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Doctor Who: The Girl Who Died (Review)

“He’s not really Odin, is he?”

“He hasn’t even got a yoyo.”

The Girl Who Died is very much in keeping with Jamie Mathieson’s previous scripts for Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline. It is a script that expresses an affection and fondness for Doctor Who, but with just a hint of playful innovation. The Girl Who Died is recognisably part of the show, but in a way that feels like more than simple imitation or emulation. Mathieson does not just understand the mechanics of the show, he understands how and why they work in relation to one another.

After all, the set-up of The Girl Who Died is almost aggressively traditional. The Doctor wanders into a dangerous situation where he finds himself tasked with protecting a small community from a band of aggressive outsiders. Using his wits and no small amount of technobabble, the Doctor manages to stop the hyper-advanced aggressors in their tracks. He does this in a way that relies on trickery and subterfuge more than blunt force. The day is saved when the Doctor offers a quick-witted and chatty speech that sends his opponents reeling.

Not a patch on Odin.

Not a patch on Odin.

In terms of plot, there is not a lot happening here. The Mire are a fairly generic band of alien baddies, a stock science-fiction warrior race in the style of the Sontarans or the Klingons. (Indeed, Ronald D. Moore’s suggestion that the Klingons are “space Vikings” pays off here as the Mire find themselves squaring off against literal Vikings.) With the exception of Ashildr, most of the guest cast are reasonably bland; it seems highly unlikely that most of the audience will remember any of their actual names, instead remembering the Doctor’s “affectionate” nicknames.

However, The Girl Who Died takes the opportunity to flesh out its character dynamics, affording time and energy to long conversational (and philosophical) scenes in which the Doctor and Clara meditate upon responsibility and salvation. The Girl Who Died is very much an episode that feels like set-up, building towards that cliffhanger and into The Woman Who Lived, but its use of build-up is very canny and astute. Mathieson takes advantage of the two-part format adopted by the ninth season, expertly exploiting the space afforded by a two-parter.

Viking Direct, eh?

Viking Direct, eh?

It seems like most of The Girl Who Died is building towards those final ten minutes. Although the Mire promise that their humiliation will not be forgotten, they are not the bridge across the two-parter. While they may (or may not) appear again, they are very clearly a plot device in the context of The Girl Who Died. They are a fairly one-note threat built to support a framework that consciously climaxes with the death of Ashildr and the Doctor’s decision to resurrect her. That is the emotional crux of the episode, and a decision that sets up The Woman Who Lived.

The most striking aspect of the ninth season is the structure that Moffat has adopted. For the first eight seasons of the revival, the single episode has been the default mode of story. While there have been season-arcs and multi-part episodes, Doctor Who has generally been quite keen to stick to the forty-five minute blocks of reasonably self-contained story. The decision to break away from that is certainly adventurous and ambitious, particularly considering the revival’s somewhat inconsistent track record when it comes to multi-part stories.

Opening a door...

Opening a door…

It might be too much to describe the approach as a success at this point in the season. The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar suffered from the difficulty distributing the story across the obligatory “to be continued…” break. Under the Lake and Before the Flood played a game of two halves, but with the clever twistiness of the second half undermining (rather than complimenting) the traditional “base under siege” aesthetic of the first half. Still, the results are intriguing and playful, a sign that Doctor Who has not allowed itself to grow complacent.

The point of The Girl Who Died is in those final ten minutes, in the Doctor’s refusal to let Ashildr die. This, naturally, sets up the events of The Woman Who Lived. Much like Under the Lake and Before the Flood, the production team use the break between episodes as an opportunity to change settings while maintaining themes and characters. The weight of The Girl Who Died comes in the Doctor’s decision to resurrect and Ashildr and his struggle with the consequences of that decision.

Candid camera...

