The Woman Who Lived.

TV Earlier today the ever brilliant BBC Archive Twitter feed posted an old news report from when such things, however minor, were shot on film, in which a reporter gamely vox popped the great unwashed about whether the clocks were supposed to go forward or backwards that evening. Amid much confusion, most of them don’t really have a definite answer with one woman saying she effectively utilises the method of looking out the window and seeing how light it is. With this in mind I’ve already consulted the internet for confirmation and turned my Casio Digital Bell alarm clock back which means it feels like I have an extra hour to write this review even though I’ll be as tired as I usually am at around midnight even though it’s eleven o’clock, me time.

Note that's me time rather than Me time, which is a whole other experience, Maisie Williams’s character having been gifted or cursed with eternity rather than just an extra sixty minutes. Plus to continue the tangent for a moment, it really depends on which year you’re born as to whether you’re really gaining an extra hour or regaining it having lost it earlier in the year or being loaned the hour on the assumption that you’ll be paying it back the following Spring. Either way, this whole extra hour business is an other example of how we collectively construct fantasies so that we have these automatic treats which aren’t conditional on us knowing anyone else, in this case longer in bed (which makes me akin to Me, a bit, I suppose).

Before I begin pondering the effect this has on night workers, it’ll perhaps be an idea to actually talk about Catherine Tregenna’s The Woman Who Lived which is one of those entries which has the lustre and clear ambition to be an example of Doctor Who at its best and is a fine watch but ultimately feels a bit flat thanks to enduring death by a thousand niggles which makes it of a piece with its ancestor last week and the likes of Time Heist from last year. The epitome of “It’s fine … but …” Not a disaster, but not quite living up to the all the clips it gifted the Comic-Con trailer subsequently foregrounded in the BBC’s publicity campaign and quite rightly criticised for its irrelevance to the wider audience by Tom Spilsbury in this month’s Doctor Who Magazine.

Central to its fineness is that the main theme of episode, the fleeting lives of humans and immortality,  have been done rather better elsewhere and name-checking the most obvious example, Captain Jack Harkness at the close of the emotional arc of the episode, however squeeable, only serves to remind us of this. Whilst it’s true that one of the features of Doctor Who is the restatement of these ideas for each successive incarnation of the show and so potential new audience, with those episodes so present through streaming services and repeats, it’s impossible not to have relevant conversations from School Reunion and The Girl in the Fireplace and Utopia and Father Time playing in our heads in the background.

Outside of Who, we look towards a thousand vampire stories, Highlander, Orlando and Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium not to mention the little seen but utterly sublime The Man from Earth, written by Jerome Bixby, about an immortal fellow who admits to his university colleagues that he was originally born amongst the early humans and has survived into the contemporary age. If you’ve not seen that I’d highly recommend it, since it’s a great example of how high, epic drama can play out in a single room from a well paced script and well pitched performances. Like Me, John Oldman’s (yes indeed) memories shift to such an extent that at one point, I seem to remember, he became a historian of himself.

Maisie’s character clearly had the cleverer notion, perhaps having been subliminally inspired by seeing the Doctor reading what’s now his two thousand year diary in the previous episode. The best element of the episode is clearly the notion of Me’s memories existing on paper in these many volumes, centuries of autobiography available at the fingertips of anyone with access to the house. If she continues after her encounter with the Doctor, this will be a powerful document especially to historians within this corner of the Whoniverse allowing anyone to access the past of the planet Earth, albeit through the eyes of someone whose enduring it. If the episode can be criticised for burying the headline at all, it’s this.

If anything the portrayal of this past, however superficially entertaining in a swiping montage sort of way, also creates numerous problems in the conception of Me’s character. The death of a child, in any circumstances, is a horrific burden and its deployment here as a kind of character explanation shorthand feels misjudged, if not a little bit clichéd, the implication being that she hardened to the reality of immortality due to the death of her children, somehow failing as a mother and the sadness of not aging when they do. Apart from having the technology to save at least one of them, something purposefully ignored for the needs of the plot, what are those missing pages supposed to suggest?  What did she do afterwards that led to her tears?

Perhaps this material night have resonated more with a different chemistry in the central performances because I take no great pleasure, especially since I’ve loved her work elsewhere, that Maisie Williams is a rare example of someone being miscast within a key role. Which feels really harsh now that I’ve written the words, but while she’s utterly compelling in some places notably when she has an onrush of surety towards the end, when she’s called upon to really turn on the arrogance or the moral ambiguity of the character, it doesn’t quite fit, doesn’t sound right. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, it’s just possible I’m detecting, just as the Doctor noted, that it’s a mask she’s wearing and Williams is playing to that, but it’s not clear within the writing or edit.

Perhaps it's partly as a result of Ashldr having been under introduced in the previous episode and so having not really had the chance to become attached to the character back then, unlike say Jenny in The Doctor’s Daughter.  Her reintroduction doesn’t have the weight because she’s not yet the significant figure she should be, despite the spinning face in history. Not to mention not being as significant a figure as we all assumed she would be having seen the aforementioned trailer which included the Doctor’s moment of recognition which we all knew wasn’t tied with her being some much larger presence from his past but secretly hoped (dear, dear Susan). All of which doesn’t mean my perspective won’t change when she probably returns for the finale and I’ll feel a bit embarrassed about all of this.

That damned trailer also implied greater La Belle et la Bête resonances and although the trans-dimensional doo-hikey absorbs some back draft from Warrior’s Gate dragging a fair amount of Jean Cocteau’s imagery in its wake, once more this season in Leandro we’re saddled with a pretty vacuous foe who generally stomps around looking well designed, in this case a cross between King John from Disney’s Robin Hood and the results of a challenge from The Great British Bake-Off (thanks Radio Times, I’ll not be able to unsee that now), named after a Hungarian national footballer, growls a lot (in this case not voiced by someone from a rock band I barely know) before being vaporised at the end.

