Doctor Who S09E05 “The Girl Who Died” review
Airing in the UK on BBC One, Saturdays
Writers: Jamie Mathieson, Steven Moffat
Director: Ed Bazalgette
Essential Plot Points:
- The Doctor and Clara are captured by Vikings and taken back to their village.
- Some armoured monsters called the Mire, who are under the orders of some bloke claiming to be Odin, invade the village.
- The Mire teleport all the village’s best warriors, plus Clare and a Viking girl called Ashildr, up to their ship.
- There, Odin – actually a Mire in holographic disguise – kills all the warriors and feasts on “warrior juice” aka testosterone (mixed with crème de menthe by the looks of it).
- Odin saves Clara and Ashildr because they were in possession of alien tech – the Doctor’s sonic shades (well half of them…)
- The Mire are happy to leave now they have what they want, but then Ashildr declares war on them. Oops!
- So now the Doctor has to train the remaining villagers – farmers not warriors – to repel the Mire.
- The villagers succeed thanks to one of the Doctor’s patented ruses but Ashildr dies.
- So the Doctor uses Mire technology to resurrect her, making her immortal in the process.
- In hindsight, the Doctor wonders if this was a good idea.
Whatever other pros and cons this experimental “series of two parters” might have, you can’t deny it’s giving us some cracking cliffhangers. Not that the ending of “The Girl Who Died” is a traditional cliffhanger. Moffat said that this series would also shake up the concept of the two-parter, and this is the first major example of what he meant by that. The story in “The Girl Who Died” is to a large degree self-contained, with a beginning, middle and end (even in that order, which isn’t always a given in a script with Moffat’s name on it). But there are dangling threads, ready to be woven into something new next week…
It would be churlish to say the success of the episode is all down to the ending. It isn’t. There’s loads to enjoy here. But it’s the ending that will linger longest in your memory. Both in concept and execution it is extraordinary; something new and different for the show, which is no mean feat after nearly 52 years. And while guest star Maisie Williams hasn’t had a chance to make much of an impact yet (wait till next week, when she’s magnificent) she is stunningly good in that final FX shot, a kaleidoscope of emotion surging across her face as she goes through wonder to acceptance to something more ominous. Meanwhile the world won’t stop spinning around her and eternity beckons with a hollow promise. Simply beautiful.
Leading up to this we’ve had an episode that’s been all kinds of fun. At first it looked like it might be this series’ “Robot Of Sherwood” – all frothy fun and zero drama – but throughout there were delightful little tonal changes; shifts into darker, more introspective moments that gave it more depth. While most of the Vikings are played for laughs the scenes between Ashildr and her father had a genuine warmth while the moments when the Doctor translated the baby’s fear had a real emotional resonance. The Doctor explained his “duty of care” to Clara more convincingly and with more clarity than ever before. Then, of course, there was the hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment when the Doctor recalled his doppelgänger, Caecilius, from “The Fires of Pompeii” (though you have to wonder how many casual viewers were left baffled by that fan-pleasing bit of continuity… but who cares, to be honest – it was great! And anyway, they probably liked seeing Tennant again). Capaldi is simply magnificent at various key points.
On the other hand, when it is being silly, it’s being wonderfully silly. There are some great one liners throughout (“The universe is full of testosterone. Trust me, it’s unbearable!” “Fly like a bird, run like a nose…”) and the naming ceremony, training sequences and “Let’s get to work” montage are all wonderfully irreverent and daft. And then there was the Benny Hill moment.
The balance isn’t quite perfect. While the armoured Mire are great monsters, their boss, faux-Odin, is disappointingly bland and tiresomely shouty. The phrase “deadliest race in the galaxy” is enough to make you yawn involuntarily. The final battle is a bit of a mess (and you have to suspend disbelief a bit as regards the eels).
Mostly, though, it’s a visual feast. The final shot may be the crowdpleaser but an earlier shot – from an extreme low angle looking up past the Doctor to angry orange clouds as he explains that that’s not thunder it’s, “the weapon forges of the Mire, making sure we hear them” – is a subtle masterpiece in understated power. Director Ed Bazalgette bathes some scenes in colour, and leaves others cold and harsh, creating a deep, rich, classy vibe for the episode. He also entices great performances from the support cast; whereas other directors would have all the vikings acting it up like they’re in Monty Python And The Very Naughty Vikings, here some of them are played admirably straight.
In many ways this episode is a mere curtain raiser; a set-up for the Ashildr we’ll meet next week. However, it more than justifies it existence as a great piece of New Who in and of itself.
- The transition shot from Clara in space to Clara in the TARDIS works beautifully, throwing you off kilter for a moment.
- You have to love the way the Viking simply picks the sonic sunglasses off the Doctor’s face and breaks them.
- Great line: “People talk about premonition as if it’s something strange. It’s not. It’s just remembering in the wrong direction.”
