This review contains spoilers.
On a mission of his own, the Doctor crosses paths with the now immortal Ashildr, who has been waiting for him for 800 years.
I felt like The Girl who Died was simply setting up for a deeper story, and The Woman Who Lived definitely delivered. With Peter Capaldi flying solo for the first time, Maisie Williams on point, and a dark and emotional storyline, this episode might just be my favourite Twelve episode yet.
Given how rocky Twelve’s character development has been, it’s nice to see that he can stand on his own. And he needed to stand on his own here. Clara is usually his anchor to the human world—a way for him to relate to the mortals he’s saving or engaging with. But there was no need for that here. Ashildr has long since left behind her mortal emotions and there’s no place for Clara to mediate. Ashildr needed—and deserved—to have the Doctor’s attention to herself. She deserved answers from someone who might just understand her. And there is no way Clara could have done that convincingly.
Ashildr (or Me, as she preferred to be called) was such a breath of fresh air. Writer Catherine Tregenna has created a wonderfully nuanced character who experiences immortality in a practical way. As Ashildr says, despite being an immortal being, she only has a mortal brain capacity. Unlike the Doctor, she can’t live with her memories. To me, that is such a fascinating take on her situation. Most people would assume that immortality would come with other perks but Ashildr’s only talent is surviving. She is very much trapped in her body.
Whether or not that’s something the Doctor suspected or even considered, it’s truly heartbreaking to see that any love Ashildr has ever known has been reduced to miscellaneous entries in her diaries. I love that she kept reminding the Doctor that he should have at least explained things to her. Too often he is allowed to run away and leave with no consequences or regrets on his end. But the fallout, especially in Ashildr’s situation, is brutal.
The Doctor once again shows that he misses the point when it comes to humans. He judges them for their deeds without bothering to look closer, assuming that Ashildr was on the right track simply because she was running a leper colony. When he should have been keeping a close eye on the hybrid he created, he was happy to brush her off with the assumption that it had all worked out for the best. Ashildr’s look of utter betrayal says otherwise.
This episode was all about the Doctor and Ashildr’s interactions and I keep forgetting that there was a whole subplot. Leando the lion dude was basically inconsequential. If there were another way for Ashildr to have discovered or obtained the Eyes of Hades then it might have worked even better. Ashildr’s underlying and deeply buried compassion is the only thing standing in the way of her being completely ruthless. Had she masterminded the entire way of escaping her plight, she truly would have been a force to be reckoned with.
As it stands, Ashildr is still toeing that line. I can’t work out whether it’s her character, Maisie Williams’s roguish grin, or a combination of both that makes her such an unsettling addition to the plot. In the end, Ashildr’s immortality could see her become one of the Doctor’s biggest mistakes or his greatest triumphs. The fact that it’s not immediately clear at this point is exciting.
Though her experience with the Doctor will no doubt stick out in her memory, the whole experience is no more than the blink of an eye for her. By the time she appears in the background of Clara’s photo she will have been on her own for over 350 years. Who knows how much she will have changed in that time?
Speaking of which, I find it really interesting that Ashildr would remember not only the Doctor and Clara’s names (which could have been from a diary entry) but their faces. Well, remembered them well enough to recognise the Doctor on sight and track Clara down in the future. It’s an indication that Ashildr not only can’t remember everything, but she can choose exactly what she wants to forget.
Clara’s small cameo at the end of the episode drives home the notion that we’ve been building up to throughout the series: her time with the Doctor is coming to an end. With all the foreshadowing in this episode, it’s becoming more and more likely that Clara will die. At this stage, after three glorious possible exit points last season, her death is the only reason she would stop travelling with the Doctor. And even then, if she could, she’d probably haunt the TARDIS.
For the first time, Clara is just Clara. Her appearance in this episode isn’t filled with quipping or hair flipping or childish demands. We see the love between her and Twelve in a quiet moment between adventures where neither of them are putting on a brave face. Whether this is setting up for a short-lived romance or merely an aspect of their platonic relationship that hasn’t been properly explored, I like it. And Twelve’s expression when he remembers the fleeting nature of Clara’s mortal life is like a punch to the gut.
I loved this episode. I loved the writing. I loved getting to see who Twelve is when he’s not around Clara. I loved Ashildr’s personal journey. I loved the subtle jumps between drama and comedy. And I loved the fact that this feels like the beginning of the end. Something is about to change and it feels like it might just rip my heart out. I feel like I’m connecting with characters again, and I’ve really missed that. I hope this continues. And I hope that Ashildr returns because Maisie Williams’s contribution to this show is astounding.