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?
Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in The Girl Who Died.
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The Doctor – Peter Capaldi
Clara – Jenna Coleman
Ashildr – Maisie Williams
Odin – David Schofield
Nollarr – Simon Lipkin
Chuckles – Ian Conningham
Lofty – Tom Stourton
Limpy – Alastair Parker
Hasten – Murray McArthur
Heidi – Barnaby Kay
Written by: Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat
Directed by: Ed Bazalgette
Gifs by: J-Ru
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The Girl Who Died is a different sort of episode – the first part of a two-episode serial that could truly act as its own individual story. A basic plot is mixed in with some solid performances and the answer to a question that’s intrigued fans for two seasons, but by and large the events of this episode would have remained self-contained if not for the last few minutes, where the Doctor makes a decision that radically alters a character’s life.
Vikings, a legendary group of Earth pillagers and conquerors. Not a warrior group the Doctor enjoys dealing with. The Mire, a legendary group of intergalactic pillagers and conquerors . Not a warrior group the Doctor enjoys dealing with. The two groups collide in a small 10th century village as the Mire harvest the town’s strongest warriors. But Ashildr, angered by the slaughter of her friends, declares war upon the leader of the Mire. In 24 hours, the Mire will return to fight the ten strongest warriors of the village…but the remaining villagers have never picked up a sword in their lives. The Doctor faces a dilemma. If he leaves, the villagers will be horribly massacred by the Mire. If he helps defeat the Mire, they will return to Earth again and again seeking new challenges, putting Earth in the intergalactic cross hairs years before they’re ready…
There’s a pattern to the stories of Jamie Mathieson – the Doctor and his companion are thrust into a basic situation (murders on the Orient Express, an invasion of two dimensional aliens, the impending attack of a race of alien warriors), there’s a major impediment put in their way (an alien only those about to die can see, the Doctor being trapped in the TARDIS, villagers who have no idea how to fight), and a sudden burst of inspiration at the very last minute saves the day (the Doctor deducing the mummy is a fallen soldier, Clara using the aliens’ energy to recharge the TARDIS, the village harvesting electric eels). The plot of The Girl Who Died reminded me a lot of movies like Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven (or its anime counterpart Samurai 7) and Battle Beyond the Stars, all movies where a group of ragtag warriors are recruited to defend a poor village from an overwhelming force. Mathieson’s script (along with a co-writing credit from Steven Moffat) works on a very simple level – a powerful alien threat (the Mire who look menacing in what could have passed as Iron Man’s armor if he was around during the Golden Age of Comics) with a sneering and overconfident leader (David Schofield as Odin), secondary characters who, if we never learn their real names, make some sort of impression (Lofty the Blacksmith and Heidi who faints at the thought of the sight of blood), and an over-the-top plan that somehow manages to work despite everything to the contrary. Throw in a couple moments of humor (the Doctor’s initial meeting with the Vikings and the smash cut from giving the trainees real swords to the village on fire), and what Mathieson gives us is a basic and workable blueprint to enjoy the story from. There are a couple of moments however that don’t quite click – a Viking village with electric eels? The village suddenly being able to craft and put together all kinds of weird crafts and puppets (it reminded me of the “we can sew” line from Three Amigos!)? The Doctor translating the baby’s cries as a moment of dramatic tension? They don’t mean much in the long run, but it’s enough to keep this story from attaining the lofty heights of Mathieson’s earlier stories.
(For the record, “eeeeeeeeeeels” is definitely no “treeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeees”)
With the story laid out, it’s once again up to the cast to elevate the script and make the episode something special. The Girl Who Died contains my favorite Jenna Coleman performance so far this season as Clara runs the gamut across a wide variety of emotions and character tics. We have the panic as Clara realizes something in her spacesuit, her banter with the Doctor as they’re hauled in chains into the Viking village, her quick thinking in order to keep her and the Doctor from being harvested, her attempts to drive the Mire away – Clara’s turn in this story touches upon so much of what she’s picked up during her travels with the Doctor, encapsulating all her adventures and experiences into this one episode. This story really does show why Clara is a good companion for the Twelfth Doctor, someone who picks up on his traits while doing her best to keep him grounded and as “human” as he could possibly be. Mathieson’s script specifically serves to highlight one of the most important aspects of Clara’s feeling about the Doctor – her absolute and utter trust in him. This is the point that Clara keeps hammering home all episode. The Doctor will find a way to win (a call back to Missy’s words in The Witch’s Familiar), even if he doesn’t know it at the time. Coleman gives an easy sincerity to Clara’s bedrock faith. It’s just so casual the way she delivers the news to Ashildr that the Doctor has a plan but just doesn’t know it yet.
