Doctor Who – Season 9 Episode 5
“The Girl Who Died”
Doctor Who attempts to have some fun after the emotional intensity of the previous 4 episodes with a story that has the Doctor help a bunch of Vikings fend off aliens.
The opening of the episode really sets the tone for a high octane adventure with Clara drifting out in space in a space suit with the Doctor having no idea where she is. To make matters worse she has an alien life form inside her suit that has a particular taste for humans. None of this has anything to do with the rest of the episode other than reinforcing the fact that the Doctor has a vested interest in keeping Clara safe. It sure is a fun way to start the episode though.
When the Doctor and Clara find themselves captured by Vikings their arrival quickly becomes old news when the Norse God Odin (David Schofield) appears to show up to bring their best warriors to Valhalla. Of course he isn’t the real Odin -if there is such a thing- and reveals himself to be a member of an alien race known as the Mire who apparently tour the universe to extract testosterone from warriors.
It’s pretty weak as alien plans go even by Doctor Who standards but the episode isn’t really about the threat faced by the aliens so there isn’t much opportunity to look at how ridiculous they are. In general the act as a plot device that forces the Doctor to think his way out of a hopeless situation. He is stuck in a Viking village two days away from the TARDIS with his Sonic Sunglasses destroyed and a group of Vikings who aren’t equipped to fight anyone.
The Doctor being a pacifist himself isn’t the best man to tell a bunch of farmers and fishermen how to fight against an alien invasion but in the absence of a better plan he does his best to prepare them in the short time they have. Clara is on the sidelines always ready to remind the Doctor that he excels in defying the odds and encourages him to think laterally as usual.
A solution comes with the help of the young Ashildr (Maisie Williams) who is considered very strange in the context of her people. The Doctor is fine with strange and feels comfortable with the concept so hatches his plan based on her preference to use her imagination.
Maisie Williams is good in this role and plays Ashildr with the appropriate level of innocence as well as a sense of maturity that is enough to get the Doctor’s attention. I’m told that she’s a fan favourite on Game of Thrones and I can see why if her performances in that show are as strong as her performance here. She definitely has the necessary range to play what eventually becomes a complex character.
I found the plan as executed to be pretty ingenious with the Doctor using the Mire’s technology against them. Since they use their technology to perceive the world then it’s relatively easy to hack that technology and plant a terrifying image. Using a wooden dummy as a prop to overlay the deception so that they run from an inanimate object and then record the supposedly powerful and feared alien race cowering from something so ridiculous as an incentive for them to leave and never come back was really clever and reinforces the age old Doctor Who life lesson of intelligence being the most powerful weapon ever.
Most of the episode was relatively light but there were some interesting moments of depth for the Doctor in particular. At first he was considering letting the Mire wipe out this village as they would most likely do that then go home. By defeating them the Doctor risks sending the message that Earth is a formidable target and inviting more trouble. It’s a solid point because Earth gets invaded enough as it is without inviting more. I like this aspect of Capaldi’s Doctor as he appears to slowly be coming around to the idea of caring about people again. He doesn’t do so by instinct quite yet but he is definitely questioning his preconceptions and that signifies a powerful development for his character.
He is convinced to help when he hears the crying of a baby which brings back the concept of him speaking baby from back in Matt Smith’s era. In those instances it was completely ridiculous because it was played for laughs but here Capaldi’s performance as he translates what the crying child means is incredibly haunting and a perfect reminder of the fact that the lives of innocents is at stake. It also brings back the idea of the Doctor not interfering unless children are crying from Matt Smith’s episode “The Beast Below“. It seemed like a throwaway line back then but if you take the concept of a child to the extreme then to the Doctor anyone younger than 100 years old might be a child. The idea is that he protects the innocent and it just so happens that children personify that easier than adults do.
When Ashildr is killed as a result of the Doctor’s plan he is overcome with guilt and says that he is sick of losing. Clara is sympathetic but reminds him that overall they won which causes the Doctor to clarify that he means losing people. War is something he doesn’t care about losing as for him it’s all about saving the people. Being partly responsible for the death of an innocent is something that tears him up inside. It was a really powerful scene and Capaldi puts across the Doctor’s feelings of regret and sorrow beautifully. It’s easy to accept that the Doctor is constantly running from the pain associated with the choices he has made that has sacrificed the lives of countless people.