None of which is aided by us, and by, I mean me, not at all being convinced that the other Me (a joke under-used in the episode) being this long lived, having seen everything she has person, albeit with her self-confessed teeny-tiny human brain, being taken in by his lies even if her only other apparent alien encounter is the Doctor especially if, as is suggested, like a one-woman LYNDA she’s encountered the results of his ripples on history in other ways. People do stupid things when they’re desperate and we’ll talk about what the Doctor’s actually done a bit later, I have the time, but it feels contrived, part of the requirements of needing a tacked on monster related plot rather than something which has developed from the situation.

The results of these shallow narrative foundations are ultimately a redo of The Shakespeare Code albeit with the healing power of technology rather than Harry Potter’s sorcery as the solution. There’s a lot of that in the revival; grand poetic mcguffins like a jewel which resembles the eyes of Hades or what have you which turn out to be some sort of big button which does a thing which the Doctor essentially has to turn off at the end through some means or other. Well, ok, the whole of the franchise’s history too, but when stories had much longer durations, it was much easier to hide such things behind more entertaining character business. Or indeed more characters.

Nevertheless, this isn’t by any stretch a rubbish episode, it is, in being the definition of fine, not without numerous benefits, chiefly Capaldi, who yet again feels like a man entirely at peace with his life and how to play the Doctor. Much of that has to do with the philosophical underpinnings of the character as he is now and the most telling moment is when the Time Lord almost acknowledges his lack of caring in the past year and how it only works for so long but that you eventually “fall off the wagon” and embrace empathy again, because he is the Doctor and he saves people. It’s almost as though he feels like he’s playing the Doctor now, the version who uses rudeness as a tool rather than it simply being a personality trait.

He also has a lot of disappointed glares both because of what Ashildr has become and by definition internally at himself for what he’s created. Make no mistake, in saving Me, he doomed numerous people who might not otherwise have been, to their death. He might try and blame her to an extent, and how he didn’t realise that age would rust her heart, and comfort himself that she’s saved as many, but those are ripples he can’t roll back. Even if he did decide to move her to a different planet, she’s another fixed point in time so the ripples would continue there instead. In a way he’s proved everything the Valeyard said about him in the trial about his recklessness, but given the choice about not bringing a life back into the world, what choice did he have?

Which shows that large portions of the script are incredibly well written, despite my reservations. Ashildr/Me would also be excellent at Cinema Sins, as she notices that if the technology exists in the universe to do what it did to her, why doesn’t the Doctor offer it to Clara? (ding)  Why doesn’t she benefit? To extrapolate that further, why doesn’t he have baskets full of these resurrection patches lying around the console room just in case? When Rose brought Jack back it was expressed as being a one-off, impossible gesture caused by her being exposed to the TARDIS’s power but here we have something similar which is basically nothing. The chance to begin again and continue beginning again and again.

The script offers a fair amount of Blinovitch-like obfuscation in an attempt to paper over this potential item in the universe which now makes the Doctor look cruel if he doesn’t use it. That the recipients might not be too happy about receiving near eternal life. That they can be killed even if it’s a much more difficult proposition (see Groundhog Day for potential methods). That by implication they’re not readily available, having been innovated by this particular race of walking pillar boxes on a particular planet. But the Doctor suggesting that he needs to be sure that people in his company have potential for death in order to remind him that their lives are fleeting is hazy to say the least.

To focus on that a bit more for a second. The Doctor suggests that he can’t travel with another immortal because he sees the weariness in their eyes to which Me suggests that their perspectives are too vast. When he pulls the Jack reference, has he forgotten that he only really travelled with Harkness when he was mortal or glossing for the benefit of his argument and if it is the latter, for whose benefit is it, since she’s never heard of him (as well she wouldn’t since at this point in time he’s buried in Cardiff somewhere). He also sets aside Susan, Romana and River, though I suppose they shared an implied mortality (he’s allowed to forget the whole Fitz business, he certainly did while they actually shared the TARDIS) and didn’t have his experience of the cosmos at the time.

But you know, in the end, the episode would probably have just benefited from having more Rufus Hound, this year’s Frank Skinner. Wasn’t he great? The role is pretty much as himself, or the person you assume he must be, give or take the thievery and some buckle swash, but across his, count them, two scenes, he made the kind of impact Cribbins did during Voyage of the Damned and it’ll be a crime against the franchise if he isn’t back for the finale. If Romola Garai wasn’t next, he’d also probably a decent candidate to the play the Doctor too so weird would the implications of this be and so charismatic is he on-screen. How is he in dramatic roles, London readers?

Then at the end, all too fleetingly is Clara.  The Doctor misses her?  I missed her, though I understand why she was nudged out presumably for production reasons.  Given that episode eleven is supposed to be very Doctor heavy too, perhaps we'll be getting some Doctor light stories in the next four?  Or at least episodes in which the Doctor is stuck in a single room so all of his material could be a could in a day or so ala Flatline.  Notice how, now that the two of them seem to be more relaxed in each others company, they've only really been together for all of two episodes, three and five, having been separated for most of the rest.  Hmm...

My review plan ends with the note “Final round on Me as a character – implications on future events” and well, yes. Although we said this last year and it didn’t quite happen that way, we seem to be seeing a series of different pieces being thrown around which have implications for the future. The confession dongle from the first story, Clara’s general attitude, the Doctor’s hiding of Me’s existence to her here an embarrassment which will no doubt be part of his latest companion’s departure, a lie too far perhaps? Is Barrowman back somehow and will we find out about the missing two years? Either way, despite everything I’ve said tonight, we’re in a much stronger position at the half way point than we were last year. Good, good.

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