoyed the first part of this segment of episodes more, I disagree with your assessment of this episode.

    The whole point of the end of last week’s episode is that every now and then, the Doctor says screw the rules and saves people he shouldn’t. Sometimes, as in the case of Fires of Pompeii, its a good deed that has no major effect on the universe at large. In others, such as the Water of Mars, it can have a very negative impact.

    The case here is that the Doctor not only saved a life, but transformed that life without any regard as to the effect it would have on Ashildr…and then he just left. Like most characters who are immortal, she cast herself into seclusion as to avoid the pain of losing those she cares about over and over again. Of course this is meant to be a reference to the common cycle the Doctor repeats throughout his journeys. The end of her story is meant to show why someone like the Doctor needs companions who are unlike him. Its the reason why he never would travel with Captain Jack Hartness after he became a near immortal. It isn’t cheap, its what Doctor Who as a show does best. Taking concepts that we can only begin to imagine, such as immortalty, and showing the good, the bad and the in between.

    The deeper theme going on with this season has been the Doctor’s dependence on Clara and what it may do to him if he loses her. I feel that the scene with Ashildr mourning the loss of her children may be more of a foreshadow of the impact losing Clara would have on the Doctor. The difference being that the worst Ashildr could do after a loss like that was to become a masked rogue, where as an enraged grief stricken Doctor could cause cracks in the fabric of space and time.

  • Danielm80

    My main problem with the episode–and several other episodes this season–is that the writers are telling us the themes rather than showing them to us. Ashildr says: You always run away instead of dealing with what you’ve done to people. And in some scenes it kind of works, because the themes are also implied by Ashildr’s behavior and by Maisie Williams’ performance. But in other scenes, the writers take too many shortcuts; Ashildr suddenly stops being callous and decides to save everybody, but we don’t see the process of transformation. We just have to trust that the Doctor’s goodness somehow rubbed off on her.

    It’s frustrating, because a lot of the ideas being discussed are genuinely important, and some of them are even issues I’m dealing with in my own life. But the stories still don’t move me, because they’re not stories. They’re lists of ideas.

  • One major thing that’s bothering me, which I haven’t seen anyone else talk about, is her eternal age. She’s basically a kid, right? Wasn’t she a viking child? How old was she when the doctor saved her life? 14? So why is anyone calling her a woman? How was she having children? I’m confused about all this. Sure, she’s been around for 800+ years, but she’s still visually a child.

  • Danielm80

    Maisie Williams is 18, so even if you ignore the lower age of marriage and childbearing 800+ years ago, she’s visually a woman.

  • saves people he shouldn’t.

    And in what way is it depicted that saving Ashildr was a mistake?

  • She may be physically small, but she doesn’t come across as a child. What might be unusual about her is that she wasn’t already married when she met the Doctor.

  • Chris Lockard

    From the script:

    CLARA: You did your best. She died. There’s nothing you can do.
    DOCTOR: I can do anything. There’s nothing I can’t do.Nothing. But I’m not supposed to. Ripples, tidal waves, rules. I’m not supposed to.

    and later on…

    ASHILDR: Doctor, thank you.
    DOCTOR: Oh, don’t thank me yet, Ashildr. Not yet.

    and finally….

    DOCTOR: It won’t stop, the repair kit I put inside Ashildr, not ever. It’ll just keep fixing her.
    CLARA: Well, good.
    DOCTOR: I’m not sure, but it’s entirely possible she has lost the ability to die.
    CLARA: The ability?
    DOCTOR: Oh, dying is an ability, believe me. Barring
    accidents, she may now be functionally immortal.
    CLARA: If the repair kit never stops working, then why did you give her two?
    DOCTOR: Immortality isn’t living forever. That’s not what it feels like. Immortality is everybody else dying.

    The idea is that The Doctor broke the rules because rules be damned, he saves people. But its after they are saved that he must reflex on what the cost of saving them means. In this case, saving Ashildr made him feel good, but it came at a price, mainly that she would have to lose everyone she loved over and over again.

  • Quoting the script is not helpful. You say the Doctor “must reflex on what the cost of saving them means” but we do not see that cost depicted. The price you mention is NOT one that the Doctor has to pay.

  • Chris Lockard

    Sorry, didnt realize that the post would remove formating, I had highlighted key words. It is one he has to pay because he is the one who see’s the impact and knows whatever happens is a result of his choices. Sure Ashildr pays a price as well, but that price comes from the Doctor’s choice and the Doctor knows this. I guess maybe you are just literally looking for a direct line from him where he says “I shouldn’t have done this,” where as I just takeaway that he’s implying he wants to break the rules and as a result he knows that there will be unforeseen consequences in which he at least bares some of the responsibility in causing.

  • I guess maybe you are just literally looking for a direct line from him where he says “I shouldn’t have done this,”

    No. I am looking for an actual impact on his behavior as a result of his actions. I am looking for something truly disastrous to happen that forces him to confront the results of his decisions. But apart from a few hurt feels — which are glossed over — everything works out pretty great in the end for everyone.

    I am looking to be shown the story, not told it. I definitely don’t want that one line of dialogue. I want a story where we feel in our guts what a mistake the Doctor has made. We do not get that here.

  • Chris Lockard

    Why does it have to be disastrous to be effective? Couldn’t it just basically be oh shit, choices I made could be leading to bad consequences, I need to fix this?He basically spent this whole episode trying to show Ashildr there is a better way to spend eternity, that you don’t have to be alone and that mortal life is precious. If that’s not him confronting the results of his decisions from the first episode, I don’t know what is. He understands that his choice allowed this to happen and he does everything he can to show her there is a better way. He does this for himself, Ashildr, as well as the general population.

  • Why does it have to be disastrous to be effective?

    When what he does is as big as this — making a human woman immortal — then yeah, the consequences of his actions need to be big, too.

    He basically spent this whole episode trying to show Ashildr there is a better way to spend eternity

    Except what he did in this episode — which was mostly *talk,* not *do* — is nowhere near convincing enough to make me believe that it could counter the centuries of experience that Ashildr has had that has told her otherwise. And nothing he tells her is going to change anything about her life: she is still going to see everyone she knows and loves grow old and die, over and over and over again.

  • I still see her as 10 year old Arya Stark. Even taking that way, for me, she is visually a child. Sure, she’s little, but her features also betray this. She has that clumsy “still growing up” look about her.

  • But lots of people actually do still have that look into their 20s. We’re just so used to seeing 30-year-olds playing teenagers that we forget that, I think.

  • Radek Piskorski

    I didn’t feel everything was okay in the end. There was a certain animosity between Me and the Doctor, especially the way she said she would be taking care of those the Doctor leaves behind. I think he was still being criticised.

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