Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 5 – The Girl Who Died

“We’re time travellers. We tread softly. It’s ok to make ripples, but not tidal waves.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

With the fifth episode of this much-improved series of Doctor Who, we’ve finally reached the episode with the much-trumpeted casting of Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams. As a stalwart of probably the most successful show right now, Williams’ casting generated much in the way of headlines; she’s certainly a talented actor, having shown herself to be more than capable of matching the likes of Charles Dance in a scene of heavy dialogue. And the ep was written by Jamie Mathieson (with some nudges form one Steven Moffat), who wrote two of my favourites last year, Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline.

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It’s fair to say then that I had high expectations of this episode. But when I watched it last night, it actually left me slightly cold. Yes, there was some good character work and some lovely dialogue. But the plot was slight at best, and the villains looked better suited to an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures.

But I always rewatch the episodes before reviewing them. The first time, I like to actually enjoy them as a viewer, the second time I take notes as a reviewer, particularly of choice bits of dialogue. This time, I found that I was writing down virtually the entire script. And then it hit me – yes, like Toby Whithouse’s School Reunion, the plot was indeed slight. But like that episode, that was because the plot was pretty much secondary to the character drama, a necessary McGuffin to catalyse it.

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And watched from that viewpoint, this was some extremely well-written – and well-played – drama indeed. It shed more light on our knowledge of the main characters, while serving to introduce a memorable new one – Maisie Williams as Viking maiden and storyteller Ashildr. Since he was co-credited, I wondered how much input Moffat had as a writer; I could tell that a lot of the crucial scenes between the Doctor and Clara had his input. But this concept, of storytellers and how their stories shape the universe, is one Moffat has returned to time and again on his tenure of the show. I wouldn’t be surprised if the concept of Ashildr’s character owed as much to him as it does to Jamie Mathieson.

The humour, however, was definitely all Mathieson – it didn’t have that occasional air of excessive cleverness that characterises Moffat gags. Some of it was perhaps a trifle too broad – the jump cut from “right, let’s get the real swords” to the village in flames was inescapably reminiscent of a similar jump cut in Father Ted following Ted’s horrified exclamation, “you let Dougal do a funeral?!” But most of it worked – the Doctor’s attempt to impersonate Odin with a yoyo was marvellously played by Capaldi (“it’s supposed to do that”), and the script perfectly timed its derailment by the ‘real’ Odin. And come on, who wasn’t reminded of Monty Python and the Holy Grail at that point?

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As ‘Odin’, David Schofield was a more effective bad guy than the rest of the mechanically armoured Mire; but watching him, I was struck by how much he reminded me of a more subdued version of BRIAN BLESSED. In point of fact, rumour has it that the part was indeed offered to BRIAN, but he was too busy, which is a real shame. Still, as a fairly stock bad guy, Schofield did well with what the script offered I particularly liked his menacing delivery, when asked if he would slaughter unarmed civilians, of “it wouldn’t be the first time”.

The means of their defeat was beautifully in keeping with the spirit of Doctor Who, too. Rather than being killed, or blown up, or removed from time altogether, they retreated without a single casualty from a bit of clever trickery, their return effectively prevented by the threat of damage to their reputation – their ‘story’ – as fierce warriors. Mind you, as ever with the show, I had a few technical quibbles with some of the details. I’m no electrical engineer, but I’m sceptical that you could harness the 600 volt output of electric eels like that; more pertinently, given that electric eels usually live in the waters of South America, it was a trifle odd that some 9th century Scandinavians had barrels full of them.

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Still, as I’ve said, the episode wasn’t really ‘about’ the Mire. The near-generic Doctor Who plot was just the catalyst of some extended musings on the character of the Doctor, how far he was prepared to go in the name of compassion, and, significantly, his relationship with Clara. That relationship didn’t entirely convince last year, infused as it was with antagonism and some very unhealthy manipulation on both sides. This year, with Capaldi’s more mellowed Twelfth Doctor, it’s far more believable, sold as much by both actors’ excellent performances as the dialogue they’re given.

