Making Monstrousness, Doctor Who: The Woman Who Lived, Reviews, 25/10/2015

Catherine Tregenna was such a good writer on Torchwood that I had high hopes for her episode of Doctor Who. For the first half of The Woman Who Lived, she lived up to those hopes. Then things started to get silly. And not in the good way.

Doctor Who has never been able to pull off special effects-driven space battles to the same success as Star Wars, the Alien films, Battlestar Galactica, or the Marvel universe. That was true in the classic series, of course, but it’s also true now. 

The relationship of the Doctor and the 800 year old
Ashildir is the centrepiece of The Woman Who Lived.
So the show depends on its writing to survive – the inventiveness of its stories’ central concepts and the quality of its characters and dialogue. Doctor Who at its best can create riveting sci-fi adventure from two people talking in a well-decorated set. 

That’s what Steven Moffat did with The Witch’s Familiar this year. The Doctor and Davros talk in an evil space science lab, while Clara and The Master talk in a series of successively weirder corridors. Catherine Tregenna similarly succeeded in The Woman Who Lived, as The Doctor and Ashildir talk in a series of scenic locations in Cromwell-era England.

Why do I call her Ashildir in this episode? To explain why requires a 

SPOILERS

warning. Ashildir has lived for 800 years since The Girl Who Died, and at some point decided to give up her name. That’s to be expected. Anyone who’s familiar with the Highlander franchise knows that immortals who are stuck on the same planet often need a series of fake identities to live.

But Ashildir has purposely forgotten her name. She knows it, but has put it to the side. Instead, she calls herself only Me. Her hundreds of years of immortality has exposed her to such incredible loss that she’s turned away from the world, from society, from friendship, and empathy.

Calling yourself by the third person usually makes you
a comedic figure, but it's a compliment to Tregenna that
she could find serious drama and philosophical heft in
this conceit.
She’s fallen in love countless times and seen them age to death. She’s raised children and watched them grow old and die while she remains. After seeing her entire family, including three children, die in the Black Death, she determined never to have children again. 

She couldn’t take the strain anymore. There are pages in her diaries – they cover walls and walls in her manor – that are stained with tears or ripped out to forget the pain.

We’ve always wondered what it’s like to be immortal. Especially if you were never supposed to be immortal in the first place. I remember reading Douglas Adams’ character Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged. He’s filled with so much rage at the world for having made him accidentally immortal that he dedicates himself to travelling the universe insulting every individual he can find, with a personalized diatribe. 

Wowbagger is also hilariously contemptuous of naturally immortal beings – “Bloody serene bastards!” Ashildir speaks that contempt as well, when she begs the Doctor, with increasing anger, to take her with him so they can be two immortal beings exploring the universe together. 

I also remember the more conventional idea of what would happen to an immortal person as they got used to it. Disengagement, indifference, coldness. That’s what Ashildir tries to make herself when the pain gets too much. 

That’s the core conflict of The Women Who Lived, that the Doctor tries to get Ashildir to re-engage with the world, whether by argument or by shock. Ashildir persists in turning away, arguing that the pain of so much of her life has made her tired of Earth. 

I like that it's becoming a recurring part of his character
that Capaldi's Doctor plays a mournful electric guitar
when he's feeling meditative. It's a piece of Peter Capaldi's
real personality and history that appears in the character.
That's how each Doctor becomes singular.
If you’re going to be immortal, you should live among the stars like the Doctor, not tread through the dirt of Earth. The Doctor refuses to take her with him precisely because he knows that friendship with the universe’s mortals is necessary to keep his conscience.

He tells Ashildir that “It wouldn’t be good” if they travelled together. The Doctor knows that he’s at risk of becoming like Ashildir, jaded and insular, without empathy or joy. This is especially true now that he’s a genuine immortal, with no known upper limit on his regenerations. 

That’s why their last conversation in the episode is about keeping yourself attached to the mayflies. Mortals love life because they know it’s finite. They always remember that every moment counts, even tortuous ones like the death of your loved ones. Ashildir has forgotten that. It’s why she cut herself off from humanity. And leaving behind her name is the most important part of that isolation.

A name is used for others to address you. That’s why your name is a third-person term. To speak of yourself in the third person is kind of silly. So when you cut yourself off from connections with others, you turn away from names entirely. You become only an indexical, your only reference is self-reference – I and me.