This prompts him to think about the face that he has and ties it back to “The Fires of Pompeii” which Capaldi guest starred in. Back in “Deep Breath” that the Doctor had been given his current face for an undisclosed reason which allows the show to acknowledge the fact that he has been in it before and make it part of the overall narrative rather than simply ignoring it. This episode returns to that idea when he concludes that he selected this face to remind him that he should break the rules if it means that he can save people.
Early in the episode Clara points out that the Doctor constantly refers to rules but is never explicit about what those are. He sums it up simply in this episode by saying that time travellers can cause ripples in time but not tidal waves. The example in this episode is that he can help a village of people fight aliens but can’t do anything that will alter the course of history for humanity. It’s a fairly clumsy definition but it works well enough for here.
In essence when the Doctor saved that family in Pompeii he messed with something that by his own rules shouldn’t be messed with. The consequences of that particular event weren’t ever really explored but he did so again in “The Waters of Mars” and the consequences were much better defined.
By remembering Pompeii the Doctor remembers that he is committed to saving people no matter what. The rules don’t matter when a life can be saved. I have to say that it was a really disappointing explanation to why he has the face of someone he has met before and I was hoping there would be more to it than that. Don’t get me wrong I’m not discounting the ramifications of the revelation because that’s all great but there are innumerable ways he could have come to that conclusion. Moffat is good at teasing potentially interesting things and then ruin them when he reveals the answer. This is a great example of that.
When he saves Ashildr’s life it turns out that he has removed her ability to age and die. The Doctor points out that he thinks that he has probably made a mistake as being immortal might mean that you don’t die but it also means that you see it happen to anyone else. He gives her another of the device he used to save her so that she could give it to someone she meets that she can’t bear to lose.
The implication is that immortality does something profound to a person and the sequence of time passing around Ashildr heavily suggests that this may have affected her in a way takes a very dark turn. The way her face changes from happiness to anger as ages pass around her is quite chilling to witness and I expect we will see what that means in the next episode.
There were some parts of the episode that irritated me. I found the whole Viking story to be a little frustrating as much of it was played for laughs which made it feel a bit like a poor man’s Monty Python. It could just be me but the sense of humour on this show is often very juvenile which can downplay the better moments. Thankfully the deeper moments were too good to be brought down by the sloppier storytelling but in general Doctor Who needs to tighten up the humour.
A really strong outing that digs deep into what motivates the Doctor to do the things he does and challenge his own decisions.
The Viking story felt a little by the numbers and the alien threat wasn’t all that compelling but the episode was more about challenging the Doctor to think his way out of a hopeless situation using nothing but his intelligence.
He is also forced to challenge the way he does things when a crying baby reminds him that he is a man who saves the lives of the innocent. He is further challenged when Ashildr is killed as a result of his plan and he is reminded of why he has the face that he does which ties back to an episode of the fourth season of this show.
It turns out that the face was selected as a reminder of a time when he broke the rules to save lives and encourages him to do it again to save Ashildr’s life. In doing so he grants her immortality which is stressed as not necessarily being a good thing.
Capaldi does a great job conveying the many shades of the Doctor’s sorrow and regret as he laments the loss of a single person versus winning the battle. To him the people are more important and he hates it when he fails to save them.
Maisie Williams does a great job as Ashildr. She projects the necessary innocence as well as the level of maturity that gets the Doctor’s attention. She becomes more complex as the episode progresses and I look forward to seeing what the implications of the Doctor making her immortal are.
The episode was really weak in the whole Viking story as it was played for laughs and the sense of humour isn’t something that this show excels at. Attempts at humour often come across as frustratingly juvenile and this is yet another example of that. It ends up feeling like a poor man’s Monty Python and becomes a little embarrassing to watch. Thankfully the deeper moments were more than enough to offset this in this instance.