Doctor Who Review: The Woman Who Lived

“I call myself ‘Me’. All the other names I chose died with whoever knew me. ‘Me’ is who I am now. No one’s mother, daughter, wife. My own companion – singular, unattached, alone.”

Doctor Who

The Woman Who Lived is, together with The Girl Who Died, fundamentally an atheist story. It continues The Amazing Adventures of Ashildr, seeing the now-immortal Viking all grown-up, living the life of a highwaywoman in the 1650s, calling herself Lady Me, and generally hating humanity. She’s teamed up with Aslan Leandro, a being from another plane who’s going to spirit her away from Earth, where the people come and go like mayflies or, alternatively, smoke. Obviously, because she’s an intelligent and empowered woman trying to preserve her own sanity rather than sacrificing it for everyone else, her plan is Evil and the Doctor has to stop her.

The lesson here (and it is not a subtle one) is that immortality is a really bad idea and Lady Me needs to stop whining about it and get on with being nice to people. It’s no coincidence that the two parter is bookended by false gods making rents in the sky: Fake Odin with his Valhallan lies and Leandro wielding the so-called Eyes of Hades. It’s a nice device that subtly reinforces the themes of the story: religion, and promises of eternity/afterlife, are deceptions which rob human life of meaning. I don’t necessarily agree with this; but it’s a nice bit of visual parallelism which doesn’t wave itself in your face.

Unfortunately, this is the only decent thing in the entire episode.

I think Lady Me/Ashildr is supposed to be a feminist figure. I think we are supposed to look at her and go, “Wow! Look how strong she is! Making her own way in life! She doesn’t even want a husband!” (Side note: if feminism in 2015 hasn’t got beyond “women don’t need husbands” then something has gone very wrong.) But, with typical Whovian arrogance, the episode tells us that Lady Me needs someone to save her from herself. More specifically, she needs the Doctor (who is, as we remember, of the male gender) to save her from herself. Her humanity, says screenwriter Catherine Tregenna, needs to be saved by the very man who, according to the terms of the episode, actually literally ruined her entire existence and robbed it of meaning.

Lady Me is understandably desperate to leave Earth: desperate to leave the people who are no longer her people, who pass through her life like smoke and leave her always, eternally alone. She begs the Doctor to take her with him when he departs. Repeatedly, he refuses her “because it’s a bad idea”. Why, precisely, is it a bad idea? Patronisingly, he refuses to tell her – because, of course, being a man, he knows better than her. Never mind that she has looked after herself for approximately 1000 years. (Inevitably, someone is now going to tell me that I have got the dates wrong.)

When the reason is finally revealed, it’s pathetically insubstantial and can be boiled down to: because plot. The Doctor doesn’t travel with immortals. Um. Awesome Romana, anyone?

The Doctor also continues to call her “Ashildr, daughter of Einarr”, despite her frequent assertions that she wants to be known as “Me”, that is, nobody’s daughter, self-named and self-identified. (Einarr, we note, is a man she hasn’t seen for the aforesaid 1000 years. How is he relevant to her identity, exactly?) The episode ends with her agreeing to become a sort of cosmic housekeeper for him: cleaning up the mess he makes whenever he lands on Earth. We have gone from a woman who lived her own life to a woman whose life, whose very purpose, revolves around a man. You want to see the galaxy? Your place is at home, woman, wearing the name your father gave you!

Anyone still think Ashildr is feminist?

None of this is helped by the casting of Maisie Williams as Lady Me. Williams made a decent Arya in Game of Thrones, but she doesn’t have the maturity or the presence to play an immortal. She looks and acts like a 15-year-old throughout the episode, which of course makes it all the easier for the show, and for us, to dismiss her as immature and mistaken, while the 57-year-old white man Capaldi speaks the wise, wise truth. It was a mistake, I think, to write Clara out of the episode; it would have been a much less problematic narrative if we’d seen Clara and Lady Me interacting, instead of the Doctor handing out directives and refusing to answer any of his equal’s questions.

Did I just say I wanted Clara back? Lordy, things must have been bad.

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