Doctor Who: 9.05 The Girl Who Died
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It's amazing to think that we haven't seen Vikings in Doctor Who since the 1965 William Hartnell adventure The Time Meddler. Given the show's penchant for historical settings, this week's episode feels so natural. It won't stand up to historical scrutiny but The Girl Who Died really has fun with the premise of the Doctor and Clara working with a bedraggled band of helpless villagers against the tyrannical hordes of the god Odin - all of which just happen to be an alien race called the Mire.
It is a tremendously fun episode that starts with a bang; from Clara floating helpless in space with a brain-sucking spider crawling up the inside of her space suit while the Doctor diverts an invading battle fleet away, to the moment they arrive in ancient northern Europe (it is never clearly states where the village is) and the aggressive warrior ripping off the Doctor's sonic sunglasses and snapping them. “Oh no, not Vikings!” groans the Doctor, but I certainly had a smile on my face at their timely arrival.
If anything, it in an episode that feels rather similar to series eight's third adventure Robots of Sherwood; this week's episode certainly had a rip-roaring tale of swordsmen facing off against killer robots (or aliens in suits), witty banter and the Peter Capaldi delivering great comic timing. But it also has much more depth than that episode and that is in no small part to the underlying moral dilemmas that Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat's script brings out and a great performance by Maisie Williams.
There is an air of mystery around William's Viking girl Ashildir from the moment the Doctor first sees her, dragged in chains with Clara into the Viking village. From a suggestion that he might have seen her before to her own admission in a lovely little scene with the Doctor later on that she has always felt different. Everyone knows she is strange but in this village she is loved; it makes you wonder where she came from and what her future might hold.
You feel that there is much tragedy in her character throughout the entire episode; she views abandoning the village and her father like death itself and then steps up the hero only to die from heart failure when the alien device she wears kills her. It is a surprisingly meek performance from Williams at times, the one scene where she faces off against Odin and declares war on the Mire aside - but I suspect the Ashildir audiences will see in next week's highway man episode will be more lively. Expectations were exceedingly high for her appearance on the show and in truth she isn't quite on the same level as Game Of Thrones' Arya here but then I don't think the material here is as good as what she had on that show.
And audience expectations might be a problem here. Between Maisie Williams and series eight's most successful new writer Jamie Mathieson returning there is probably a danger that everyone will be expecting this to be the best episode of series nine yet. For me it was the weakest (though on contrast my son through it was the best and that may have been in no small part due to the premise of Vikings versus aliens) but still a very strong entry. The standards of series nine have been so high and The Girl Who Died does nothing to dispute that.
In truth the episode serves three purposes; to progress the relationship between the Doctor and Clara who had remained separated for much of the series, build on the mystery of Ashildir and the legend of the hybrid which might be series nine's main theme and to act as a sort of palate cleanser after the heavy drama and scares of the last four episodes. On all three it works.
One of the things the series has focused on is Clara's reckless nature post-Danny Pink's death, throwing herself into danger at every turn. The Doctor mentioned his duty of care again and suggested that she find another hobby that isn't him was more than just him. As for the moment he referred to the grief he would feel when he lost her makes me wonder if Jenna Coleman's exit from the show is not going to be a happy one.
I also worry for the wellbeing of his character as much as hers; in Under The Lake she was there with cue cards at hand to help him interact with others socially and this week she convinced him not to give up on a dying cause and help the surviving villagers fight the Mire. Clara is his compassion, his moral centre and Capaldi and Coleman play this brilliantly. If nothing else I am going to miss seeing them on screen together after this series ends.
Oh and we finally got to see why he took that face. To hold himself to a higher standard, it would seem. Though is it just me or did this mystery not really need an answer?
Talking of mysteries, the one at the end of the episode was an intriguing one; turning Ashildr into the very hybrid Davros referred to in The Witch's Familiar is sure to have major ramifications. By making her Ashildir an immortal there is suddenly great scope for her character to be a continuing presence on the show and I suspect next week's The Woman Who Lived won't be the last we see of her (disclaimer, I have not seen that episode at the timer of writing my review so there are spoilers to give). The passage of time behind Ashildir was a great ending that left you eager to watch the next episode - particularly the 'To Be Continued...' which I wasn't sure was coming this week - and those flames rising behind her in the last shot certainly looked prophetic.
But mostly the episode was fun...a lot of fun. Capaldi is a comic genius and the script really played to his strengths. His attempt to imitate Odin “I am very, very cross with you! I am very disappointed!” was hilarious, particularly his failed attempts to control the yoyo in his hand and the and the sudden appearance of Odin’s face in the clouds was perfectly timed.
David Schofield made a fantastic OTT Odin, reminding me in no small part of Bruce Purchase's Pirate Captain in Tom Baker's The Pirate Planet. The robots were a simple but very effective design and the idea of harvesting warriors to drink their testosterone was a cool idea. Kudos too to the psychotic Crystal Maze meets Star Wars trash compactor scene as Clara, Ashildir and Viking warriors were lured into a giant death trap. Oh and is it just me who would like to see the Mire's claim that they are some of the most fearsome warriors in the galaxy be put to the test by pitting them against Sontarans?
But it was in the village with the surviving farmers, fisherman (and web designers) that the real laughs were had. From the “They took half the village! Yeah and it was the good half!” upon learning all their warriors had been killed to another villager claiming he couldn't go to Valhalla because he didn't like heights, there were some great one liners in this very quotable script.
My favourite bit had to be the training montage with Lofty, Daphne, Noggin the Nog. Chuckles, ZZ Top and Heidi and Limpit. From Heidi closing his eyes at the sight of blood to the immediate cut away to flames, screaming and chickens running riot after the Doctor suggests they use real swords. The climax of the 'war, between the villagers and the Mire too is hilarious too, particularly the moment the Doctor replays Odin shrieking at the sight of a wooden dragon and the robots fleeing to Benny Hill music. It was all needed after the intensity of the last two episodes but it didn't feel any less worthy of a place in this stellar season for it.
The Girl Who Waited is an episode that can't be truly judged on its own until you have probably seen the rest of series nine. There are too many questions posed at the end to feel fully satisfied, even if it wraps up the Mire and Vikings storyline nicely. Another great episode that makes it any more baffling that there are rumours suggesting the show is in 'crisis'. Doctor Who is delivering some of its finest work, dare I say it, since the Hinchcliffe era. And that is not something to be taken lightly. If we get episodes like this, then may long the show continue...