Discussing Doctor Who: The Woman Who Lived

Doctor Who The Woman Who Lived

With the latest Doctor Who episode, “The Woman Who Lived,” in the books, I’m back again with my friend Kevin Harvey, author of All You Want to Know About The Bible in Pop Culture.

Previously, we talked about “The Magician’s Apprentice,” “The Witch’s Familiar,” “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood,” as well as the previous episode to this two-part story, “The Girl Who Died.”

This week, Ashildr finds out immortality is not all it’s cracked up to be and the Doctor discovers ripples can become tidal waves that may come back to haunt him.

What did we think about it all and where exactly was Clara? As always, beware of spoilers.

Let’s get right to it. What did you make of “The Woman Who Lived”?

Kevin: After six episodes, I think it’s safe to say that the writing/directing team has really hit their stride with Peter Capaldi this season. There are no “filler” shows keeping us distracted in between the important ones. Every episode so far this season has been filling a purpose in the overall arc of the story, introducing new characters, expanding on old ones, and doing an incredible job of mixing humor, drama, and adventure. In my opinion, “The Woman Who Lived” may have been the perfect balance, showing all the ranges for Capaldi, who I predicted in a tweet months ago would own the role of the Doctor this season.

It felt odd not having Clara around until the final minutes, but that was on purpose. Jenna Coleman wasn’t busy dancing at royal balls with Prince Harry; the writers are on a path to showing us a Doctor who outlives Clara. And perhaps now we can understand that is actually a gift to her, as we have seen now what living for 800 years has done for Ashildr.

Aaron: This episode actually took a while for me to truly appreciate. Last week, I immediately connected with “The Girl Who Died.” But this week, it took time to think through the story and how they are developed things for the season as a whole and in this specific episode.

You were right last week when you spoke of “The Girl Who Died” almost as a standalone. These two episodes were more “standalone-ish” than the previous two-part stories. Ashildr was really the only connecting thread and she was vastly different from one episode to the next.

It’s almost as if the titles of the two-parts were the opposite of the feel of the show. “The Girl Who Died” was a mostly fun, quirky, witty episode, while “The Woman Who Lived” was much more somber, deep, and reflective.

What did you make of the turn of Ashildr’s character, or “Me” as she referred to herself? Also, where do you think she is heading, as she has been confirmed for episode 10 this season?

Aaron: Maisie Williams is clearly a phenomenal actress because that was a significant transition for her character to make between one episode and the next. She was able to balance as sense of a lost young girl, but also a world-weary woman who had suffered unbearable loss. While I can see how that life could harden a person, I did think her turn back to caring was a little trite and quick during that moment. However, her character did show more complexity in her interaction with the Doctor at the tavern.

There are some major mysteries left with her that may come up later or may simply be forgotten. Why did she tell the Doctor to read her diaries, but tear out several pages? Is she still hiding things from him? What has she been doing all these years? And what are her plans now that she’s made it to modern day? Honestly, I think I would enjoy a spinoff series of Ashildr through history.

Ashildr selfie phone picture modern day

Kevin: Absolutely! A spinoff for Ashildr would be perfect. As she is at best a recurring character, and not a main star, that would probably be the only way the show could answer well your questions above.

I think her dark turn over 800 years made sense, much more so than the story of Captain Jack Harkness, who has just been gallivanting around the world all his life without really changing much as a person. Outliving everyone you ever knew, including your children, has to affect you in ways we mortals can only imagine, and I believe Ashildr’s “turn to the dark side” gives us a greater appreciation of the Doctor, who has lived more than twice as long as she has and yet continues his mission of protecting our world.

I’m not exactly sure where her story is heading, but I know I don’t trust her. Like you, I felt her repentance was a little too quick and easy for coming back from a turn that took 800 years to get to. But that’s probably because she didn’t totally change back. She’s still following the Doctor, doing who knows what with the people he leaves behind. Consider me anxious to find out more.

