Monday, 26 October 2015

The Woman Who Lived written by Catherine Treganna and directed by Ed Bazalgette



This story in a nutshell: A big fat letdown from one of the strongest writers of Torchwood...

Indefinable: Whilst I would never say that Peter Capaldi had the ability to phone a performance in, I never felt he was in any way stretched by the material this week or even especially engaged by it. It's the first time that his presence in the series has failed to bolster an episode, despite the quality of the material elsewhere, for me. And can we drop the electric guitar and shades please. Last year he had a bit of style about him, a cloak of sombre class. Now the Doctor is coming across as an old man having a mid-life crisis. All this pondering over the nature of immortality might have a whiff of interest if we hadn't covered this ground to the nth degree over the past decade. When the Doctor brought up the nature of an extended life and losing the ones you love in School Reunion it was a razor sharp observation fresh off the press, now it feels like we are obsessing about the same anxieties with each successive incarnation. Like a gossip mag consumed by the same celebrities each week, what was hot news has become yesterdays business. What about letting those fears go when you change bodies, having a new perspective on immortality? Eccleston, Tennant, Smith and Capaldi have all sensitively played the idea of the man who lives too long but I question whether this depressing thread should have run through each of their lives. Is being a Time Lord such a chore? What about the joy of being able to travel through time and space, righting wrongs and meeting new people? What about the great things that make up his life? The Doctor spends a whole episode avoiding the answer of why he cannot take Ashildr with him (unless you find his reasoning of 'it wouldn't be good' in any way satisfying) and he cannot come up with a good answer. That is another massive flaw to add to this episodes missteps, there isn't a good reason why not. Only that we need to get rid of Clara first and Ashildr will be appearing later in the season. But without being able to say that directly we're left with a Doctor who puts the Earth in danger when he doesn't have to. It doesn't convince. There is a gaping hole where the Doctor's motive for denying Ashildr access to the TARDIS should be. At least if there was some tangible purpose, some hidden twist that explained his stubbornness, this episode might have built to something worthwhile. Emotion got the better of the Doctor and all he wanted to do was save the life of a terrified young girl. But people die, something Clara understood that in the previous story. The conclusion that The Woman Who Lived reaches about the Doctor playing God is that he is pleased that he made that choice. At least The Waters of Mars dished out an agonising punishment for his arrogance. The disturbing appearance of Ashildr in the photo at the climax offers a glimmer of hope that that Doctor might yet learn to regret playing with the natural order of things. Because the only conclusion that I can draw from all this at the moment is that Capaldi's Doctor has become the ultimate Mary Sue, aping his creator and his free hand at murdering characters off in his plots and bringing them back to life. And justifying it to himself. Sometimes people die, both Moffat and the Doctor need to learn that lesson.

Impossible Girl: Let's stick with the same subject header that I use for Clara to expose how Moffat has an obsession with female characters that have a twist in their timelines that make them stand out, rather than simply writing an interesting female character in their own right. River Song and her scattered narrative, meeting the Doctor in the wrong order. Amy Pond, the Girl Who Waited. Clara Oswald, the Impossible Girl who was scattered through the Doctor's timeline. And now Ashildr, the girl who lived forever mopping up the consequences of the Doctor's adventures. All of these women have something vital in common, beyond the hook they are hung on they really aren't very interesting. River is constructed of kinky innuendo and violence, Amy Pond is morally corrupt and selfish, Clara practically becomes a new character each week such is the nature of her facelessness and Ashildr, who had the potential to be a fascinating character is merely the female version of the Doctor, weighed down by the angst of an immortal life. Beyond the pain of her having and losing children she's covering the same ground as Jack Harkness with about a tenth of the interest. A massive part of the problem was the performance by Maisie Williams, which surprises me a great deal because she has always impressed me in everything else I have ever seen her in. This is the first time I have felt that was out of her depth as an actress. Occasionally she is excellent, especially when she let's the fire in her belly erupt but more often than not I simply failed to believe this was a woman who had lived for eight centuries. She doesn't convince as a highwayman, as a lady of the manor and certainly not as an cold blooded immortal who has a sudden change of heart in the middle of an alien attack and decides she does care after all. That last scene in particular was atrociously handled, Ashildr seemingly having a change of heart just because rather than reaching an epiphany that is bourne out of development in the script. She has to regain her humanity in order for the story to leave her in a certain position to return later in the season but did that transition from 'I don't care about anyone but myself' to 'I do care! I realise I do care!' have to be so unbelievably swift and unconvincing. Plus isn't Ashildr like twelve? I thought she couldn't age which surely means her body cannot mature? Doesn't that make the idea of her as a parent rather mucky and the Doctor's suggestion that Jack will 'catch up with her' even moreso? Am I looking forward to a return visit from Ashildr? I think there is some mileage in the ambiguity of making the character neither a friend or foe of the Doctor but having her own agenda, yes. But Williams needs material that plays to her strengths and to appear in an episode that is tonally more sure of what it is trying to be. The character was adrift here, let's see if we can bring her back to shore and make something of her.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I didn't know that your heart would rust because I kept it beating.'

