Sunday, 18 October 2015

*joke about how the arrangement of sword and shields is a bit phallic*

So Maisie Williams wasn’t the Rani, Susan, Jenny, or River Song (whew) and all the fan theories were wrong. Well, except that one fan who totally called Tennant and Tate’s cameo (yes, I was talking about newly filmed material, and it being the 1st October announcement, but still, not bad, right?).

Anyway, Flatline and Mummy on the Orient Express are two of my favourite episodes from last year’s series, and so I was glad writer Jamie Mathieson was invited back to write The Girl Who Died (it's officially co-written with Moffat, but, like last year's co-written episodes, feels a lot more Mathieson than Moffat – I get the impression Jamie did most of the work). The Doctor and Clara are captives of a Viking village, but when alien mercenaries the Mire steal all the village’s soldiers and feisty young Ashildr retaliates by declaring war on them, it’s up to the Doctor to train up the fishermen, blacksmiths and web designers into a fighting force.

On first glance, this is a farce episode, and a good one at that, pitting incompetent Vikings against pantomime villains. One of the funniest episodes of Who in a while, it’s interesting to compare its humour with the recent Under the Lake - whereas Toby Whithouse sprinkled his dialogue with witty lines, the best jokes here were visual - the jump cut to the burning village, the warrior wordlessly snapping the sunglasses. Best of all was the Doctor and Clara defeating the enemies using Benny Hill – only Doctor Who could make that moment actually work for the plot as well as be laugh-out-loud funny.

But The Girl Who Died is more than just a farce. Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline both got better on repeated viewing (when I want to rewatch a series eight episode, I usually end up picking one of those two), and, based on having watched it twice already, so does The Girl Who Died. Mathieson captures the Doctor and Clara very well; their scenes together deftly develop series nine’s theme of the Doctor worrying about the thrillseeker he’s turning Clara into and the potential consequences, tying it into the plot without a single shoehorn required. And Clara gets a lot to do in this episode, which is great; her standing up to Odin on board the spaceship, trying to talk him into leaving Earth, sums up very well where she is this series – imitating the Doctor and loving it.

Mire morghulis

The standout character, though, is the eponymous Ashildr. Who needs Susan or the Rani? Cards on the table: Arya is my favourite Game of Thrones character, so I was already inclined to like Ashildr, but still, I'm struggling to think of anyone who could fit this character better than Maisie Williams. Her Ashildr is not just a one-dimensional warrior; she's afraid of the aliens and their bizarre invasion of her previously simple life, but able to turn that fear into feistiness and Viking strength. Credit to Mathieson too for the great “I’ve always been different” conversation – though solidly rooted in her Viking environment, Ashildr’s able to resonate with issues of identity and gender that are relevant today. Though if I have to pick holes in Williams’ performance, there is one line which stood out to me on both viewings as oddly overacted and unfitting – her panicky “I don’t understand, mashed up – what are you saying?” on board the spaceship. Did the microphone get into shot on all but the first take?

Another minor criticism: as much as I liked the Doctor remembering where he got his face from (I was worried that explaining Capaldi's previous Who appearance would be horrendously clunky, but they pulled it off), the Mire medical resurrection thingy was a bit deus ex machina – could it not have been set up somewhere? It makes you think that if it’s so easy for the Doctor to bring someone back from the dead, he’s been a bit heartless with all those other people who’ve died in Who history.

But those are, as I said, minor criticisms. My biggest criticism (and it isn’t that big, to be honest), is that the other Vikings weren’t so well developed beyond the Doctor giving them silly names, and I’d liked to have got to know Lofty, Chuckles, and ZZ Top. Now, how to fit in some extra characterisation? What I’d suggest is cutting some of the Doctor speaking baby... which was too daft when King of Daft Matt Smith did it and feels totally out of place in Capaldi’s episodes. Particularly when he does it for two scenes in a row, and we don’t even see the baby. Having the parent, holding the baby, being the one convincing the Doctor to change his mind, for example, could have gone a lot further to make us care about the people of the village.


The villains, meanwhile, weren’t in it much, but their scenes had enough details – the testosterone vials, the use of holographic trickery – to give them as much characterisation as they needed. Nice, too, that the trickery was turned against them as part of their defeat. There is one thing, though, that could have made the Mire so much better, and very nearly did. Prepare yourself for this. Odin was originally meant to be played by Brian Blessed, but he pulled out due to illness. With all due respect to David Schofield (whose performance did seem to be a Blessed impersonation at times – “TEST-OS-TERONE"), wouldn’t that have elevated this episode to a whole new level? Bollocks.

To make up for that crushing disappointment, one final positive point – after all the corridors we’ve had in the past two weeks, this was one of the best designed episodes of recent Who. From the chickens clucking around, to the vast opening vista complete with seas and mountains, the village felt alive and real, and a big shout-out must go to the production design, VFX, and sound teams who made it so. 

Less than a day after broadcast, The Girl Who Died is already growing on me. It’s an episode full of fun, but also full of lovely subtleties with the characters of the Doctor, Clara and Ashildr. I can’t wait to see how the newly-immortal warrior develops in Catherine Tregenna’s The Woman Who Lived. Jamie Mathieson, meanwhile, is cementing his place as one of the best new writers to join the Who roster during the Moffat years - long may he continue to contribute.

  1. The Girl Who Died
  2. The Witch’s Familiar
  3. Under the Lake
  4. The Magician’s Apprentice
  5. Before the Flood


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