- The Doctor’s tomfoolery with his yoyo: “It’s supposed to do that.”
- The Mire in their armour are great; really chunky and impressive. What they’re like unhelmeted is difficult to tell as all the shots are so quick. They look okay, though, from what we do see.
- Great echange: “What are you going to do? Raise crops at them?” “If necessary.” “I think he was being sarcastic.”
- “Do babies die with honour?” The Doctor’s ability to “talk baby” has always come across a bit silly in the past, but here it adds some real pathos, drama and darkness. Capaldi’s sensitive delivery in these scenes helps immensely. The little moment when Clara refers to the baby as “it”, and the Doctor corrects her, saying, “She”, is a wonderful little character beat, while Clara pointing out, “You just decided to stay… the baby stopped crying,” is lovely.
- The Doctor’s Viking naming ceremony is hilarious. Especially Heidi.
- SMUT ALERT (funny though): “You’re the blacksmith? You’ve got a baby too? He’s been at it hammer and tongs.”
- Have we mentioned that final shot?
- “You’re always talking about what you can and can’t do but you never tell me the rules.” Well, yeah, a fair enough comment but it’s always dangerous when shows bring attention to their own inherent flaws – it makes you wonder why it’s not been an issue before. And, ultimately, the Doctor saving Ashildr seems much less of a crime against time than some of the temporal meddling he’s indulged in previously.
- Odin looks a bit naff. Okay he’s only supposed to be an alien doing an impression of what the local populace think Odin might look like, but something more Game Of Thrones and less Horrible Histories would have been prefereable.
- The forced jollity of the “party” is a little too forced.
- Sometimes we really wish the spaceships in Doctor Who didn’t always whizz off into the distance in such a cartoony way. The ships look great but they often fly like they have no weight.
And The Random:
- The second Doctor consulted a 500 Year Diary in his debut story “The Power Of The Daleks” and later in “The Tomb Of The Cybermen”. It reappeared in the Fourth Doctor story “The Sontaran Experiment”. The Seventh Doctor was seen keeping a 900 Year Diary in the US TV movie Doctor Who (1996).
- Yes the Doctor does say “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow” but you don’t really want us to go into a history of that phrase, do you?
- Clara indicates that she has used a sword in battle but we don’t think we’ve seen this on screen… not even in “Robot Of Sherwood.” But we’re quite happy to stand corrected.
- Erm, electric eels aren’t native to Europe. They’re from South America. Though there is some evidence that Vikings made it to South America (Erik the Red definitely made it North America before Columbus) so maybe they brought back souvenirs.
- Ongoing themes: “It’s okay to make ripples but not tidal waves.” “You are a tidal wave.” There is a lot of water imagery – both literally and in the dialogue (“Fire in the water”, “The sky is crying”) throughout the episode. After two weeks “Under The Lake” and “Before The Flood” you have to wonder if this is just a coincidence or if the whole season is going to keep returning to this “tidal wave” idea.
- More ongoing themes: the Doctor says that he turned Ashildr into a hybrid, then looks surprised at himself for suggesting the idea. Is he remembering what Davros said in “The Witch’s Familiar”? “There was a prophecy, Doctor, on your own world… It spoke of a hybrid creature. Two great warrior races forced together to create a warrior greater than either. Is that what you ran from, Doctor? Your part in the coming of the hybrid?”
- Even more ongoing themes: Here we have a storyteller bringing about a resolution to the “war” and the Doctor threatening the Mire with the idea of letting the universe know the “story” of how they ran from a puppet. In “Before The Flood” Doctor tells the Fisher King, “This is where your story ends!” And in “The Witches Familiar” Missy says to Clara, “I’m going to tell you a story of the Doctor.”
- After two days, Clara must whiff a bit inside that space suit. How is she taking a pee?
- This week’s director Ed Bazalgette, is an interesting guy. He was lead guitarist in ’80s rock group the Vapors famous for the innuendo-laden hit “Turning Japanese”. He’s also the great-great-grandson of Joseph Bazalgette, the man who designed London’s Victorian sewer system and saved the city from almost literally drowning in its own excrement. When Ed Bazalgette changed career to become a filmmaker he directed an episode of the brilliant drama/documentary series The Seven Wonders Of The Industrial World (2003) called “The Sewer King” which was all about his famous forebear. He is also third cousin to Peter Bazalgette, the influential TV producer responsible for Big Brother and Deal Or No Deal.
- The Viking village was filmed at Cosmeston Medieval Village in Wales.
- The Doctor has previously used his ability to speak baby in “Closing Time” (2011) and “A Good Man Goes To War” (2011).
- The clips are from “Fires of Pompeii” (2008) and “Deep Breath” (2014).
- Anybody else slightly shocked to realise how much Capaldi’s hair has grown?
- When the Doctor shouts, “To hell with you!” who is the Doctor shouting at? Just some random deity he doesn’t even believe in? Or is this building up to something?