That’s why it’s so ridiculous when other people start appearing in the story and referring to her in the third person as Lady Me, as if that was her name. This is also when Rufus Hound the comedy highwayman appears. And when the generic alien invasion plot with Lion-O* kicks into gear.

As the ridiculous intrudes on The Woman Who Lived,
it's clear that Tregenna has either lost the plot or has
stopped caring about the story, or both.
* Credit to a commenter at Phil Sandifer’s review of this episode, Citizen Alan, for calling the monster of this story Lion-O.

It’s a ridiculous plot, which only works in those moments when the specific plan to open a portal off the Earth calls attention to Ashildir’s callous attitude to mortal humans. But all this brings down the quality of the episode. It’s a generic runaround whose only highlight is when Hound delivers a series of desperate jokes from the gallows to delay his execution. 

But aside from showing how much less sophisticated humour was in the 1650s compared to today, this action sequence doesn’t really do much for the story. So what’s it doing here?

Apparently, getting Catherine Tregenna to write Doctor Who was like Moffat convincing her to let him yank out one of her molars with a set of pliers. After the worthy criticism of last year’s all-male writing roster, getting quality female writers on the show is necessary. 

I’ve never met Tregenna, so I couldn’t say for sure why she didn’t want to write Doctor Who. But I can hypothesize, based on what I saw in The Woman Who Lived, that Tregenna likes writing conversations between characters more than she likes writing sci-fi action-adventure with evil alien monsters. 

I’d say she doesn’t like writing monster adventures at all. But I’d also say, given the forced, awkward mismatch of the adventure sequence of The Woman Who Lived with its philosophical drama, that Tregenna thinks a mandatory feature of a Doctor Who story is an evil alien monster invasion plot.

Lion-O is the second monster so far this season who's
totally unremarkable. It feels more disappointing
because I had such high expectations for Tregenna.
Traditionally, Doctor Who has had four essential pillars: The Doctor, the TARDIS, the Companion(s), and Monsters. 

But the monsters are falling into irrelevance. They’ve been a problem for a long time. The evil alien invasion stories of the Patrick Troughton era often had an uncomfortably xenophobic tone. And Robert Holmes was poking holes in the traditional conception of the monster as generic evil alien in 1985.

Monsters and villains in the Moffat years work best when they subvert the format of monster adventures, or when they’re red herrings for the trailers that are entirely incidental to the actual story. 

The best Doctor Who today focusses on drawing drama, comedy, tension, and ideas from the interaction of characters and high-concept settings and narratives. The best Doctor Who with monsters individualizes them, or reveals that they ultimately aren’t monstrous at all. 

Last week, we had a generic monster whose purpose was blatantly a comedic foil to reach the real point of the story. Monsters for the sake of having monsters creates a serious problem for the story. 

As with the Fisher King in Before the Flood, Lion-O being a generic alien invader without a personality or even anything remarkable about his villainy only detracts from the story, taking us away from the ideas and drama it’s really about.

The Woman Who Lived is about how the growing
weight of loss over years, decades, and centuries can
make a character who was once joyful into something
more monstrous.
The iconic monsters will always remain basically as they are. Daleks, Cybermen, the Master – there will always be heroes and villains. But we have Rusty the good Dalek, a charismatic and chaotic Master, and Cybermen naturally have a humanizing element. 

The other classic monsters have similarly complex backgrounds – Silurians, Zygons, the Ood. A generic monster race is never as good as a monstrous character.

Catherine Tregenna should write more Doctor Who, and she should have this story note pinned to her computer the entire time.

NO NEED FOR MONSTERS!!!!
KEEP IT TO THE CHARACTERS
EVERYONE HAS THEIR OWN STORY
EVEN THE 20-METRE TALKING SQUID

Doctor Who has grown beyond what used to be one of its basic pillars. It’ll be the better for it.

2 comments:

  1. Basically agreed with this review, "The Woman Who Lived" does fall short of the best although on rewatch, I found the generic Doctor Who stuff less of a bother because it felt like the episode knew that was the least interesting part of the story, and so they focussed on the things Catherine Treganna, and Doctor Who in general, do best. While the episode suffers a little from the same issue "The Power of Three" had, it feels less jarring than in that episode, so I'm willing to mostly forgive that flaw for the genuinely wonderful stuff with the Doctor and Ashildr/ Me, which you comment on beautifully. It's only behind "The Girl Who Died" in my season rankings.

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