The Good:
* Beyond question my favourite scenes were the flashbacks to the most traumatic moments in Ashildr's prolonged life. If I could dissect this episode I would remove the Leandro plot completely and spent the first ten minutes extending these flashbacks into full scenes. To explore those moments in more depth might have allowed me to reach out to Ashildr further and sympathise with her plight more and it would have approached the immortality theme in a more refreshingly original way than just talk.
* Rufus Hound's Sam Swift provides a few moments of levity and he's the one actor who seems to understand that he's appearing in what is supposed to be a coarse comedy. Or partly a coarse comedy. If all the performances were dialled up to ten like this it might have given the comedy some thrust...but Williams and Capaldi are far too subdued in comparison. 

The Bad:
* Murray Gold has written some of my favourite musical scores of any Doctor Who stories, including The Girl In the Fireplace, Blink, Turn Left and The Waters of Mars. He's capable of taking me to emotional highs and to the precipice of my seat in excitement. He's mastered the use of an orchestra in dramatic television and has been justly recognised for his talents. And after listening to his efforts in The Woman Who Lived I start to wonder if it is not only a Time Lord/Viking child that sticks around too long. The only thing worse than comedy that is ill at ease is farcical music that stresses every painful gag. Murray Gold is so busy trying to convince you what a joy this episode is he overplays his hand, probably because he realised that it needed all the help that it could get. The result is a score that is at odds with the tone, suggesting something rousing and delightful when what we are being presented never gets off the launching pad.
* The pre-titles sequence is just...weird. I have nothing against a good old fashioned robbery by a dangerous highwayman. The only problem is this is nothing of the sort, Ashildr's fake masculine voice completely at odds with her appearance and throwing the scene into bizarre territory. The Doctor trips onto the scene like a space tramp who stumbled out of a local hostelry and Capaldi plays the whole scene like this is the sort of thing the Time Lord does every week. There's no drama, no comedy, no real substance to the material. It looks like it has been improvised by the actors. What should be a shock to the system - the return of Ashildr in a completely different time - is blunted by her rapid reappearance in the series (how much more effective would be if this episode was placed after the Zygon two parter). 'You've bungled my heist!' indeed. The Doctor's arched eyebrow mirrored my own...this was going to be a long hour.
* Leandro, a villain so half arsed he has to growl out his backstory in a great clump of rapid exposition because it has no impact on the episode whatsoever. It's simply getting it out of the way. It doesn't matter who he is or why he is there. This is Doctor Who and somebody seems to have decreed that the show cannot survive a week without a fantasy element of some kind. Season nine continues it's trend of naff original villains, every one of them forgettable in the wake of Davros' presence in the opening story. I hope we get at least one monster/nasty that is worth remembering this year. He's dispatched in such an off hand fashion he may not have appeared at all.
* Could Clara's departure be anymore foreshadowed?

Result: 'You know what they say, big nose...' '...big handkerchief!' Noel Coward, eat your heart out. It's an observation that has been made before by myself and others - Doctor Who can survive anything (even being totally crud to the point of b-movie entertainment) but being boring. Even In the Forest of the Night wasn't dull, even if it was frequently excretal to the point of Simon and I reaching for the pause button to let off another string of expletives. And to be honest Doctor Who by it's very nature of shifting moods and genres, countless settings and times and transferable guest characters, monsters and villains is one of the few shows that rarely settles down for long enough to become dreary. So when I spend an entire episode wondering when it is going to move into first gear, I am genuinely surprised. I can see the intention of what is being attempted here, capturing the tragedy and horror of immortality in a child but something fell way short of that in the execution. Thanks to a half-arsed science fiction plot that might just count as the least substantial since the show returned in 2005, it is clear that Catherine Treganna has much more interest in writing a character piece than a Doctor Who story. What baffles me is why she didn't stick to her guns and jettison the pointless alien threat and do just that, write the equivalent of a romantic novel about a girl trapped in amber whilst time moves all around her and truly engage with the heartbreak of that theme. I'm not sure that I would find it any more appealing (because there are also huge performance and direction problems within the sequences that give Ashildr focus) but at least it would be a less schizophrenic and awkward piece. Heartless comedy in one direction, ponderous musings on the nature of an eternal life in another with the faint whiff of science fantasy drifting in under your nose, that's the essentials of The Woman Who Lived. Confident direction might have papered over some cracks but instead the inconsistent tone and uncomfortable comedy is compounded by a director who cannot bring together so many tonally jarring and disparate elements into a coherent whole. The biggest shock for me was Maisie Williams, her inability to convince in the titular role was the greatest barrier to the episodes success. Occasionally making me feel something but more often giving the impression of a child trying to play an adult, I was struck (like slap to the jaw with a wet fish) at how little chemistry she shared with Peter Capaldi. They are both strong performers so technically this should have been a recipe for gold but for the most part it felt as though they were acting against stand-ins because they couldn't both be there at the same time, when clearly that wasn't the case. The extended dialogue scenes might be well written (if sporadically a little florid) but with actors that mix like oil and water they do not play out at all smoothly. And with no atmosphere to them they fall horribly flat. Like I said, I was bored. And that was before reaching the appalling conclusion at the stocks with some crass jokes and a blink an you'll miss it attack by aliens. The rarest of things, a Doctor Who story where practically nothing worked for me at all. It's trying to be emotional but the approach is more intellectual, which doesn't surprise me in this era. Most damning of all, this was so vanilla that the appearance of Clara at the climax actually raised the quality of the piece. Utopia summed up everything this episode is trying to say in a five minute two hander between the Doctor and Jack except it was better written, better performed and far more assured. I defy you to find something new this has to say on the theme of immortality. Even Ashildr's new role as the clean up agent after the Doctor is essentially what Jack and Sarah Jane were doing in their respective series for years: 3/10

28 comments:

Ed Azad said...

I will always associate the Doctor and sunnies with "Planet of the Dead".

coughcoughitsuckedcough damn that was a weird sneeze.

TF80 said...

Moffat companions are empty shells wrapped in great paraphernalia and big events. I'm so happy for this: http://www.bigfinish.com/news/v/doctor-who-the-tenth-doctor-adventures

I miss Donna soo much after 4 years of empty shells, so at least we will enjoy her a bit more on audio!
Nowadays I'm more looking forward to Big Finish stuff than the TV series.Is Moffat the new JNT? (as in, he didn't know when to leave the show and he ended up losing audience)

Anonymous said...

I don't think we ever disagreed more on an episode, on the whole we do seem to have very different opinions on the Moffat era I am sad to say. Your opinions on his companions being a big thing I grind my teeth on (Amy especially.) but that's neither here nor there. I will say that the last ten, fifteen minutes of this episode are slightly weak but everything before it was gold. I must also heavily disagree on the topic of Maisie William's performance as I think she was excellent the entire way through. I do agree that the lion alien is utterly pointless but there were so many little moments that worked for me, I loved the doctor and Me robbing the house, I loved the moments of Me/Ashildr's past and I love the idea of her being the patron saint of the Doctor's leftovers.

Tango said...

I really liked the episode, perhaps the next episode of Ashildr change you mind.

For TF80: Oh come on, Rory Williams is great, as Craig Owens, and the agent Canton, and Vastra and Jenny.

TF80 said...

Yep, I like Rory and Craig, and Vastra and Jenny are ok, I suppose, I just would like hem to be more developed, I'm sure one day or another Big Finish will do a spin off with the Paternoster gang and they will give them more depth and motivations, like they have done with all the companions
It's just like, I totally agree with Joe there, I feel that RTD companions were way more human and developed. Even Rose, with all her jealousy and smugness in Season 2, came out as a flawed but very human person (and she was great with Nine). Martha was very likeable and if you stripped all the pining for the Doctor she could have been great and Donna... my my she was my fav from the New Series!

I'm looking forward to the River Song audios at Big Finish for the reason that I like Alex as an actress and I'm sure that they can make her much much more likeable and relatable

I would love a male companion for Capaldi when Jenna leaves

Otter d'Arc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Otter d'Arc said...

You could put every companion down to one or two characterstics. And classic ones to one probably. Like, Rose is selfish bitch constantly ditching her boyfriend and craving Doctor's cock. See? Just like that.
How Pond is morally corrupt again? No more than ony other companion.

Joe Ford said...

Comment of the month, Otter. The perfect example of somebody who is brave behind the keyboard and more than likely castrated in person. I salute you for finding an outlet for your anger issues.

Otter d'Arc said...

Blow me

Joe Ford said...

I would, but I'm getting married in four weeks.

Otter d'Arc said...

What this talk about being brave and shit, you could play this card when someone resorts to threats or whatever which i didn't.
And it doesn't invalidates any of my points which you interestingly ignored.

Joe Ford said...

I chose to ignore your points because you were so offensive in your tone. It didn't warrant a response except to be facetious. You went as far as to call me a fuckwit, which interestingly you have chosen to edit out. Maybe return when you have learnt some manners.

Joe Ford said...

This being your original comment...before you toned it down

'You could put every companion down to one or two characterstics. And classic ones to one probably. Like, Rose is selfish bitch constantly ditching her boyfriend and craving Doctor's cock. See? Just like that.
How Pond is morally corrupt again? And if you can't see Clara's progress from s8 you probably a fuckwit.'

Otter d'Arc said...

Well, I chose to be less offensive as one could say, but probably shoudn't done so as you clearly wanna dwell on it anyway.

Anonymous said...

Oh, the drama. I get the fuzz is because this line "Amy Pond is morally corrupt and selfish". But how is that? Amy never act that way.That fits perfectly with Rose Tyler,but not with Amy.Granted she works as a kissogram whe she is intrduced and get in the heat of the moment in flesh and stone, but that's it.

Ed Azad said...

"Amy Pond is morally corrupt and selfish".

Sexual morality comes up a lot in these Torchwood reviews.

Basically, Amy and Gwen want to be in poly relationships, but they are swimming against the cultural tide, so instead they are tempted by extramarital relationships. Their husbands are portrayed as bumbling, self-sacrificing, and clueless. We sympathize with the cuckholded Rory/Rys, so the whole thing is a feminist own-goal.

I also agree with Joe's negative view of Amy. She's a total bitch to everyone, including her newly-reincarnated father, and this is supposed to be endearing (because she is so capable and sexy). It just doesn't wash. Moffat thinks the best people are cocky and arrogant, much like himself. When the author's fetish is on naked display, it cheapens the work because nobody can take his characters seriously anymore. They're all reflections of himself and his infatuation with arrogant, impatient people.

Otter d'Arc said...

Amy is not very social due to abandoment issues, but she gets better. And if being rude to her father considered being a bitch, at least she wasn't waffling about about how the man was rude to her slut mother right after his friends being killed in front of him and he was chased by a green blob monster. Or constantly ditching her boyfriend in favour of Doctor and being utterly surprised that he could chose to stay behind.
And if Amy's somehow Moff's reflection don't forget about how rtd flipped a fan and his constant old/fat peple issues and harpy mother stereotype of every goddamn main companion. Makes you wonder.

Anonymous said...

