By Will Barber – Taylor
In previous years we at this humble website had reviewed each episode of the then new series of Doctor Who individually as they went out. However, in the spirit of the return of the two parters, it has been decided to review the two parters together as if they were one coherent story. Series 9 continues with Steven Moffat and Jamie Mathieson’s first part in the story of Ashildr and following that up with a review of Catherine Tregenna’s conclusion to that initial arc.
While Toby Whithouse’s story was an exciting, dynamic and funny return to form for Doctor Who, The Girl Who Died / The Woman Who Lived is a return to a much blander type of storytelling. It is incredible that a series like Doctor Who can take a concept like immortality and make it so boring. Doctor Who has dealt with immortals before but never in such a dull way.
The Moffat/Mathieson collaboration begins with the TARDIS landing in a Viking village and discovering that an alien race called the Mire has decided to…. kill some Vikings. This is supposed to somehow make them stronger. Right. After this bizarre opening, Ashildr (Maisie Williams) declares war on the Vikings on behalf of her village. The sort of reaction that you’d expect from any self-respecting 9th century Viking girl whose “fighting men” had all been killed.
The Doctor, a man who has spent his entire life standing up to creatures that bring terror and horror to others responds to the challenge by saying “Hey! Let’s all run away!” Is this defender of the innocent really meant to be the same man as the Mr Cowardly Custard seen in this episode?! The fact that The Doctor knows about the Mire and is happy to let them continue rampaging across the universe is a complete antithesis to what the character stands for.
After he is convinced otherwise, “hilarious” comedy ensues with The Doctor “teaching” all the none warrior Vikings how to fight. Now, to put on our brainy specs for a moment this whole scenario is completely ridiculous. Vikings weren’t, of course, constantly rampaging and raiding monasteries. Most Vikings in Britain were farmers but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t know how to fight. In the brutal world of the 9th century every single man would know how to fight, whether to defend his crops from other farmers, Saxon raiders or even the wild wolves that still occupied Britain and mainland Europe at that point. There would not be a situation in which a Viking wouldn’t know how to hold a sword.
After we spend what seems like hours wading through the comedic tripe, we finally get the showdown between the Vikings and the generic villain of the week (aka The Mire) which is, as you’d imagine anticlimactic. However, there is a consequence – Ashildr is killed and after a rather unnecessary appearance from The Tenth Doctor and Donna in clip form, The Doctor brings her back to life using one of The Mire’s self-revival chips which grants her immortality. The Doctor then gives her a second (this is going to result in a minor rant later, so remember this) chip which she can give to whoever she likes.
Moving onto the second part of the two parter, Catherine Tregenna’s equally bland but more annoying follow up, The Woman Who Lived. Moving the action to Puritan Britain, The Doctor arrives to discover that Ashildr (who, rather annoyingly refers to herself as “Me” throughout the episode because “All the other names that I’ve been known by have died with those I’ve cared for” or some other garbage) is now a highwaywoman that is attempting to steal an amulet that The Doctor is also after.
After a lot of back and forth talking we find out that Ashildr has had several full lives losing her father and her children, which is why she is so bitter and full of angst and so 90s comic book hero. She is so sorrowful because “humans are like dust” and they blow away etc. etc. Yet, when her loved ones were dying she didn’t seem to think “Oh I could use that bit of alien technology to make them IMMORTAL”. How insane must she be that she sees her loved ones die and yet doesn’t think “Oh, I could do something?” No, she moans and whines about how “alone” she is and how she wants to leave Earth. The only reason this ridiculous piece of convolutedness is kept in is so A) it makes Ashildr full of angst and comparable to The Doctor and B) so it can be the deus ex machina at the end of the story to save the day. It is utterly pathetic writing and makes her character appear as either a psychopath or completely thick.
To add further insult to injury, the climax is terrible. It involves Sam Swift a highwayman who is about to be hanged being used for the dastardly plan of Ashildr and her friend, generic bad guy of the week. He is known as Terry or whatever silly name they gave him. Putting the brainy specs back on for a moment, Sam Swift is meant to be hanged at Tyburn, the famous London execution site. Aside from the fact that right up until the 1740s, executions at Tyburn would attract thousands of people no matter what rank or station, Swift is only able to get about thirty people to come and see his execution. To add to this, The Doctor is easily able to push through the crowds, something he shouldn’t be able to do seeing as there were stalls erected around the hanging tree which seated hundreds of people. Furthermore, Swift is seen drinking a jug of ale which he wouldn’t have been allowed to do seeing as he was about to be executed. While his ale is present, a priest, who would have been present at every single execution by law, is amazingly absent. Later on in the scene The Doctor attempts to stop Swift being hanged by making the crowd laugh with the hangman apparently acting as some sort of lethal compare to the act. This wouldn’t have been allowed at the time as executioners had to meet strict deadlines – it wasn’t meant to be a comedy club, it was meant to be a place of death!
The acting in the two parters is fine enough with some good moments for Capaldi to show his range even if the material he’s given isn’t that great. Maisie Williams does a fine job of making Ashildr a bit likeable. In fact, she produces a masterpiece if we take into consideration the complete lack of a character she was given. Jenna Coleman is also good though it seems as if, by the time these stories were written that her exit was already planned as she is slightly pointless in the first part and almost completely absent in the second. Seeing as Steven Moffat described this series as “The Doctor and Clara’s golden years” I would recommend he invests in a dictionary to look up what the word “irony” means.
The Girl Who Died / The Woman Who Lived are two pointless stories which add nothing to Doctor Who lore; constitute brain torture in some countries and fails to utilise its guest star Maisie Williams to her full potential. If you ever want to rewatch Series 9 in the future, I don’t think you should bother.
Next time – The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion.