Doctor Who continues to bring us dramatic two-part episodes as Season 9 progresses. What’s interesting about the most recent pairing of “The Girl Who Died” and “The Woman Who Lived” is that “The Girl Who Died” is an exciting standalone episode with a sense of closure at the end. Season 9 of Doctor Who continues to be a very strong season, even if the fifth episode doesn’t quite stand up to the previous four.
On the surface, “The Girl Who Died” is a classic tale of a group of underdogs who, with a little help, overcome a much greater foe. The episode has nicknames, a training montage, and a comedic action scene. The underlying theme, which has been interwoven into the Doctor Who narrative since the first episode of Season 9, is the Doctor’s longevity and loss. The first pairing of “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar” showed that over a long life of battles fought and friends lost, the Doctor’s enemies are in some ways his closest of companions. The next set of episodes, “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood,” reminds us that no one travels with the Doctor for that long, and perhaps for good reason. In “The Girl Who Died” the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) actually talks about how difficult it is to lose people, telling Clara (Jenna Coleman), “Immortality is everybody else dying.” When the Doctor gives Viking hero Ashidr immortality, he regrets it immediately because he knows that it’s a burden rather than a gift.
We also get some resolution on the issue of the Doctor’s visage having appeared in the series before (as we discussed in “What to Expect in Season 9”). When Ashidr dies, the Doctor exclaims he’s sick of losing people. He remembers why he chose this particular face when he regenerated. It was to remind him of the lesson imparted to him in “The Fires of Pompeii” when Donna begs him if he can’t save the whole city to at least save someone. The Tenth Doctor saved Caecilius (played by Peter Capaldi) and his family. By taking on the same face as Caecilius he reminds himself of Donna’s plea. Donna played the companion’s role of keeping the Doctor compassionate better than most. If Clara continues to become too much like the Doctor himself will she be able to keep him grounded in the same way? He already had to remind her not to “go native” in “Under the Lake” because there’s only room for one Doctor on the TARDIS.
“The Girl Who Died” guest stars Maisie Williams (of Game of Thrones) as the Viking girl Ashidr and David Schofield as Odin. It was directed by Ed Bazaigette and written by Jaime Mathieson and Steven Moffat.
Tread Lightly, Except on the Love Sprites
“The Girl Who Died” starts off with Clara, and an uninvited creature, floating about inside a spacesuit. The crawling creature inside her spacesuit is probably a Love Sprite from the spider mines, which enjoys sucking out people’s brains through their mouths. Let’s all agree to never go to the spider mines. The Doctor has to fight off some battle fleets but then manages to materialize Clara in the TARDIS, pull off her helmet, and step on the Love Sprite. Ewww. The Doctor was able to save the day through his tactics, though he’s left with some nasty creature goo on his shoe.
Clara complains that the Doctor never properly explains the rules that govern time travel. The Doctor has incentive to keep her guessing, especially since he breaks the rules so much. Instead, he just tells Clara: “We’re time travelers. We tread softly. It’s OK to make ripples, but not tidal waves.”
The Doctor and Clara find themselves amongst Vikings. The Doctor attempts to intimidate them with his sonic sunglasses, but they are not easily cowed and one of the Vikings break the glasses. Hurray! Cheers everywhere for the end of those silly things. Clara and the Doctor are brought to he Viking village where the Doctor and Viking girl Ashidr look at each other as though they have a connection. He tells Clara he doesn’t know her, that it’s probably just too much time travel. He explains, “People talk about premonition as if it’s something strange. It’s not. It’s just remembering in the wrong direction.” Ashidr is an unusual girl. She’s relieved at their return because she had thought that the raiding party had all died, and she had made it happen. Ashidr is rewarded with one of the lenses from the Doctor’s sonic sunglasses.
That Old Odin Shtick
The Doctor tries to fool the Vikings by claiming he’s the Norse God Odin, but his plan is foiled when another version of Odin appears in the sky. This Odin projection would never fool any of the Vikings had they seen Monty Python’s The Holy Grail. Fake Odin tells the Vikings that the strongest will be chosen to come to Valhalla, then a bunch of menacing creatures in metal armor appear. The Doctor tells Clara to stay completely still so they aren’t chosen for the Harvesting. Clara has her own ideas. She crawls over to Ashidr, asking her use the sonic lens to open her chains. Naturally this draws the attention the Doctor was hoping to avoid, and Clara and Ashidr are transported up to Fake Odin’s spaceship.
