Sunday, 25 October 2015

Doctor Who: The Woman Who Lived (Episode Review)

Returning readers be warned, we've done this song and dance before. This is sadly a typical example of a misfire of an episode. Great idea, great actors, solid direction in some scenes, but tonally jumbled up and unable to focus upon a singular theme. Yet despite all that there was a good idea in here and, gun to the head, a few distinct scenes which means you can't instantly write this one off as simply bad.

Set eight hundred years after the events of the last episode, the Doctor is travelling alone. Having picked up warnings of something wrong in post Civil War era England, he heads down in search of an alien artifact claimed by noblemen. However, his initial search is disrupted by a highwayman with a very familiar face. Someone whose life the Doctor once saved, and he may yet to regret doing so...

The first thing we really need to comment upon here is the visual direction of the episode. Yes, yes, all too often it's the story which is first and foremost on this list of criticisms, but it really does sum up the overall tones and problems of the episode. How so? Because, from scene to scene, it ranges from stupendous to sub-par with little to no variation between the two. This is best depicted during the early scenes, with the Doctor returning to Ashildr's home and the two discussing the past. During this, we get some outstandingly atmospheric shots of the building, its interiors and gloomy offices. However, the very second it starts to get some true tonal consistency, the episode crowbars in some abysmally badly shot flashbacks. Cartoonist to the point of making Dick Dasterly look grounded, they're sped up, poorly shot and so overdone that you're likely to get whiplash from the abrupt jump. As a result, you have the skeleton of a fantastic looking episode which has been marred by gibbering insanity. Now, take that sentence and replace looking with "acting" "lighting" or anything else, and you'll have this episode boiled down to its core problems.

Let's take the very idea for starters. The Doctor returning to find the consequences of his actions had greater impact than he thought? Great. That's brilliant, and a factor which has won over audiences more times than can be counted when done well. The problem is though, that they're rarely shown back to back. There's no time left to miss the characters involved, the idea, or to feel any serious weight of past events. So, this just feels like a second part which lacks impact for its main selling point. Worse still, the big reveal is left to have no impact because it's so heavily broadcast to watchers, instead left simply as something expected for the future. Let's face it, if Bad Wolf and been directly preceded by Dalek that episode's twist ending wouldn't have been half as memorable.

Even when the episode does try to make real use of its themes however, it seems to keep butting head with both the limited time it has to explore them and the usual series tropes. So, you have the character drama being smothered by the demand for an explosive ending, the darker themes choked by the demand for comedy and the continuity potential cut short by, well, strange things. For example, the episode is very up front about the whole immortality role and seems to try and get a lot of the initial elements out of the way as fast as it can. This might have helped to explore later sections, but it just leaves so many elements being underplayed or badly handled. It's hard to tell if it was the director, script or actors to blame here but, when elements such as Ashildr being reminded of her name and origins are brought up, they should have impact. Instead, Williams barely seems to register the moment or even comment on the fact an immortal time traveler has just barged into her life again.

There just keep being these oddities and awkward moments crammed into the episode which feel wildly out of place, having little to no meaning or proper staging. For example, in the middle of a comedic heist, the Doctor abruptly tries to bring up Ashildr's isolation thanks to her immortality and some weighty subjects. It's about as out of place and poorly handled as you'd expect, and you're just left shaking your head. The same goes for later moments such as when it's shown how far she'll go to leave her homeland, backed by some serious moments and great conversational elements. So, how do they ruin it? They introduce the Roundhead version of Laurel and Hardy. They're in it for one scene, add nothing to the plot and it serves purely to derail the script.

Too much information is simply slammed up front. It’s not allowed to gradually unfold or develop as we saw in the past duology of episodes. Instead it’s just “Here’s this stuff, it happened, now moving on…” but the script never takes the time to actually deal with the consequences of its events. Hell, you have a man sharing a drink with his murderer and he seems to completely overlook that effect. It's just one of those "just because" problems which keeps plaguing the series over and over again. 

There's also the further issue to take into account, that the story doesn't trust the audience to figure out anything for themselves. Rather than dropping hints and gradually suggesting that Ashildr might have her own motivations and even oppose the Doctor, barely ten minutes in it effectively declares "SHE'S GOING TO BACK-STAB HIM!" in brilliant glowing neon. Well, perhaps not quite that, but it's so blatant even a blind man would have trouble missing it.

So, with all that taken into consideration, what does it do right? Honestly, a lot any time the comedy doesn't barge into the story. The problem is those moments are rare, and they're often down purely to individual scenes. For example, after the script just about manages to get past the zany flashbacks and forced comedy, it moves onto the subject of how a human would handle immortality. It shows Ashildr recording her memories in diaries, and gets onto some very dark subject matter. It's short, extremely well handled and acted, and quite impact on the following scene. It's just that, the problem is, the moment those two scenes are over, the episode all but forgets they happened.

Even despite everything, the Doctor's final lines when it comes to speaking with her about the future are incredibly well written. It summarizes the points and ideas vastly better than almost any other part of the resolution and the themes of mortality. Better yet, it sets up the idea of a reoccurring element which could be beneficial to the series' future, even after all that's happened. While obviously hard to discuss given the spoilers, at the very least it would offer the opportunity to handle events better than what was found here.

The Woman Who Lived is ultimately mishandled, sometimes downright bad, but offers a few shining gems here and there which means it's just about worth watching. While you're probably better off picking out scenes from Youtube, give it a look but be prepared to stomach a lot of pain between the good bits.

Oh, and if nothing else, the episode does prove that the psychic paper is far too convenient a plot device in bad stories.

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