What could be bad about living forever? Most of us mortals don’t even get to contemplate immortality in the first place. But in the latest season of Doctor Who, two back to back episodes—“The Girl Who Died” and “The Woman Who Lived”—grapple with this question. Naturally, we assume it would be better not to die. In “The Woman Who Lived,” however, we get a less than rosy picture of what an eternal life might hold; of what it might drive any reasonable person to do. As the Doctor eloquently puts it, “Immortality isn’t living forever. That’s not what it feels like. Immortality is everybody else dying.”
As interesting as this central theme is, the plot that compliments it leaves quite a bit to be desired. We recommend watching these episodes for the fascinating discussion of death and immortality, and for their introduction of an intriguing new character, Ashildr. Played by Maisie Williams (famous for her role as Arya Stark in “Game of Thrones”), Ashildr promises to return later in the series as a counterpoint to the Doctor. She’s worth getting to know, even though the plot is less than thrilling.
Although technically the rest of this review contains spoilers, the plot is so predictable we don’t feel we’re spoiling very much. Clara (Jenna Coleman) and the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) materialize in a Viking village that is promptly raided by the Mire, a species famous for being some of the best warriors in the galaxy. Unsurprisingly, the Doctor spends the remainder of “The Girl Who Died” trying to defend the village from the Mire. He is so successful that the only human casualty is Ashildr, a Viking girl with a talent for storytelling that proves crucial to her village’s victory over the invaders.
The Doctor, “tired of losing people,” saves Ashildr in the only way he can: by using a piece of Mire medical technology to fix her forever, making Ashildr immortal. Immediately, the Doctor fears the consequences that might ripple through time.
“The Girl Who Died” closes with one of the best shots in recent Doctor Who cinematography. Ashildr stands on a jetty overlooking the sea, surrounded by a raw, breathtaking Scandinavian landscape. Time-lapse video of the sky shows the passage of countless days. As we circle around Ashildr, and days turn to years, we see her face morph from delighted, to sorrowful, and finally to cold and callous.
The next episode,“The Woman Who Lived,” shows us the consequences of the Doctor’s decision. We meet Ashildr again hundreds of years later, and find her completely changed, to the point she no longer remembers her own name, and simply refers to herself as “Me.” In a few moments, we are overwhelmed with the suffering she has borne through the centuries, forced to live through the deaths of everyone she loved, time and time again. We understand why she will do anything now to escape further loss. “Lady Me” has convinced herself that she doesn’t care, that human attachments are just a source of pain. “People are mayflies, breeding and dying, repeating the same mistakes. It’s boring. And I’m stuck here.”
Maisie Williams really shines in this episode. One might think an 18-year-old actress a strange choice to play an 800-year-old woman, but, with the exception of her sudden change of heart near the end of the episode, Williams is shockingly convincing. She transitions seamlessly from apathy to suffering, turning furious at the Doctor for trapping her in eternal life and abandoning her. These episodes also switch quickly from a light, almost Monty-Pythonesque tone to deadly serious in the blink of an eye. Performed by a less-skilled actor, such shifts might be jarring, but Williams pulls them off perfectly. As much as Ashildr has matured between “The Girl Who Died” and “The Woman Who Lived” (as the titles suggest), she lives on for so long that she forgets how beautiful life is. In short, this two-part story shares a powerful message: that life is precious precisely “because it’s fleeting.”
This theme extends an earlier message from “The Girl in The Fireplace,” in which the Doctor visits Madame de Pompadour (nicknamed Reinette) at various stages of her life. Madame de Pompadour wisely describes how the Doctor “may step from one [moment of her life] to the other without increase of age while [she], weary traveller, must always take the slower path.” Lady Me’s experience is similar to that of Madame de Pompadour; both are visited at random moments by the Doctor, and both are left to mature on their own. But the new episodes take the same theme a step further. Madame de Pompadour savors the Doctor’s visits because she knows her life is passing, and her opportunities to interact with him are few; his visits help her to see her own life as ephemeral and to treasure it all the more. Conversely, Lady Me knows she will live forever, and she sees the time between the Doctor’s visits as “[trudging] through the centuries,” relegated to the boredom of the “mayflies.” As short as Madame de Pompadour’s life is, she finds fulfillment in it. Lady Me finds the inverse to be true; the longer she lives, the less meaning she finds in life.
And there is another key difference between Reinnette and Lady Me. While the Doctor’s relationship with Reinnette is of a romantic nature, his relationship with Lady Me is closer to that of a father and his daughter. Throughout much of the episode, the Doctor addresses Lady Me as a father figure, telling her, “You have this whole wonderful planet to play on.” Even though she is 800 years old, he still sees her as the little Viking girl he once saved. But she is far from being a little girl; she’s had children of her own and watched them die. She’s seen so much death that she’s become desensitized to it. To some degree, she’s become like the Doctor, who is rarely phased by the death of others. But without mortal companions—“the mayflies”—to remind her of the preciousness of life, she’s become more callous than the Doctor, even in his darkest moments.
And yet it is the Doctor who made Lady Me so unfeeling. Though she rebels against the Doctor by associating with a lion-like villain he doesn’t approve of (and whose role is so underdeveloped we don’t even remember his name), she still admits that the Doctor made her who she is. It seems the apple fell a little too close to the tree (kind of like that old Harry Chapin song). In caring for Ashildr so much that he granted her immortality, the Doctor imbued her with his own greatest faults.
Call 911—this plot needs a Doctor.