05 “The Girl Who Died” (Doctor Who series 9) [SPOILERS]

doctor who peter capaldi

One thing that the new two-part episode format is doing for Doctor Who is making the series go faster. Or maybe that’s just my perception. Anyway, we are creeping towards the halfway point, and the impossible has happened.

It has almost entirely been good.

More than that, we’re working to a coherent song-sheet as to the theme running through the series, around how the Doctor shapes those who travel with him. It’s not a new theme, and worryingly it was very well done in the series four finale “Journey’s End”. Can it be improved on? I doubt we’ll really know until the series is done, but Capaldi is a very different actor to Tennant.

The Doctor and Clara end up in a Viking village when all of their warriors is harvested by an alien warrior race. When a little girl, Ashildr (Maisie Williams) challenges the aliens to a battle, the Doctor must teach the remaining farmers and blacksmiths how to fight in less than a day.

We’re still in the land of the Doctor Who two-parter, I must point out, but in all of the best ways this episode felt like a standalone offering. Which requires a bit of explanation, probably.

The “Doctor goes to well known historical location/time period” tend to get fairly short shrift from me, in no small part because they seldom seem to accelerate the story beyond “Hey, it’s like you learnt in primary school history!” There’s often a lack of tension, too, as with the (Actually not too bad -Ed) Queen Victoria episode in Tennant’s tenure. In these cases, with major historical figures, we know that things aren’t going to go too awry, since we have a standing thing of not messing up the timeline.

This episode goes some way to redress that, given that were an unnamed Viking village to be wiped off the map, it probably wouldn’t create a huge temporal cock up.

The core, though, is the emotional contortions which the Doctor undergoes through the episode. The Mire as a threat I could take or leave, personally, but they filled the roles of bad guys of the week well enough. The galaxy must be positively crawling with top warrior races, though I get why the writers didn’t want to use the Sontarans, for example, as that would have overstated their role in this episode.

It’s a little weird, too, seeing Arya Stark Maisie Williams cropping up, with a very similar character to her early Game of Thrones appearances. She did well, I thought, being just intriguing enough to carry her share of the mystery around the episode.

Again, though, we’re grappling with the themes of Clara becoming a Doctor-like figure — when she rushes forward to save Ashildr during the initial Mire attack — and what the Doctor does to those around him. Here he turns a village into fighters, which Clara insists cannot be his final plan, because that’s not what he does. The Doctor is, though, doubtful.

Where I thought this episode did fall down was the mechanics of the resolution. The use of electric eels was mad, but also struck me as pretty stupid. Moffatisation at it’s finest/worst. The use of Ashildr’s imagination via to scare the Mire away was only mildly better, and even then only because it left everybody’s favourite Stark daughter a little corpsey.

The “explanation” of why the Doctor’s face has featured in the series previously — Peter Capaldi’s appearance in fourth series episode “The Fires of Pompeii” — is one part that I’m mixed on. On the one hand, it has been a minor point of curiosity how it sits within the canon. On the other, I do not for a moment believe that they had this reasoning in mind from the start. The idea the Doctor subconsciously chose to take on the face of one of the few people he saved from Pompeii to remind him to save people feels a bit crowbarred in, but it leads him to find the Mire medpack in order to bring Ashildr back to life.

And if this really was a standalone episode, then that would have ruined it with over-the-top sentimentality. But that, actually, is the strength of the longer storytelling time, that we have a whole other episode to look forward to next week to round this off. Because it seems like Ashildr is caught in a Jack Harkness sort of scenario, where the treatment will go on treating her, and will keep her alive forever. Or, as the Doctor puts it, “take away her ability to die”. He leaves her with a second dose, in case she ever finds someone she can’t bear to lose, but he scarpers pretty quickly, realising that what he has given her might not be the great gift Clara thinks it is.

It’s interesting to return to this idea, potentially a little more incisively than with Captain Jack. There’s a flavour of Claudia from Interview with a Vampire. The idea of a girl perpetually trapped as a girl is instinctively unsettling, and the fact that there is a whole other episode to come makes it all the more tantalising.

Somehow, this series of Doctor Who is continuing its run of pros outweighing cons. The fact that it is happy to play with the format is a big winner for me, as I do appreciate the attempt to inject a little more life into what is rather an old series. There were good bits and bad bits, but as I said the good bits won out, and I’m left looking forward to the next episode. Which rather suggests that this one did its job.

Closing thoughts:

  • The inaccurate costumes bother me more than they should.
  • I am, though, pleased that Catherine Tate got an appearance. A better class of companion.
  • And not a single utterance of “Stick ’em with the pointy end!” What is the world coming to?
  • The time-lapse shot at the end was, actually, rather good.
  • Welcome back, reversing the polarity of the neutron flow!

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