“The Woman Who Lived” is quite possibly one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who ever. Catherine Tregenna transformed Ashildr from a brave young Viking woman into one of the most complicated, compelling characters of this series. And Maisie Williams portrayed that transformation so beautifully that I just want her to be in every episode of Doctor Who ever. Thankfully, since she’s an immortal character, I don’t think we’ll ever truly have to say goodbye to her or Lady Me.
Ashildr was a unique character even before she became immortal, never quite fitting into the role she was expected to play in her Viking village. She was a fighter and a dreamer, quick to anger and eager to fight and constantly dreaming up stories of what would happen during battles she couldn’t participate in.
She also never really fit in to the expected gender roles of her society either. Leaving aside the question of whether gender roles where quite so rigidly divided in Viking society (and there is still a lot of debate and speculation on that topic), the village which was portrayed still had distinct differences in the expectations for men and women. Ashildr was the only woman shown wearing men’s clothing, and it is implied that she acted in other ways that girls weren’t expected to: “The girls all thought I was a boy. The boys all said I was just a girl.” Despite not conforming to expectations of how a girl should look or behave, Ashildr is still loved and accepted by her village.
But the pressure of those expectations does not ease as Ashildr/Me lives through the centuries. And once Me is outside the loving and accepting community she was raised in, we get the impression that this pressure becomes even more difficult for her to bear. She continues to defy traditional roles when it suits her, including dressing herself up as a man to participate in the battle of Agincourt. She uses her time to become superb at anything she sets her mind to. Sometimes Me is able to live her life exactly as she wants, but other times she faces violent reprisals. After saving an entire village from scarlet fever, she is nearly drowned for being a witch, an accusation that can be attributed to fear of the combination of her brilliance andher gender.
During that moment I was reminded of the criticism of the Doctor’s advice to Martha in “The Shakespeare Code” that Martha should just walk around like she owns the place to avoid harassment and attacks based on her race. That type of attitude may work for the Doctor, but it’s not going to work for someone attempting to overcome deeply ingrained biases about their intelligence, competence, or even basic humanity. Even the Doctor doesn’t get away with his posturing all the time — and a woman in the time periods Me is living through is going to find it harder to overcome those prejudices.
We often talk about River Song or even Clara being templates for the eventual woman Doctor, but I have to wonder if Lady Me is a more accurate template for that character. When we talk about Doctor-type characters, we usually refer to their actions and characteristics. Is the character assertive, cunning, intelligent? Are they able to walk into the middle of a crisis, immediately take charge, and come up with a clever solution? We might even ask if the character has some of the Doctor’s faults; are they selfish, possessive, patronizing?
But when it comes to the Doctor’s role in the narrative, very few characters have come close. Since the Doctor returned in 2005, he hasn’t just been an exceptionally long-lived and benevolent alien who pops by Earth every now and then to help out. He’s also been the sole survivor of a war, the last of the Time Lords, an isolated and reckless man who is tired of losing his friends. He has felt isolated by his ability to outlive everyone he meets and acted callously or carelessly in crises because of his pain and indifference.
In the overall narrative of Doctor Who, the Doctor has been a powerful figure who has needed his companions to ground him and act as his conscience. They have helped ease his isolation, helped him shake off his numbness, and called out and tempered his callousness and recklessness. Though they also have their own narrative arcs in which they grow and change through their relationship with the Doctor, the companions’ roles within Doctor Who’s narrative is to nurture the Doctor’s emotional growth (even if that “nurturing” involves a bit of screaming or slapping).
But in “The Woman Who Lived” that script is flipped. Now it’s the Doctor’s turn to primarily be the nurturing, grounding force in someone else’s life. Lady Me occupies the Doctor’s customary role in the narrative as the larger-than-life, fiercely intelligent being who has been numbed and damaged by her immortality and pain. She has lived through conflict, attempted to save lives, and has either left or lost the people she loved the most.
And she’s allowed to show her pain just as the Doctor showed his. We see her heartbreak and rage. We see her pain and her numbness. We see her attempting to hold the entire world at arm’s length and detach herself from it to spare herself any more pain. And we see how this makes her callous and cruel.
And the Doctor attempts to help Lady Me as his companions helped him. One of the most incredible lines from the Doctor actually took my breath away for a moment: “I didn’t know that your heart would rust because I kept it beating. I didn’t think your conscience would need renewing, that the well of human kindness would run dry.” It’s heart-wrenchingly true, in part because this has all happened to the Doctor. As he said this, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Doctor forgetting Mickey and dismissing his death because he was just another short-lived human he failed to save. Or the Doctor drowning the Racnoss because the Empress crossed him and he was too numb to care anymore. Or any of the times that the Doctor pushed Rose away because he knew he would eventually outlive her and he wanted to spare himself that pain.
Lady Me gives me hope that, when we eventually have a woman portray the Doctor, she will be able to occupy a similar role in the narrative, with all the Doctor’s positive characteristics andhis flaws. She can be the flawed, powerful, practically immortal alien who can save the world and still needs to be challenged and grounded by her companions.
But what I loved most about “The Woman Who Lived” is that even after Lady Me has her epiphany and realizes how much she cares for the “mayflies,” she never releases the Doctor from his responsibility in making her who she was. He made her immortal and then abandoned her, without any support or guidance, knowing all too well how painful immortality could be. Had he helped her in any way after making her immortal — something he did without her knowledge or consent — she may not have needed to become so callous to spare herself the pain of her new existence.
And so Me tasks herself to take care of the world the Doctor leaves behind, appointing herself the patron saint of the Doctor’s “leftovers.” And then we delve into the “enemy within the friend” theme for the first time since the series opener. Me makes it clear that she is the Doctor’s friend, not his enemy, but that doesn’t mean that she won’t stand in opposition to him to protect others.
Nagisa didn’t get much sleep last night. He wasn’t suffering from insomnia or anything; it was just one of those times when he felt like sleeping late; one of those times when the bluenette was staring up at the ceiling, mind black, and body full-awake. He was well aware of the nocturnal insects chirping outside his window, well-aware of the loud, slow, ticking of the clock and the breaths he exhaled, as well as the soft beats of his heart. It was a night when sleep refused to come easily.
It went without saying that right now he was dazing off in the middle of an afternoon.
Mary Morstan falls in love with John Watson, cannot bring herself to kill his best friend, even if that means throwing away an opportunity she’s worked for for a long time. Later, she is completely at his mercy when she gives him information about her past that he could use to effectively kill her.
Irene Adler falls in love with Sherlock Holmes, is defeated as a consequence and has to flee the country. Later, he is literally given the power to decide whether she lives or dies when he saves her from being executed.
River Song falls in love with the Doctor and doesn’t kill him, even though she has been brainwashed and trained since birth to do exactly that. Still, she spends the rest of her life in prison for a crime she didn’t commit and only gets out when the Doctor needs her. Even after she’s died to save him, she is still available as an assistant for the Doctor, making telepathic conference calls and always staying at his side as a ghost.