Captured by Vikings, the Doctor and Clara must help protect their village from space warriors from the future, the Mire. Outnumbered and outgunned, their fate seems inevitable. So why is the Doctor preoccupied with a single Viking girl?
On the face of it, The Girl Who Died feels like a generic mid-series episode. It is light in the plot department, has pretty unmemorable villains and could be described as a bit of a throwaway romp. In it’s last third, however, it is a turning point in the Capaldi era.
The story is focused on the way that the Doctor interacts with time and how he makes sure that he doesn’t damage timelines too badly. It’s always an interesting subject for the show to visit, and here Mathieson and Moffat explain it as causing ripples and not tidal waves, which is demonstrated by what the Doctor has largely done off-screen in the cold open. The Doctor explains to Clara that he drained the weapons of the armies attacking the Velosians, but he hadn’t done anything to stop them from trying again, giving the Velosians a chance to prepare for a follow-up attack. It is a strategy that has been refined over hundreds of years facing down the Daleks and Cybermen, amongst others, and one that he attempts to employ here, encouraging the Vikings to flee rather than fight the Mire, and using his knowledge and skills to make a system that won’t encourage the Mire, or something worse, to come back and change history. Despite his efforts not to create a tidal wave, his overwhelming desire to save someone he likes impacts heavily, not only on this story but on the rest of the series.
The story is also about brains versus brawn. Arguably, all Doctor Who stories are about that – the Doctor seldom implores people to take up arms and fight – but this one makes it very clear. The Mire harvest the Viking warriors for their adrenaline and testerone, leaving the beings that they deem to be weak. The show demonstrates how responding with violence isn’t always the answer during the disastrous training section, leading to fire and chaos. Their undoing are the brains of the Doctor, Clara and Ashildr, especially in Ashildr’s case as she conjures up the scenario that proves to defeat the Mire at the cost of her own life.
It would be safe to say that The Girl Who Died does not have much of a plot and could be seen as a standard mid-series two-parter, were it not for the last ten minutes or so. The tone is definitely comedic and campy, especially in the role played by the false Odin, played by David Schofield, whose part defnitely calls for some of scenery to be chewed. Moments like the training sequence that goes drastically wrong are quite funny and the cut works really well for the laugh as the Doctor proceeds to try and train his unlikely army to use real swords.
I’m the Doctor, and I save people. And if anyone happens to be listening, to hell with you!The Twelfth Doctor
That being said, the story takes a turn for the dramatic once the Mire are defeated and Ashildr has died. The Doctor has a deep soul-searching session, contemplating the nature of his life, surrounded by death and losing companions and comes to a decision which will ultimately prove to be a mistake. He self-affirms that the reason why he chose this face, as a reminder to save people, and this is demonstrated by the use of the scenes with the Tenth Doctor and Donna from The Fires of Pompeii relating to saving Caecilius (also played by Peter Capaldi) and his family. It’s a crucial moment in the character arc of the Twelfth Doctor as it concludes the arc that starts with Deep Breath and sets up things to come.
The character of Ashildr is a bit of a strange one, as we as an audience don’t really get a chance to get to know her before the Doctor grants her near immortality. We are told but not shown that she is an outsider and not welcomed into either groups of her male or female peers, which might be why the Doctor likes her – because she reminds him of his younger self, who as we saw in Listen, was very much the same. But the central mystery of how the Doctor knows her really holds back her development in this episode. I remember the theories online about who Maisie Williams was going to be playing, as it was assumed from the first trailer that she would be playing someone significant from the Doctor’s past, like Susan or the Rani. Whilst casting an upcoming star like Williams obviously captured the attention of the public, but the character doesn’t really show much promise in her first outing.
Can you see a nebula? Can you see a nebula in a sort of wing-shape? Bit green at the end?
Yes! Yes, I can.
Great, I’ve seen it too. I wonder when it was.The Twelfth Doctor and Clara Oswald
Peter Capaldi puts in a really strong performance here and is able to transition from the more comedic elements to serious with ease. The most powerful moments of this episode are those in the closing fifteen minutes and are a tour de force of acting from Capaldi as he sells every line of dialogue with every fibre of being, and you genuinely believe that he has been through every loss personally that the Doctor has suffered. He even makes the Doctor speaking baby and expressing it’s fear of loss and grief feel sincere and not ridiculous. It’s all leading towards the end of the series, showing just how far this Doctor is willing to go for those he cares about, even if it means making mistakes. Jenna Coleman has less to do than usual here as Clara, but she does well with the bits she does have to do. Arguably, she shares the limelight with Williams, which does lead to both of them not feeling well served.
Verdict: A mid-series story with little plot but some good character development for the Twelfth Doctor. It is the weakest of Jamie Mathieson’s contribution to the show though. 7/10
Cast: Peter Capaldi (The Doctor), Jenna Coleman (Clara Oswald), Maisie Williams (Ashildr), David Schofield (Odin), Simon Lipkin (Nollarr), Ian Conningham (Chuckles), Tom Stourton (Lofty), Alastair Parker (Limpy), Murray McArthur (Hasten) & Barnaby Kay (Heidi).
Writer: Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat
Director: Ed Bazalgette
Producer: Derek Ritchie
Composer: Murray Gold
Original Broadcast Date: 17 October 2015
Behind the Scenes
- The footage of the Tenth Doctor and Donna was taken from The Fires of Pompeii and footage of the younger Twelfth Doctor from Deep Breath.
- This episode is the third episode in a row to feature the cloister bell ringing, the first time in the show’s history that this has happened.
- The 100th episode of Doctor Who since the 2005 revival.
- David Schofield has appeared in The Doomsday Quatrain, The End of the Beginning and Death in Blackpool.
- Ian Conningham has also appeared in the Big Finish plays Nightmare Country, The Primeval Design, The Hollow Crown and Storm of the Horofax.
- Tom Stourton appeared as the characters Factotum, Fitzgerald and Samsara in the Big Finish play An Ideal World.
- Barnaby Kay has also appeared in A Life in the Day, The Neverwhen, Precious Annihilation and The Devil’s Hoofprints.
The closing circling shot of Ashildr as she comes to terms with her immortality, starting with her smiling and ending on her face, considerably changed.
People talk about premonition as if it’s something strange, but it’s not. It’s just remembering in the wrong order.The Twelfth Doctor
I’m sick of losing people. Look at you, with your eyes, and your never giving up, and your anger, and your kindness. 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 all the pain ever catches up. And every place I go, it will be there.
You did your best. She died. There’s nothing you can do.The Twelfth Doctor and Clara Oswald
I can do anything. There’s nothing I can’t do. Nothing. But I’m not supposed to. Ripples, tidal waves, rules. I’m not supposed to
Previous Twelfth Doctor review: Before the Flood