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