Candid camera…

There is a tendency to treat the two-part structure as teleological, to assume that the first part of a two-parter is nothing but build-up leading to those ominous three words. The assumption is that all of the worthwhile material is in the second half, and that the first episode is largely an exercise in stalling. Steven Moffat himself affectionately mocked this structure in Dark Water, but it is a valid criticism to level at multi-part television episodes. The assumption is that the climax begins at the break between the episodes and continues to the end of the second.

It is perfectly valid to point out that a lot of The Girl Who Died is light and fluffy. It is a very familiar Doctor Who template, with very little to define it as unique or definitive. Most of the plot beats in the first half-hour of the episode are entirely predictable: of course the Viking village finds itself under attack by aliens; of course the Doctor is initially eager to get on his way; of course Clara eventually talks the Doctor into helping; of course the Doctor concocts a ridiculous and overly elaborate plan; of course the Doctor defeats the dim-witted Mire by talking.

Spaced out...

Spaced out…

In many ways, the structure of The Girl Who Died is as traditional as the structure of Under the Lake. However, while Under the Lake played as an affectionate tribute to the show’s classic “base under siege” stories, The Girl Who Died uses its very basic story outline as an opportunity to explore the larger themes of the show. The plot is light and insubstantial, but that is because the plot is less important than the other aspects of the script. The show has done countless alien invasions before, so it can take the opportunity to bask in character dynamics and studies.

The Girl Who Died connects with a number of themes that have run through the first four episodes of the season. The most obvious reference is the Doctor’s suggestion that Ashildr is in fact a “hybrid”, harking back to Davros’ evil plot in The Witch’s Familiar. It is a rather overt continuity reference designed to cause the ears of any continuity-obsessed fan to perk up. It is very much an “arc word” in the style of those Russell T. Davies would liberally sprinkle during his own seasons running the show, a vague piece of dialogue suggesting a bigger picture.

The way of the warrior...

The way of the warrior…

However, the connections between The Girl Who Died and the rest of the season run deeper than that. The best moments of The Witch’s Familiar had nothing to do with Davros ranting about vague prophecies of doomsday and more to do with the character-driven dialogue between the two characters. Davros suggested that there had to be a reason why the Doctor ran away from Gallifrey, something deeper and more fundamental than any excuse he has offered for his fugitive state.

On the surface, this would appear to hint at some larger plot thread to be unravelled, but it also seems like a transparent set-up for Steven Moffat to catch unwary fans. One of the more fascinating (or perhaps frustrating) aspects of the Moffat era has been the way that the show is consciously structured to wrong-foot those more detail- and continuity-orientated fans, people who adopt an absolutist or “key word” approach to the continuity of a show about a man who travels through time in a big blue box.

Turns out that the Mire are big Monty Python fans...

Turns out that the Mire are big Monty Python fans…

That was the point of “the Impossible Girl” arc, wherein the show set up Clara as a plot function before cleverly revealing that she is actually a character. (While the execution might have been imperfect, it remains a shrewd twist.) Similarly, it turned out that the title of The Name of the Doctor has nothing to do with revealing the birth name of the Doctor or anything so crass. Moffat is always eager to catch the kind of fans who worry about such details off-guard and to lure them into a trap. To Moffat, stories are about more than collecting details.

It is telling that the publicity and promotion for The Girl Who Died made such a big deal of Ashidlr, suggesting some connection to the Doctor’s own history and continuity. “So why is the Doctor preoccupied with a single Viking girl?” the official summary asked. From the moment Maisie Williams was cast, fans immediately began speculating that she might be an important classic character like Susan Foreman or the Rani. It is a familiar guessing game in Moffat-era Doctor Who, perhaps prompted by the Davies’ era fun with details like “Mister Saxon.”

Chain of command.

Chain of command.

To be fair, the production team have great fun teasing these possibilities, fueling speculations among a fandom already incline toward apophenia. After all, the ninth season introduced a character named “Prentis” played by recognisable actor Paul Kaye only three episodes after an episode titled The Magician’s Apprentice. Even within the context of The Girl Who Died, Ashidlr suggests that she never quite fit in among the Vikings; it is a small detail that likely had detail-orientated fans flashing back to Professor Yana’s own recollections in Utopia.

