You have probably noticed that this is my first article about our beloved shared Doctor experience this season. That is not by accident. Rather, it’s because the first few episodes of season 9 have been, by-and-large, quite boring, and not really worthy of entire articles or the time you’d spend reading them (in my opinion, anyway). All of that changed with this week’s “The Woman Who Lived”, and now I’m suddenly full of words once more. Allow me to take you on a journey through where we’ve been and, hopefully, where we are now going.
This season started off with Missy and Daleks. Not a bad start. We also know that the majority of episodes this season will be two-part episodes, in perhaps a nod to the serialized stories of older Doctors (and, perhaps, in conjunction with BBC-America’s “Breakfast With Baker” series, in which you can watch classic 4th Doctor serials over Sunday brunch).
This arc quickly got off-track, though, with far too many gimmicks and far too little actual substance. Sonic sunglasses… okay, I guess that’s doable, but it’s also a new item the BBC can market to Whovians with too much money and not enough sense (see also Fezes, 3-D glasses, striped brown suits, Converse sneakers, and, of course, bow ties). I get that Peter Capaldi is sort of an aging rock star, but the guitar playing every episode also feels more like a gimmick and less like something that actually matters.
The Daleks have become almost a parody of themselves at this point, never REALLY threatening the Doctor or his companions, and always trying to reinvent themselves in some completely roundabout way. So this time we gave them all regeneration energy, but also killed them all when regenerated Dalek slime rose up? Granted, it was better than the human-dalek hybrids of Tenant’s era, but it wasn’t worth two episodes. And sure, the Doctor finally facing the moral dilemma of whether or not to let a child Davros die and thus invalidate the existence of the Daleks was good in theory, but we didn’t actually get a lot of exploration of that idea.
Michelle Gomez held her own as Missy, taking mediocre writing and putting enough phrenetic energy into it to make her more interesting than either the Doctor or Clara. But even that wasn’t enough to save the first arc.
The second two-episode arc had no gimmicks, and touched on ideas of predestination and whether or not the Doctor actually can change time, but didn’t go nearly far enough and ended with Capaldi shrugging, as if the audience couldn’t handle an actual intellectual discussion of time travel. More like the writers couldn’t handle trying to justify the many, many times they’ve gone back and changed things that “couldn’t” be changed. The trapped-with-monsters gimmick worked okay in these episodes, but we’ve seen it done SO many times before (“The Impossible Planet”, “Cold War”, “42”, and “Voyage of the Damned”, to name a few) that at this point it just feels a bit tired. We had a moment where we might have seen a return of the Reapers (from the phenomenal “Father’s Day” episode of season 1), but no, that was just a passing fancy, and no actual thing-that-can’t-be-changed would be changed.
So this brings us to last week’s episode, “The Girl Who Died,” in which we meet a viking girl, Ashildr, played by everyone’s favorite assassin-in-training from Game of Thrones, Maisie Williams. Despite having a name that sounded decidedly like a former King of Gondor, Ashildr showed the kind of real actions and emotions that actual people might engage in when faced with the kind of threats that a typical Doctor Who episode presents. She made mistakes (letting her rage get the better of her) and suffered remorse. The Doctor wasted some time with his sunglasses and a yo-yo, but those were tossed aside when he realized that he actually could save people… and that he should. It was a nice throw-back to the face from Pompeii that this incarnation chose, and I appreciated that they brought back the Doctor’s ability to speak the language of babies in a way that actually had meaning and gravitas. The Benny Hill video bit was a bit over-the-top, but it worked in this context. This better-than-average episode ended with the Doctor casually making someone immortal and not caring about the consequences.
Then we come to this episode, where consequences finally smacked the Doctor upside the head, and the season found its voice. Maisie Williams returned, as a now 800-year-old version of her character from last episode, who has lost all human empathy because she was forced into immortality. We learned that the Doctor checked in on her once in that time, and then did what the Doctor does and flitted off, assuming everything was fine.
Everything was NOT fine, and finally we’re seeing the Doctor deal with consequences for the sort of things he might have shrugged his shoulders at. The Doctor has created a monster, and despite the many pleas from the woman now calling herself “Lady Me” or just “Me”, he refuses to take her with him. The Doctor has to learn that he forced Ashildr to live through the deaths of her children during the Black Plague. He learns that Ashildr has trained herself to be one of the best lockpicks, sword fighters, voice-changers, and sneaks in all of time and space… and that she’s using that skill to be a criminal. Also, we learn that being forced to live forever makes you uncaring about the lives of others around her.
I probably also enjoyed this episode a lot because Clara wasn’t in it (well, not till the very end, anyway). Her “impossible girl.” more-clever-than-the-Doctor qualities have annoyed me from the beginning, and having an actual 3-dimensional character as a foil to the Doctor instead of an inconsequential and overly-self-important Mary Sue was a welcome change. We even had a reference to Jack Harkness, who probably will never appear on the show again (I believe there were some legal shenanigans surrounding rights to use that character when FX did their co-production of the awful “Miracle Day” Torchwood series), but it was nice to feel like The Doctor, and his consequences, were part of a full universe where things from previous episodes actually mattered. Also, Me’s discussion with the Doctor about losing companions was fantastic, and likely foreshadowing the removal of Clara later this season that we’ve all heard about.
The episode ends with Ashildr/Me not being an “enemy” or a “friend” to the Doctor, but something in-between. We see that she’s still keeping tabs on folks like Clara in the present day, and we’re still not sure what her final role will be with the Doctor. That’s because, unlike someone like Davros, Ashilr/Me is a complex character, the kind of character you like seeing in serial dramas.
This episode finally found a voice for this season, and now we have a Doctor who’s not just an aging rock star, or a zany travel companion, or a yelling-for-no-reason old man… he’s a person who chooses to take actions and then has to deal with the consequences. Sure, the episode was not without its flaws (“Me” as a name and a villaing who looked like a Beauty and the Beast ripoff being chief among them), but it hit the tone perfectly, and set things up for what I hope will be a more integrated Doctor Who universe.