Sunday, 25 October 2015

Review: Doctor Who 9.6: The Woman Who Lived

She may not look it, but Maisie Williams is terrifying in this
episode. Phenomenal actress. Last week was just a crap script.
Ladies and gentlemen, I bring to you something which so very rarely happens on Doctor Who, even rarely in NuWho - a story written by a woman! And it's a woman that isn't Helen Raynor! The woman bringing you this revolution in storytelling is Catherine Tregenna, who previously wrote a few good episodes of Torchwood and who now swoops in to finish off last week's loosely dangling plot thread - namely, the existence of the now-immortal Ashildr, still played by Maisie Williams. Williams was much better this week, and she seems to react very well to the more sci-fi heavy, philosophical material than last week's silly fluff with Vikings. As did I, in fact.
       Seeming to have dropped off Clara on some adventure or another, The Doctor stumbles upon a highway robbery in 1651 being comitted by "The Knigtmare", who turns out not to be an 80s kids show but instead to be Ashildr, now apparently over 800 years old. She explains to the Doctor that her immortality has come with the ability to master new skills over time but not to hold many memories of actual events, a fact she makes up for by keeping a library full of her own diaries. Tired by grief and contempt at the ephemeral nature of humanity, she employs the Doctor's help to steal from a manor an alien jewel - a jewel which, she reveals after the fact, will allow her to go along with her leonine alien pal and escape Earth, provided she kills someone with it. Despite The Doctor's attempts to stop her, she goes through with it, but upon seeing that her alien associate only wishes to invade the Earth with his people, she foils his plot. The Doctor explains to her why he can't take her with him, and they go their separate ways.
      After Williams' relatively lacklustre acting last week, this week was a breath of fresh air. Tregenna, unlike a lot of her compatriots on the writing team, focuses a lot of her writing on the consequences of people's actions. Here we find Ashildr as a genuinely fascinating character - a dozen times widowed, mother to dead children, forgetting the names and the faces but remembering all of the pain and grief by choice. She embodies the consequences of one of The Doctor's rash decisions, and she herself faces similar decisions as The Doctor slowly tries to teach her how to live "amongst the Mayflies". It was wonderful, and touching, and it really felt like I was watching Doctor Who again. Maybe that had a little more to do with Clara's absence than I really thought it would.
Leomon, use "Fist of the Beast King"!
      There were a few things here or there that missed the mark. The leonine alien (whose name I am too lazy to look up, sue me) seemed very tacked-on and his appearance overhyped, much like the unfortunate monster from back in Before The Flood. I've heard many comparisons to Thundercats. There was also this season's "celebrity cameo you almost didn't notice" from Rufus Hound in the form of highwayman/stand-up-comic/inter-dimensional portal Sam The Swift, who filled a good ten minutes of the episode with atrocious puns. Aside from that though, there wasn't much to complain about - there was some comic relief within the plot, but it worked itself so seamlessly into the story that it didn't feel that bad at all.
       The biggest and most important difference that this week brought was in the writing style. You could feel the difference while watching it - instead of last week's Moffat-co-written episode, which jumped from showpiece moment to showpiece moment, Tregenna gave the characters some time to breathe. Characters talked to each other about what they wanted to do, about what they were going to do, and about what they had done. It is these things which lets us define characters and empathise with them. All we learnt about Ashildr last week was that she was a brave but foolhardy child - here we get given a much deeper, much better character that feels like she really deserves her place here instead of just being some shoddy excuse for continuity. It's the pacing and the character development that allows good science fiction to work its way under the skin, and that's exactly what we got tonight.
      Tregenna for showrunner?


NEXT WEEK: The universe conspires to remind me that the atrocity that was The Day of The Doctor was in fact broadcast as the show's 50th Anniversary Special. It's The Zygon Invasion.

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