Doctor Who Series 9: The Knightmare of Immortality

The Woman who lived Series Nine Doctor Who

The fourth of a series of essays inspired by the stories of Doctor Who Series Nine. The show kept us in the past, this time landing on the highways of the seventeenth century to pick up on the consequences of the Doctor’s actions at the end of his Viking adventure. What do the adventures of the Ashildir now the Lady Me, the latest in a long line of the undying, tell us about humanity?

It’s an immortal question. Inspired by The Woman who Lived

DID YOU FEEL ROBBED? WERE THE HOOKS OF THE GIRL WHO DIED NOT FULFILLED? Perhaps the MacGuffins and red herrings confounded expectation? But in any event, there’s no doubt that this casual two-parter was always intended to realign itself as one of Doctor Who’s occasional treatises on immortality.

The resulting 45 minutes, with its unusual structure pushing full force onto Peter Capaldi and Maisie William’s double-act, proved one of the show’s great explorations of that mighty theme. An irresistible concept that the show’s often danced around but never answered. If it ever did, there’s a good chance things would never be the same again.

Cheating Death

“People like us, we go on too long”

Immortality is built into Doctor Who, and not just in the inexhaustible fuel of the show’s format: Ideas and imagination without constraint that may outlast the Eye of Harmony. At the heart of the show is a Time Lord, almost the last one – recently given a whole new regeneration cycle when the first one might simply have allowed him to live forever. “Barring accidents” as the Fourth Doctor put it once. You can imagine the TimeWhich statistics on Gallifrey, warning year after year that most regenerations happen in the kitchen. Regeneration means every Time Lord or Lady has 12 reset buttons on his genome and mannerisms that could give them a new life as a woman, girl, Mekon, dog or sentient lamp – but has so far always landed the Doctor as a humanoid male between the Earth years of 25 and 60.

Since the show’s return, the revelation of the Great Time War has left unexplored the concept of these regenerating immortals fighting across time zones. It hasn’t touched the compelling possibility of fully piloted WAR TARDISES containing an endless domino spiral of regenerations or soaking up all the ships power just delicately juggle their dying/regenerating inhabitants in various states of temporal grace.

‘Accidents’ is the key understatement in the fourth Doctor’s unhelpful reasoning. Within two generation we saw the Doctor expire due to old age and then forcibly change (after execution we can only presume – nasty). Other times he’s been irradiated several times, poisoned, squashed and found on the wrong side of gravity. Only on occasion has the Doctor regenerated through direct selflessness (the Fifth’s self-sacrifice did more for his reputation than the Ninth’s) unless you want to argue that every regeneration is a result of the indirect selflessness of his universal intervention; a Gallifreyan who had their Type-40 TARDIS stolen would certainly disagree with that.

But as much as the Doctor and the universe combine to pit him against mortal danger, I doubt the latter will ever let him expire. Certainly, the Time Lords who’ve retreated to God-like status while their planet’s AWOL, were happy to break one of Rassilon’s directives to extend the Doctor’s life. I can’t see how that mad despot perished, but I’d be surprised if he’s calmed down.

Immortal crossings

The modern Prometheus to go with the Eyes of Hades.

In opposition to the Doctor and usually his people, Doctor Who presents a universe full of undeniable, illusionary and distorted versions of immortality. The list is a long one.

There are those not really of our time and space, who no doubt have no need word for immortality, being as it is very much in the eye of the beholder, and as a result little regard for mortals. These include the Eternals seen in 1983’s Enlightenment, elementals who live outside of time, who barely consider the transitory lives of lesser creatures. Those latter years of the Fifth Doctor’s life, coinciding with the show’s 20th anniversary, saw immortality became a focus as the Eternals were joined by returning Black and White Guardians, maintaining the balance of the universe as personifications of chaos and order. In the 21st century we’d meet a member of the Pantheon of Discord in The Sarah Jane Adventures, the immortal Trickster for one lived on the power of chaos that emerged from the Faustian pacts he dangled in front of vulnerable humans. Similar carnage was wrought by the Gods of Ragnarok in Season 25’s The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. Those rogues forced sentient beings to endlessly entertain them at point of elimination, and provided a neat tribute to an old category of the Doctor’s rogues gallery in that silver anniversary year. Those gods joined the Discord and Guardians under the title The Great Old Ones in expanded Who universe prose.

