Following last week’s headspinning climax where the young Viking Ashildr was granted immortality, The Woman Who Lived surges forward in time to 17th century England to pick up the story. The hapless Vikings are long gone (though they can still be found elsewhere on the BBC) and highwaymen now run amok through London with one in particular drawing the attention of the Doctor as he arrives in search of an alien artefact.
Less the second half of a two-parter as the second of two related standalone stories (the Spectre to last week’s Skyfall, if you like a topical comparison), The Woman Who Lived picks up the threads of last week’s episode as the Doctor is challenged by Ashildr’s (or “Me” as she now likes to be known) immortality as well as his own. It’s a tense, passionate, thoroughly fascinating story that excels when exploring themes of life and death, but falters when its focus shifts elsewhere.
Whilst The Girl Who Died relied too heavily on slapstick comedy, this week’s story couldn’t be more different tonally with director Edward Bazalgette evoking the haunting mood of a Victorian ghost story as the Doctor and Ashildr creep through creaky mansions and moonlit forests whilst a monster lurks in the shadows.
It’s also unfolds at a much steadier pace to its predecessor as writer Catherine Tregenna – who, Torchwood fans will be aware, has a knack for character driven pieces – favours a dialogue heavy approach in what essentially amounts to an sizzling two-hander between Peter Capaldi and Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams – an emotionally charged confrontation that brings out the best in both performers.
Now immortal, Ashildr knows what it’s like to live forever. Her endless experiences of life and loss mean there are some intriguing parallels to be drawn between her and the Doctor. Both know eternal life is a curse rather than a blessing. Loved ones are lost and even memories fade in time. Which begs the question of why the Doctor would inflict such suffering on a young girl in the first place?
In the centuries since we last met her, Ashildr has lived many lives. She’s been a surgeon, a warrior and now a notorious highwayman (with a surprisingly deep voice – a brilliant nod to Miranda Richardson’s The Shadow in Blackadder the Third). It’s a very Time Lord-esque existence – travelling in search of adventure, saving the day then leaving before the fallout – and The Woman Who Lived is clever to expose the dangers of the Doctor’s lifestyle.
Ashildr has repeatedly seen the people she loves most die and the scars of her experiences have caused her to become “desensitised to the world” as she refuses to get close to anyone lest they too blow away like smoke in a moment. These are the very things the Doctor most fears he will become.
After being wasted somewhat in the previous episode, it’s great to see Maisie Williams sink her teeth into a meatier role this time out. Her unrivalled ability to appear wise beyond her years comes into play here in a character who has lived far beyond what her looks suggest, and Williams is able to run through a whole gamut of emotions as the Doctor’s return sparks some terrible memories for Ashildr.
It’s all pretty bleak stuff – especially the uncomfortably wrenching moment where Ashildr is seen mourning her dead children – which is perhaps why Tregenna tries unsuccessfully to lighten the mood. Attempts to insert broad comedy hijinks into proceedings, including bumbling guards, a fire-breathing humanoid lion and a pun-spouting highwayman (Rufus Hound in a brief but lively turn), sit awkwardly alongside the largely introspective tone.
These wild lurches in tone lead to a chaotic final act that sees the moody atmosphere give way to something more akin to an apocalyptic disaster movie as Ashildr inadvertently welcomes an alien invasion from another world. This sudden burst of daft, bombastic action is completely out of place with the rest of the episode, which relies on character driven performances for its thrills, and rather dilutes the impact of the final scenes.
It still manages to end on an intriguing note, though, as we spot Ashildr lurking behind Clara moments after she warned the Doctor she would be watching over his discarded companions. Is this the last time we’ll see Ashildr? Is the Doctor about to lose another loved one? Will she be the one to send him over to Ashildr’s side? The questions are mounting as we barrel towards the series finale.
The Woman Who Lived is by no means a perfect episode, suffering from a lurching tone and underserved guest stars, but it’s also a fascinating character study on the price of defying death that’s backed up by superb performances from Peter Capaldi and Maisie Williams. Sure, it’s not a satisfying whole, but in parts this is one of the most gripping and challenging Doctor Who stories in quite some time.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: The Woman Who Lived on BBC iPlayer