Picture shows: Jenna Coleman as Clara and Maisie Williams as Ashildre
Photo: Simon Ridgway/BBC/BBC Worldwide 2015
“The Girl Who Died” was possibly the most anticipated episode of season nine, not as much for the material, but rather for a crucial piece of casting: Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones fame. (Typed as though you didn’t know who she was, right?) We’ve had a number of casting crossovers between the two shows already, and this is surely the most exciting one yet, because, well, who doesn’t love Maisie Williams? Even when the now multiple-Emmy-winning series occasionally becomes too much for some viewers, Maisie’s Arya Stark remains one of its few go-to comfort characters. So, yeah, let’s put her on Doctor Who and see what happens. Turns out quite a bit, and more, I imagine, than anyone ever expected or saw coming.
Yet for the hardcore fan who pays attention to credits, it wasn’t just Maisie that had us excited. “The Girl Who Died” is written by Jamie Mathieson, who last year gave us the brilliant one-two punch of “Mummy on the Orient Express” and “Flatline,” arguably the highlights of season eight. And from a freshman who writer, no less. (Also, he’s a hell of a nice guy, as anyone who chatted with him at Gallifrey One earlier this year will attest.) As if those weren’t enough reasons to be stoked about this episode, it is helmed by first-time Who director Ed Bazalgette, which may mean nothing to you, but to me that’s huge. Back in the early ‘80s, Bazalgette played lead guitar in the Brit new wave band The Vapors, best known for their hit “Turning Japanese,” though every single song in their whopping two-album catalog is a gem. Yes, I’m a bit of a Vapors freak, and delighted that two of my treasured pop cults have merged.
All these talents, along with Capaldi and Coleman, merged into a hell of a first half of a two-parter, and I won’t soon tire of giving this season one five-star rating after another if that’s how it’s going to be. The dazzling pre-credits sequence, which sees our heroes at the close of an unseen adventure, features Clara in the now all-too-familiar orange spacesuit, floating in space, while the Doctor dispatches an alien fleet. Then bam! He materializes the TARDIS around her, rips her helmet off, and squashes a critter giving her the outer space heebie-jeebies. One thing that this season’s been pretty consistent about is presenting pre-credits sequences that blow us away. I don’t know what kind of fourth or fifth wind the production team got this year, but to say we’re having a blast is an understatement.
Within seconds we’re in Earth’s past, our heroes surrounded by Vikings, and quite possibly seeing the end of the sonic shades, though even broken in half, they still further the plot. Then the Doctor impersonates Odin, which is a funny enough bit, made all the more amusing by the appearance of the real god Odin in the clouds. This was surely one of the most bizarrely surreal bits I’ve ever seen on Doctor Who — almost Pythonesque. Of course Odin and soldiers are actually aliens called the Mire, who ransack warrior races for their testosterone. There isn’t anything, as far as the mechanics of this section of the episode go, that’s particularly mind-blowing, and yet the efficiency with which Mathieson constructs and resolves the situation, all while keeping such rich character development churning away in the background is nothing short of marvelous. After three stellar episodes of Doctor Who, Jamie Mathieson must stay. The show is better with his sensibilities in the mix.
As great as this season’s been so far, it hasn’t always been kind to Clara (“The Witch’s Familiar” being a particular low point for her character). The scene in which Clara confronts Odin, breaks down what’s going on, and nearly manages to send him and his horde packing, is precisely the Clara Oswald I’ve missed. She’s this close to peacefully remedying the situation, until Ashildr (Maisie) steps up, full of bravado, and declares war on the aliens. The Doctor rallying his inept, doomed troops, and comically giving them all preposterous nicknames such as Lumpy and ZZ Top is priceless, all the while knowing deep inside he cannot save these people from the slaughter to come.
