Previously on Doctor Who, ‘The Girl Who Died’
In the woods of 1651, a masked highwayman on horseback named The Knightmare robs a coach, intimidating a seemingly thrill-seeking father and daughter with red-eyed growling backup in the thicket, but before the robber can extract an amulet, the Doctor hops through the coach and insists they share the robbery, which of course is bungled altogether in the confusion. Unsurprisingly, the robber is Ashildr, and the other-worldly amulet rides away with the coach.
Poignantly, she no longer carries a name, just “Me”—names die with whomever knew them, and is disappointed to find out that, while the Doctor’s been loosely keeping an eye on her, he’s not there for her. Bored with the feelings of life, she robs for excitement, having been a medieval queen, an archer in the Battle of Agincourt, and a healer who was nearly drowned as a witch for saving her village. A library of journals serves to remind her of memories and feelings she can no longer remember.
“All these people here, they’re like smoke. They blow away in a moment.”
And yet, the Doctor won’t take her with him. Before night falls, he reads her diary accounts, finding ripped pages and tear-splashed memories she no longer wants, but she’s kept the account of losing her babies to the plague to remind her never to have more. “The Black Death, 1348… I meant to warn you.” But he didn’t, just like he didn’t warn Fangirl O’Donnell. One begins to feel the constant toll of these perhaps intentional non-warnings on people he likes. Hell, in Ashildr’s words.
While he reads, she visits the growling red eyes in the trees, promising to get the artifact by morning, and returns to find the Doctor insistent on helping her regain her original self. Instead she presciently calls him out for running away after every battle and letting the fallout work itself out while he skips across time like a rock on a lake. Oof.
During the break in, the Doctor whisper-lectures her that humans need to share experiences, but she’s never used medkit—nobody has been good enough. They find the amulet, rumored to be the Eye of Hades which protects those on their journey to the afterlife, but then have a series of hilarious foibles on the way out, hiding in the fireplace (The Girl in the Fireplace!) where she grills him for not making Clara immortal and how many Clara’s he’s lost. If only she knew how many literal Clara’s he’s lost, much less other companions.
“This is banter. I’m against banter. I’m on record on the subject of banter.”
Escaping into the woods, they’re waylaid by fellow robber Sam Swift the Quick and his little band, who engages them in a battle of banter and accuses her of keeping her “dad” as a sidekick—an inside joke for all those that suspected Maisie Williams might be cast as the Doctor’s daughter.
The tussle over the amulet comes to gunpoint, but when Ashildr asks “dad” what she should do, the Doctor won’t let her kill Sam. To her, human lives are insignificant as a vapor; to him, human lives are short, but they matter. “Shut up. You’re not my dad.”
Back at her estate, her ancient servant reveals that she’s literally going by “Lady Me,” which, along with her loud fancy dress and lipstick, was a bit too much for me. But she’s running out of patience to get to a future more her speed, cornering the Doctor with her accumulated sorrow. When he only explains his unwillingness to take her with him as “It wouldn’t be good,” her rage explodes and she reveals her accomplice, Leandro, a fire-breathing Lionid from Delta Leonis, who says he lost the amulet crashing to earth through a portal opened by the death of his wife and world. Did anyone really believe that?
More significant are the Doctor’s comments about every death fracturing reality and that an “afterlife,” according to the Eye of Hades, might be a different reality. This has already proven true in the Capaldi series with Death in Heaven, and could be said of a few other companion exits like Rose, Amy and Rory, etc. Given these statements, I wondered if there is something of a fractured reality existing for Clara, perhaps already, which he’s now traveling to spend more time with her.
At any rate, Ashildr and Leandro need another death to open the portal and travel the universe since the Doctor won’t take her along.
“You didn’t save my life, Doctor. You trapped me in it.”
He warns her against the potential horrors of the portal, but all the better to her. She ties him up, leaving him to two constables who report that Sam Swift will be hanged, so she heads that way. The Doctor bribes them with “all of Lady Me’s money”—30 pounds—and rides off on horseback. (Speaking of Madame du Pompadour, the Doctor rode a horse through a mirror to save her.)
Literally biding the time before his hanging with gallows humor, Sam (played by comedian Rufus Hound) trades groan-inducing, surprisingly perverse (for Doctor Who) jokes with the crowd. “Lenny the lion” incites the crowd to get on with it, and Ashildr pays the hangman for a swift end, offering Sam a last kiss and is moved by his sorrow at losing his “most valuable gift”—life, full of magic and adventures. Spotting the Doctor, Sam desperately puns away, giving the Doctor time to use his psychic paper as a pardon. Foiled, Ashildr slams the amulet on Sam’s chest, opening a purple portal “to hell.” Leandro MWAHAHAs, admitting there’s an invading force after all and he of course has no intention on taking her with him. As the crowd scatters under laser fire, she realizes she values life after all, pleading with the Doctor for help.