In the spaceship, the Vikings, along with Clara and Ashidr, are in an execution chamber. They try to escape, but aren’t able to get out. Clara and Ashidr wake up, having been spared because they had the sonic lens. Clara goes into Doctor mode:
“Except you’ve already analyzed that and you know it’s a technology from a civilization vastly more powerful than your own. And you will have also noticed that … I’m wearing a space suit. So I’m not from around here, and it’s highly unlikely I will have come alone. You see, you haven’t killed us because killing us would start a fight you didn’t come here to have … and you’re not sure you can win.”
The metal soldiers bring Fake Odin some liquid, which turns out to be the collected testosterone from the Viking warriors. Yuck. Clara tries to convince Fake Odin to leave, telling him it’s not a battle worth fighting. She tells him to go somewhere else to find warriors, adding, “The universe is full of testosterone. Trust me, it’s unbearable. We won’t follow you, see? We don’t need to fight.” He seems ready to acquiesce, but then Ashidr gets involved:
“You’ll pay for what you have done here today. I am a Viking. Ashildr, daughter of Einarr. You have mocked our gods. Killed our warriors. And we will crush you on the field of battle.”
Well, this is a challenge Fake Odin can’t refuse. He tells them he’ll return in a day and his warriors will fight the villagers. See, Clara? Playing the Doctor isn’t so easy when you have a companion who jumps in to screw things up.
Preparing for Battle
Clara and Ashidr are sent back to the planet to tell the others to prepare. The Doctor is reading his 2,000-year-old diary, trying to identify the culprits. This is a newer version of the Seventh Doctor’s 900-year-old diary, and the Second Doctor’s 500-year-old diary. He has discerned that Fake Odin is part of the Mire, one of the deadliest warrior races in the galaxy. The Mire leader seemed more over-the-top comical than deadly to us, but whatevs. The Mire normally leave once they get what they want, but unfortunately Ashidr has messed that up.
At a village meeting the Doctor suggests they run away. It sure seemed like he was doing a reverse psychology thing by trying to get the Vikings to fight by mocking them. The Vikings get all, “We will fight! We are Vikings!” It turns out he really did think the only solution was to run away because he expects if they fight they will die. The best part of this scene, really the episode, is seeing the Doctor speak baby. When the baby cries he asks if babies also die with honor and translates: “I am afraid, Mother. Hold me, Mother … I am afraid …Turn your face towards me, Mother, for you … you’re beautiful. And I will sing for you. I am afraid … but I will sing.” He chastises the Vikings and refuses to help them further.
Clara can’t understand why the Doctor won’t save “just one village.” He tells her that the ripple effect of the Viking village defeating the Mire would make the Earth a strategic target. The Mire would return until everyone died. The baby cries again, and Clara asks the Doctor what she’s saying. He translates: “Mother, I hear thunder. Mother, I hear shouting. You are my world, but I hear other worlds now. Beyond the … unfolding of your smile … is there other kindness? I’m afraid. Will they be kind? The sky is crying now. Fire in the water.” The phrase fire in the water gives the Doctor pause, and he decides to stay, which makes the baby stop crying.
The Doctor begins to train the few men left in the village, who are mostly very old, very young, or weak. Clara seems to think his training is a warm-up until he comes up with a real plan. It becomes evident a real plan is needed when the Vikings’ attempt to practice causes a fire in the village, but he claims to not have one.
The Doctor: “They’ll die fighting with honor. To a Viking, that’s all the difference in the world.”
Clara: “A good death? Is that the best they can hope for?”
The Doctor: “A good death is the best anyone can hope for, unless you happen to be immortal.” [Foreshadow much?]
When the Doctor tells Clara she needs to get a new hobby, she says, “I’ve got a hobby. Thanks. It’s you, by the way.” He tells Clara it will be a bloodbath the next day, but she refuses to leave. He complains that he’s always worried about something happening to her, but she tells him that he needs to focus on the village instead: “You always miss it, right up until the last minute. So put down your sword, stop playing soldier and look for it. Start winning, Doctor. It’s what you’re good at.”