To me, Peter Capaldi’s best acting moment as the Doctor comes during the end of Dark Water when he realizes Missy is the Master. In terms of episodes however, The Girl Who Died is perhaps Capaldi’s best singular acting performance. The beginning of the episode sees the Doctor confident that his usual schtick will work to shock and awe the Vikings. But when he realizes that he’s dealing with the Mire and that the village is trapped in a “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” situation, Capaldi REALLY shines. Twelve has been a pragmatic Doctor, one who has been brutally honest about a person’s chances of survival even as he grabs at the faintest strands of hope. When there is no thread to grab, the melancholy Twelve falls into is a bit shocking. Viewers have seen the Doctor confused, or trying to puzzle out a solution of some sort, but here the Doctor just can’t find a way out, as the only way out of training the villagers will still lead to certain death. It’s a testament to Coleman and Capaldi’s chemistry together during the scenes where Clara tries to…not cheer the Doctor up, but kick him in the arse a little bit to get him going. I’ve said earlier that the big “aha” moment involving the presence of electric eels is incredibly silly, but what sells the moment is Capaldi’s sheer joy at the realization that the Doctor can help the villagers save the day, as is wont to happen with the Doctor around, using VR overlays, Google Glass, and magnetic anvils. It’s JUST over-the-top enough to work and not detract too much from the episode…
Then the mood whiplash hits when he realizes that in this moment of happiness is a moment of sheer sorrow (as is wont to happen with the Doctor around). All the joy leaves with a powerful scene as the Doctor proclaims once again his sickness at the fact that he can’t save everyone no matter how hard he tries, that for all his smarts and brilliance people still get hurt because he can’t change time to save them all…
…it is a question that was asked way back during Deep Breath. Why the the Doctor take the face of Caecilius from The Fires of Pompeii?. He did it to remind himself that he could always save people. It’s a bit heartwarming and also smacks a bit of Ten’s “Time Lord Victorious,” which ties into the fact that it was Ten who saved Caecilius. As the Doctor follows through with this realization, there’s the hope that things are going to be ok, that just maybe the Doctor has saved someone that shouldn’t have been saved…
…and then the realization hits as Capaldi quietly states to Clara that he acted on pure emotion.
There was a lot of fan interest in the casting of Maisie Williams in this episode. Was she a lost Time Lord? An incarnation of Missy, or perhaps even Jenny? A future companion? None of those came to pass (so far…) and I’m going to half to wait until the second part of this story, The Woman Who Lived, to pass judgment on Williams’ turn. Her performance in The Girl Who Died was adequate, but there just wasn’t anything special in it. It suffered from what I call “Katie Holmes Syndrome.” During the whole Katie Holmes/Tom Cruise fling in 2005, Holmes had a significant role in Batman Begins, but while watching the movie every time Holmes came on screen I found myself saying “oh, that’s Katie Holmes.” Nothing in her performance in that movie made me think for the duration of the film that she was her character and as such I kept seeing her as the actress (for another example, see Paris Hilton’s turn in House of Wax). There was nothing beyond “proud Viking girl” that established Ashildr as anything more than a character we’ve seen in countless other stories and serials.
Now, the reason I’m willing to reserve judgment is because of this story’s ending. At first glance this episode reminded of The Doctor’s Daughter, where Jenny rockets off into the cosmos for new adventures, but we never see or hear from her again. This story could have fallen into that area, where Ashildr goes on to live her life without the Doctor seeing her again. Or, ala River Song, perhaps seeing her again in a later episode. But instead, The Woman Who Lived will take place directly after The Girl Who Died, so both the viewers and the Doctor get to see the immediate aftermath of the Doctor’s decision. But, it looks like it’s going to be in a completely different era of history with a completely different cast, leaving the Viking village behind. It’s the same scriptwriter and same director, so I’m definitely intrigued with how things might shake out…it’s definitely one of the most unique cliffhangers in this show’s history!
The Girl Who Died could have been a standard and solid episode of Doctor Who, with a good plot, interesting aliens, and moments of humor and melodrama. It’s the last few minutes that really make this episode an interesting one, as the Doctor’s actions to save one life has the potential for grave consequences. It speaks a lot about this incarnation of the Doctor, and seeing how he deals with the fallout of his decision in the next episode is what intrigues me the most…
– “What’s the one thing that’s true about gods, huh? They never show up!”
– If the Twelfth Doctor took Caecilius’ face as a reminder that he could always save people, then what does that say about the Sixth Doctor taking Commander Maxil’s face?
– The parallels between Ashildr and Captain Jack Harkness are there, and the Doctor’s treatment of Ashildr next episode is what currently intrigues me…
– Fine. The sonic sunglasses are gone. I hope you people are happy. I hope you people are all wearing huge happy hats.
Cobi’s Synopsis – A different type of first episode, The Girl Who Died is standard fare anchored by Peter Capaldi’s best performance yet as the Twelfth Doctor and a haunting final shot that speaks volumes about how the second part of this story might turn out.
Next Up – The Doctor is forced to face the consequences of his actions as he encounters someone who refuses to let him turn his back on the things he has done…
Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in…The Woman Who Lived