Spot on, Ed Azad
Moffat to was shy and bullied at school (by his own admission) I wonder why he likes so much that kind of people. In fact, his female conpanions would have been the kind of people he would have been scared of in his teenage years, If you take into account all he has written about himself in DWM during the years

I was bullied at school and positively know that people like Amy wouldn't have nothing to do with me

Urlance Woolsbane said...

"Moffat thinks the best people are cocky and arrogant, much like himself. When the author's fetish is on naked display, it cheapens the work because nobody can take his characters seriously anymore. They're all reflections of himself and his infatuation with arrogant, impatient people."
If that's true, why does Moffat go out of his way to make Amy unlikable, post-series Five? The Impossible Astronaut, Let's Kill Hitler, The God Complex, and The Wedding of River Song all show her as an individual who is overdependent on the Doctor, alarmingly violent, (towards Melody in the suit, the crew of the Teselecta, Madame Kovarian) and perhaps a bit unstable. Amy's hardly a Mary-Sue at that point, unless Moffat has committed homicidal acts of revenge, or of misguided defense. And then there's this line of Rory's from Asylum of the Daleks: "It's arithmetic. It'll take longer with me because we both know, we've always known, that. Amy, the basic fact of our relationship is that I love you more than you love me, which today is good news because it might just save both of our lives."
Granted, Amy does attempt to refute this, but that's surely an acknowledgement that some of her behavior has been less than endearing.

Liam Morrell said...

I have to say i enjoyed this episode having been disappointed with previous one, the humour worked better, the Mire were certainly naffer than Leandro.

I'd also like to ask in what way is Amy morally corrupt?

Bliss said...

Among all female characters created by Moffat, I loved Sally Sparrow, she's not smug or overtly flirty, she and Larry made a great pairing in Blink, if only the newly regenerated 11th Doctor would have gone for them to have as travelling companions... (nothing against Rory, I like Rory but not Amy, I wouldn't mind only Rory as a companion)

Ed Azad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed Azad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed Azad said...

"If that's true, why does Moffat go out of his way to make Amy unlikable, post-series Five?"

That's a good question, but I think I can answer it.

Moffat's characters are semi-autobiographical, this is not news. So I think that was him injecting a bit of himself into Amy. He never really got as a firm a grasp on the Eleventh Doctor.

Now, I don't know Moffat as a man, but the guy is no stranger to publicity and has talked openly about his life and career, so I believe I can make some logical judgements. Moffat is simultaneously proud of his wild and varied sex life, while also relieved that he settled down with the right women. He's Judd Apatow, in a way; he never strays far from his theme of the ubersexual male and his domestication by a lady.

Tango said...

I prefer a thousand times Amy Pond that Clara Oswald ... Amy is a real person with flaws, I like it a selfish bitch, like everyone else... Clara is like something out of Disney, it is very perfect to be real.

Richard S. said...

You note that the episode would have been more effective after the Zygon two-parter.... What if they aired it just after Clara departed? Then you'd automatically get the tension of whether or not the Doctor will accept Ashildr as his next Companion. And he'd have a reason for saying no - he's not ready yet....(which also leaves an opening in continuity for other companions in novels and audio dramas).

Richard S. said...

Oh, I've also had it with the whole "The Doctor ruins people's lives" thing. It's not necessarily so... Ask Jo Grant, who the last time we saw her was planning to head into the Amazon jungle looking for exotic plants. Or Lady Romana, who passed her field training and stayed to help the Tharils. Or Nyssa, who found her calling working on a treatment for Lazar's Disease. Or Turlough, who learned wisdom and leadership in time to come home from his political exile...

If you look at the Companions of "New Who", they are all pretty much young women. The Doctor doesn't necessarily ruin their lives; it's that they make the mistake of falling in love with him when he cannot return that love. That's it. That's all the "ruination" he causes. Donna Noble is the counterexample. She's a bit older, and specifically states she's not romantically interested in The Doctor - she just wants some excitement in her life. Maybe that's why the character is often seen as a success.

Kenneth_Gray said...

I know it wasn't in this episode, but honestly I will put my foot through the telly next time we have the grandstanding Clara do her "The Doctor will have a plan and he will save us because he's brilliant and that's what he does so there" speech. Phew that feels better. Breathe.