Perhaps the greatest of the Doctors foes belonging to that pantheon is the Great Intelligence who first battled the Second Doctor in the Himalayas and the London Underground before meeting an improbable death in the time streams of The Name of the Doctor. In particular the prose of Andy Lane and Craig Hinton equated the Great Intelligence with Yog-Sothoth, a Lovecraftian cosmic entity of Cthulhu Mythos.


The Woman who Lived forwent Norse mythology to dwell on Hades…

The Doctor will always have eternal foes to undermine, tangle with and fight while there is a universe. Elsewhere, a special mention must go to Fenric, the time travelling ancient member of the Great Old Ones encountered by the Doctor in the in the last season of the Classic Series.

Fenric, as its name suggests, was tied up with Nordic heritage and mythology – something that’s made an appearance in almost every episode of Series Nine so far. But, The Woman who Lived forwent Norse mythology to dwell on Hades, the underworld of the ancient Greek world. Greek mythology is well stocked with tales of immortality, from the gods of Olympus to the punishments of Titans and mortals. This time the MacGuffin was the Eye of Hades, alien technology that inspired the ponderous observations: “Purple the colour of death… The light of immortality”.

In one of Doctor Who’s best regarded stories, Egyptian mythology fell under the microscope. The Osirans of Season 12’s Pyramids of Mars Could live thousands of years without sustenance and the most evil of their kind was only trapped by the Doctor thanks to a time tunnel pointed to infinity. Similarly long-lived, potentially immortal, and just as influential on humanity were was Azal in The Daemons and that other horned one, the Beast in The Satan Pit.

The Woman who Lived dragged alien intrigue into the mix like a cat dragging a mouse into a working lunch on everlasting life. Tying into those grand plans of aliens influencing the planet, it only seems natural that the immortal girl, the supernatural human, attracted them. After all, science fiction has taught us again and again that Arthur C. Clarke‘s third law is right: ”Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”


Dedication to enduring existence is often shown to eliminate individuality…

Many species have survived from the dawn of time to what we can call the present day. They are easy to spot if they are recorded as scaring the ancient Time Lords or even worse, making it into Gallifreyan nursery rhymes or legends. The most famous recent example may be the Weeping Angels – along with their effective forbears the Fendahl, who even the Great Old Ones were said to flee – races almost viral in their persistent survival. Certainly not individualistic, that’s something Doctor Who often shows to be eliminated by dedication to enduring existence.

For some that’s a by-product of their fierce determination, for other’s a side-effect of their tragedy.

The Daleks may be the most defeated race in the universe, but the hate in their blood will last as long as the armour-bound, irrepressible survivalists. On the other side of the spectrum, the Ice Warriors sought bio-mechanical suits to survive the changing climate of their red planet Mars, while more recurrent foes the Cybermen took that approach to bring immortality far closer to home. Mondasians, the inhabitants of Earth’s twin planet, were forced to fuse the organic with the mechanical-electrical. As the cybernetic components grew, eradication of weaknesses such as emotion came to the fore. A marvellous account of this can be found Marc Platt’s play Spare Parts for Big Finish. The New Series showed us a parallel Earth where the same solution had arisen for different reasons in our present day. In both cases, as shown with the longevity of the Cyber Controller in the Classic Series, long life was a logical side-effect. For humans of our universe, the far future promises many evolutionary changes and in one potential time line a cold, collapsing universe that leads them to mutilate and encase themselves as the Toclafane. When we met them in Series Three’s The Sound of Drums, individuality was well hidden under their childish devolution and weaponised metal.

For many inhabitants of our universe, the quest for immortality remains the goal and carries with it undesirable baggage. Twentieth anniversary special The Five Doctors, surely the pinnacle of that era’s exploration of the subject, showed the steps that Rassilon had taken to constrain Time Lords who sought immortality. Embarking on that quest is seldom a good sign.

Considering the show’s main player is an effective immortal walking “in eternity” it’s a wonder that it often takes others to bring the consequences of perpetuity into perspective. While the Cybermen’s long life and predilection for hibernation comes with their condition, and the Great Old Ones have no frame of reference to understand mortality, The Woman who Lived was free to explore the loss of humanity that can come with inhumane immortality.

Other immortals haven’t needed the guidance or intervention that the Lady Me warrants here, and we’ve even seen the Doctor actively avoid them. After all, his people grew into their immortality and embraced entropy and bureaucracy along with it until the Great Time War.

