Contains spoilers for the aired episode.
I admit, I didn’t have high hopes coming into this episode. From the previews it looked like Doctor Who’s latest attempt to switch into historical romp mode after the pair of pretty heavy and intense two-parters opening season nine. As long-time readers of Taking The Short View will probably recall, I pretty much hate such diversions as my loathing for last year’s “Robots of Sherwood” will attest. Generally speaking, it’s been my unwavering view that the show during Steven Moffat’s tenure has struggled badly when it comes to striving to do light-hearted fare, with a very few notable exceptions, and that it shows just how hard it can be to do comedy satisfyingly in a show which is at heart an action-adventure drama.
Moffat did at least pull out all the stops and try his absolute best with this latest offering, mainly by putting his top writing team on the job – one of whom, inevitably, is Moffat himself. It’s a measure of how fast and high Jamie Mathieson’s Who stock has risen since his début scripts for “Mummy on the Orient Express” and “Flatline” last year that he’s the other name on the script. Surely if anyone could have pulled off an entertaining historical romp without making my teeth itch and my toes curl it would have been Moffat and Mathieson?
As it turns out, “The Girl Who Died” does its job almost too well. It is one of those episodes that can flip your world view on its head and make you think it would be a good idea if all episodes were historical romps. Yes, it really is that good and that successful at what it sets out to do – despite being a tale of comedy Vikings with added Benny Hill theme for good measure.
In essence, the Doctor has to defend a Viking village from an attack by a fearsome band of alien warriors called The Mire. He doesn’t have any of his usual hi-tech gadgets to help him – his sonic sunglasses are smashed, his Tardis is two day’s travel away – and all he has left is a yoyo, Clara’s smartphone, and his frazzled wits. The Vikings themselves are in no better shape, all the warriors in the village having already been gruesomely ‘harvested’ by the Mire leaving just the sick, elderly, women and children along with the farmers, fishermen and blacksmiths who have never wielded a sword in bettle in their lives before now. The Doctor’s attempts to form a fighting force from this motley collection ends in a training montage and a jump cut to unconscious bodies strewn across the ground and half the buildings somehow on fire, just one of the effective and well-judged laugh-out-loud comedy beats the episode pulls off.
The Doctor needs a plan, but to get there he needs someone to cajole him into believing it can be done – and that’s Clara’s role. She has complete faith in him but at the same time doesn’t simply take him for granted, knowing that he needs a little help to get there and that this is her role. I’ve been a big fan of Jenna Coleman’s for sometime now, so when I say I think “The Girl Who Died” represented a new high for her and for the character you know that’s a big statement for me to make, but she really is truly wonderful here. As was Peter Capaldi in fact, who has got over the slightly over-the-top manic phase he exhibited in “Under the Lake” and here gives a performance that is pure Doctor – not least when trying to convince the villagers that he is their god Odin before getting roundly upstaged by the Mire from on high – and overall seemingly channeling direct from the very best days of Tom Baker’s residency.
Of course the Doctor does save the day, and he does it in vintage Doctor fashion – not through meeting military might with like but by identifying the weak point of his adversary (hubris and ego) and playing on that to outwit them and send them packing with a delightful bit of deception and sleight of hand (plus the Benny Hill theme) that doesn’t involve any more blood being shed in the process. It’s really all delightfully enjoyable stuff, laughs with teeth and a brain attached so that there is something for everyone to thoroughly enjoy. It also looks quite wonderful, filmed mainly on location in an ‘in-your-face’ verité style by director Ed Bazalgette who is new to Who but who had already made a definite mark on the imagination with his impressive work on the Poldark reboot earlier in the year.
Even so, it does appear at one point that the story is markedly under-running. To start with there is an extended ‘teaser’ at the start where we join the Doctor in mid-adventure facing off against a space fleet while Clara is alone, floating in space in a seeming homage to Sandra Bullock in Gravity. This takes up the first five minutes or so and probably 75 per cent of the episode’s FX budget before we get to the main Viking setting; and even so, the plot then also seems to run out of steam at about the 35 minute mark leaving you wondering what they’re going to go for the next ten minutes until the end credits kick in. Show some greatest hits from old episodes? Well, in a way …
The final ten minutes are where a soufflé-light confection suddenly develops unexpected layers of depth and complication. In warding off the Mire, it turns out there has been one casualty among the villagers after all – young Ashildr, whose storytelling powers were at the heart of the Doctor’s plan but who was unable to survive interfacing with alien technology. That makes her the eponymous “The Girl Who Died”, a title that in itself seems to link her directly back to Amy Pond. Her death also sparks off a major ethical crisis in the Doctor not unlike the one he faced as David Tennant in “The Waters of Mars”: the laws of time say he can’t interfere and change the outcome, but on this occasion he’s unable to stop himself and so he uses more alien tech to revive her. The consequences of this will be effective immortality, which while undoubtedly sounding like A Good Thing to the layperson actually comes with a terrible price as the Doctor himself knows. Immortality isn’t about living forever, he tells Clara: it’s about watching everyone else die around you. The look on his face as he tells her this speaks volumes and is another in a growing list of portents about Clara’s forthcoming departure from the series, a prospect now so appalling that it seems even the Doctor is not sure he’s up to surviving it.
