DOCTOR WHO Series 9, Episode 5 'The Girl Who Died'

PrintE-mail Written by J. R. Southall

After all the speculation about who Maisie Williams’ character would turn out to be – Romana, Susan, Drax; take your pick – in the end, the answer was always going to be something much less involved in the series’ ancient history than people were anticipating; she’s Captain Jack. Or rather, she’s yet another example of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who taking an idea from the Russell T Davies years and asking, “Now, what would I have done if I’d come up with that?” And so, as a result of something the Doctor has done (rather than his companion this time; it is called Doctor Who after all), an apparent innocent is given the gift of immortality. What Davies didn’t do with Captain Jack, however, was immediately follow up his transformation with an episode looking at what that metamorphosis might mean for the character in the longer term – and it looks like that’s what’s being set up with Catherine Tregenna’s episode next week. Meanwhile, there are probably already at least a dozen fan fictions proposing Ashildr as the father of little baby Boe as mentioned in The Long Game.

Speaking of which, that’s the other thing Steven Moffat and by extension Jamie Mathieson are doing here: as much as Maisie is the omnisexual Time Agent, she’s also the two-episode character Adam from the middle of Series One in antithesis. For just as Adam is an empty vessel who is taken aboard the TARDIS before being rejected for his lack of potential, so Ashildr is all potential who is abandoned to realise that potential on her own – entirely on her own – and her second episode will (probably) revolve around whether that was the right decision – just as the decision to take Adam to Satellite 5 proved to be the wrong one. And just as the crux of The Long Game was Rose’s first indication that travelling with the Doctor could be a temporary situation, so the pivotal scene in The Girl Who Died was the Doctor’s failure to see Clara as a potentially permanent appointment; things aren’t looking too good for the character at this point. Her reaction to the Doctor’s double gift to Ashildr was unspoken and underplayed, but will doubtless have ramifications later on.

The Girl Who Died was also yet another iteration of both the Fixed Point and the Time Lord Victorious ideas, with the current regime treating each as personal choices dictated by the present Doctor’s sense of honour – very different to the story told about the Tenth Doctor in his final series and the specials, and yet again, it seems like the Twelfth Doctor’s impulsiveness this time might come back to haunt him, albeit probably next week. It was nice to see David Tennant and Catherine Tate back on the screen, however briefly, in flashback though; a reminder that we are still watching the same programme from six years ago, and a footnote to the casting of a Doctor who’s previously appeared in the series in another role. Funnily enough, the explanation given doesn’t take too much extrapolation to account for Colin Baker’s appearance as Maxil, either, both characters being bullish and with an extra level of determination.

After two two-parters that have rather stuttered between instalments, it was a relief to get back to an episode that resolved its plot within the 45 minutes, in spite of the “To Be Continued...” tag at the end. Moffat and Mathieson’s fairly lightweight episode mixed Dad’s Army with The Seven Samurai to good effect, and is proof if any be required that it doesn’t take 90 minutes to introduce a set of characters that the audience can care about. Beyond Ashildr, there were a number of other Vikings in the village who evoked both compassion and comedy, often at the same time, and both the script and direction were sympathetic to the characters and their situation, and yet light enough on their feet to introduce tonal shifts that felt natural and unforced. If the resolution to the Mire aspect of the plot was rather swift, then that’s just a function of the shorter story length and didn’t feel in any way like a sleight from the plot. Besides, there was plenty to make up for it; this was possibly the funniest episode we’ve seen this year, and with the exception of the first half of Toby Whithouse’s two-parter easily the most consistent – and there were two or three moments of complete audacity that fairly took the breath away. It’s a shame the dragon’s appearance had been spoiled in the trailers, as it would otherwise have been just as perplexing, as unexpected and yet as amusing as Odin’s face in the sky.

And that’s what The Girl Who Died was, really; a tribute to the Third Doctor’s era in the way that Robot of Sherwood could almost have been last year. While Mark Gatiss’ episode featured the Doctor and his companion tied up in a dungeon in the manner Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning regularly were, this week we had clunky machinery role-playing as a giant lizard, and a plot that resembled The Time Warrior rather than having just occasional nods to it in its mechanisms. Yet if The Girl Who Died lacked in originality, it more than made up for it with brio and bonhomie. I’d have happily spent another hour in the company of the villagers, and Peter Capaldi gave perhaps his smartest and most good-natured performance yet. Now that his character has settled into self-awareness and a certain contentment with what he does, he’s an absolute delight to have around; he feels like a distillation of all the best bits of the first handful of classic Doctors, but with writing that addresses the series’ internal concerns that’s consistent with modern television, and with a character who’s still looking to be a better person, a better Doctor; the best of both worlds without a doubt.

The Girl Who Died even managed to find some proper pathos before its end, and while having a character die and be resurrected is hardly novel in Doctor Who, especially latterly, this time it’s being done in order to tell a story about that very thing – another instance of Moffat addressing criticisms of his writing by tackling those things that are being criticised in a tangential manner. The story also managed to find a resolution that involved both magic – Ashildr’s second sight being put to use in order to frighten the Mire into leaving – and mechanics, with the electric eels being used as the more functional aspect to the victory. It’s the last five years in a nutshell; there’s rationality there if you want it, and yet if you’d prefer a little magic you can read it that way too. Last year in Mummy on the Orient Express, Jamie Mathieson managed to squeeze the entire series arc into a single episode’s worthy of analogy, and this year he’s done it with the programme itself rather than just a year’s worth of it. And he’s still been able to do it without sacrificing any of the humour or the heart that makes great Doctor Who so abiding. The Girl Who Died was far more than the sum of its parts, and when those parts are quite so enjoyable, that’s quite a thing to be.

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