I enjoyed the call back to Captain Jack Harkness. This season seems to have deemphasized the grand mythology of previous seasons and given us more small connections like that. What do you think about that decision?

Kevin: I was always a fan of Harkness. I haven’t seen any of the main Torchwood series episodes, but I did watch the two Torchwood miniseries, “Miracle Day” and “Children of Earth” (of which the latter also starred Peter Capaldi, in a not-so-uplifting role). After serving a pretty important role during the Martha Jones season, Harkness has been noticeably absent and unmentioned until this last episode, so I think a reunion would be welcome. Wouldn’t it be cool if as Ashildr has been watching the Doctor, Harkness has been keeping his eye on her?

Aaron: Recently, I read where John Barrowman (Jack Harkness) said he would be up to returning to Doctor Who if the story was right. What better story could there be than his interacting with a new Doctor and a fellow immortal human?

But I do think this season has found a nice way to stay connected to the overall story of Doctor Who, but not be so tied to it. Several previous seasons have been almost all mythology, which I enjoy, but it makes it difficult for viewers to keep up. Ironically that often diminishes the importance of each episode because it’s only a piece building to something else—it’s not important in it’s own right as a singular story.

After making Clara much more likable, they left her almost completely out of this episode. What do you make of that—foreshadowing, plot device or a little of both?

Aaron: They have these episodes sprinkled through the runs where they are light on the Doctor or the companion—sometimes both, with “Blink” being a great example. But as we talk about every week, Clara is leaving the show this season (and probably because she dies). So I’m voting for a little bit of both.

It gives the show a nice change of pace when you mix up the standard elements and give the Doctor (or companion) someone else to play off of. It was interesting to see the companion role between the Doctor and Ashildr. As someone who has lived hundreds of years (though not as long as the Doctor), she definitely did not want to take the back seat. I think these types of episodes help all the characters breathe a bit more, but I also feel like they are preparing the audience for Clara’s departure.

Kevin: I cannot recall a “companionless” episode before now that didn’t take place in between companions, although I’m sure there have been a couple. So this was a strange change of pace for me. But yes, for me Clara’s absence this week was all a “foreshadowing device” (another way of saying “a little of both”) to help lead to her imminent death.

Last week in our discussion, I complained that the Doctor didn’t keep the second immortality chip to give to Clara, but I believe “The Woman Who Lived” was written to help combat that argument (not mine specifically—they probably wrote this episode before reading our blog last Tuesday), showing us why we actually wouldn’t want to see Clara live forever.

And based on their dialogue in the final scene, I think the Doctor now knows that he’s going to see Clara die. Perhaps he’s not expecting it as soon as we are, but he knows she’s with him for life now, which means she’s going to die on his watch, something he didn’t have to deal with while his recent companions have been with him. 

We had a secondary villain (again) and another character introduction in Sam Swift. Let’s just talk about both here. Did you like Leandro and do you think we’ll see Swift again?

Kevin: It has to be really hard after all these years to come up with a new, exciting villain and have enough euros each week to make him look pretty cool, so I have an abundance of grace toward Doctor Who with its villains. All that said, Leandro was instantly forgettable for me, save for the fact that he looked so much like Ron Perlman’s Beast from the 1980s TV version of Beauty and the Beast.

Sam Swift the Quick, on the other hand, was a refreshing comedic relief whose scenes with the Doctor had me yearning for more. I love that he was the one who received the second immortality chip (more on that in a moment), but I don’t think that means we’re going to see him every time we see Ashildr. In many ways, she has become the anti-Doctor, and I don’t believe she sees the value in a companion.

Aaron: Yes. While iconic villains like the Daleks, the Cybermen, and more recently the Weeping Angels have always played vital roles in the series, the show is built around the Doctor and the relationship he has with the audience, most often through the companion. I’m quite all right with some forgettable bad guys. Try something new. If they catch on like the Weeping Angels, bring them back for further development. If they flop, move on. There’s a universe full of alien possibilities.