It’s not just from his own experience that the Doctor knows that conferring immortality is at best a double-edged sword – although not explicitly referenced in the episode, there’s also the example of Captain Jack Harkness as well. Even as the Doctor agonises about causing ripples in time (another of the season’s running themes, which was also a major part of last week’s “Before the Flood”) he knows that ethically speaking it’s probably the wrong call as well. Even so, in a reckless moment he goes ahead and restores Ashildr to life. It should be a happy ending, but the final scene – a time lapse 360 degree pan around Ashildr as she looks out to sea as accelerated days fly past – starts with her smiling but closes on her face as it hardens and darkens, suggesting anything but. Something has been set in motion, and we’ll have to wait until next week to see whether those apparently harmless ripples in the past have become a crushing tidal wave in the future. It’s a terrific cliffhanger-that-isn’t-a-cliffhanger precisely because it doesn’t rely on the obvious faux-tension of a series regular being killed off but substituting instead something far more uncertain and unknowable.
That’s because this is Moffat’s latest attempt to play with and subvert the two-parter format this season. We’ve seen that done with “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar” and between “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood” but this is yet another new departure: “The Girl Who Died” is in every meaningful respect a stand-alone story, but it’s going to be followed by an immediate sequel entitled “The Woman Who Lived” set in a completely different time and place (England 1651AD) and with a completely different writer and cast – with one exception.
Undoubtedly the Star Guest (rather than a mere guest star) this week is Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams in a strong turn as Ashildr. The actress returns in next week’s episode where officially she’s a different character (“The Knightmare”), but the ending of this week’s story leaves us in little doubt that underneath the highwaywoman’s mask is surely to be found the same perpetually young Viking girl. What will eight hundred years of immortality have done for her in the meantime, and how pleased will she be to see the Doctor again after all this time? Not very, I suspect, as our hero is forced to face the consequences of his actions and his momentary weakness in restoring her to a life that she should not have had in the first place.
That makes for a lot of things going in this week, in a story that in many ways should have as much substance as candy floss. In fact it’s been fascinating glancing at some of the other reviews of “The Girl Who Lived”, some of which think it was utterly superficial with nothing below the surface while other reviewers declare it one of the show’s most complex and fascinating stories to date. In this case the truth really is in the eye of the beholder, and the joy of the thing is that both views are right – and wrong – at the same time.
A lot of substance of this week’s show is how it is really starting to develop and fit together some of the overall themes and story arcs of season nine. I mentioned before about the moments hinting to Clara’s impending exit (scenes this week once again underscore how she is becoming too addicted to the danger and risk of being at the Doctor’s side, and her ability to step in as a locum doctor without missing a beat whenever the definite article is detained elsewhere) and the ripples in time are also becoming a worrying repeating pattern to the narrative as well. Add to that the sense that we’re seeing more instances of the ‘friends contained within enemies’/’enemies concealed within friends’ trope first referenced in “The Witch’s Familiar”, together with the chilling description of the resurrected Ashildr as a ‘hybrid’ of Viking and Mire satisfying the old Time Lord prophecy of such a union of two warrior races and you have the strongest sense of all the pieces starting to come together through very careful planning on Moffat’s part.
Not that Moffat actually appears to need to actively pre-plan all that carefully, not when he can be almost as good working from sundry leftover scraps from past years of Doctor Who lore. In particular, a bit of unfinished business provides one of the most arresting scenes in the show, when the Doctor is finally able to answer the question he asked himself post-regeneration in “Deep Breath”: specifically, “Who frowned me this face?” That had been a reference to the fact that by the time he was cast as the Doctor, Capaldi had already very recognisably appeared in a past episode of the show – specifically 2008’s “The Fires of Pompeii” as Roman sculptor Caecilius, whose family the Doctor saves from the volcanic eruption at the urging of his then-companion Donna Noble. This was a period of the show when Moffat was only an occasional contributor and had no input into other stories, but here he makes it seem like there has been a single guiding intelligence watching over the show for all its 52 years cheerfully inserting all these little story hooks in order for Moffat to subsequently come back and hang tidy pay-offs onto when the time was right. Here, Moffat uses the recollection of this moment to remind the Doctor that while it’s not always possible to save everyone, it’s surely still worth trying to save at least one person – or one family at a time – and hence motivate him into taking his heroic but unwise measures to revive Ashildr. And I’ll admit, my little fanboi heart leapt at the sight of David Tennant and Catherine Tate back in the show, even if it was just archive footage.
In many ways, the biggest theme of “The Girl Who Died” is embodied by the line that the Doctor gives when he first sees Ashildr standing in the crowd and Clara clocks his stare and asks if he knows the girl from somewhere. No, he replies, before adding: “People talk about premonition as if it’s something strange. It’s not. It’s just remembering something in the wrong direction.” It sums up both the beauty of this unique show and the true paradox of time travel vividly and lyrically without all the usual timey-wimey head-spinning shenanigans; and in this case it’s also oddly ominous and troubling for what lies ahead.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings.