The Girl Who DiedBookmark and Share

Saturday, 17 October 2015 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
The Girl Who Died (Credit: BBC /Simon Ridgway)
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Maisie Williams,
David Schofield, Simon Lipkin, Ian Cunningham,
Tom Stourton, Alastair Parker,
Murray McArthur, Barnaby Kay

Written by Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat
Directed by Ed Bazalgette
Transmitted on 17 October 2015

This review contains plot spoilers

2015 is the year of prologues. There is no lecture about Beethoven and the bootstrap paradox in The Girl Who Died, no captive audience for tales of the incorrigible creativity of the Doctor, no stark moral dilemma with a vulnerable child who will become or has been an old enemy. We are, though, launched into the middle of a story which we haven’t seen begin, and which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the events trailed at the end of Before the Flood. The iconography is familiar, though: eyes, windows and isolation beyond rescue and a remorseless threat which is not quite visible all recall elements of the previous two-parter. So, too, does Clara’s discussion with the Doctor inside the TARDIS where, following on from Bennett last week but with more experience and consequent perception, she questions the ‘rules’ of time travel, where the Doctor’s explanation isn’t supported by her own knowledge that the Doctor, far from being a ripple, is like a tidal wave. For those inclined to seek remote precedents, this scene functions much as the prologue to the novelisation Doctor Who and the Crusaders does. The Doctor’s anxiety about ripples is counterpointed by his apparent carelessness in wiping the remains of Clara’s spacesuit’s spider (very satisfyingly squelched) on the grass of an unknown world, but works as a statement of intent. The Doctor and Clara are then separated from the TARDIS much as the Doctor and his then-companions were regularly in the mid-1960s. The pre-credits sequence is energetic and thoughtful and painted with fine and broad brushes by turns. The Vikings seem to be harmless comedic figures, prone to shouting that they are Vikings to convince themselves as much as the audience, but this will turn out to be a plot point. By the end of the pre-credits sequence the Doctor’s witticisms have been mocked themselves by simple force in the way which so many spectacle-wearers have feared. Intellectual pretensions have their limits.

Culture warriors

The post-credits opening allows something of a directorial signature. Ed Bazalgette gained attention for his telling stories through landscape with his handling of the first four episodes of the 2015 series of Poldark and while there are no galloping horses there is an aerial view which combines associations with recent television drama with the conventions of televised historical reconstruction. The man entering the screen bottom right and blowing the horn to announce the arrival of the raiders’ ship in the bay, with people then running across the screen to become part of the welcoming party, suggests not only place but culture. The camera soon settles on Maisie Williams with a deliberation that says to the viewer that you might or ought to recognise her; this is our guest star. Einar and Lofty are also recognised as significant, Lofty working at his forge, marking him as the smith, a figure recognised in Norse mythology but also the nearest thing the village has to a technologist, something the viewer might remember for later. The Doctor’s remark about remembering people and things backwards suggests Ashildr’s specialness and flirts with premonition in a fashion rare for televised Doctor Who; in an episode where publicity has emphasised its use of references to previous stories, the remark recalls the Moment’s non-linear relationship with time in The Day of the Doctor, even the personal timeline of a Time Lord; and going further back the games with causality in Logopolis, especially as personalised in the novelisation.

Meanwhile, Ashildr is presented as rooted in time and place; her conversations sketch in details of the village, her father and her neighbours, and a personality with tendencies to apprehension and fatalism, while teasing with her fears that her dream could have prevented the raiding party from returning. The Doctor’s science-fictional – postmodern? – openness to multiple linearities of causality is compared with Ashildr’s premodern understanding of the universe while establishing her fears about herself and encouraging speculation in the viewer.

For the next few minutes camera angles and sound levels vary between whether the viewer is with the Doctor and Clara bickering over their chained predicament, or with Ashildr trying to work out who or what these people are. There’s a sense of how otherly the Doctor and Clara are here, while building up the mystery of Ashildr who might at this stage be a possible non-human challenge to the Doctor.

‘You might as well be a god.’

Just as one is lulled into thinking that the problem the Doctor and Clara will face is within the Viking village, divine intervention from without provides the common threat to time travellers and villagers. Odin’s first appearance is almost a direct lift from Monty Python and the Holy Grail with a nod to the connection between Earth and Asgard seen in the Marvel Thor films, both drawing on imagery stretching back at least to Renaissance art, albeit depicting the Christian God. (Peter Capaldi's Odin voice has more than a little of an emergency Anthony Hopkins impersonation about it.) This manifestation is seen by the villagers as confirmation that the Doctor is a false Odin, but arguably the Vikings have already recognised the Doctor as Odin by removing two of his four eyes. Where the face in the sky is Odin as war deity and protector of peoples, the Doctor is another facet of Odin, the blue-clad wandering Trickster who both seeks wisdom and has wisdom sought from him, upsetting the established order as he goes.

The third figure to give up half her sight, however briefly is Ashildr. Clara places one half of the sonic sunglasses over Ashildr’s right eye and asks that she think ‘open’ – a direct reference to Clara’s own course in self-liberation from the Dalek casing in The Witch’s Familiar – but instead of just freeing Clara from her chains Ashildr is liberated from the pattern of her life and the two are sent to Odin’s vessel. Clara (by following her own initiative and not doing what the Doctor says) and Ashildr are both disruptive figures, but Clara has learned to embrace and develop this part of her character, while Ashildr fears it. This provides the foundation for a successful sequence where Clara and Ashildr have a Doctor-companion relationship, enduring the horror of the halls of Valhalla being a food processing centre, existing so a predator can enjoy mechanically recovered testosterone and adrenaline cocktails.

Ashildr is here Clara’s apprentice, a kid getting into trouble and making mistakes. Her declamation of her name to Odin and his Mire lackeys seems to emphasise that her name sounds like ‘shielder’, encouraging associations with the mythological figure of the shield-maiden, and with the comparably (but more different than the same) tomboyish figure of Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings. However, it means (as far as I can tell from a quick internet search) ‘God-Battle’, which summarises how Ashildr presents herself in her challenge to Odin on board his ship and the role pressed upon her in the final battle between the villagers and the Mire. If one wishes to extend the parallels, the name is cognate to that of the two other female Doctor-analogues in the current series, (Clara) Oswald and Osgood, the gods of power and good respectively.

Making a very bad god

Something Doctor Who can do very well, but seemed to have lost of late, was the taking of characters established as unsympathetically comedic and then repositioning them so their deaths are shockingly tragic. Such is the fate of Hasten, the Viking war-leader; his wearing of one half of the Doctor’s glasses in imitation of Odin as he entered the village was his choice rather than something forced upon him, a jovial statement of faith and confidence in his effectiveness as a war leader. Here, his belief in Valhalla and the generosity of the gods is met by the callous crossfire of lightning bolts. The juxtaposition of imagery drawing from Norse myth – or what the audience remembers of Norse myth – in the form of shield-like projections from the walls and lightning, and the bare impersonal industrial context of the harvesting chamber Is in itself great storytelling and another example of Michael Pickwoad’s considered deployment of his architectural and engineering sensibilities.

This story, much as this season has done so far, dramatises a debate about the Doctor’s authority – is he a gadget-wielding warrior, or an improviser who leads by inspiration, often by bluster? He is both godlike and just a bloke in a box. Having played god in an attempt to awe the villagers into freeing him, he then turns arch-rationalist and makes a statement which is bound to provoke several religious viewers, that one knows the gods because they don’t come and visit. The intent is to shock the villagers into a form of modernity because only by challenging their impressions of the world will they understand it and become who the Doctor needs them to be. Otherwise the Doctor is stuck with his own rhetoric, not too far from Missy’s dismissal of human obsession with sex and reproduction in The Magician’s Apprentice – humanity can go back to making puddings and babies, and continue to be harvested. There are definite echoes of another series which included harvesters of humanity who manipulated mythology and faith, the final (Euston Films) Quatermass.

Some of the central section of the episode was lost on me at first viewing. The air of classic sitcom was present, but seemed underpowered; and surely naming the tallest of the villagers Lofty showed that the Doctor takes service nicknames too literally. Perhaps he’s more of a soaps man, and has watched more early EastEnders than It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum. Until Blogtor Who’s preview of the episode mentioned that one of the episode’s working titles had been The All-Father’s Army, I’d managed to miss that Dad’s Army was being referenced. At the time the Doctor’s accusation that the Vikings might survive by raising crops at the Mire didn’t seem too far-fetched; the Mire seem neither adapted to organic methods nor to vegetarianism. However, this was not where the episode was going. The Doctor’s ‘officerness’, the object of jibes from Danny last year, comes to the fore despite his world- and war-weariness.

The Doctor also experiences a crisis of faith. His preferred strategy would be to hide the villagers and avoid a confrontation with the Mire. This seems to conflict with his usual practice. His defeat of the alien forces seen at the start of The Girl Who Died is presented as final because they are too frightened or depleted to come back to oppress the Velosians, the rationalisations which viewers have been invited to make since The Dalek Invasion of Earth here being made concrete. At the same time, the Doctor’s belief that the Mire could be avoided and the villagers saved without humanity as a whole being imperilled seems to be wishful thinking. While our Vikings are peaceful farmers and fishermen, the Mire seem to be patterned after a popular image of the Viking as dedicated to plunder and pillage. There’s an ambiguity in the writing of the episode which shows the Doctor hoping that the Mire don’t need to be challenged when they’ve been established as a destruction-happy threat The Doctor says that the Mire are practical, that they leave when they get what they want; but what they want is to wipe out the villagers. If they didn’t find these particular villagers, perhaps they would pursue others, and others still. The villagers and the Doctor, like the baby, need to sing, but also to find the right song; and the baby is right, as the right song turns out to be welcome laughter.

Before then the grimness and frustration of the twelfth Doctor still has to be faced. The Doctor’s misanthropy is comparable to that demonstrated by the ninth Doctor, but is detached from the broad satire and faith in human relationships which flavoured the 2005 series. Over ten years later, his summary of the history of an Earth-centred universe as ‘Big bang. Dinosaurs. Bipeds. A mounting sense of futility’ is more depressing than amusing. The programme’s longevity and the renewal of its eponymous hero means that the Doctor needs to face the same questions again and again and again, but on first viewing there was something particularly hopeless about that line, though it seemed lighter on a revisit.

A game where only you know the rules

The episode also sees the Doctor most in danger of ceasing to be the person celebrated by Missy and Clara in the pre-credits sequence of The Witch’s Familiar – someone who thinks he will always win. To its credit, this series is taking further some of the questions left at the end of the David Tennant period concerning the way the Doctor, who professes to be a man of peace, turns his companions into his soldiers. The Doctor ponders guiltily what he has made Clara into; he is aware not only of ripples through depersonalised timelines, but the transformations he wreaks on people. Perhaps more than ever before here Clara is his manager, who reminds him of what needs to be done. Clara claims that the Doctor is her hobby, but here he seems more like her career. This episode gives Jenna Coleman a lot to do and demands that she is quick and authoritative and cutting, especially with the Doctor; and she gives an accomplished performance which is less about being placed in peril, as in the previous episodes this season, than in articulating the common predicament and how the Doctor should be able to resolve it.

It’s perhaps because Clara has become too involved with the Doctor’s life that it’s Ashildr who actually makes him want to win. This is practically a negotiation of reconciliation of the Doctor with humanity, and with himself. Ashildr has always been seen as odd by her neighbours, growing up rejected by both girls and boys, never conforming to gender expectations. Yet at the same time she protests that her people are kind and brave and strong and she loves them. The force of her imagination is something we have to take on trust beyond that she and others find her dreams disturbing; she is someone who sees reality at a different angle from others and has enough about her to recall the Doctor to himself and lay the foundation for victory. Ashildr moves from Clara-companion to Doctor-companion; it’s a graduation which gives Maisie Williams the chance to project Ashildr’s heartfelt humanity but also shows how removed from representing human beings to the Doctor Clara has become. It’s a familiar story, but told through different examples and at a slower and more enthralling pace than, say, the dissociation of Rose from her old life, and is the better for it.

Publicity has included a video where Maisie Williams considers her casting as a fandom crossover. Fans, fandom and fanhood are part of the mainstream presentation of Doctor Who and other series in a way that they weren’t when the series was revived in 2005. Publicity is still working out how to deal with this. Ashildr is arguably a fan fiction writer – though not of Doctor Who – let loose in the narrative, her imagined worlds of sea voyages and martial epics a long way from the somewhat ragged Vikings we see. Her fate should not be regarded as a cautionary tale for her, but for the Doctor who fails to make adequate preparations.

Leaving the tourists a bit of glamorous illusion

The battle with the Mire is played against a final move from reconstruction history, to history as the present or recent past with odd clothes and a low level of technology, to pageant history as the Doctor and Clara enlist the villagers in a mediaeval banquet not too far from the one Sarah Jane Smith imagines Irongron and his men are part of in The Time Warrior. The Mire are exposed as pretenders – we never see the implied horror that is Odin’s real face – and so they are defeated by a theatricality which casts doubt on some of the Doctor’s recent utterances. Should he be allowing the universe to see him as ‘just a bloke in a box’? Or is this the best form of defence for someone of his power?

The use of the closing theme from The Benny Hill Show as the accompaniment to the retreat of Odin from the ship’s very wooden prow (but not much less impressive as a threat than Ashildr’s imagined and CGId serpent) could remind one of the status of women in this episode. It would have disturbed the parallel with Dad’s Army, but it’s remarkable that there are no women conscripted into the Doctor’s norm-disrupting village home guard. There is an observation of what we assume to have been traditional gender roles. Women are spoken of, bringing up children; while both men and women are seen serving at table. This is used to emphasise Ashildr’s uniqueness; but her own assessment of herself will probably intrigue and exercise those who write about depictions of gender identities in popular television.

Previewers were requested not to reveal details of what the Mire looked like without their helmets. Their heads are something between a shark and an eel, aquatic creatures out of their element, but effective counterparts to the CGI serpent and the eels whose electricity is being used against them. All three seem vaguely Norse too, perhaps like the wyrm which gnaws at the world-tree. They move very quickly and are seen only for fractions of second, never allowing the viewer to recover from the shock and think that they are not so awful after all. It’s an effective technique, both powerful and disempowering because the Mire are never fully personified; all they can do is writhe and shriek before they scarper.

