TV REVIEW: Doctor Who, S9, E5: The Girl Who Died

Jamie Mathieson wrote two solid episodes last year, Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatlines. Both stories had unique elements which either twisted a known concept or offered something truly unique. In The Girl Who Died, writing credits are shared with Steven Moffat and the pair drop The Doctor and Clara into a Viking (*cough* Norse *cough*) village. It’s been a long time since the Time Lord last encountered the infamous raiders on television (they were a threat in 1965’s The Time Meddlers), so let’s see how this adventure fares.

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?

One of the elements that has been a part of Doctor Who since it returned to our screens a decade ago has been the Doctor’s reliance on his “magic” technology. In particular, the Sonic Screwdriver. In the opening minutes of this episode, the Sonic and the TARDIS are taken from him, which means this story gives the Doctor a chance to really show his initiative. The fact that he is in a primitive culture facing a technologically advanced foe adds to this immensely.

The story itself is somewhat standard and safe. The Doctor arrives to discover an alien race pretending to be deities for their own purposes. Added to this mix is the Doctor actually being reluctant to help in the first instance. For once, out adventuring Time Lord seems to consider the consequences of getting involved. It’s inevitable that he does – he is The Doctor after all, but the fact that the question is asked (and later resolved) is gratifying to this aging fan.

I have to admit to finding the humour this week a tad strained. The Doctor’s antics upon arriving at the village and the conceit that The Doctor doesn’t “have time to learn names” but then proceeds to think about comedy names for the group … moments such as these didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the writing, almost seeming later inserts into an otherwise humour-free script. I actually think that humour was pretty un-needed this week as well. The script wasn’t dark and gritty. Neither was it an all-out romp. Tonally it sat in a middle ground which didn’t need such moments.

The underlying focus of the episode is not the alien threat or the Doctor’s ingenuity when absent of technology but the presence of a girl who the Doctor latches onto instantly. A girl who loves the village she knows she doesn’t fit in to as much as the Time Lord loves to experience new worlds and new sights. Maisie Williams plays the role of a girl younger than herself admirably – as any who have seen Game of Thrones can attest and she brings a suitable “strange” quality to the character of Ashildr. It’s a shame that the writing doesn’t give too much time for her character to develop. For the most part, it’s Ashildr herself who points out her oddness in the village, rather than the villagers doing so. I would also have liked to have seen the actress in a role that was less reminiscent of that which made her famous!

David Schofield in the role of “Odin” was a highlight of the episode for me. His delivery was pitched with the right level of hamminess. A hamminess that worked well because of his true nature as a disguised Alien commander. How much was the alien’s proud nature and how much a manifestation of the expectations of the role he assumed amongst the primitives? Schofield looked resplendent in his gold armour and winged helmet. The use of the god Odin’s eyepatch as an electronic device ties in nicely with the concept of the one-eyed god being “all seeing”. Touches like these that are there but remain un-spoken of within the episode are ones I particularly enjoy.

I think the lack of actual development (not just of Ashildr but also of the rest of the cast) is particularly apparent following on from a story that gave each and every person on screen time to breathe and for the various relationships to be revealed. Because of the restricted time allotted to the story, it must be harder for a writer to develop their characters and present the plot and theme they wish to. The aliens, the Mira, are painted in only the broadest “these are the bad guys” strokes – though it must be said they are present mainly as a device to present a threat rather than being a fully rounded race.

The design and costume departments have been performing sterling work on Doctor Who. Only a couple of corridors are seen on the alien spaceship, but the octagonal design and weathered, industrial look of these manage to give a sense of the function over form culture involved. This is consistent with the design of the race’s standard armour. Bulky, riveted and industrial looking. The creatures under the helmets are suitably grim as is their motivation for kidnapping the village’s inhabitants.

While the Viking village is realised well, looking every bit the part of a working Iron Age settlement, the inclusion of horned helmets on the warriors had me sighing. While I accept that this is the perception the public have of “Vikings”, it’s the current historical and archaeological understanding that such ornaments would appear only on ceremonial items if at all. Such protrusions would be a detriment in combat after all. I had a similar issue to the presentation of a historical “Robin Hood” last year. I accept that this is family entertainment and so should get over myself, but at the same time, Doctor Who should try and educate where it can.

None of my issues stopped me from seeing this as another good entry to the series by Mathieson. The logic of the plot fit together and the episode introduced some interesting questions. I liked the Mire within the context of the story and would be happy to see those riveted armour suits back in Doctor Who at some stage. The Girl Who Died may not be a classic in and of itself but it may well have some repercussions for Doctor Who and the Time Lord himself down the line!

Rating: 3.5 /5
Reviewer: WedgeDoc

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