Masters of time

The reign of the Time Lords could cover the distant past or the far future

If you’re a master of time, immortality must lose some meaning. Regenerative renewal has always appeared complementary to both the Time Lord’s technical superiority and the domain they profess to master.

It’s never been established what constitutes the equivalent time period to the Time Lord society we see. They are one of the universe’s oldest civilisations, one that has existed for millions of years. But while the Classic Series necessarily showed a continuity, aided by the law of personal time streams, it was never explicitly concurrent with the contemporary Earth we saw. As they were Lords of Time, it didn’t have to be. During the events of The Three Doctors for instance, the Time Lords focus on the current time stream of the Doctor, in this case during his third incarnation, rather than existing in a time concurrent to late 20th century Earth. It’s that focus on time streams, entangled with the Laws of Time, that make multi-Doctor adventures possible. They focus on one Doctor’s time stream, meaning that one incarnation can remember the events, while their predecessors’ memories fade or die. The exception comes when the drama requires a paradox to solve the plot, such as happened in Time Crash (explored in the second of these essays). Because of the mysterious laws of television, the incarnation at the focus of these adventures is always the latest.

The reign of the Time Lords could cover the distant past or the far future, although both of those options pose more questions than answers. Certainly, at one of the furthest points seen in the New Series – which has travelled more frequently further than the Classic Series – the Professor who we soon learn is the Master talks about time travel being possible in “the old days”. That story, season three’s Utopia, was the series last great confrontation with immortality.

Captain Jack Harkness

Difficult to look at…

That exploration of Jack Harkness’s immortality was set against the rebirth of one of the Doctor’s most fearsome foes the Master. In a similar way, Series Nine, particularly The Woman who Lived drips with the prediction of Clara’s demise.

Jack Harkness, the immortal creation of Bad Wolf, is something different to Lady Me. Described a spot in time that shouldn’t exist, the TARDIS attempts to shake him off mid-flight while the Doctor, in his genial and excitable tenth incarnation is uncharacteristically savage in his dismissal. He finds Jack difficult to look at, like an unnatural anchor point in the flow of time – although has no qualms about using and abusing him to secure the flight of the rocket to the fabled Utopia. He warranted that joke in The Woman who Lived.

The main examination of Jack’s condition fell to Torchwood. Used for shock and awe in the first two series, the sublime third series Children of Earth explored the personal repercussions of a mortal life on an immortal being. Like Lady Me, hounded by similar loss and regret, those flashbacks to the past couldn’t help but recall the Highlander series, itself an endless exploration of the meaning of immortality in a world of mortals. Torchwood’s difficult fourth series examined the effect of eliminating death across the Earth. While Jack cannot die but Lady Me can live forever bar severe injury, this was the threat of a life that would not give up, and whether you liked it or hated it, featured some of Doctor Who at its finest horror.

Perhaps most horrible of all, after all that, there’s the very strong possibility in Series Three we saw Jack’s final end after all…

Other Lives

“Someone has to look out for the people you abandon”

For there are those other lives that may well come back to haunt the show sooner rather than later, and perhaps that’s where Lady Me best sits.

The Doctor passed on immortality to this ‘victim’ like a vampire, a species that have left an indelible impression on the universe but have seldom appeared. Expanded prose and plays have explored this vampiric legacy, while Season 18’s State of Decay showed us the remnants of the children of the Great Vampires, he humanoid bloodsuckers, each one of which could consume a planet. That enmity with Time Lords is no mistake. They are the perfect mirror of the early Time Lords who devoured a black hole and engineered themselves near-immortality. The result of that enmity was a 500 year war.

Those old and great devourers of the universe on the vampiric side may have filtered down to the plasmavores encountered in Series Three’s Smith and Jones and perhaps the aquatic Saturnyns of Series Five’s Vampires of Venice. But in other ways, it’s suggested to be one of the evolution’s default settings. The Curse of Fenric, showed that’s Great One’s influence spread to the Earth’s far future Haemavores, themselves amphibious vampires spawned from humanity, with a transformation period that took at least 100 years of their long lives. Again, immortality plays an important role in a possible future of humanity and it’s not good news.

