‘The Girl Who Died’, written by Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat, finds the Doctor and Clara captured by vikings. Brought to their village the Doctor tries to impersonate their god Odin but is upstaged by the war-like race, the Mire. The Doctor is soon fascinated by a young women named Ashildr who declares war with the aliens. Now the Doctor has a day to turn the weakest surviving members of the village into warriors.
This is a simplistic story with shallow characterisation, uneven tone and isn’t half as funny as it thinks it is. It is only worth watching for the setup for the next episode.
Spoilers From Here On In!
This story follows a tradition of the Doctor standing up for the underdog. The central idea, the Doctor giving people the tools to defend themselves, evokes memories of his attempts to persuade the Thals to fight against the Daleks in ‘The Daleks’.
The Doctor’s solution to use cunning and guile to overcome violence is in keeping with the character and should have been a rousing climax. It may have been scientifically dubious (particularly since the key component are electric eels which are very unlikely to have been in that part of the world) but it is in keeping with the ethos of the show.
It is strange then that for much of this story everything feels so wrong.
There is much that the episode does right. Separated from the TARDIS and with the sonic glasses broken (although not inoperable) it raises the stakes. There are some interesting musings on the Doctor encouraging people to be soldiers and his concern for Clara.
The biggest problem is that this is written as a romp (similar to the much better ‘Robot of Sherwood’). While this does work in some areas, such as the Doctor being upstaged by the Odin in the sky, in others it falls flat. This is mainly because everything is overshadowed by death. The viking warriors are wiped out and those who survive will also soon be massacred (including the baby). It is hard to laugh in the face of that.
The Doctor’s plan to scare off the aliens is sound but there is a nastier element to it. It is not just enough for them to flee the Doctor wants to humiliate them and blackmails Odin by threatening to upload the video to the galactic version of youtube. It is sad that the Doctor engaging in cyberbullying is seen as a funny ending.
The comedic tone also seems to have informed the performances. David Schofield as the fake Odin could have stepped straight out of a pantomime. The vikings are little better, a matter not helped by the Doctor giving them comedy nicknames.
Not having seen ‘Game of Thrones’ this is the first time I’ve encountered Maise Williams, here playing Ashildr, so I can’t tell if the problem here is the material or her performance. Whichever it is it is a shame that such a key character just completely fails to impress.
From the start she has an impact on the Doctor. He knows that she’ll be important to him but doesn’t yet know why. It is Ashildr who creates the situation by refusing to let the aliens who killed her people just run away. She speaks to the Doctor of being different and an outsider, things that the Time Lord knows too well. Finally her death is what spurs the Doctor to bend (if not break) the laws of time by bringing her back to life and giving her immorality with alien technology.
Yet there is nothing about the character that makes her likable. We’ve seen other characters with much more charisma, pluck and courage who the Doctor nonetheless let stay dead or leave them behind (Osgood, O’Donnell, Shona McCullough and Rita to name just a few). She is special because we are told she is.
Peter Capaldi is ill served by the script. The worst excesses of the 12th Doctor are on display here. His rambling and unfunny jokes (also in evidence in ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’) make him tiresome. For much of the episode he seems out of character, with even Clara pointing out that turning people into warriors usually isn’t his thing.
Indeed, much of the episode seems to be waiting for the Doctor to have his ‘eureka’ moment and come up with the solution. The Doctor therefore looses some agency to the plot. He doesn’t work for a solution he just waits until it comes to him out of the blue.
The scenes in which the Doctor translates the cries of the baby are beautifully written but cringe worthy due to their source. Speaking baby is a funny joke in small measures but strains credibility (which is saying something in a show about a time travelling alien) when we are supposed to believe that infants can form complex, poetic speeches. At this point ‘Doctor Who’ seems to exist in the same universe as ‘Rug Rats’ and ‘Baby Geniuses’. I prefer to believe that the Doctor is just verbalising a purely emotional cry from the baby.
Clara is better here. With the Doctor’s effectiveness neutered she is much more his equal. She shows courage and a refusal to give up in the face of overwhelming odds. Her relationship with the Doctor is better handled, with her history with him allowing her to notice when something is wrong and get him out of his funk.
I really liked Jamie Mathieson’s previous two Doctor Who episodes, ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ and ‘Flatline’, so don’t know what went wrong here. I can see potential here if you stripped out the comedic elements so this was a darker exploration of how far the Doctor will go to help people survive without disrupting history. Preparing others for battle and the nature of war has parallels to the Time War.
It does seem that the conclusion of the story is rushed. Stealing the alien helmet to allow Ashildr to project an illusion of a (badly done CGI) dragon doesn’t seem to build on what has been established. The Doctor proclaims this is because the aliens use technology to view reality but the flaw here is that part of the plan required them to remove the helmets from some of the aliens, yet they also saw the illusion. Even their leader Odin, who is clearly shown to only have one eye covered, is fooled. It also wasn’t previously established that the helmets were networked to allow this mass illusion.
Ashildr’s death by heart failure is also not foreshadowed. There was no indication that she had any health problem and it seems odds that the Doctor asserts that the helmet drained her like a battery when this possibility was never indicated (yet the Doctor doesn’t seem surprised this is how she died).
The death is quickly reversed by a Mire medical kit that not only brings her back to life but will keep her alive forever. Introducing the existence of this kit earlier might have added menace to the aliens, since the vikings would have been facing a warlike race who couldn’t be killed, and better setup this twist.
We do get a nice scene where the Doctor realises why his new face seemed so familiar (it was also nice to see archival clips from ‘The Fires of Pompeii’). From this the Doctor decides that he is meant to save people, no matter what. His decision to defy the rules is reminiscent of when the 10th Doctor decided to become the ‘Time Lord Triumphant’ and I wonder if there will be consequences (especially from the unseen people he tells to go to hell).
‘Love and Monsters’ showed that the Doctor has dubious view of quality of life when bringing people back but at least acknowledges that immortality can be a curse. A positive point for the episode is the final shot of Ashildr, the sky blurring with the streak of stars and the Sun for untold numbers of years, her face changing from a smile to a grim expression full of foreboding.
This is a clever use of the multi-part story, telling a tale that stretches centuries. It’ll be interesting to see how time has changed Ashildr and the consequences it will have for the Doctor. I hope that this will allow the characters some growth.
I can see why people might like this episode, particularly if they dislike the time travel complexities of ‘The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar’ and ‘Under The Lake/Before the Flood’, but this wasn’t for me.