Netflix UK TV review: Doctor Who Season 9, Episode 5 (The Girl Who Died)
Mark Harrison | On 18, Oct 2015
This is a spoiler-free review. Already seen it? Read on at the end for spoilers.
Last week’s slightly difficult episode aside, let us make no apologies for enjoying the hell out of Peter Capaldi’s second season as Doctor Who so far. It’s been genuinely fantastic for the most part and in a year of two parters, the opening halves of each story have hardly been less than superb.
The Girl Who Died both continues that run and presents us with something we haven’t seen this series yet: a big old romp, but one that calls back to previous episodes, as well as setting up grave consequences for those to come. All of that, plus Vikings, who haven’t appeared in Who since 1965’s The Time Meddler, and a great guest turn by Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams.
The episode starts with a Bond/Indiana Jones-style cold open at the end of another adventure that has been going on between episodes. After distracting four and a bit battle fleets from powerless Velosians, Clara complains that the Doctor never tells her the rules when it comes to interfering in history and saving worlds.
Their conversation about temporal responsibility is rudely interrupted when a group of Vikings captures them and separates them from both the TARDIS and the sonic sunglasses. No sooner have the Doctor and Clara arrived in their village when the image of Odin himself (David Schofield) appears in the clouds (a la God in Monty Python And The Holy Grail) with promises of glory in Valhalla.
It soon emerges that the village has been over-awed by superior alien technology (“What’s the one thing gods never do? Show up!”) and faces terrible danger from the Mire, one of the fiercest warrior races in the universe, who aim to extract the toughest fighters from any planet they encounter and have set their sights upon the Vikings. With that question of interference hanging over his head, the Doctor has to choose between defending the villagers or letting history take its course.
It’s not entirely fair to speculate over which writer was responsible for which parts of a co-written episode, but as in the previous series, we can ascertain that Steven Moffat’s co-credit here means that he wrote the parts that are more linked to the series before and still to come (we’ll touch upon that in our more spoilery additional notes below), but the main credited writer here is Jamie Mathieson, of last year’s Mummy On The Orient Express and Flatline, and he’s got another belter to his name here.
Mathieson’s episodes were among the more quotable of Season 8 and this episode is very much of a set with them, thanks to some more terrific quips and put-downs from the Doctor and some very witty and unexpected plot twists. There are also a few more verbal callbacks of the “Are you my mummy?” variety seen in MOTOE – the Doctor references famous lines from his second, third and seventh incarnations over the course of the 45 minutes.
While it’s a funny episode, it doesn’t let up on some of the darker impulses of this particular incarnation’s tenure, with a very dark spin on a gag from a 2011 episode and more than one scene that finds new ground in the well-worn territory of the Doctor’s guilt and tremendous responsibility as a Time Lord.
A big part of why the show has been firing on all cylinders this year has been down to matching its leading man and Capaldi is extraordinary as ever. Happily, this is also the first episode of the series in which Jenna Coleman really gets something to do as Clara. Early on, she becomes attached to Williams’ Ashildr, a Viking girl who feels like something an albatross to the village, but nevertheless proves fearless in a fix. For an early part of the episode, Clara is more pro-active than she has been all season and she very much keeps the Doctor in check throughout the story.
We won’t get into Ashildr too much, but Williams is one of the brightest actors of her age and she turns in a blinding performance. Also on the guest star front, Schofield hams it up rather magnificently as Odin and like some of the best adversaries in Who, he’s rather too confident and confrontational for his own good. And then Mathieson’s script subverts your expectations with something much funnier.
Odin’s also flanked by the Mire, which are another triumph of production design. The big blocky robots have such a timeless and imposing look that they feel as if they could have featured in any story throughout Doctor Who’s long history, but they’re realised marvellously and director Ed Bazalgette (BBC’s Poldark) really brings out their alienness in the rural setting every time they appear.
When the Vikings are wowed by the Mire’s godly tidings, the Doctor quotes Arthur C. Clarke’s third law. The Girl Who Died is by turns funny, poignant and utterly bonkers like all of the best of Doctor Who and it ends on a provocative note that should have intriguing consequences in next week’s conclusion. When Doctor Who is this good, it’s just what Clarke’s third law suggests: indistinguishable from magic.
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Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– So, the big headline of this episode’s conclusion was the in-universe reason why the Twelfth Doctor picked the face of Peter Capaldi. The Tenth Doctor saved Capaldi’s character, Caecillius, in The Fires of Pompeii and when he remembers where he’s seen that face before, he reads it as a reminder to save people, even when stuck between a rock and a “fixed point” in time. Some fans have felt that’s a let-down, after Steven Moffat promised there would be an explanation, but thus far, we’ve only heard the possible rationale – we’ve yet to see the consequences in store, especially with what this understanding leads him to do next…
– We could have predicted that Ashildr was the titular Girl – she dies of heart failure after playing a pivotal part in the Doctor’s plan to fight off the Mire – but when the Doctor intervenes and brings her back to life, he makes her immortal, the same unintended side-effect of Captain Jack Harkness’ resurrection. If this episode doesn’t really feel like the start of a two-parter, it may be because next week’s episode is linked by Williams’ character, rather than an unfinished story. We like the standalone aspect of this week’s, though, and we’re looking forward to next week’s sequel.
– The Prince Of Thieves bait-and-switch was one of the really delightful parts of this episode, with the Doctor training up the motley crew of useless Vikings in swordplay and war before realising that they can get through without brute force and violence, and use intelligence and imagination instead. Isn’t that just the whole mission statement of Doctor Who in one fell swoop, with a Benny Hill joke thrown in for good measure?
– According to reports, Brian Blessed had to drop out of playing the role of Odin in this episode. With all respect to Schofield’s order of large ham, it might give you pause to wonder what might have been. ASHILDR’S ALIVE!
– The Doctor first understood baby language in A Good Man Goes To War, but the throwaway gag is used to much more moving effect here – given how it’s his joke, we’d bank on that being one of Moffat’s additions to Mathieson’s script. Again, hats off to Capaldi for selling the scene in which he translates the infant’s thoughts and fears so well.
– For those who didn’t pick out the aforementioned quotes, Patrick Troughton was the first to say that Time Lords can live forever, “barring accidents”; “reverse the polarity” is an oft-repeated bit of technobabble originated by Jon Pertwee; and “Time will tell, it always does” is a Sylvester McCoy line. Plus, we saw flashbacks to David Tennant and Catherine Tate in The Fires of Pompeii.
– Ashildr will return in The Woman Who Lived: next week’s episode will catch up with her in the year 1651. However, the closing moments of this episode portended that she’s also a hybrid of two mighty warrior races, as referenced in the Time Lord prophecy in The Witch’s Familiar. For such an apparently self-contained episode, the callbacks were all over the shop, but colour us intrigued as to how this will inform the Doctor’s next meeting with the Viking girl.
Photo: Simon Ridgway / BBC