In the run-up to Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams guest-starring on Doctor Who, there were all sorts of rumors about which character she was playing. And a lot of people believed she was playing Jenny, the “Doctor’s Daughter” from the episode of that name. Instead, she’s playing something much more interesting.
In some ways, this is sort of a replay of “The Doctor’s Daughter,” except that the Doctor bears more responsibility for the conception of this particular offspring. Back in season four, the David Tennant version of the Doctor had his genes sampled to create a genetic “offspring” who emerges fully grown and indoctrinated for war, and the Doctor has to get through to her and teach her that war is bad.
This time around, the Doctor has another girl who’s been turned into a reflection of himself, except that this time it was his own doing. And her great shortcoming is actually entirely based on the Doctor’s own immortal disregard for limited humans and our short lifespans, which we’ve seen him struggle with in the past.
In “The Woman Who Lived,” the Viking girl that the Doctor saved is still alive, and it’s 800 years later. She no longer goes by Ashildr, because what’s the point in having a name when everybody else will be dead soon, and instead calls herself simply “Me.” She is a free spirit, who lives for adventure, but she seems to have lost all of her empathy and connection to other people. And she’s desperate to escape from this planet she’s been trapped on for eight centuries—so much so, she’s willing to make a deal with a naff lion.
The notion that someone who’s functionally immortal would wind up calling herself “Me” is a neat one. Because only her name for herself matters—nobody else needs to be able to call her anything, because nobody else is important at all. Lady Me spends her time flouncing around her ginormous house with her sick old servant, when she’s not putting on a mask and disguising her voice and robbing carriages as the Knightmare, a highwayman.
But she’s led lots of other lives, too—she fought in the Battle of Agincourt, reigned as a queen, saved a town from the scarlet fever and was drowned as a witch, founded a leper colony, and mastered a ton of skills. She’s also endured unimaginable loss, including a lover whom she had to run away from when the questions about her lack of aging began. And her children, who died of the plague.
Lady Me has lived so much, she no longer even remembers most of her life. So she keeps bookcases and bookcases of journals in which she’s written down all of her experiences, and she sits and re-reads them. Except that some pages have been torn out of the journals, because some experiences were too horrible to remember, even via journal entries.
The most fascinating and original concept in the episode is the notion that she forgets most of her long life, because she’s got unlimited lifespan but a normal human-sized memory. That’s a clever spin on the usual tropes of immortality, and also horribly believable.
Lady Me is a tragic figure, even though she also seems to be having fun and enjoying her adventures—and there’s no hint left of the bright, imaginative, caring girl that the Doctor felt moved to save. Instead, Lady Me seems as though her biggest problem is pure boredom.
As with the Doctor’s Daughter and so many other characters over the years, Lady Me is primarily there as a foil for the Doctor, who is horrified and maybe a little fascinated by her disregard for the short, meaningless lives of the other people around her. He keeps insisting that her dispassion is just a mask, to hide the deep pain inside her—but no, maybe she’s really just totally “desensitized” and uncaring.
This turns into the usual critique of the Doctor—that he’s “the man who arrives for the battle and then leaves for the aftermath,” as the Doctor puts it. Lady Me is just one of many loose ends the Doctor left laying around in his eagerness to move on after an adventure ended.
The thing is, Lady Me can criticize the Doctor’s tendency to disappear after “fixing” everybody’s problems, but her desire to cut herself off from everybody else (and escape with the Doctor in the TARDIS) is more or less the same impulse. And the Doctor doesn’t want to travel with her, because two immortals together “wouldn’t be good.” They would reinforce each other’s disregard for the short-lived ordinary people around them, which is why the Doctor chooses to travel with mortals instead.
This episode is pretty much great from beginning to end—except for the 15 or so minutes in the middle, with the naff lion dude from the lion planet, which is called something like Lionus IV or something. The naff lion dude is just sort of there—we glimpse him early on in the episode, and he’s hanging around in the woods (sleeping in Lady Me’s garden) while she procures a magic amulet for him with the Doctor’s help.