Regardless, it seems highly unlikely that Moffat will reveal a big reason for the Doctor’s decision to flee Gallifrey, much like it seems unlikely he would ever actually reveal the true name of the Doctor. Davros’ insistence that there must be a logical reason is just a reflection on him as a character rather than a piece of plot-driven foreshadowing. At the same time, Davros’ emphasis on the question of why the Doctor would run so fast for so long does set up some interesting thematic questions about Doctor Who, questions to which The Girl Who Died returns.

“Well, at least they’ll have a Viking funeral…”

Tying back into Davros’ question about why the Doctor runs so fast and so far, it is telling that the Doctor’s first response to the threat posed by the Mire is disarmingly simple. “Leave,” he advises them. “Hop it. Take off.” He gets more insistent as the scene goes on. “Just pick a direction; fly like a bird, run like a nose,” he urges. This is very much the Doctor talking from personal experience. The Doctor’s first response in any given situation is to run. He has spent his whole life running. (Although the Tenth Doctor suggest he might see it as “jumping” in The Satan Pit.)

The Girl Who Died touches on ideas of strength and masculinity. It is telling that the two female characters are the only two who survive the visit to the Mire ship, and that the aliens consume a cocktail of “adrenaline… testosterone.” The use of Vikings and the casting of the Mire as a sci-fi warrior race provides a nice vehicle to a story that explores the idea of strength and courage. The Mire and the Vikings represent a very stereotypically masculine vision of strength and courage. “The universe is full of testosterone,” Clara notes. “Trust me. It’s unbearable.”

The march of war...

The march of war…

The Doctor is presented as a threat to these traditionally masculine values. In keeping with the themes of the Moffat era as a whole, the Doctor largely rejects the notion of “warrior” as antithetical to his identity. This was the point of The Day of the Doctor, where the show suggested that the character could not reasonably be responsible for a genocide that killed millions of children. That theme comes back into play in The Girl Who Died, when it is a small child who finally convinces the Doctor to stay. (And who ultimately prompts him to defeat the Mire.)

The Doctor does not win with armies, as A Good Man Goes to War made very clear. The Doctor does not win with brute force. Aboard the Mire ship, Clara is able to gain the upper hand by manipulating the Mire. It is only when Ashidlr forces the issue that the Mire realise what Clara is attempting to do. “You almost had me talking,” the leader of the Mire confesses. “Talk is for cowards.” Of course, the Doctor is very good at talking. The Doctor is very good at talking his way out of a crisis, as the show repeatedly affirms. (“Coward, any day.”)

A-Maisie-ing...

A-Maisie-ing…

The Girl Who Died suggests that it is a rejection of traditionally masculine values that ultimately saves the day; that the hope of the community lies in creation rather than destruction. Ashidlr’s attempt at masculine posturing leads to a situation that eventually gets her killed; it is the Doctor’s rejection of the sword that ultimately saves the community. It is the baby who points out the “fire in the water” to the Doctor, providing the basis of his resistance to the Mire.

More than that, it is through the act of creating (rather than destroying) that the Doctor outwit his enemy. Working quickly and cleverly, the Doctor constructs “a story to save a town.” The Mire are caught off-guard once they are invited to see the world “through the eyes of a storyteller.” It is Ashidlr’s imagination that turns a crude prop into a fearsome sea serpent, which eventually allows the Doctor to gain the upper hand. The Doctor does not win by asserting his own masculinity, but by undercutting that of the Mire.

Things look pretty Stark...