The other great exploration of immortality of the Classic SeriesTwentieth season was also one of the great warnings. In the highly influential Mawdryn Undead, the legacy of which threatens to burst into the New Series at any point – so much so, that Jokerside once speculated that show-runner Steven Moffat had attempted to replicate that one adventure with the life of the Eleventh Doctor. In that classic serial, Mawdryn and his fellow scientists set out to discover the secret of Time Lord regeneration only to be trapped for ever as disfigured shadows of themselves who unable to ever die. The stories’ most fascinating idea came not from the temporal paradox that the story stumbles into, but the Doctor’s moral decision, and later forced position, to sacrifice his own immortality to allow the scientists to die. As Lady Me may say, “You didn’t save my life Doctor, you trapped me inside it”.

Thanks for the memories

“When you laugh, I live”

By the time of the Woman who Lived, Lady Me is the result not of vampirism, an insatiable corruption, nor a seeker of immortality, an insatiable greed, but more a quester like Woolf’s poet Orlando. We fittingly rediscovered her taking the alter-ego of a man, in a time period that lends itself to masques and theatricality. But it also posed something new, another curse of immortality to sit alongside the masochistic fate that awaits Mawdryn. In this, perhaps she’s less Orlando and more the creature of her own Doctor Frankenstein’s creation: the modern Prometheus to go with the Eyes of Hades. And as a creation, she’s imperfect.

We saw the Doctor’s 2,000 year diary in the previous adventure The Girl who Died, an update of the Seventh Doctor’s 900 year diary, and the Second Doctor’s 500 year version. I wonder if he can buy new pages. Sadly though, that is a single volume reminding us that with a Time Lord lifespan comes an enhanced mental ability to match. Unlike those we’ve seen before, bar the senility and atrophied minds of the elderly Time Lords of Gallifrey, the Lady Me needs to use books as her memory. Her mind is that of a mortal and unable to assimilate her many lifetimes of accrued experience. A touching and horrible constraint the show’s never explored before.

The sleight of hand near the end was that, after the suggestion of a partner the week before, it all came down to an act of contrite mercy to her fleeting adversary Sam the Swift. And that then gave way to the rather horrid throwaway speculation that the immortality probably wouldn’t stick: Most of its energy, the Doctor thought, had been used up closing the Delta Leonis vortex.

It was a sad point, but this time the story didn’t dwell. Now, for the first time the Doctor had an individual dedicated to tracking him through past, present and future. A humanoid Torchwood. And one he’s pleased with, knowing full well that the killer kick is true. Of all those aliens who’ve influenced the Earth, including the many who’ve inspired myths of gods, demons and devils, he is the immortal alien who’s shaped this planet the most.

“Take your pick. You’ve had an impact on this world”

The Woman who Lived will most certainly return.

The historical state

“See Mayflies, they know more than we do”

A final note on immortality in the historical context, to round of this and the last story’s sister essay.

Whatever constitutes the past for the Doctor or his people, it’s allied to our present. Even with the dating controversy that variously sets the Doctor’s third incarnation exile in the 1970s or 1980s, it’s a matter of a mere decade among millennia. And anyway, we and he are acutely aware of what makes history. The Doctor senses time and its flow, the flexibility and delicacy of it. Sometimes that suggestion may mean he knows the measure of minute change he can apply to ensure a timeline is unaffected or only moderately changed. Other times, it means he can’t look at Jack Harkness, a wrong turn, but can look at Ashildir, his creation. It’s a vague alien ability that helps get round the dramatic point that adventures have to be split between past, current and future. Having a companion as an anchor point, another strong element the New Series introduced, is just not enough.

Returning to the Osirans, when 1975’s Pyramids of Mars had Sarah Jane standing in 1911 knowing that her 1980 still existing as she had lived there, one consequence was perpetuating the aforementioned dating controversy – and fan theorising is most definitely immortal. Another was that it ensured that classic story would warrant a mention in the second of these Series Nine essays as an example of the Classic Series confronting paradox, the third essay that explored the show’s historical adventures and now this.

As this past weekend marked the 40th anniversary of its first broadcast it’s worth noting that historical adventures, and any famous figures who appear in them in Doctor Who, just wouldn’t exist if they didn’t carry a certain amount of immortality themselves.

We’re halfway through. Jokerside’s Series Nine’s essays will continue on 9 November after we’ve been invaded and inverted… 

Read the complete set of Doctor Who Series Nine essays.

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