Doctor Who The Woman Who Lived review: a dark and beautiful study of immortality and the brevity of life

Who is the Knightmare – and who is the real woman who lived?

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★★★★  Has there ever been a darker episode of Who? I’m not talking tone but lighting. The first 19 minutes takes place in the dead of night (bar the odd flashback), the only available light coming from candles or the Moon. It all looks fabulous and is a triumph for the director Ed Bazalgette and director of photography Richard Stoddard. 

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These two chaps are links between this episode and the last – as, of course, is Maisie Williams’s Ashildr, the focus of both The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived, episode titles with mirroring syntax. But when is a two-parter not a two-parter? There was some debate about this in the hallowed halls of Radio Times. We decided – given their distinctly separate stories, settings and flavours (and writers) – that surely they must be treated as discrete entities.

Another small matter ironed out before RT went to press was: “Knightmare” or “Nightmare”? The BBC’s official billing came though with two instances of “Nightmare” for the name of the highwayman; we’d been given that spelling earlier in our coverage too. Yet watching the episode, I spotted “Knightmare” on all the ‘Wanted’ posters and “Voice of The Knightmare” in the credits. A quick word with our friends at the BBC established that the spelling should indeed be with a K. A minor matter, but we like to get these things right for our readers. 

A degree of secrecy surrounded the return of Ashildr, the Viking girl the Doctor rashly made immortal, and she is quickly unmasked in 1651 as the Knightmare. It’s only been seven days since we last saw her but for Ashildr “800 years of adventure” have elapsed. That’s about the right distance to convince us and deliver a sense of unease when she admits, “I think I remember that village… I don’t even remember that name… I call myself Me. All the other names I chose died with whoever knew me.”

What this episode does very neatly is make us realise the consequences of “an infinite life and a normal-sized memory”. Ashildr/Me has lived right through the Middle Ages. Imagine: if a woman alive now had survived for eight centuries, she’d have been born circa 1215, the year King John signed Magna Carta. Between then and now, that’s a whole library of horrible history to endure, digest and forget. 

Catherine Tregenna – much vaunted as the first woman writing for Who in eight years – gets all of this spot on. She cites as a source The Wicked Lady (the saucy 1945 movie in which an aristocratic Margaret Lockwood turns to highway robbery). Last week I likened Ashildr to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando; now I spy an antecedent in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. When Ashildr tells the Doctor, “You didn’t save my life. You trapped me inside it,” I’m picturing the ancient mind locked inside a child’s body that is Claudia in that wonderful novel.

Jean Cocteau’s film fantasy La Belle et La Bête (1946) must be the inspiration for Leandro, the fire-breathing lion-man from Delta Leonis. OK, he fulfils the vacancy for Monster of the Week but, it has to be said, barely makes a mark. And Doctor Who has done lion-people better before. It would have been wonderful had Leandro been a time-sensitive Tharil from Warriors’ Gate. There’s even talk of him seeking a gateway, a portal to another reality, which seems straight out of that 1981 Tom Baker serial. 

Rufus Hound is clever casting as the rival highway robber, Sam Swift the Quick, who flounders around, delaying his hanging with mucky innuendo. I’m not averse to knob jokes – far from it – but Sam’s gallows humour sits uneasily in Doctor Who. He’s likeable as a one-off but now could be another immortal. Who knows what’s being set up there – I wouldn’t mourn if we never see him again.

Oddly, I enjoyed this episode far more on second viewing. I’m not saying it’s perfect. Its madcap escapades leave me cold and the pacing is uneven. You know when Murray Gold is bored by a scene; he lays an inanely burbling score beneath it. Once noticed, it annoys the hell out of me.

The philosophical interludes between the Time Lord and Ashildr are what make this sing. She brings him to book and makes clear the unbearable reality of immortality. Her experience is so different from his: “You gad about while I trudge through the centuries, day by day, hour by hour,” she says. Having read her journals, he questions its missing pages. She says, “When things get really bad, I tear the memories out.” “What could be worse than losing your children?” “I keep that entry to remind me not to have any more.” 

Call him callous but he resists her repeated requests to lift her out of time. He knows it cannot work. “The last thing we need is each other. We need the mayflies. They know how beautiful and precious life is because it’s fleeting.” He’s not even sure if she’s a friend or foe. Again we return to one of the preoccupations of this series, blurring the distinction between enemies and buddies. Whom can you trust? Ashildr tells him: “Enemies are never a problem. It’s your friends you have to watch out for. And, my friend, I’ll be watching out for you.” 

On the surface, this is Maisie Williams’s episode. And she is superb. You have to stop and remind yourself: she is only 18. Her name should be up in lights in the title sequence alongside the stars. With so much of Ashildr/Me to consume, it takes a little while to register: where is Clara? How far did you get before you started wondering? 

There’s a gabbled reference early on, when the Doctor says, “Usually someone hits me here but she’s taken her year sevens for taekwondo.” Clara isn’t mentioned by name until the 19th minute. Although Ashildr has been a delightful interloper, there’s almost a flood of relief when Clara enters the Tardis right at the end. (Here Bazalgette frames some of the most beautiful Tardis shots ever filmed.) 

While she gazes upwards in delight at the time rotor, the Doctor’s sideways look cuts deep. She has been missed. We will miss her. This is the true aim of the episode. Its title refers to Clara as much as anyone else. For the Time Lord, Clara Oswald is the woman who lived, a woman so full of life – but, ultimately, his latest mayfly. 

Every story since 1963 reviewed in RT’s Doctor Who Story Guide

Recent reviews: 

Episode one: The Magician’s Apprentice ★★★★★

Episode two: The Witch’s Familiar  ★★★★★

Episode three: Under the Lake ★★★

Episode four: Before the Flood ★★★

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Episode five: The Girl Who Died ★★★★★