[WARNING: The Following Review Contains SPOILERS!]
It was a typical day’s work for The Doctor, even though it was – at the moment – night. He was using his new curio detector (a device named such, because it detected curios) to locate alien technology that was on Earth in times and places where it shouldn’t be. It’s very important work and not something that should be interrupted by something so trivial as masked men with flintlock pistols trying to rob someone.
Unfortunately, the highwayman known as The Nightmare has much different opinions upon the importance of his night’s work and The Doctor’s sudden arrival proves an unwelcome distraction from it. But once the dust is cleared and both their targets have escaped, the highwayman reveals himself… as a herself.
The Nightmare is truly a local noblewoman known as Lady Me. But The Doctor knows her by another name. A name The Lady Me barely remembers herself but does not answer to. For hundreds of years and dozens of lifetimes ago, The Lady Me was a Viking skald named Ashildr, to whom The Doctor – in a moment of desperation – gave the gift of eternal life.
It is a gift The Lady Me wishes she could return, for the years have cost her much and there is little left of the imaginative young girl that The Doctor wished to save in the woman who has turned to robbery as a hobby because there is so little left that inspires her to feel anything. That numbness has caused her to ally herself with a sinister member of The Leonians – an alien race of lion-men – who will either deliver the escape from Earth that she desires or the oblivion she craves.
The Woman Who Lived explores the idea of how The Doctor’s good intentions can cause far more harm than benefit more effectively than any episode since the Tom Baker classic The Face of Evil. The script by Torchwood writer Catherine Tregenna truly explores the pain of Ashildr’s existence and it does not shy away from the harsh realities that a woman of the time would have to deal with. Yes, Ashildr gets to engage in all manner of daring-do, disguising herself as a man on the field of battle but she also has to deal with being drowned as a witch after she successfully saved her village from a plague and cope with the loss of the children she failed to save from The Black Death.
Maisie Williams – most famous for her portrayal of Arya in A Game Of Thrones – gives a phenomenal performance here. Williams is capable of projecting a wisdom far beyond that which her youthful visage would suggest and that gift is in full evidence throughout the episode. You truly feel that she has lived for hundreds of years and grown muted at having seen it all.
The ironic thing is that the story is not so much about Ashildr as it is about The Doctor. All of the episodes of Series 9 thus far have been character studies of The Doctor while seemingly being about something or someone else and this episode was no exception. Through The Doctor’s outrage at The Lady Me’s apathy, we see that The Doctor – despite his alien weirdness and seeming indifference to the events around him in his latest incarnation- truly does care for people, even if only in the abstract ideal of all life being precious.
It is through feigned indifference and forgetting that The Doctor is able to cope and why he is so horrified that he may have inadvertently transformed a bright spark he wished to preserve into another dim light like himself. Peter Capaldi’s performance here is one of his strongest yet. And the final scene with Clara – in which we learn of how one simple act of kindness on The Doctor’s part helped a girl to make an A on her history project – that we see that The Doctor really does care, even if he does require apology flash-cards.