Saturday 24 October 2015

Doctor Who - The Girl Who Died

One of Doctor Who's strengths has always been its ability to cover many different styles. It can be terrifying one episode, hilarious the next, and serious drama the next. Sometimes, it's several of those at once. “The Girl Who Died” by Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat is one of those stories that tries to be several things at once. On the surface, it's a light-hearted romp, very much in the vein of last year's “Robot of Sherwood”. It's set in a historical time period that pays only lip-service to actual history and throws in some comical aliens for the Doctor and friends to fight. However, there is also an underlying more serious edge to the story dealing with the consequences of difficult decisions, while also mixing in themes of the power of storytelling.

Mixing humour and seriousness is something that Doctor Who can do well, but unfortunately, it falls a bit flat here. “The Girl Who Died” is not a bad story. In fact, it's quite fun to watch, and has some wonderful moments, particularly towards the end. But the switches from slapstick goofiness to serious consequences are somewhat jarring, making the overall episode rather uneven. There's some greatness here, but it's struggling to escape from a cage of mediocrity.


Jamie Mathieson wrote last year's “Mummy on the Orient Express” and “Flatline”, two of Series 8's best episodes. Not surprisingly, these stories created high expectations for “The Girl Who Died”—perhaps too high to actually be met. Nonetheless, there are reasons to be disappointed in this episode, and a large part of it comes from the setting and characters.

Although “The Girl Who Died” is set in a Viking village, these are ahistorical Vikings, complete with horns on their helmets. The village and its characters have just enough visual reference to mark them as the populist, rather cartoonish version of Vikings, easily identifiable to the viewing audience, with little other attention actually paid to the setting or to any form of historical accuracy. Even though the characters frequently declare themselves as Vikings, this village has little to distinguish it from the stock mediaeval British village seen in numerous movies and television series including Doctor Who.

Of course, perfect historical accuracy is an impossibility, and the episode also doesn't have time to explore the intricacies of Viking life in detail. A certain amount of glossing over is necessary. However, there are a number of little things that could be done to make the setting just a little more authentic, much of that through the characters. Rather than just name-dropping Odin, why not show a little bit of Viking religious beliefs? It's also well-known now that women were warriors as well, so why are there no women in the returning group of warriors? For that matter, apart from Clara and Ashildr (who is characterised as not fitting in with the girls), why are there no speaking roles for women at all?

These are also “squeaky clean” Vikings—the various atrocities that Viking warriors committed are not merely glossed over; they're not even acknowledged. This is, of course, because the Vikings in this story are the good guys. Doctor Who likes a clear delineation between good and evil, and tends to steer away from shades of grey, especially in recent years. However, this results in two-dimensional characters that have plagued the historical Doctor Who stories of recent years—characters like Richard Nixon in “The Impossible Astronaut”/”Day of the Moon” and Winston Churchill in “Victory of the Daleks”.

And it's the characters that are the other major problem in “The Girl Who Died”. With the exception of Ashildr, none of them have any real development. They're so characterless, we don't even learn their real names—only the made-up ones the Doctor gives them, and even there, after reviewing the episode multiple times, I still have difficulty remembering which name goes with which character. Most of them are meant merely as sources of comedy, yet as I pointed out last year in my review of “Robot of Sherwood”, the best comedy is character-based. Without developed characters, the comedy may evoke a chuckle, but it will be mostly forgettable.

That said, the one character who does see development is Ashildr (and rightly so, since she is the most important character in this story). She is a bit of an outsider, a dreamer. She likes to create stories—and the power of stories is a major theme in Steven Moffat's Doctor Who. Unfortunately, with the lack of other strong characters to contrast her with, even she falls a bit flat. She is played wonderfully well, though, by Maisie Williams (whose appearance this year was highly publicised and led to many fan theories about who she would be playing, including Susan).

On the subject of characterisation, I have to say that I'm finding the Doctor's characterisation this series surprisingly inconsistent. In my review of “Under the Lake”, I commented on how the Doctor is much mellower this season, with more emphasis on comedy. At the time, I felt it was going well, but I'm no longer quite so sure. It seems that, in the attempt to tone the Doctor down a bit, the writers have become uncertain exactly what he should be like, resulting in a problem similar to the one Clara had in Series 7 (though not to the same extreme). It's hard, at the moment, to say exactly what's happening, and it may just be a problem in this episode due to the unevenness of the comedy and drama. We'll have to wait and see.

Clara continues to get a couple of token scenes drawing attention to her growing Doctor-ness, but otherwise doesn't do a whole lot. After how well Clara was depicted last series, I'm somewhat disappointed that this series is mostly pushing her to the sidelines. I keep hoping we'll see some meatier parts for her in upcoming episodes.

While I may feel that the setting and characters just don't work very well in this story, I don't want to make it sound as if there's nothing good about it. There's actually quite a lot I really like in “The Girl Who Died” (and it's an episode I liked more on subsequent viewings). While the Mire are not the most compelling or frightening alien species seen in Doctor Who, they work well for this story. All things considered, they're actually quite ineffective, which is sort of the point. They make it by mostly on reputation and beating up on more primitive peoples. When push comes to shove, they take off and run—which is precisely the idea behind the theme of stories having power. The Mire are feared because of the stories told about them, not because they actually deserve fear.

I was somewhat saddened to learn that Brian Blessed was originally cast as the fake Odin, the leader of the Mire, but had to drop out due to illness. He would have been amazing! Nothing against David Schofield—he does fine in the part—but this is the type of role Brian Blessed was born to play.

I love how the Mire are defeated. It puts aside the time paradoxes and just gives us an example of the Doctor being brilliant and putting together something out of the few things he has available (we'll ignore the fact that electric eels are not indigenous to the area and while the Vikings sailed far, I don't think they sailed quite far enough to bring back electric eels). Yes, it's over-the-top (the aforementioned eels, for one) and probably not very scientifically sound, but it's fun! And it's one area where the comedy in this episode really works. The Mire running in fear from a sculpture (and a rather poor one at that) is brilliant. It's also a subtler meta-nod to the power of stories theme. Doctor Who's budgetary problems have often given it difficulty with special effects over the years. There have been many effects that could be kindly referred to as dodgy. Even the CG dragon in this episode is not all that spectacular effects wise. Yet despite that, fans have been entranced by the show for over fifty years. Stories are powerful indeed.

I am of mixed mind over Ashildr's resurrection, and my final opinion on it will depend a lot on the next episode, “The Woman Who Lived”. People die and come back to life a lot in Steven Moffat's Doctor Who, to the point that it's really not that remarkable (though Series 8 did move away from this pattern). Indeed, I've commented many times before on how it cheapens death and removes consequences. It also completely removes the threat and tension from a story.

At the same time, I find the Doctor's decision to resurrect Ashildr not quite believable, and it ties in with the inconsistent characterisation of the Doctor I brought up above (I'll ignore, for now, how incredibly convenient it is that the Mire have this wonderful medical chip in their armour to begin with; if they have such an incredible device, why were they so scared of the dragon?). There are echoes of the Time Lord Victorious from “Waters of Mars” in the Doctor's declaration that he can do anything he wants and to hell with whoever is watching. But “Waters of Mars” was quite a long time ago—especially in the Doctor's life. This moment hasn't been built up to. It just sort of happens. Just last episode, he rather callously let O'Donnell die (with only a token attempt to save her) just to test his theory about the order of deaths. He showed no rising regret there, but now it's too much for him. Perhaps it's because he doesn't expect Ashildr to die and it takes him by surprise. Nevertheless, the audience needs to see some sort of build up. We need to see the Doctor affected by the deaths around him before he just can't take it any more and decides to play god.

Also, the Doctor realising why his current face looks like that of a person he met before (Caecilius in "The Fires of Pompei") doesn't provide much of a motivation here. It's supposed to remind him that he saves people? That's not something the Doctor usually needs reminding of, and it creates other needless questions. Just why did the sixth Doctor decided to look like Commander Maxil, a person who shot him? And what about Frobisher (also played by Peter Capaldi) in Torchwood: Children of Earth. I really don't see the need to explain the reuse of actors (something that happens and most people barely even notice), especially when it's shoehorned in just to motivate the Doctor in a way that he doesn't need motivating so that he'll resurrect a character in order to "save" her, rather than saving her in the first place.

However, this time, there actually appear to be consequences to this latest of the many resurrections we have seen in Doctor Who. The Doctor even comments that he may have made a mistake and does his best to run away again so that he doesn't have to face the consequences. The final scene, in particular, is truly magnificent. The time-lapse of the land changing and growing around Ashildr while her happiness at being alive slowly changes to anger and sadness is mesmerising and heart-wrenching. Doctor Who rarely pulls off such emotion in just a character's look, but this moments succeeds brilliantly and Maisie Williams is absolutely wonderful in it.

Overall, “The Girl Who Died” ends much better than it begins (although I love the Viking warrior breaking the sonic sunglasses at the beginning—not because I'm not a fan of them, but because it's a very realistic and honest response to the Doctor's brashness, something we actually don't often see). Once it gets past introducing a bunch of forgettable, nameless Vikings, it manages to tell an effective, moving story. If it had avoided a number of missteps along the way, it could have been a truly great episode.

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