The Girl Who Died

Story No. 280 To hold me to the mark
Production Code Series 9, episode 5
Dates October 17, 2015

With Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Written by Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat Directed by Ed Bazalgette
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: A village of vikings have to defend themselves against impossible odds.


"That is rubbish." "I know." by Donna Bratley 15/6/19

It took a while to cotton onto the secret of Moffat and Mathieson's comedic romp turned sour. Now, my opinion is transformed.

The clue's in the title of this review. The false Odin with his embarrassing Teletubby entrance and his uhapless "warrior race" may be the era's most overblown pantomime villain. The war-winning plan is laughable even by Doctor Who standards. There's the worst Viking force in history. It's supposed to be ludicrous.

And it is, as the Benny Hill theme makes explicit with surreal brilliance.

I'm not wild about writers bashing me over the head with their own value. Stories are powerful tools. People who can tell them deserve admiration. But I'm never comfortable with "Look at me! I'm important!" in a script. The neat twist on the importance/deceptiveness of reputation almost redeems the thread - but only almost.

In addition: "He speaks Baby." Isn't that enough to make any grown-up wince?

Thank heaven for the quiet solemnity of Peter Capaldi. He manages to turn what should be flat-out embarrassment into something halfway to poetic. I hate the whole concept, even as I'm admiring the performance, mind.

I could rant about the crude anachronisms: the bovine space headwear and (harder to take) the book. Big readers were they, the Vikings? I always thought oral history was more their thing.

And yet... and yet. Although I don't often seize this disc for a re-watch, whenever I do, I enjoy The Girl Who Died a lot more than I expect.

The opening sequence is top-notch. It's funny, character-filled and introduces the serious key to what follows with the lightest of touches. The Doctor is brilliant, impatient and aware of his limits: Clara's changed, larger-than-human perspective is highlighted. And the sonic specs... I can tolerate them, gimmick though they are, but their fate at Viking hands is still a punch-the-air moment.

The interplay between the leads, first to last, is fabulous. They know each other so well: "It's going to be the yoyo"; "You persuaded them to go, didn't you?" The ease and trust is tangible; their affection, clearly signalled throughout, sufficient even to turn this standoffish incarnation into a charmingly awkward hugger.

Whether they're in comic mode or serious, Capaldi and Coleman are stunning, and they're given a workout in both departments. She gets to display Clara's confident competence as a pseudo-Doctor (before being undercut by the rash intervention of an inexperienced companion; he'd know the feeling), handling the false Odin's bombast with aplomb. His impeccable timing elevates the training of the Viking Home Guard from clodhopping slapstick to pinpoint brilliance, and when disaster strikes... well, that weary "mounting sense of futility" is entirely understandable.

When the Doctor's best plan is turning people into warriors, you know there's a problem. When it's turned into an allegory of a specific companion's journey, it can be seen as courageous writing or sheer heresy. I prefer the former, especially when it's done with the delicate sincerity on display here. Of course it was the crying of an innocent that caused the Doctor to stand and fight, but Clara's right. It's what makes the Doctor what he is that somehow, however implausibly, he'll find a better way to win.

That better way is, in keeping with the episode's tone, completely absurd. I'm a big fan of the heavier, "dark" episodes like Heaven Sent, Dark Water or World Enough and Time, but this... taken in the right spirit, what's wrong with a bit of silliness?

Especially when it turns so dark, so fast.

Not having Sky, the Game of Thrones phenomenon has largely passed me by. Maisie Williams' name meant nothing. I'll remember it in future.

She's delightful, and the odd moments of awkwardness (the confrontation with "Odin" and her assault against the puppet spring to mind) work to her advantage, being perfectly fitting for the character. Her final scene, totally silent, conveying Ashildr's growing understanding and resentment of her fate, is stunningly done, supported both by a gorgeous score and some exquisite effects. As the Doctor spends much of the episode explaining, ripples and tidal waves are the inevitable result of too much Time Lord interference, and Ashildr's potential to be a positive tsunami is apparent on Williams' face. For such a young actress, it's remarkable.

As is the fact that anyone ever thought the twelfth incarnation of one particular Time Lord cold or unfeeling. The mask shatters in an exchange that invariably remains, despite the entertaining fluff, my overriding memory of the episode. The alleged mystery of the Doctor's facial choice always held a blindingly obvious solution to anyone familiar with The Fires of Pompeii. It's a clear command to "save someone!"

Of course, the Tenth Doctor's response caused no (reported) tremor in the timeline: Russell T. wasn't much into consequences, preferring to have his Doctor strutting about being annoyingly godlike. The thunderous foreboding of the Twelfth's brooding (silence in a Scottish accent) is a flashing sign over the rest of Series 9. This incarnation isn't going to be so lucky.

In the immediate context, what matters is the reckless way the Doctor exercises the power he's always possessed, allowing ferocious emotion to run away with him. Willing to lose any war but not the life of a single girl, tormented by the certainty of losses still to come, this is the Doctor stripped of his armour. It's compelling.

And it's part of the reason I count the Twelfth as my favourite of all the Doctors: the combination of austere, unemotional alien logic with fierce, almost-human (but far more powerful) passion. When he makes mistakes, they're whoppers, but they're made from that compassion Davros warned would kill him in the end.

He knew that was true. He knows the consequences of resurrecting a single Viking girl may be catastrophic. In the heat of the moment, he doesn't care.

There have been moments during the revival when the Doctor has come close to being a cartoon, a superman. Now he's a weary (virtual) immortal, all too agonisingly aware of his flaws and limitations. Personally, I can't think of a better hero.