Things look pretty Stark…

In some ways, the casting of Maisie Williams as Ashidlr plays into this. Williams is a fantastic young actor who undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of her, but at the moment she is best know for her work on Game of Thrones. The Girl Who Died plays up these connections, casting Ashidlr as a young girl who does not necessarily confirm to typical gender roles in a very aggressive and pseudo-historical society. Williams is not simply channelling her performance as Arya Stark here, but the parallels suggest themselves. After all, she is the ultimate survivor.

The episode acknowledges its headlining guest star in a number of ways. Murray Gold even seems to borrow some inspiration from Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi in scoring the scene of Ashidlr miming her attack on “fake Odin”, while faux!din puts his own spin on Game of Thrones‘ iconic motto. (“You fight or you die,” he suggests.) However, The Girl Who Died rejects the brutality and violence associated with the world of Game of Thrones. It suggests that the best way to escape a grim story is to simply construct a new one.

Helmet by moonlight, proud Doctor...

Helmet by moonlight, proud Doctor…

The set-up is an affectionate homage to classic Doctor Who. Ashidlr’s prop does not look any more convincing than the myrka did in Warriors of the Deep. (“That is rubbish,” Clara notes. “I know,” the Doctor gleefully replis.) As with many classic Doctor Who monsters, it takes a lot of imagination – and a very good leading man – to transform a silly prop into something genuinely terrifying and unsettling. Given that Steven Moffat has talked about his own struggles with the special effects in classic Doctor Who, it seems like it might be a subject quite close to his heart.

As light as The Girl Who Died might be, Jamie Mathiesen and Steven Moffat have a lot of fun playing with traditional Doctor Who tropes. The Doctor urges the villagers to pretend that they know the enemy’s plan, hoping that this may goad the enemy into just telling them anyway. As things reach a climax during the Mire attack, Clara asks what the Doctor is doing. “Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow,” he answers, which has always been a preference when it comes to Doctor Who techno-babble. He assures her, “Bet that means something. It sounds great.”

“Sontarans! Judoon! Ha!”

It is also probably worth noting that The Girl Who Died makes a point to position the Doctor away from stereotypical masculinity. Over the past few seasons, the Moffat era has played with the idea of the Doctor’s gender and floated the idea of a female Doctor. Ever since The Doctor’s Wife, the show has grown increasingly comfortable with the prospect that the Doctor could be female in a later incarnation. The Girl Who Died offers a subtle continuation of this debate by aligning him in contrast with characteristics explicitly linked to “testosterone.”

There is an endearing looseness to The Girl Who Died, with Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat taking a great deal of pleasure in celebrating what makes Doctor Who unique as compared other more traditional science-fiction narratives. When the Doctor is searching for Clara at the beginning of the teaser, he does not use any complicated coordinates or star-mapping. Instead, he treats the universe as his local neighbourhood. He asks her to look for landmarks. “Can you see a nebula in a sort of a wing shape?” he asks.

Living by the sword...

Living by the sword…

When Clara and the Doctor solve the problem in the teaser, Mathiesen and Moffat don’t bother glossing over the logical issues with their resolution. After the Doctor boasts of luring an enemy armada into deep space and wasting their weapons, Clara wonders, “What’s to stop them from rearming and trying again?” The Doctor replies, “Nothing.” It is one of the stock plot holes of the standard alien invasion narrative, where man-kind somehow manages to beat back a horde of invading hyper-advanced aliens; it always seems like the aliens could try again later.

Then again, worrying about the internal logic of alien invasion scenarios always seems a little trite; after all, there are no real world examples that could viably serve as a source of reference. After the Doctor offers a little speech about trying not to create too many “ripples”, Clara complains about his vagueness on the subject. “You never tell me the rules.” This could be seen as a general comment on how time travel works within the context of Doctor Who, which tends to amount to “however the writer wants/needs it to this week.”

Getting the all Clara...