Basically, the lion dude is from Planet Lion, and he wants to invade Earth or something, but he lost his magic amulet, which inspired all the ancient Greek stories about traveling to the lands of Hades after death. The amulet opens a portal to another dimension or something, to let the lion-people spaceships through. (Sadly we never see the spaceships, so we don’t get to see if the spaceships are also lion-shaped.) But in order to trick Lady Me into helping him, the lion guy lies and says he’s going to leave Earth and go travel the galaxy, and she can go with him.
The thing is, the magic amulet uses death to open the portal, so someone needs to die. Lady Me almost sacrifices her beloved old servant, but then she hears that Sam Swift the Quick, a rival highwayman that we met earlier, is about to be hanged—which is perfect. The Doctor saves Sam Swift from hanging, but Lady Me kills him anyway and opens the portal—letting the lion-ships in.
I shouldn’t be too hard on the lion-guy. It was mostly because his costume did not look great, and he felt like a throwback to the Cheetah People in “Survival.” And the plot involving the lion invasion felt sort of shoe-horned in, and didn’t have enough screentime for me to care about it. And this episode was mostly extremely good, before and after the lion-man hijacked it. Also, I was sad nobody made a joke about “Lion” chocolate bars. Felt like a missed opportunity.
Anyway, to the extent that the “cowardly lion” storyline had a point, it was all about Lady Me seeing other people’s lives as so short, they’re basically pointless—and thus, she’s happy to sacrifice a life or two to escape. And it’s about her desperation to get away from Earth and see more of the universe.
But once she sees people suffering, and realizes she’s responsible, she has a crisis of conscience and finds her compassion reawakening. So she helps the Doctor close the portal—by revoking the death of Sam Swift, using the second “field medic” immortality device the Doctor had left her with.
Sam Swift, incidentally, is set up as being a foil to Lady Me even as she’s a foil to the Doctor. He’s a buffoon, a terrible highwayman who tries to rob the Nightmare early on in the episode and screws it up. And when he’s about to be hanged for his crimes, he tries to keep cracking jokes and amusing the audience of onlookers, because “while you laugh, I live.” He’s sort of a poignantly silly figure, who (as the Doctor points out) makes the most of every moment because it might be his last.
The Doctor uses Sam Swift to explain why he can’t take Lady Me with him on his travels—the Doctor and Lady Me both suffer from living too long and losing perspective. The “mayflies,” the ordinary people with short regular lifespans, “know more than we do,” the Doctor says. Because they know how precious life is and how much all of it matters.
The Doctor may or may not have made Sam Swift immortal—he figures the portal thingy may have drained most of the power of the “field medic” chip, but he’s not really sure.
The main thing is, by the end of the episode Lady Me hasn’t really had a miraculous change of heart (which would be temporary) but instead has found a new sense of purpose (which might just be permanent). She’s going to cure her own anomie and lack of connection to people by serving as a counterweight to the Doctor’s only carelessness.
Returning to the idea that the Doctor tends to “solve” problems and then disappear, Lady Me vows to be the “patron saint” of all the people the Doctor leaves behind. She’ll protect the world from him—in an echo of the sort of things that Torchwood used to say, back when it was run by British nationalists who saw the Doctor as a threat or problem, before Captain Jack took it over. (Oh, and Captain Jack actually gets a mention!).
So how is this going to work? It’s left pretty vague—she’s going to be looking out for the people whose lives the Doctor touches, and helping them get on with their lives. I guess? (What this means, concretely, is there’s going to be a lot of Richard Mace/Sam Swift fanfic. The Doctor pretty much told her to watch out for the Terrileptils.)
But she says that she’s not the Doctor’s enemy—but it’s never your enemies you have to watch out for, it’s your friends. And she’ll be watching out for the Doctor. To this, the Doctor says he thinks he’s glad he saved her.
As another examination of the themes that Doctor Who returns to over and over again nowadays, about immortality and the Doctor’s effect on the people around him, “The Woman Who Lived” is a pretty valuable addition, in spite of lion-guy. Last week, the Doctor suggested the reason why he’s always running is to try and stay ahead of the loss and misery of having people die all around him. And his decision to save Ashildr, in turn, creates someone who sees more than anybody else the consequences of the Doctor’s tendency to run.
And when the Doctor finally meets up with Clara in the present day, she shows him a selfie one of her students took—and there’s Lady Me, hanging out in the background. Almost like Lady Me is stalking Clara. This could get interesting.