Monday, 26 October 2015

DOCTOR WHO: THE WOMAN WHO LIVED review

THE COMPANION WHO WASN'T
New writer Catherine Tregenna delivers a poetic, amusing and haunting tour de force for Peter Capaldi and Maisie Williams.

Stand and deliver etc. etc. (Image copyright: BBC)













It’s very rare that the Doctor’s has to deal with the consequences of his actions. As was strongly hinted in ‘The Girl Who Died’, this week he would have to do so, facing up to the double-edged gift of immortality that he granted Ashilda (Maisie Williams). Inheriting the Viking girl’s story, Catherine Tregenna delivered a mature, philosophical consideration of responsibility, the cruel curse of living forever and the concurrent importance of making the most of the life you’re given. (Not bad for a series that began as an innocuous tea-time serial).

As one of Doctor Who’s few female writers (so far), it’s perhaps appropriate that Tregenna reinvented Ashilda as a proto-feminist heroine based on the legend of the Hertfordshire aristocrat Katherine Ferrers, who might, or might not, have taken on the guise of a highwayman at the time of Oliver Cromwell – the same period in which Ashilda, now Lady Me, is at large doing the same. While the historical setting gave the story a colourful flavour, what was essentially a two-hander between Capaldi and Williams really took flight in the exchanges between their two characters.

It was an uncomfortable, absorbing and bitter-sweet watch. The transformation of the na├»ve young Ashilda into the confident, intelligent, resourceful but deeply bitter and lonely Lady Me shows just why Williams is currently such a feted actress. The lyrical barbs she fired at the Doctor, among them the harsh ‘You’re the man who runs away’ and ‘You’re not my Dad’, forced the Time Lord, in one of Capaldi’s more subdued and sensitive performances, to face up to what he’d done to her. Although not her biological father, he’s obviously an absent and guilty surrogate one, secretly watching her progress throughout history.

As the story focused so much on the two’s relationship, the episode felt like it was set up to introduce a new companion – particularly as Clara was absent for most of the running time – but the ironic point was that Lady Me was too like the Doctor to travel with him. The resolution to their mutual issues therefore became the theme of the story, so it was satisfying to see that they both seemed to have learned from and come to terms with each other by the end. The one false note in Lady Me’s character, though, was how someone so apparently worldly wise and cynical fell so easily for the lies of the passing alien Leandro (Ariyon Bakare).

Another dandy highwayman.
(Image copyright: BBC)
Part of the Doctor and Lady Me’s conciliation came from Clara and Sam Swift the Quick (Rufus Hound, left) being the short-lived but vibrant ‘mayflies’ that gave the immortals’ lives meaning: Clara brightening the ‘emptiness’ of the Doctor’s 2,000 plus years, Sam’s mortality reawakening Ashilda’s humanity and sense of responsibility. Hound was great in a necessarily abbreviated part, particularly in the hanging scene when Sam was clearly putting a brave, laddish face on how terrified he was.  

One or two minor caveats: in a script that took pains to make sure Lady Me didn’t know what a burglar alarm or newspaper headline was, and offered such nuanced dialogue as ‘I didn’t know your heart would rust because I kept it beating’, ‘bullet’ and ‘Dad’ stood out as particularly anachronistic terms. It’s also hard to believe that Sam, a 17th century Englishman, would have known what an anteater is, considering their habitat is Central America.

And as much as I thoroughly enjoyed the episode, I couldn’t help thinking what the children watching made of it all. There was the requisite fun for kids – a highway robbery, comedy burgling of a country house at night, a lion-like alien breathing fire and the semi-customary explosions at the climax – but, really, they were secondary to an eloquent, adult tale with a very dark heart; in a neat visual touch, the Doctor and Lady Me’s relationship literally began in darkness and ended in (day)light.

If children were underwhelmed by ‘The Woman Who Lived’ on Saturday, happily it’ll be one of the black gems of Doctor Who they’ll rediscover as they grow up.

Bit to rewind: the Doctor reading Lady Me's journals.


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