Sam Swift was an interesting character. It almost felt to me as if we were missing something else with him, like they filmed more with him, but had to cut it to squeeze in Ashildr’s entire story. If that’s the case, I think they made the right decision, but like you, I wanted to see more between Swift and the Doctor.

Favorite quotes from this week? 

Aaron: As I said earlier, this wasn’t a one-liner type of episode, so there weren’t as many quotes for me that stood out. But here are a few.

“What took you so long, old man.” — Ashildr to the Doctor

“Humans need shared experiences.” — the Doctor
“I’m regretting sharing this one.” — Ashildr

“This is banter. I’m on the record against banter.” — the Doctor … who always banters

Kevin: Since I’m the “Bible in pop culture” guy, I’ll start with some of the quotes that reminded me of scripture and leave the great comedic ones for you.

“There is nowhere new under the son.” —from the Doctor, paraphrasing King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 1:9

“Human life is fleeting.” —from Ashildr, similar to much of what the psalmist wrote in Psalm 39:4 and Psalm 89:47

“If you intend any harm to this planet or these people, then killing me is by far your best move.” —from the Doctor to Ron Perlman—I mean, Leandro—which reminded me of the Enemy’s plan here on earth: attempting to persuade us there is no God or that we do not need him, resulting in eternal harm beyond our imaginations

What spiritual content did you notice in this episode?

Kevin: For me two major points of emphasis stood out in this episode. One, that Ashildr ended up giving the second immortality chip to her enemy Sam Swift, a man she referred to as “a guilty man destined to die.” Previously when the Doctor had asked why she hadn’t given it to any else, she told him that no one is good enough to give it to.

So the fact that she ends up giving it to the guilty Swift is a wonderful reminder of the unearned gift of eternal life we have been offered by Jesus, though none of us are certainly good enough to have been given this gift. Swift was guilty, but was given eternal life. The same can be said by all followers of Jesus.

Secondly, the main difference between Ashildr, or “Me” as she calls herself now, and the Doctor is that he sees the value of companionship and she does not. She describes herself as “singular, unattached, alone”—her own companion. But this was not how God intended us to live life here on earth. He has never been alone in heaven, for even before man he had the Trinity, and Adam was barely alone before it was decided that the animals were not suitable companions. Adam needed Eve.

But it goes beyond husband and wife, for many, including the apostle Paul, do not marry. But from his writings, you cannot argue that Paul didn’t recognize the importance of meeting together, of fellowship, of serving one another. Ashildr’s “path to the dark side” is no doubt a result of living life alone all these years, which is not what the Doctor planned for her, or what God planned for any of us.

Aaron: I think of Ashildr’s quote that she is trapped inside this immortal life and look to Genesis 3. Adam and Eve sinned and spiritual death took root in their lives. God graciously prevented them from eating the tree of life so that they would not live forever.

We were not created to die, but neither where we created to live forever in a sinful, broken state. As I wrote recently, Christians should value this life as a gift from God. But we should also recognize that when death does come (barring the return of Christ) it will be a doorway that will lead those who follow Christ into perfect immortality and those who reject Him to something even worse that Ashildr’s situation.

When I thought about heaven as a kid and “living forever,” I had something like Ashildr’s life in my mind. I thought about getting bored and doing all that could be done. In short, I simply thought about a really long life here on this Earth. The promise of Christ is eternity with Him on a new heaven and new Earth.

The adventures and discoveries will be inexhaustible and we will be able to experience it all with others in the body of Christ and the Triune God Himself. There is nothing boring or disappointing about that.

For more about Kevin, he blogs at BibleInPopCulture.com, where he talks about the intersection of faith and culture, and you can catch him on Twitter at@PopCultureKevin.

Join us again next week when we’ll talk about “The Zygon Invasion.” Here’s some previews to get you ready.


4 Comments

  1. These are great thanks. Love the way you both review the episode and find the spiritual context. I have posted an excerpt on my Tumblr blog.

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.