Writer: Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat.
Director: Ed Bazalgette.
Main Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Maisie Williams, David Schofield.
Hello, Whovians! It’s another Earthly adventure this week, as we leave the future behind for the past! It’s time for a good old historical episode of Doctor Who, one involving not-so-vicious Vikings, dubious godly apparitions, and Maisie Williams! Without further ado, let’s get right into things. This is ‘The Girl Who Died’.
[POTENTIALLY MILD SPOILERS AHEAD!]
As with quite a lot of episodes these days, we open to the Doctor and Clara busy doing something completely unrelated to the main events of the plot that follows; specifically, they’ve been off saving another alien race from invaders. Evidently it hasn’t been going particularly well, given that Clara is stranded in the depths of space with an unfriendly alien lifeform inside her suit and the Doctor is busy attempting to manage a very unhappy TARDIS console room as it explodes in its usual angry fashion. A quick spot of well-calculated spacial coordinating later and all is well; Clara is back aboard the TARDIS and the critter in her suit is little more than an unpleasant stain on the end of the Doctor’s boot. Stepping outside to clean up, the two find themselves in a forest while Clara questions the Doctor’s seemingly-varying ability to save people (a conversation spurred on by the manner in which the Doctor dealt with the invasion that just occurred). Just then, they find themselves in the process of being taken hostage by…”Oh no, not Vikings,” the Doctor says, irritated.
It’s a fun opening, full of good old-fashioned Doctor Who adventure, and in essence that sums up quite a lot of the episode itself. ‘The Girl Who Died’ is the first story taking place in Earth’s history that we’ve had in quite some time now (the previous one being last year’s ‘Robot of Sherwood’) and it’s quite welcome to see such a setting make a return. It feels very authentic for a historical tale, which is no doubt largely due to the use of a Viking replica village as its filming location, and the quirks of the setting (and more so its inhabitants) are used to quite hilarious effect in the story. I’ve mentioned “fun” and “hilarious” now, if you’re keeping count, and that’s only appropriate. ‘The Girl Who Died’ is a rather lighthearted and whimsical episode all told, something of an antidote to the most recent run of very heavy stories in a sense. That said, it wouldn’t be Doctor Who if it didn’t suddenly wildly spin off into emotionally-poignant scenes at the drop of a hat (or perhaps a horned helmet), and when this episode gets deep, it gets deep quickly and doesn’t look back.
The episode was largely the work of Jamie Mathieson who previously gave us last year’s well-received ‘Flatline’ and ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ (my personal favourite story of Series 8) and it’s quite clear that any scenes provided by co-writer Steven Moffat were in the minority, as Mathieson’s style is quite present and accounted for. The episode’s a rather strong character piece, as with so many in recent weeks, with some specifically engaging insight into the Doctor in particular. It’s not anything new as far as his character goes but the manner in which it’s delivered is executed extremely well. Additionally, there are quite a few concepts from episodes of Doctor Who past revisited in this one; not precisely outright references as such but more themes reused. One of them in particular is one that hasn’t cropped up in quite a while, and you’ll want to watch out for that…
We’ll jump on to the cast and characters now, as ever, and we’ll start with the Time Lord himself. Peter Capaldi continues to up his ante week by week, and he’s on top form in this episode (in other equally shocking news, the Earth is round). This is an interesting story, morally-speaking, for the Doctor. Questions about his methods are raised as early as the pre-credit sequence and only continue throughout. There are a few throwbacks to the Seventh Doctor’s philosophies on the interference of time travelers in events and just how damaging that can be to causality, and how this Doctor feels about such things. The nature of immortality; the difference between saving someone and setting themselves up to do it themselves; the extremes to which a Time Lord’s emotions can push them: all of these are questions that the Doctor contemplates in this episode. Capaldi brings us a much more subdued, sombre performance this week with some rather beautiful scenes; a Doctor who just seems tired of ending up in these situations over and over again. It’s a heavy story for our favourite Time Lord, no doubt. There’s also one particular scene that answers a question we’ve been waiting to see for some time (while I enjoyed the reveal, I suspect some people will be somewhat underwhelmed by the reveal and that’s equally valid).
In terms of the companion duo, there’s definitely some sharing of the role when it comes to ‘The Girl Who Died’. First up, of course, is Jenna Coleman who, I feel, is back to her usual Clara self in this story. It’s the time-honoured story wherein the Doctor is frustrated by an inability to help in the way he would like to, requiring the companion to step in and tell him what’s what. Clara often works well as a motivator (albeit a rather persistent one) and that’s what she brings to the table in spades this week. There’s one particular scene between the Doctor and Clara, the point where the Doctor begins to put his plan into action, that is likely one of the standouts of the episode, and the silent acting on Coleman‘s part as Clara watches her friend contemplate affairs is wonderful.
The other companion-like figure of the episode is, of course, the much-hyped Ashildr as played by Maisie Williams, a name some of you may possibly recognise! Drawing parallels to her portrayal of Arya Stark was going to be inevitable (and there are definitely certain similarities there) but the character she plays is quite distinct and Williams’ performance lives up to the hype. Ashildr is something of an oddity among her peers for, in her own words, being strange (very fond of stories and tales, legends, and a spot of puppetry into the mix). I did, however, very much like the fact that, contrary to the usual way these characters go, the story makes it very clear that Ashildr is much loved by her village and not made an outcast for it. It’s a little thing, but it does make quite a difference. As ever in Doctor Who, and the Moffat-run era of the show in particular, stories and myths are immensely important and the manner in which they and Ashildr play into the climax of events is very clever indeed. Williams’ first scene with Clara is definitely one of the most memorable ones of the story, and one of its funniest. On completely another tone, her interactions throughout with the Doctor are fantastically endearing and practically scream ‘companion material’. We’ll have to wait until next week to see where that goes, of course!
As a final note we’ll address the villains of the piece, the Mire. They’re a fairly standard species as far as Doctor Who goes, an alien warrior race out for nefarious purposes, but their design is quite nifty indeed (to veer into the gaming world for a moment, it’s very reminiscent of Bioshock‘s famed Big Daddies) and the manner in which their unique technology is utilised is well done. They’re not particularly memorable, though, it must be said. Their leader, on the other hand, the so-called “Odin” (David Schofield) is a wonderful scenery-devouring maniac (debuting on-screen in a fairly loving and extended Monty Python reference, to boot). There’s not much to him beyond that but overall, sometimes you just need an overtly-hammy villain to liven the place up a bit (fans of the Fourth Doctor might find a few similarities with the infamous Captain from ‘The Pirate Planet’). Still, like his minions, he’s somewhat unmemorable as a character.
All in all, ‘The Girl Who Died’ is a thoroughly enjoyable episode of Doctor Who despite the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, not a whole lot happens in it. The setting is used well, the plot wraps up quite nicely and the character play at work is fairly fantastic. It’s the first somewhat quiet episode of Doctor Who this season, that said, so could come off as slightly lacking in that regard.
a very entertaining and lighthearted little romp.
Do join us next week for the (sort-of) second part of the story in ‘The Woman Who Lived’…