“It’s infuriating, isn’t it? You think you don’t care and then you fall off the wagon.”
To reverse the portal, they have to un-kill Sam, so she uses the second medkit, turning the beam white with immortality. The Leonine is killed for his failure, and the crowd cheers.
At a tavern afterwards, the Doctor makes up that Sam’s probably not immortal due to the “power draining thingy.” She smiles sadly. Finally he explains that immortals need “the mayflies” that is humanity or they forget what matters, full of weariness and emptiness. She agrees their perspectives are too vast to be combined, reminding him of Captain Jack, whom he essentially abandoned in a similar fashion immediately after Jack gained immortality. “He’ll get round to you eventually.” I had to laugh at that one.
Like other semi-immortals touched by the Doctor, she promises to watch out for his leftovers and protect the world from him. As a friend. “It’s your friends you need to watch out for.” A chilling statement, reminiscent of Queen Victoria’s similar vow, which resulted in the creation of Torchwood after she was turned into a lupine wavelength haemovarioform (aka werewolf).
“Am I ill? Are you ill? Are you never gonna travel with me again because I said a thing?”
Sidelined all but completely this episode, Clara returns at the end with a gift—a selfie from one of her students he helped with homework by introducing her to Winston Churchill. He spots Ashildr in the selfie background but weirdly says nothing. She hugs him, promising not to go anywhere as she asks for another magical adventure, echoing Sam Swift. She is so going somewhere.
The most debated topic prior to this season’s start, it seems that Maisie Williams’s character is not destined for companionship after all. Not only did the Doctor’s explanation make a great deal of sense, it underlines the fragility of his current companion. However, she will most likely turn up again in her watchdog role. Among the many problems of immortality discussed in “The Woman Who Lived,” the woeful capacity of the human brain was a great point—at 39, I can scarce remember more than a smattering of events from my 20s and teens, much less if I lived 1000 years more. For those who might wonder why she never shared the medkit with her past lovers or children, the three empty cribs answered that for me—Which child? Which lover? When? They’d be stuck at that age forever.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#4A7097″ class=”” size=””]“All these people here, they’re like smoke. They blow away in a moment.” Ashildr/Lady Me[/pullquote]
I loved the humorous addition of Sam Swift, who was charming and funny without being quite as cheesy as Robin Hood, although I wonder how his smile will bear up under a millennium of world weariness. While bothersome to some, I didn’t mind that Rufus Hound is twice Masie Williams’ age. After all, Ashildr’s technically lived many more than that, with children and lovers to boot, and his sweetness kept it from feeling lecherous. Thank you, director and writer.
Conversely, the Leonid was much less interesting, predictably evil, and inconsistent. One minute he’s telling her to go die, and the next he’s dramatically begging “my lady” and his brothers to spare him. A bit of a throw away, that one, and I think it would have been fine not to have the lion at all, perhaps to simply have the legend of the amulet inform us of what it takes the open the portal.
All the world-weary, insightful lines were fantastic, thanks to a former Torchwood writer Catherine Tregenna, nominated for a Hugo Award for her work on Torchwood; only the second woman to pen an episode since the series revival and the first since 2008. But, the romping puns were also delightful. Less successful for me were the in-between moments in which it was impossible to forget I was watching the mega-hyped Maisie Williams in loud, anachronistic, and honestly a bit silly, outfits, particularly the ill-fitting highwayman garb and round-eyed mask, which looked like a rented Halloween costume.
References & Trivia:
- Ashildr’s servant is played by Struan Roger who previously voiced the Face of Boe, who many assume is the future version of Jack Harkness.
- The Doctor says that the Great Fire of London was started by the Tereleptils, a fishy race seen in the 1982 episode “The Visitation” which also featured a highwayman. And actually, the Doctor’s torch started it.
- An episode of Blackadder The Third featured a woman highwayman who sounded like a man and too-eager father/daughter victims.
- Ashildr’s mention of 10,000 hours at archery references the Outliers theory that any skill requires 10,000 hours to master.
- Ashildr tells Sam to “run,” something the Doctor has been doing a lot lately to his frienemies.
- Leandro and the Hangman currently work on the UK soap Doctors. Pun!
- Funny: “I’m just passing through like fish in the night.”
- The song the Doctor is playing on his guitar at the end is the intro to Chris Isaak’s Blue Hotel. That’s one emo way to look at the TARDIS.
Doctor Who S9E6
An enjoyable finish to the Ashildr story with insightful, dark dialogue and excellent performances from Williams, Capaldi, and Hound. While the costuming and alien were a bit silly, it wasn’t enough to detract from the story as a whole. I’d give the Leonid a 6 or 7 at best, but added a point for the hybrid part of Ashildr and now Sam Swift.