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The Woman Who Lived – Sadly reviewed. I miss Barbara Wright. I miss History.

October 25, 2015


I had been very much looking forward to The Woman Who Lived, partly in the belief that I was going to be watching an eighteenth-century episode – based on the very eighteenth-century appearance of Maisie Williams dressed as a highwayman.

However, we soon learn that we’re in the year 1651, and all the other characters around her look suitably seventeenth-century.  Ho hum, methinks, trying not to be bothered by a tricorn hat such as was not really worn in England till the end of the century.

So, I tried instead to enjoy the episode, reminding myself that the most famous (if historically disputed) female highway robber in English history, the model for The Wicked Lady (1945) starring Margaret Lockwood and James Mason, was Lade Katherine Ferrers – indeed a seventeenth rather than an eighteenth-century villainess.

So I’m sort of enjoying Capaldi and Williams bouncing off each other, and appreciating the central logic of the story – but then things start to go seriously haywire.  The highwayman Sam Swift has just been captured and we’re told that he’s to be hanged at Tyburn in half an hour’s time.  Really?  No mention of a trial or anything of that nature?  Ah for sure, seventeenth-century England could be a very violent and anarchic place.  It’s perfectly possible to imagine villagers improvising their own form of retributive justice and stringing up highwaymen from the nearest tree branch.  But not at Tyburn.  Tyburn was about due process.  Tyburn was where all condemned criminals were officially dispatched.  It was about the culmination of the rule of law – and something that looked like a trial was essential to the demonstration of government authority.  You might not get a fair trial – but you got properly sentenced by someone calling themselves a judge.  If you don’t understand that – you don’t understand anything about seventeenth-century history.

So the Doctor and “Me” race off to Tyburn.  Tyburn, as everyone knows, was at modern day Marble Arch on what was then the edge of London.  Even in the mid seventeenth-century it was a moderately built up area.  But The Woman Who Lived sets Tyburn in the field in the middle of nowhere and also provides a medieval castle that has nothing to do with anything that ever existed anywhere near Tyburn.  And when the Doctor uses his psychic paper to suggest that Cromwell has pardoned Swift, the crowd suggest that the Doctor be hanged instead seeing as he’s postered up as a wanted man.  Again – no  concept of a trial or anything of that nature – no concept of anything relevant to the seventeenth century concept of power and governance.

Not only did we witness a very lazy disregard for history, we witnessed a kind of betrayal of Barbara Wright, the history teacher, who was companion to the Doctor from the outset, from 1963 to 1965.  Teaching at the same school as Clara, Barbara existed to help bring history to life, to stimulate interest in history, to persuade us that history matters.  Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman gave the Doctor a box that could travel in Time so that we could get a sense of what of what it must feel like to visit another time.  To help us inhabit and understand the past.

Now of course, those 1960s episodes did not get history “right”.  Nobody ever gets history right – that’s why we have keep doing it – that’s what makes it fun.  But the programme makers tried, they actually tried, to stage things carefully enough that the kids might actually learn something.  And even when Dennis Spooner came up with the Meddling Monk and initiated the great tradition of intervening in history rather than just visiting it, the emphasis on accurate reconstruction remained.  Indeed, last night’s episode rather pleasantly referenced the rather effective 1982 Peter Davison adventure The Visitation and the involvement of the Terileptils in the Great Fire of London.  But The Visitation knew that if you’re to manipulate history in such an enjoyably brazen way – you need to be authentic about as many other historical details as possible.  You need to respect history in order for such spectacular subversions of history to be in any way meaningful.

It wouldn’t have taken much to have communicated a bit of the year 1651 and preserved the drama of the storyline.  Forget Tyburn and insert a local lynch mob.  Tweak the costumes a bit.  Change some of the dialogue.  What I learned last night is that a show about Time Travel  no longer thinks it’s worth the effort to get any aspect of 1651 even remotely “right”.

Last night’s episode assumed that nobody knows or cares about seventeenth-century history.  “History” has become just a toybox  – a dress up closet, rather than anywhere worth exploring.  This casual contempt for History represents something like a betrayal of what the franchise used to stand for.

Last night’s episode insulted Barbara Wright.

Last night’s episode insulted me.  It thought I was an idiot.  It probably still does.

If this is what “History” has come to in the twenty-first century, then as Coal Hill School’s motto loosely translates – “God Help Us.”


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