The Doctor goes to Ashidr’s house to try to figure out what he’s missing. It turns out that Ashidr uses puppets and makes up stories, believing it helps keep the raiding parties safe. When he suggests she run, Ashidr tells the Doctor that there is nowhere for her except here. Ashidr has a connection to her home, something the Doctor doesn’t have and may never had had. She explains why it’s so special to her:
“I’ve always been different. All my life I’ve known that. The girls all thought I was a boy, the boys all said I was ‘just a girl.’ My head is always full of stories. I know I’m strange. Everyone knows I’m strange. But here I’m loved. You tell me to run to save my life. I tell you that leaving this place would be death itself.”
A Real Plan
When one of the Vikings takes his baby to the boathouse, where the fish in the water soothe her, the Doctor realizes that the “fire in the water” the baby was referring to are electric eels. Didn’t he have this same epiphany earlier? He tells Ashidr that she won’t have to leave her village.
The first part of the Doctor’s plan involves using the electric eels so they can get one of the Mire’s metal helmets. It seems unnecessarily complicated. The Mire are actually pretty terrifying without their helmets. Once they have a helmet, the second part of the plan involves Ashidr wearing the helmet to transmit a story to the Mire. She’s scared, but the Doctor tells her that she was born for this.
The Mire see a snake-like dragon come into the barn. The warriors all eventually flee in fear, leaving only their Fake Odin leader. The image disappears and we realize they were fleeing from a wooden carving of a dragon. The Doctor threatens to upload the recording of the Mire being scared away to the galactic hub, ruining their reputation. Clara adds the Benny Hill theme (“Yakety Sax”) to the recording to give it extra punch. The Mire leader threatens that this humiliation won’t go unpunished, and the Doctor transports him back to his ship.
They joyously run to Ashidr to congratulate her, but the effort has killed her. The villagers are distraught and so is the Doctor. When she tries to console him that he saved the town he says it’s not about winning or losing a war:
“I’m sick of losing people. Look at you, with your eyes, and your never giving up, and your anger, and your … kindness. One day … the memory of that will hurt so much that I won’t be able to breathe, and I’ll do what I always do. I’ll get in my box and I’ll run and I’ll run, in case all the pain ever catches up … and every place I go, it will be there.”
He’s frustrated because he can’t save her because of the rules, the ripple of time becoming a tidal wave. Suddenly the Doctor has a realization about why he chose this face when he regenerated: “To remind me. To hold me to the mark. I’m the Doctor, and I save people.”
The Gift of Life
The Doctor reprograms the battlefield medical kit from the Mire helmet. The kit is absorbed into Ashidr’s forehead, and begins repairing her. The Doctor tells her the story’s not over yet. Her father comes to her side, telling her the town is nothing without her. She eventually opens her eyes and begins breathing. The doctor leaves a second kit, not for Ashidr, but for whomever she chooses. When Ashidr thanks him, he tells her not to thank him yet.
As the Doctor and Clara walk to the TARDIS, he explains that the kit will always be repairing her, making her functionally immortal.
Clara: “If the repair kit never stops working, then why did you give her two?”
The Doctor: “Immortality isn’t living forever. That’s not what it feels like. Immortality is everybody else dying. She might meet someone she can’t bear to lose. That happens … I believe.”
The Doctor is aware he might have made a terrible mistake. He becomes alarmed when he realizes that Ashidr will always have a little bit of alien inside of her, making her a hybrid of sorts. It may be a callback to the prophecy mentioned by Davros in “The Witch’s Familiar”: “It spoke of a hybrid creature. Two great warrior races forced together to create a warrior greater than either.” Since Maisie Williams is starring in the follow-up episode, “The Woman Who Lived,” we may not have to wait long to find out.
It’s not clear if the writers and director of “The Girl Who Died” intended the Mire to be a bit cheesy to mock their bravado, but there were other aspects of the story that seemed unbelievable. The Doctor didn’t have any interest in stopping the Harvest, no one seemed to mourn all the Vikings that were killed, and both Clara and the Doctor were fine with the Mire leaving to kill other people on other planets.
Besides the poetry of the baby translation, the best aspect of “The Girl Who Died” was how it carried along the theme of the Doctor’s loss—though it seems like we might have a whole season of preparing for the departure of Jenna Coleman as Clara, which could be a little much. Of course there’s still the mystery of Missy’s connection with Clara to unwrap, so perhaps it will be an interesting journey.
Would we have found Ashidr as compelling if it weren’t for the anticipation of Maisie Williams playing the character? Regardless, we did enjoy her performance. Despite some questionable plot devices, “The Girl Who Died” moved the Season 9 story of the Doctor along in a satisfying way. We look forward to more strong performances in the next episode.