Indeed, Capaldi’s knack for careening back and forth between joyous and tragic is a consistent sight to behold. Of particular note here are the sequences of him understanding baby-talk. First developed way back in season six’s “Closing Time,” I hated the gag, and in particular found Stormageddon one of the most grating comedy bits of that year. But much like we saw with the dinosaur in “Deep Breath” (one wonders if this was a subtle forecaster of more “Deep Breath” to come), here the Doctor’s talent for talking toddler is turned on its ear and used as a vehicle to deliver the episode some much needed pathos. It’s rewarding when a Who writer takes a bit you thought you despised and makes it fresh and new and relevant again.
Electric eels and the imagination of Ashildr, using the Mire hologram tech against the aliens, save the day, but at a cost: the poor girl’s brain is fried, and she’s near death. And then, 37 minutes into a 46-minute episode, the story really takes off. The Doctor ponders his function in the universe. Having already worried that saving the village might cause a ripple effect, he now questions if he should save this selfless, valiant teenager. And in those rippling moments he remembers the thing he’s been trying to remember since seeing his latest face for the first time in “Deep Breath.” Two incarnations ago he saved a man and his family from certain death at the hands of an angry volcano, and that man had the same face he wears now (see “The Fires of Pompeii”). Yes, fixed points can be altered, and in a fit of rage, the Doctor wails at his own gods — the gods of the universe? The Time Lords? At simply what he knows to be “right”? He’ll save the girl and nobody will stand in his way. It is some dazzling Capaldi, to be sure, and the hubris was reminiscent of David Tennant in that pivotal moment of “The Waters of Mars.”
Using tech from a Mire helmet — tech similar to nanogene tech — he saves Ashildr from death by very probably granting her immortality. But thinking ahead he also leaves more of the tech behind — for the girl to someday use on someone she sees fit. It’s the Doctor knowing the curse of immortality, and doing something to ease her potential future suffering. But there’s more, and in the final moments, as the Doctor discusses what he may have done to Ashildr by introducing alien into her body, he realizes that she is the prophesied hybrid of two warrior races talked about earlier in the season. And that, I all but guarantee, nobody predicted. Well played, Moffat and Co.
Odds and ends
- If this was the end of the sunglasses, fine. Yet I can’t help but giggle at all the frothing at the mouth they caused among fandom in such a short period of time. That said, if the Doctor repairs them, or makes a new pair, that’s fine, too. They’ve been a fun addition to the show so far. What exactly did the Doctor alter the Mire tech with? Because it sounded like the sonic screwdriver.
- Near the close of the episode, the Doctor says “Time will tell. It always does.” The Seventh Doctor said precisely the same in “Remembrance of the Daleks,” way back in ‘88.
- Ace bits: “That’s not thunder. It’s the weapon forgers of the Mire making sure we hear them.” Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!; the hologram dragon; the hideous true faces of the Mire; the Doctor’s explanation that premonition is “remembering in the wrong direction”; “What’s the one thing gods never do? Gods never actually show up!”; the bit with the Doctor running, “Clara! Clara!”, that we’ve seen repeatedly in trailers had a wonderful payoff with “I’m not a hugger.” And then he hugs her anyway; “Do babies die with honor?” Honestly, this week’s “Ace bits” could be comprised entirely of this script’s dialogue alone.
- Naff bits: Not a single one in the entire episode!
- Clara humiliates Odin by repackaging his defeat on video set to “the Benny Hill theme.” If you’re under the age of 30, you probably don’t know who Benny Hill is, but he was an immensely popular bawdy British comic during the ‘60s and ‘70s whose contributions to comedy have sadly been largely forgotten. The instrumental theme, actually called “Yakety Sax,” was frequently used on his show in sped-up comedy chase scenes. See also the movie V for Vendetta.
- Speaking of Odin, great work from character actor David Schofield. Speaking of great work, Simon Lipkin, who played Ashildr’s father Nollar, was equally excellent.
*Correction: Due to Peter Capaldi’s Scottish accent, a previous version of this post misspelled the Mire.