Sunday, 18 October 2015

Review - 'Doctor Who', S09E05 - 'The Girl Who Died'

It is fairly impressive to think that a show that has been around for as long as Doctor Who has can still find ways to surprise me. After all, even shows that don't have anywhere near as much history can fall into the trap of becoming repetitive and predictable. But, how did this episode of Doctor Who manage to surprise me? Well, it did so by providing an answer to a mystery that I honestly didn't realise even was a mystery.

Observant viewers are likely to remember that Peter Capaldi actually appeared in an episode of Doctor Who well before being cast as the Doctor - appearing back when David Tennant still filled the role. I'm sure that there was some speculation about a possible connection back when Peter Capaldi was brought in as the new Doctor - but, for me, if I had given it any real thought at all, it would only have been to dismiss it as a casting quirk that wouldn't even be addressed. I suppose I should have known better - since this episode makes it clear that there is a connection, there. And, when that connection it revealed, it's done so in a way that feels fairly clever and, actually, genuinely touching. To top it off, this moment also provides some fairly clear confirmation that a Time Lord does have some control over the form that they take when they regenerate - sub-consciously, at least.

But, of course, I'm getting ahead of myself. Opening on the tail-end of an adventure, which sees the TARDIS under attack while Clara is left floating in space with some sort of brain-eating alien creature sharing her space-suit, the Doctor and Clara soon manage to escape this dangerous situation only to find themselves back on Earth in time to be captured by Vikings. Vikings who, it should be said, fully embrace the historical inaccuracy of wearing horned helmets - though, to be fair, horned helmets are such a deeply ingrained part of how many people picture Vikings that it should probably just be marked down as 'creative license'.

As a side-note, anyone who happened to dislike the 'sonic sunglasses' that the Doctor has been wearing for the past few episodes is likely to get a laugh out of the casual way in which they are snatched off of his face and snapped in half early in the episode. They were, apparently, only added in the first place as something of a joke, just because the writer's decided that they could - so, it is definitely amusing to see them go out in much the same way. Of course, the half that is salvaged still seems to work - so, they aren't entirely gone, just yet.

Taken back to the Viking's village, the Doctor's efforts to convince the Viking's to let them go, by trying to convince them that he is Odin for some reason, is interrupted by a much more convincing vision appearing in the sky - a vision which appears to be the 'true' Odin, and comes offering the Viking warriors a chance to enter Valhalla. Strange alien warriors, who the Doctor recognises as a race known as the Mire, appear set on taking the strongest that the village as to offer. In a moment, every capable warrior that the village has to offer vanishes - along with Clara and a young Viking girl named Ashildr (Maisie Williams), who get taken when the working half of the Doctor's 'sonic sunglasses' is identified as highly advanced alien technology.

Rather than Valhalla, though, the Vikings find themselves on an alien ship - where they are promptly killed. Clara and Ashildr are allowed to escape this fate, though, as the leader of the aliens, still posing as Odin (David Schofield), has questions about the Time Lord technology. As Clara seems to be making good progress in convincing the Mire to leave Earth, arguing that there is nothing else of value for them here, an angry outburst from Ashildr results in a declaration of war. So, now, Clara and Ashildr are sent back - and, the remaining villagers have a day to proper for battle with one of the most dangerous warrior races in the galaxy.

Despite the high stakes, for the most part The Girl Who Died is actually the most overtly comedic episode we have had this season. With the warriors already dead, the Doctor's efforts to turn a village of farmers, all of whom have never even held a sword before, into a force capable to taking on the Mire seems like it should be tense and dramatic - but, instead, these scenes seem to be played purely for laughs. First of all, we have the Doctor randomly assigning new names to the farmers (high-lights include ZZ Top and Heidi). Then, there's the hilarious jump-cut from the moment the Doctor first allows the Viking farmer to hold real swords to the seemingly inevitable consequences - a sequence of events which somehow results in a great deal of panicked screaming and a building on fire. Even the Doctor's eventual plan for how to beat the Mire has a distinctly comedic edge to it - a plan which, for whatever reason, seems to hinge on electric eels. The answer to exactly how and why a Viking village came into possession of barrels full of electric eels (which, I believe, have never been native to that part of the world) is just the latest in a long line of bizarre plot-points that Doctor Who has expected the audience to just accept.

It's not all comedy, of course. Recurring themes about exactly how the Doctor influences the people around him, and whether that influence is positive or negative, are touched on again, here. And, also, we have the issue of exactly how much influence the Doctor is allowed to have on the events that occur around him. Then, of course, there is Ashildr - who quickly proves to be the true star of the episode.

Something of an outsider, with a vivid imagination and a love of stories, Ashildr is the latest in a long line of people that the Doctor has felt an affinity with. There does seem to be quite a bit of similarity between Ashildr and Arya Stark (that being, obviously, the role that Maisie Williams is most famous for) - it might even be possible to think of her as being what Arya could have been had her own life not turned into a constant stream of tragedy. Honestly, it problem wasn't the greatest test of Maisie Williams' acting ability - though, it works for the episode. Ashildr is an instantly likable character - as clever, strong, and resourceful as any of the other 'potential Companions' that the show has introduced (those characters who the Doctor seems inclined to invite along for a trip on the TARDIS - but, who never get the chance for one reason or another. There have actually been quite a few of them over the years). This, of course, only makes her arc throughout the episode more personal for the Doctor - and, more dramatic for the audience.

If this episode has any real weakness (other than its reliance on some goofy plot-elements), then it's only really that it becomes increasingly obvious as we move toward the end that the entire purpose of this episode is simply to set the pieces in place for Ashildr's appearance in the next episode. This gives the, perhaps unfair, sense that nothing else really matters. In the end, though, 'The Girl Who Died' is a fantastic episode - it is, quite possibly, my personal favourite of the season so far.

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