There’s been a running theme of Clara’s desire to pretty much be the Doctor, and his repeated warnings that that’s not necessarily a good thing. However, this ep, like a lot of recent ones, shows that she’s pretty much got the hang of it. Her talking down of the Mire leader and convincing him to just leave by argument alone was very Doctorish – and would have worked if it hadn’t been for that meddling kid.

The ep found a lot of time to delve into their relationship this week, with several lengthy scenes in which, effectively, they just talked about their feelings. That could have been boring, but with this dialogue, and those performances, it was electrifying. Recalling her comments to Missy in The Witch’s Familiar, Clara’s advice to the dispirited Doctor was, “put down the sword and start winning Doctor, it’s what you’re good at”. Conversely, and reminiscent of another ongoing theme about the Doctor’s angst, he agonised, “oh, Clara Oswald, what have I made of you?”

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In the wake of the (presumably intentionally-timed) press releases about Jenna Coleman’s departure from the show, recent episodes have, to a greater or lesser degree, been laced with lines full of foreshadowing of her possible future doom. That’s never been made so significant as it was in this episode, particularly with Capaldi’s beautifully delivered impassioned speech about her, saying, “one day, the memory of that will hurt so much that I won’t be able to breathe, and I’ll do what I always do – I’ll get in my box, and I’ll run and I’ll run in case the pain ever catches up. And every place I go, it will be there”.

Beautifully written, to be sure, but it does rather sound as though he already knows she’s going to die. Perhaps the red herring for her will be a happy ending, though it’s hard to imagine what that could be at this point.

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Unlike Ashildr, who definitely isn’t going to die, at least not any time soon. Without wanting to sound too smug, I grasped the implication as soon as the Doctor commented that the Mire tech “won’t ever stop repairing her”; it was uncharacteristic of the usual regard for Clara’s intelligence that she had to ask about that. It might have been better handled had she too grasped it, and once they were out of earshot, whispered to the Doctor, “doesn’t that mean she’ll live forever?”

Even that was made to play into the ominous foreshadowing of Clara’s future, as the Doctor explained the second medical pack was in case she found someone she couldn’t live without; “I’ve heard that happens”. As expected, Williams was hauntingly effective in the role, her lengthy night time scene with the Doctor a classic to rival any in the old show. And that extraordinarily beautiful ending, as time whisked around her ever faster and faster, showed how good she was without having to say a single word. Watch it again, and see how her face changes from an expression of joy, to sorrow, to finally hardness and resignation. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – this girl is brilliant. Because, as the Doctor says (reminiscent once again of School Reunion), “immortality isn’t living forever, that’s not what it feels like. Immortality is everyone else dying”.

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Although, as I’ve said before, Moffat’s habit of calling his significant female characters “girls” (the Girl Who Waited, the Impossible Girl), is a little dubious at best. Thank heavens, then, that when we meet her again the 17th century next week, Ashildr will be “the Woman who lived”. It’ll be interesting to see how that works out; she was already a strong character, but by the age of 800 or so, I’d say she’ll be more than a match for the Doctor.

So yes – a slight plot and forgettable bad guys to be sure, but as I didn’t grasp last night, they weren’t really the point. This was a character piece, and a beautifully written one at that. Even a random cheap gag from the Matt Smith era – talking to babies – was revisited as something significant and indeed lyrical – as delivered by Capaldi, lines like “turn your face to me mother, for you are beautiful, and I will sing to you” are unforgettable. And we now know who “frowned him that face”, as promised by both Moffat and Russell T – it was indeed Caecilius from The Fires of Pompeii, the face “chosen” as a reminder that sometimes you can save people even when you shouldn’t. Not sure what that says about the Fifth Doctor’s choice to regenerate into Commander Maxil, mind you…

 

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