Getting the all Clara…

As with any drama, the internal logic of Doctor Who is dictated by the needs of the story as much as any external factor. It just so happens that Doctor Who is self-aware enough to directly acknowledge this. The reason that the Doctor cannot tell Clara the rules is because there are no rules; the rules change from week to week, from episode to episode. The show is just more candid about it than something like Star Trek, which typically attempts to construct some internal logic around a particular plot contrivance rather than just accepting it as necessary.

Of course, this idea of “rules” provides a nice connection to The Fires of Pompeii. (Much like the talk of “fire in the water” provides a nice bridge between The Fires of Pompeii and The Waters of Mars, two episodes that mirror one another in how they address these “rules.”) In his conversations with Clara, the Doctor seems to be discussing what the Davies era would describe as “fixed points in time”, the idea that there are restrictions upon what the Doctor can or cannot do at a given moment in history.

The broad side of a sword...

The broad side of a sword…

The dilemma has a tendency to feel a little forced, if only because it is imposed primarily by the writer of the given episode. Although the Doctor does not go so far as to use those exact words, he talks around them – expressing his desire to avoid changing the course of history too much. The Girl Who Died uses this discussion as an opportunity to hark back to The Fires of Pompeii and explain why the Twelfth Doctor happens to have the same face as Caecilius, something to which Moffat alluded in Deep Breath and which he has been promising to explain ever since.

Of course, the answer is quite obvious. The Twelfth Doctor looks like Caecilius because the two characters are played by the same actor. It is the same reason that the Second Doctor looks like Salamander or why the Sixth Doctor looks like Commander Maxil. It is also why Martha looks like Adeola or why Amy looks like the Soothsayer. In television production, it is quite likely that actors will play multiple roles in long-running shows. In fact, it is entirely possible that those smaller roles will go on to influence their later casting in larger roles.

“So… just a stab in the dark here… you’re not happy to see me?”

It is entirely possible for the show to disappear down a rabbit-hole of self-referentiality here, with the show contorting awkwardly to explain every possibility. After all, Moffat has done a great job so far of avoiding dealing with bigger questions like why the Doctor ran away from Gallifrey or what his birth name might be. There is no real reason for the show to have to account for casting Peter Capaldi in two different roles. Capaldi is a fantastic actor, that is reason enough.

However, the explanation suggested in The Girl Who Died seems convincing enough on its own terms. Caecilius represents the one person that the Doctor was able to save in an impossible situation, and it seems like the Doctor might need to be reminded of that fact when he looks in a mirror. (It is a nice touch mirroring (ha!) the water imagery from Deep Breath and tying it to both The Fires of Pompeii and The Waters of Mars.) Given the Doctor’s whole “forget about the thousand, focus on the one” speech from The Magician’s Apprentice, it’s not a bad idea.

Village of the Damned...

Village of the Damned…

(This does lend an air of irony to all this as well. Peter Capaldi played Caecilius in The Fires of Pompeii, but he also played John Frobisher in Torchwood: Children of Earth. Although Frobisher never met the Doctor, he is part of the show’s continuity. If Caecilius was the one who was chosen to be saved in The Fires of Pompeii, then John Frobisher was the one who was chosen to be damned in Children of Earth. As such, the Doctor literally wears two opposing faces. He is only aware of the subtext behind one, but there is a competing subtext at work as well.)

There is the slightest sense that The Girl Who Died is over-explaining something that might have been best left implicit. “I know where I got this face, and I know what’s for,” the Doctor boasts, explaining that this particular face is a constant reminder the he is the Doctor and that he saves people. It is certainly debatable whether the Doctor needs to choose a particular face in order to remind him of that fact. Saving people has been an essential part of the Doctor’s identity since the middle section of the William Hartnell era.

“I shall call you faux!din…”

Nevertheless, Mathieson and Moffat are careful to tie the development back to Deep Breath as much as to The Fires of Pompeii. In Deep Breath, Madame Vastra put a lot of emphasis on the fact that the Twelfth Doctor had chosen a more “honest” face than some of his predecessors – that he was comfortable enough to show some aspect of his true self in this incarnation. As much as the Twelfth Doctor might resemble Caecilius, Deep Breath suggested that the Twelfth Doctor also resembles himself. (Death in Heaven alludes to this with the Doctor’s comments about hugging.)

