The episode opens with The Doctor meeting Ashildr, who, posing as a highwayman is in the middle of robbing a stagecoach that conveniently happens to be carrying an alien artefact which, with the assistance of his newly acquired (just in time for a Xmas toy) "curio scanner", he has been tracking. Why he wants it is never properly explained, although I suspect it is simply to prevent anyone from using it. The scene is somewhat spoiled by the male voice that Ashildr projects. Aside from the limp explanation that she "practiced" how to do it, the lip syncing is utterly atrocious. She barely remembers using the name Ashildr, referring to herself as simply "Me".
The direction and photography on the opening scenes, and throughout the episode are, frankly, beautiful, as the shot below demonstrates. The costume department have outdone themselves, and the characters look rich and vibrant.
Strictly speaking, The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived aren't a two part story, and so, given this episode doesn't directly follow immediately its predecessor, it makes the Doctor's meeting of Ashildr a little too coincidental for my liking. Nevertheless, meet, they do, and with the stagecoach disappearing into the distance, they set off in pursuit of the artefact. A spot of breaking and entering, and it is swiftly retrieved, whereupon the Doctor remarks that it resembles the Eyes of Hades.
On arriving back at Ashildr's residence, The Doctor finds out how the past 800 years have treated the young woman. It transpires that being immortal is more of a curse than a blessing, a theme which The Five Doctors briefly touched upon. Ashildr has seen loved ones, including her own children die, and feels trapped within her life. Williams' portrayal of anger and bitterness juxtaposed with a playful, almost reckless attitude to life is to be commended. It is somewhat strange that, in 800 years, Ashildr has found no one, including her own children, to be worthy of immortality, by utilising the second bio-chip, although it is conceivable that her own experience tells her that imbuing someone with the prospect of eternity is a gift one would not bestow on a loved one, as an act of kindness.
Once again, we are treated to a disposable "monster of the week", one so instantly forgettable that I had to Google what he was; a Leonid, with self illuminating eyes, and an inexplicable ability to breathe fire. As a side note, it is interesting that, again, eyes appear to be a running theme, both with the glowing eyes of the Leonid, and the with the references to the Eyes of Hades. Rufus Hound compliments the episode with a bawdy portrayal of fellow highwayman, Sam Swift, although it is his soliloquy on his desire to live which has the most impact, and is much more effective than his gallows humour.
Unfortunately, there is, yet again, no discernible plot of which to speak. This is very much a character piece, one which continues explores the ramifications of the Doctor's actions and echoes the cafe scene from Remembrance of the Daleks as he contemplates the ripples and tidal waves he leaves in his wake.
It transpires that Leandro the Leonid (seriously, who named this bloody thing!) plans to use the amulet to open a portal to another reality, to return to his people, and in order to do so, someone must die. The Doctor explains that this is due to the fact "every death is a fracture in reality" (Huh? Since when? 7 billion people on earth alone, with thousands dying every day.. reality should not only be "fractured, but completely buggered by now!). Sparing the life of her servant, Ashildr opts, instead, to use the imminent death of Sam Swift to execute her plan. How she plans on travelling through the open portal is never explained.
For no apparent reason, as soon as the portal is opened, alien ships start firing on Earth. In order to close the portal, Ashildr uses the spare medical repair chip from the Mire's helmet, to revive Swift, and in turn, save the crowd from being zapped into oblivion.
The humour in the story is decidedly hit and miss. Jokes about being "well hung" have absolutely no place in Doctor Who. I know television series evolve, and times change, but honestly, could you envisage anyone in the Hartnell era making puerile jokes about genital size? Tregenna seems to have forgotten that she isn't writing an episode of Torchwood. Doctor Who is a family show, and tawdry lines like this do nothing but cheapen the series.
Asinine humour aside, there are some genuinely touching moments between The Doctor and Ashildr, as they pontificate on their respective mortalities, the impact of longevity, and the losses they have to endure. In doing so, it was nice to hear Captain Jack Harkness get a mention, and as the Doctor warns Ashildr of the events to come in her own future, Terileptils also get a namecheck when the Doctor recounts the Great Fire of London, a nice reference to the Fifth Doctor story, The Visitation.
The final scene sees Clara, who has spent the episode taking her pupils to a Taekwondo class, back aboard the Tardis, where she shows the Doctor a photograph of a child he had helped with their homework. The Doctor's eyes are soon drawn to the young woman in the background; Ashildr, who has, presumably been lurking around in the vain hope of being photographed at Coal Hill School.
Capaldi is, as usual, on fine form, and Maisie Williams proves to be competent, delivering every line with a believable conviction. Perhaps my main issue with the casting of Williams is that she looks much too young. The scenes with her kissing Swift felt rather uncomfortable, and she doesn't quite have the physical gravitas to portray someone who has lived for 800 years. She makes up for this, somewhat, with her delivery, but nonetheless I found it slightly jarring.
Overall, The Woman Who Lived is an incredibly lacklustre episode. The constant foreboding and subtext of Clara's imminent demise have gone past the point of wearing thin. We get it; she's leaving. Probably dying. It doesn't need hammering home every bloody week. If Clara is about to pop her clogs, any meaning or depth will have been eroded by the omnipresent sense of impending doom. Character deaths work best when least expected. Whilst I didn't care for Danny Pink, his death was shocking, and had meaning. The most obvious example is, of course, Adric, whose death had a real impact at the time.
Stunt casting does not a good story make. It needs substance, and The Woman Who Lived is sadly lacking in that department. As a character piece, it works reasonably well, but as an adventure it falls rather flat. It's an episode of "banter", "deep and meaningfuls", some running around, and an alien who just happens to be present. It isn't "In the Forest of the Night" bad, but, for me, at least, it's a dreary episode, with no discernible storyline or plot, punctuated by superlative dialogue. That's an odd, disconcerting combination to say the least.
I have to be honest, despite some stellar acting and strong, emotive dialogue, this one did nothing for me. I struggle to relate to Maisie Williams' character, even given her acting ability. The plot is weak, and the resolution even weaker. The story does pose some interesting questions, particularly how Ashildr knows so much about The Doctor. She refers to him as "the man who runs" echoing Davros' description of titular Timelord from The Witch's Familiar. We now now know that Ashildr will return later in series nine, and so I suspect this will be addressed then. It will be interesting to see how Ashildr develops as a character, particularly with several hundred more years of life experience.
Scoring the episode is tricky. Superb performances and well crafted dialogue between The Doctor and Ashildr should have made this one of the highlights of the season. A decent plot and a credible alien threat would have elevated it much higher than the 5/10 I'm awarding it. A lot of style, but unfortunately, very little substance.