Looking at this review now, it’s high-time I stopped talking about
Doctor Who‘s ‘self-regard’. This is from DWM #493.
When isn’t the cloister bell ringing nowadays? With an increasingly reckless Doctor and companion combo pitching around the universe, the once seldom-heard clanging chimes of doom are now as ubiquitous as a Samsung Galaxy whistle. The TARDIS’ secreted-somewhere campanologists are at it again when The Girl Who Died begins. They’re sounding the alarm not just for Clara – who’s up to her waist (and then, shortly after, neck) – in trouble, but also Jamie Mathieson.
Sharing the writing credits for this episode with Steven Moffat, he returns to the series in the most hazardous of circumstances: as someone who topped the DWM poll. Mathieson’s double-pack of stories from last year’s run (Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline) were joyous, but disobligingly inflate expectations this time around.
Plus, this is the one with Maisie Williams in it. She of Game of Thrones fame, and also of “What took you so long, old man?” renown. Already – even though that bit hasn’t happened yet. This is maybe where publicity gets in the way. Her appearance at the very end of the series nine trailer inferred huge importance upon the character, so much so that the usual teases about her significance to the Doctor were then appended with clarification from Cardiff that, honestly, she’s not Susan or Romana. But still, right? She was at the very end, after the logo and the transmission date and the fade to black.
So, Jamie Mathieson and Maisie Williams. Guaranteed classic. Except I’d be surprised if that comes to be the consensus on this one.
However, The Girl Who Died remains doughty, bassline Doctor Who, telling a fun tale and cracking some nice jokes before lightly changing course at the end to set us towards something possibly more significant (we’ll have to see how that plays out). Its gleeful disposability is actually one of its most appealing facets, with the Doctor and Clara both making it obvious they recognise they’re in one of those episodes where no ‘game’ will be ‘changed’. This is the kind of adventure that lets a little air into the series, and in fact, one could even argue the situation we find them wrapping up before the opening credits would have taken the main body of that evening’s diary entry, if only the Doctor hadn’t brought Ashildr back to life.
To its credit, the production – mellifluously directed by Ed Bazalgette (formerly lead guitarists with the Vapors, fact fans) – is utterly accessible to all viewers. There’s no whiff of the self-regard that’s become attached to the series in recent years. It could even be said to act as a primer for newcomers; a point-by-point demonstration of quintessential Doctor Who. Self-aware from the off, the Doctor steps out of the TARDIS and declares, “I’m not actually the police, that’s just what it says on the box”, before then cautioning Clara – a little hypocritically – “We’re time travellers, we tread softly”. At the village, our hero lays out his MO of meeting “the boss man” and replacing him, and then during the ‘there’s no way we can escape our impending doom’ scene, Clara stops short of yanking out the series bible to highlight the fact the Doctor will ultimately find a way to win, but will appear clueless “right up until the last minute”. Throw in a superfluous reference to “the neutron flow” and its polarity, and this is Doctor Who 101.
Tying in beautifully with that is David Schofield’s Odin. The character encapsulates the limited grandeur of a great makeweight Doctor Who baddy, with Schofield making a hard fist around every line, throttling it for all he can, while he can (“Nec-tar!”). It’s as if he’s conscious this creation will soon be exiled to that special Valhalla for one-shot blackguards, where he will join Stygron, Monarch, General Cobb et al in a group selfie and some communal shouting about their respective indomitability. “We will meet again!” he vows as oblivion beckons. They always say that. The bogus deity’s visualisation is equally, wonderfully, disposable. An own-brand version of Anthony Hopkins’ Odin from the Thor movies (albeit with hi-tech eye patch on the other side), it, by itself, is enough of a tip off that this guy should not be taken all that seriously.
The playfulness abounds. We have the self-evident crappiness of the Doctor’s Dad’s Army fighting force (points deducted, though, for instead referencing the other Croft and Perry army sitcom, by naming a character Lofty) and, for not any particular reason, the most overt hint yet of Clara’s bisexuality (“Fight you for her,” she says to the Doctor, eyeing up Ashildr). One could even assert there’s something in the fact we never actually see the Mire in combat to demonstrate their battle-worthiness. Perhaps it really is all PR in their part. None of this is to the detriment of the drama. Such fun, and the feeling of things being contrived, folds very neatly into one of the episode’s overriding themes: Stories.
The young Viking girl finds, at first, comfort, and then a happy ending for her kin in telling stories while, as the Doctor points out, the Mire’s reputation across the universe is only as fearsome as the tales that are told about them. On a more elegiac note, there’s also the Time Lord’s lamentation that at some stage, his own story with Clara will come to a conclusion and she will be just a memory that “hurts so much, I won’t be able to breathe”.
Tonal flips like that are the great delight of Doctor Who, which, even when it’s in comedy-historical mode, can suddenly land us in a scene of emotional integrity. Maisie Williams’ portrayal of Ashildr is rightly unshowy. She isn’t quite the look-at-me oddball she might have been, and that makes it all the more powerful when she talks of having always felt different from other people, but of also experiencing the unconditional love from those currently in her life. It’s a refined, defined sentiment. Moreover, this episode – with all its shouting and falling over – also takes care of an important bit of admin for the Time Lord’s current incarnation by explaining the narrative reason he adopted the physical form of Peter Capaldi. I asserted above that the tale is light on self-regard, and I don’t think this beat contradicts that. It’s a continuity reference, if that’s all you want to see it as. But it’s also a perfectly understandable justification for the Doctor to decide to bring Ashildr back from the dead, and in doing so, recant on his rules for time travel… while also kicking the story up the arse.
Because, now, it’s ‘To Be Continued’ and one wonders if other things had actually been unfolding all the while the Mire were getting their comeuppance. Whereas last year, Missy or an underling would drop into a story in a standalone and eminently shiftable scene to draw attention to the multiplying scaffolding for a season arc, this time – and in a first for the modern show – it could be that the grand plan has been properly seeded throughout the run. Genuinely woven through the stories. The Doctor’s fretfulness at the end that he’d created the Hybrid which Davros had taunted him about was a nice surprise for this viewer, but, possibly more importantly, a reasonable conclusion for him to make, based upon the preceding 45 minutes of screen time rather than a leftfield insertion because that was what the audience needed to know now.
There are other potential traces too. Should you care, I always write these reviews based upon the episodes themselves, with no looking ahead, and no foreknowledge (other than general fan gossip) of what’s to come. So this could all be nonsense, but following on from Under The Lake/Before The Flood, there continues to be a lot of discussion about the consequences of the Doctor and Clara’s actions. Talk of “ripples and tidal waves”. He may be the Doctor, and he may save people, but it feels like there could be some sort of catastrophe on the way, a tsunami – and the thread to unleash it is already bound through his course.
“Time will tell, it always does,” says the Doctor to Clara, as he once did to Ace (‘Ding!’ as fans recognised the remark’s possible lineage – although maybe it was just the right line for here). And time will weather The Girl Who Died, I think. It’ll probably be a forgotten soldier in this year’s series. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it also becomes the base camp from where bigger victories will have been secured. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that much. Whether it’s glorious, inglorious, or just reasonable Doctor Who, barring accidents, all of it’s immortal.