The Woman Who Lived

Story No. 281 The Knightmare
Production Code Series 9, episode 6
Dates October 24, 2015

With Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Written by Catherine Tregenna Directed by Ed Bazalgette
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: The Highwayman known only as The Knightmare is robbing stage coaches. So why does the Doctor find him so familiar?


"She'll blow away like smoke" by Donna Bratley 13/7/19

Even lower on action than on Clara and featuring a villain about as menacing as a half-chewed mouse, I really shouldn't like this. Being inconsistent, I do.

As a sober character piece, and an examination of immortality's true cost, it's beautiful: poetic and thought-provoking in equal measure. The Doctor knew his rash actions among the Vikings would have consequences. Now he starts to see them writ large.

It's not Maisie Williams' strongest outing, and "Me" is an irritatingly confusing pseudonym, however poignant the backstory. She struggles with her flowerier dialogue, and can't help but sound shrill - annoying - in her more tempestuous moments. That's hardly her fault; teenage girls have high voices and a tendency to become petulant when crossed (as a former teenage girl, I can say that), and while she may be several centuries old, the immortal still has her original vocal chords.

In the lighter moments, Williams fares better and (naturally) her rapport with the Doctor is a delight. Whether they're bickering over housebreaking skills or the Knightmare having "Dad" as a sidekick, the edgy, uncertain dynamic is a complete break from the easy confidence of his relationship with Clara. Much as I love her, a change is as good as a rest.

Ashildr is less a person than a case study in the dangers of living forever; seen that way, she's mightily effective. Catherine Tregenna's first Doctor Who script is an acute psychological examination that would have worked more smoothly without the inclusion of a risible "monster of the week" in the form of Leonardo the Leonian from Delta Leonis.

Yes, I get it. It's a space lion!

The Doctor's renaming is admirably succinct for a bloke in a dud mask and a cardboard crown. Next!

While I'm focussing on the negatives, the direction is slapdash compared with the norm (and has to be for me to notice). There are a couple of frames as the Doctor gallops to Tyburn where the wooden head of a prop horse is painfully front-and-centre. Surely someone could've picked that up in the edit, since I did in a few seconds on broadcast!

There's also one very abrupt cut as the Doctor and Me attempt to sneak past the slumbering master of the house. It's a split-second thing, but it jolts me out of the action every time.

The concept behind the Eye of Hades is clever (although the light stream's pretty shoddy); that the Doctor stumbles across Ashildr when he least expects it is amusing. Rufus Hound as Sam Swift the Quick - a little bit slow, as the Doctor drily observes - is far more restrained and effective than I was expecting, while delivering some of the most risque lines ever to grace the show. The fairground crowd out to enjoy the spectacle of a hanging is unseemly but believable (it's a bit bucolic for seventeenth-century Tyburn, surely?), although it's a pity they're not a bit more terrified by a lion-man and a split sky spitting firebolts. A bit of vague running around and screaming... again, it's probably a flaw in direction.

I can forgive the irritants, because the beauty of the dialogue and the charisma of the central duo bring me back far more often than I'd expect.

What does immortality mean? Jack Harkness' version never rang true: too glib, too easy. Ashildr's human memory being unable to retain the vastness of her experience and the embitterment that comes of endless loss seems far more plausible. It's a grown-up take on a subject that the series has previously skimmed, combining minimal action with maximum characterisation. If balance is beyond us, I'd sooner have the scales tipped this way.

Particularly with this Doctor. The pained realisation that this is, as Me exclaims, what he made of her lies at the story's heart, and it's to Tregenna's credit that the rights and wrongs of both sides are presented so starkly. The Doctor's motives were kind: to save a terrified young girl. Ashildr's experience has coarsened her, but the brave, big-hearted storyteller who saved a village is still there. She's impatient; constrained within a world that moves too slowly, willing to risk anything to escape it.

She's never entirely evil. I can empathise with her.

She can be callous; her heart, as the Doctor poetically puts it, rusted. Those moments of chilling coldness are amongst Williams' most effective, and they're what make her sudden, shattering recovery of Ashildr's humanity work.

It's unsurprising of course: she took the first excuse to avoid murdering the devoted Clayton and cried out on instinct to halt Leandro's assault on the Doctor. At the last, aware of the hell she's brought upon an unsuspecting world, she reacts without hesitation to reverse the damage she thought she was willing to do.

Like the Doctor, she can't stay on the wagon; she has to get involved, to care. Even if - like the Doctor - she'll need the mayflies to keep her from staring too far beyond the next horizon.

The tension between the two - setting up the series finale - is deliciously vague. Does Ashildr really regard the Doctor as her friend? Does he trust the "tidal wave" of his own making? She's a remarkable woman, he's right about that, but this isn't Doctor Who cutting its occasionally judgemental line across the writer's own right/wrong divide. It's about the shades of grey we all deal in, and the compromise between personal desire and the wellbeing of others that make Ashildr human - comprehensible - despite her unimaginable lifespan.

That's the brilliance - and the beauty - of the episode before it all turns with Clara's tender, playful reappearance. She's completely secure in his affection (and small wonder, now he's using the TARDIS to help her pupils with their homework; there's a change since The Caretaker) and blithely, dangerously confident of "not going anywhere". The daft old man can see the warning signs, even without the unnerving appearance of a familiar face at the back of Evie Hubbard's selfie-present.

It's a fittingly ambiguous end to an intriguing piece of character work.