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rare female film critic | by maryann johanson

Doctor Who blogging: “The Woman Who Lived”

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[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,

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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:

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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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