With that in mind, the Doctor’s reference to the leader of the Mire as “the man with the fake face” is quite telling. The Twelfth Doctor is defined in opposition to the leader of the Mire. The face that he now wears is perhaps closer to his true face than that of the Ninth, Tenth or Eleventh Doctors. Part of that might be down to the fact that the Twelfth Doctor is willing show his age, but it is also reflected in the fact that he wears the face of the one person he was able to save in one of his darkest hours.

Hordes of trouble...

Hordes of trouble…

That said, this piece of continuity-wrangling does invite audiences to try to piece together their own internal continuity explaining other actor overlaps. In hindsight, it suggests that casting of Jenna-Louise Coleman as Oswin Oswald in Asylum of the Daleks was another piece of set-up. Do the appearances of Karen Gillen and Freema Agyeman in smaller roles before joining the show as regulars suggest that other companions have similarly been scattered through the time stream. (After all, no cousins look that identical.)

It is nice that The Girl Who Died has the time and the freedom to play with these questions, within the framework of a fairly standard and generic alien invasion story. It is tempting to write The Girl Who Died off as a story waiting for that final act, but that misses the sense of fun and character that play out across an admittedly light plot.

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8 Responses

  1. Good review,

    I’ve sometimes been a bit uncomfortable with Moffat’s handling of gender and reading your review it struck me that Ashidlr was essentially punished by the story for expressing a masculine identity. That feels a little problematic to me.

    I also found it surreal that this small village essentially has a third or so of it’s population wiped out and no one has any real reaction; didn’t anyone lose a father, brother, husband or son?

    • In the script’s defense, Aschidlr’s punished for expressing a destructive and harmful masculine identity – the idea that violence and aggression are the appropriate response to a given situation. (The male warriors are also ultimately punished for the same thing.)

      (I’m not entirely comfortable with the “men are destructive and women are creative” school of gender commentary myself, if only because it seems very reductive and essentialist. Testosterone notwithstanding. But it’s a common enough trope that it’s useful to play with it, but it’s also something you have to be careful with. I think The Girl Who Died hues just on the right side of the line.)

      • I think it would have bothered me less if it didn’t seem part of a pattern that keeps resurfacing in the show during the Moffat years – witness ‘The Widow, & The Wardrobe’ for instance which managed to stumble into both misandry and misogny (men are weaker than women… but what makes women special is their ability to give birth. Do two different sexisms cancel each other out?) ‘Kill the Moon’ arguably had something of a similar subtext with the useless male astronauts killed off quickly and the Doctor running off, but at least the implication that maternalism is the thing that makes the female heroes so capable in that situation.

        I admit I might be seeing things that aren’t there and being oversensitive but after a while it is hard not to see it.

      • Yep, even I can’t defend The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, even if I am more forgiving of the Moffat era than most. But I can understand the sensitivity.

        Kill the Moon is an interesting example, one that becomes somewhat clouded with the abortion subtext of the climax. This is essentially an episode with a giant button labelled “abort” in which a bunch of women are given the freedom to choose to kill (or not to kill) an organism before it is born. Given the controversy that the episode generated when they chose not to terminate it, I can’t imagine how the internet would have reacted if male characters had been involved in that decision.

        (I’m not entirely convinced by the argument the scene is pro-life. After all, affording the freedom of choice includes the freedom to choose not to terminate a pregnancy. But, based on the internet’s reaction, I seem to be in the minority here.)

  2. In before “so what was Six trying to remind himself of?”

    Actually, I buy the regeneration into Maxil more. Put kind of a dark twist on it. I always preferred the brash, fists flying Sixth Doctor to the Big Finish one anyway.

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