Review: The Girl Who Died October 24, 2015 08:42 - Philip Bates
This was the week Doctor Who went bonkers. Again.
This is what our barmy show does with increasing regularity. The whole premise of the series is slightly unhinged. Sometimes, it works; other times it doesn't; and quite often, you're not quite sure what to make of it. That's the case here.
Much of this episode was great, and then it got weird. A couple of weeks ago, I said it would be wrong to judge Under the Lake by how well Before the Flood went, but a lot rests on The Woman Who Lived to put the last ten minutes of The Girl Who Died into context.
But that's the last few scenes, not the entire story. Because there was a lot to enjoy here.
After the success of his efforts in Series 8, Jamie Mathieson had heavy expectations to contend with: indeed, he won awards from Doctor Who Magazine for Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline. With The Girl Who Died, however, he gives us something entirely different.
Sure, it's his first historical, but the tone of the piece is largely in contrast with his previous stories. You can see why so many previews called this a 'romp' but stayed away from that ominous 'filler' label that carelessly disregards stories just because they're not a series opener, finale, or show great character development for the Doctor and his companions.
'Romp' implies something light, funny, and generally somewhat frivolous. We definitely get this. The humour here works better than last year's 'romp' Robot of Sherwood through no fault of that particular tale. Series 8 set out to prove Peter Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor to be darker. After the intense Deep Breath and Into the Dalek, Robot of Sherwood jarred a little, despite being deftly written with strong characters, solid direction, and great performances.
Fortunately, the production team seems to have realised this year that he may be less user-friendly, but he's still the Doctor. It means that we've had severe stories for the past month, but the Doctor has been undoubtedly the hero we all want him to be. He's more jovial, and that's perfect.
The Time Lord is funny – generally and certainly in The Girl Who Died – without losing his gravitas. That's the beauty of this character.
In fact, he's quite joyous, amid bouts of moodiness and contemplative brooding. His happiness at seeing Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) returned to the village is a stand-out moment. "I'm not a hugger," he announces while giving her a thumbs-up. And then he rushes up and hugs her. That's the enthusiasm the audience likes to see. He's embracing life, not questioning whether he's a good man or not or getting bogged down by his dislike of Danny Pink.
Series 9 is almost giving us a new Doctor and that's exactly the right direction to take this 52-year-old (nearly) show.
The Doctor isn't without the weight that he carries around with him, no matter the incarnation. The Doctor speaking baby was initially a nice bit of comedy in A Good Man Goes To War (2011), added to in the same year's Closing Time. In that episode, though, Matt Smith showed a great sadness and optimism when speaking to Stormageddon/Alfie, mulling over the years that separate the pair. In The Girl Who Died, Capaldi portrays the same aching depth of emotion when translating the crying baby of this Viking village.
These could quite easily be funny scenes, a bit of light relief, but it's played very differently. It's underlined by the Doctor asking if babies die with honour.
Of course, the Doctor then throws this in the opposite direction: a little distraction comes in the form of a party, just as the Mire arrive to attack the town. Naturally, this is just sleight of hand, and there's something very satisfying that the thing that defeats the deadliest mercenaries in the galaxy is a good story.
Well, it's what we're all here for, isn't it?
The strength of a story is a common theme in many serials under Steven Moffat's tenure as showrunner: in The Big Bang (2010), Amy brought the TARDIS back in time for her wedding because the Eleventh Doctor told her an old-new-borrowed-blue story; he also planned to defeat the Old God in The Rings of Akhaten (2013) with tales of his losses; and in Into the Dalek (2014), the Twelfth Doctor hoped to redeem the Dalek with a story of the universe's cyclical nature.
It makes Ashildr (Maisie Williams) worth saving. She's brave and strange because she imagines – ultimately, that's what scares the Mire into retreating. That and the Benny Hill theme tune.
Her casting caused a publicity storm, and while Williams gives a great performance, it would likely be an anticlimax if this were it for her. I'm sure The Woman Who Lived will give us plenty more to think about regarding her character and role in the Whoniverse.
The device that brings Ashildr back to life causes a few narrative problems. Notably, it's not actually mentioned before the Doctor uses it: it's almost as if we don't really need to know the specifics of how he can do this – we just have to accept that the Doctor can save anyone if 'The Rules' are ignored. The second Mire medical unit – how might that be utilised next week? – introduces the questions that we'll likely explore in The Woman Who Lived, essentially the meaning of immortality, and by contrast, mortality.
If the Mire had this automatic repair kit, why were they scared by the make-believe dragon? It might tie into the Doctor saying Ashildr will live forever "barring accidents", or maybe recalls the Doctor's own fear of dying (largely focused on in The End of Time) despite his ability to regenerate.
Further plot holes centre on the electric eels, which many have noted wouldn't generate that amount of electricity. And why were they even there? The Vikings may have explored and fished, but not in seas with electric eels in.
In other adventures, you can pass the former off by pointing to the sonic screwdriver, but the Doctor was without both that and the TARDIS.
Nonetheless, the siege on the village is immense fun, at turns touching, hilarious, and exciting.
Sadly, it's those final ten minutes that give the story a slightly uneven feel. A great deal of fuss was given to Peter Capaldi playing the Doctor after previously appearing in The Fires of Pompeii (2008), and Torchwood: Children of Earth (2009), and we were promised an explanation.
Of course, plenty of familiar faces crop up numerous times: companions (Karen Gillan and Freema Agyeman), guest stars (Philip Madoc, Martin Jarvis, Geoffrey Palmer - I could go on), and yes, even another Doctor (Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker was in 1983's Arc of Infinity). But we've just accepted it. This time, however, there was an in-story reason. Supposedly.
Except it sort of falls flat. Russell T Davies apparently told Moffat he had a reason for the same faces popping up now and again, and you can't help but feel this wasn't it. It feels like a cop-out. It might've worked last year, when the Doctor was trying to come to terms with who he is, but this year, he knows. He's the Doctor and that's all he's ever really needed to know.
What's more, that's all the audience needs to know too.
It might be expanded upon in the future, but here, it makes the tale disjointed. Yes, we need to judge these final scenes on how The Woman Who Lived plays out.
And this fan is looking forward to it...!