For most of its duration, “The Girl Who Died” seems like a deliberately jokey story, in which the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) are dropped into an escapade with some comedy Vikings fighting off equally silly-looking aliens. The writing credits are shared between Jamie Mathieson, whose two acclaimed episodes last year—“Mummy on the Orient Express” and “Flatline”—showed his talent for quirky ideas and memorable images, and showrunner Steven Moffat, who ensures that this episode’s standalone story is strongly linked to the ongoing current of the Doctor’s life in a way very characteristic of this era of Doctor Who. The episode opens with the Doctor and Clara finishing up an unrelated adventure, and ends with a scene that, even without the explicit “To be continued,” tells us there’s unfinished business remaining.
The basic plot setup has been used before, as long ago as 1969’s “The Krotons.” An isolated, primitive settlement is being dominated by an alien force that plans to harvest the best of the inhabitants (in this case, the strongest warriors), until the Doctor arrives and helps overthrow the oppressors. However, there’s a refreshing lack of solemnity in the treatment of this over-familiar plot: The Doctor’s drill-sergeant antics as he tries to train the remnant of the villagers to fight are great fun, and he comes up with a hilariously complicated plan to defeat the aliens using only the resources at hand. Even the design of the aliens (called the Mire) seems not entirely serious. One major factor in the success of the Daleks’ design is the way that no legs are visible; in the case of the Mire, while their top halves look impressively massive and tank-like, the pair of human legs sticking out beneath can’t help but make the creatures look comical.
The key to defeating the Mire turns out to be a young Viking girl, Ashildr (Maisie Williams). Given the medieval, rustic nature of the setting, it’s difficult for Williams to avoid giving the impression of playing a watered down, child-friendly version of her Game of Thrones character, Arya Stark. Her main speech (in an excellent scene with Capaldi) establishes Ashildr as a girl who never fit in, retreating into daydreaming and storytelling. Elsewhere, however, she strains to match the bombastic scenery chewing of David Schofield, playing the leader of the Mire who intimidates the village by masquerading as the god Odin.
Eventually, she’s able to utilize a captured Mire helmet to frighten them off with illusions (as the Doctor says, “That’s the trouble with viewing reality through technology: It’s all too easy to feed in a new reality”). In an appropriately cheeky ending, the Mire are driven off when the Doctor threatens to upload a recording of their ignominious retreat to the galactic equivalent of YouTube, accompanied by the Benny Hill theme. As the villagers cheer, the sense of triumph and relief is so great that the viewer might actually forget the title of the episode for a moment—until Ashildr is found dying, drained by the Mire hardware.
The comedy drops away as Capaldi and Coleman share a pivotal moment of realization by the Doctor. Earlier, when Clara complained that he’d never told her the rules governing when and how he can interfere in events, he said, “We’re time travelers. We tread softly. It’s okay to make ripples, but not tidal waves.” Now, with the Doctor angry with himself at losing Ashildr, there’s a sudden flashback to the 2008 episode “The Fires of Pompeii,” in which David Tennant’s Doctor, at the urging of his companion, Donna, saved a single family from the volcanic destruction of the city. Making a guest appearance as the head of that family was Capaldi—a totally unplanned circumstance which Moffat seizes on to provide a wonderfully cunning explanation for the 12th Doctor’s choice of face (fulfilling the clues he dropped in Capaldi’s introductory episode “Deep Breath”: “It’s as if I’m trying to tell myself something”). The Doctor now looks the way he does as a reminder: “I’m the Doctor…and I save people!”
However, this moment of personal triumph isn’t without its darker implications. Spurred on to save Ashildr, the Doctor cannibalises the leftover Mire equipment to embed a “repair kit” chip in her. As suggested by the way she revives (a sudden intake of breath, exactly like the immortal Captain Jack Harkness), he may have made her actually unable to die, and so he leaves her a second chip—in case she finds someone she can’t bear to be without. It’s telling that he makes no attempt at taking one for himself, despite telling Clara earlier that he knows he will lose her someday (and, of course, the real-life knowledge of Coleman’s impending departure looms large here). He knows his impulsive action, however admirable it may be in the short term, may turn out to be a terrible mistake. Although the season arc seems to be much more in the background than previously, the Doctor does pick up on a possible connection between Ashildr’s new condition and the mysterious “hybrid” mentioned by Davros in “The Witch’s Familiar.”
New director Ed Bazalgette proves adept at both keeping the light-hearted antics bubbling along, and provides space for Capaldi and Coleman to nail the serious moments. He also leaves a memorable impression with the final sequence of the camera making a complete circle around Ashildr standing still while a metaphorical montage of days and seasons passes. At the start she’s smiling, but by the time the camera comes back to her face she wears a dark and troubled expression. It seems the Doctor’s uneasiness may soon be proved correct.
Next Week: The Doctor encounters Ashildr again, but in a different time and place entirely, in “The Woman Who Lived.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: Another story involving both Vikings and the possible disruption of history due to anachronistic technology is 1965’s “The Time Meddler,” starring William Hartnell, with Maureen O’Brien and Peter Purves.
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