Lily-white hands

We were promised that The Girl Who Died would reveal why the Doctor has the face he has. There’s no obvious link to Russell T Davies’s overarching theory as to why Caecilius and Frobisher (from Torchwood: Children of Earth) look the same, but instead there are warm flashbacks to a hot city as the Doctor remembers being told that he could save people by Donna. Having had the responsibility and the characteristics of a god, the Doctor apostrophises the heavens in a fashion which recalls the fourth Doctor’s abuse of the (absent) Time Lords in part one of The Brain of Morbius and in its mention of Hell remembers where the Doctor sent Rassilon and the Time Lords at the end of The End of Time. This is the more powerful moment, not only because of the way the camera settles on Peter Capaldi’s face and the absolute identification with the Doctor which Capaldi for that moment demands, but because the stakes are more real; the Doctor has taken a life he did not intend to take, and it is in his gift to restore it; he might be breaking laws, but he will not be damned for doing so. The moment has echoes, certainly, of that oldest (well, almost) of Moffat tales, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, where the Doctor, hoping that his theory is correct and the nanogenes will be able to restore Jamie’s humanity and those of the other gas mask people, pleads for ‘a day like this’. Here, he asserts his right to compassion and the right to act on it. This isn’t a Time Lord Victorious moment, but a relief that the seeming inevitability of ‘everybody dies’ has been averted and that if one life is owed it is surely Ashildr’s.

The Doctor’s moment of self-realisation is fleeting; once passion subsides the consequences to making Ashildr immortal become apparent. The Doctor’s own uncertainty about his own mortality has been an understated theme of this season and his description of the resurrected Ashildr’s new condition recalls, surely deliberately, the second Doctor’s explanation of the Time Lords in episode ten of The War Games. Living forever, barring accidents, isn’t something which Doctor Who has presented as a desirable condition, particularly in the programme’s twenty-first century versions where saving people has often included letting them reconcile themselves to the death of others. In this case this is a death for which the Doctor bears responsibility; but the audience is directed carefully to wonder whether he has made the right choice, and the Doctor himself is not convinced. The return to the theme of the hybrid intrigues and unsettles because it points towards a particular hybrid, of incompatible elements. Being a hybrid in itself should not be a bad thing; the suggestion that it might be leads one to consider the programme’s own values.

The Girl Who Died ends with what students of the Doctor Who cliffhanger have called the ‘suspended enigma’; a cinematically visual realisation of Ashildr as a person now existing detached from the rhythm of the ages. One can imagine her learning to feel the turn of the earth, the spinning of the world and the entire planet hurting round the sun, her face first full of content and satisfaction with living, her face then clouding with something not quite determinable, but reminiscent of the burden of eternity which weighs heavily on the Doctor.

The Girl Who Died manages to maintain a sense of danger while keeping a colossal sense of fun, something which so far this series has had difficulty doing, switching codes while brooding throughout The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar and choosing a cold twilight intensity for Under the Lake/Before the Flood. Capaldi’s Doctor conveys his most engaging range of emotion yet, his expressions adopting at times a wryly amused distance from affairs while never losing sight of each crisis. One feels one shouldn’t remark upon the 2000-Year Diary turning up, because the prop seemed to naturally belong there; yet ‘When I say run, run!’ has become ‘When I say move, you move.’ A longer life has made it more difficult for the Doctor to hide his awareness of his responsibilities. There is a sense of being involved in a Viking epic, amplified through the intimate poetry of the crying baby, translated through the Doctor’s grief for events which seem not to have happened or which can be prevented from happening; but perhaps we are mistaken, and the Doctor is aware of another narrative entirely, presently outside our perception. The episode is confirmation that Jamie Mathieson knows how to blend setting and character to create a strong Doctor Who broth, with one presumes more than just a few chosen croutons from Steven Moffat. Happiness, somewhere along the way, is rediscovered in a fashion missing from Doctor Who since Peter Capaldi took over the role. It has been too long.

There have been moments in recent Doctor Who which seemed as if the programme had lost part of its soul, something present in the original plan but easily lost amidst space-time travels and periodically rediscovered. In part Doctor Who was about ordinary people in extraordinary situations doing extraordinary things because circumstances made them. Ian and Barbara are both the ancestors (within the narrative of Doctor Who) and the descendants (within human chronology) of the Viking villagers. Yet alongside this part of the format has always walked a question, acknowledged sparingly until this century: how far does the experience of the extraordinary necessarily remove one from the everyday? The Girl Who Died leaves this question hanging over the audience as perhaps never before.