Season 9, Episode 5 “The Girl Who Died”
Directed by Ed Bazalgette
Written by Jamie Mathieson & Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Maisie Williams, David Schofield, Simon Lipkin
Air date: Saturday, October 17, 2015
I’ll say this up front: watch this episode.
I guess I could stop there, but it wouldn’t be much fun to do that, now would it? Doctor Who Episode 9.5 “The Girl Who Died” is a pocket symphony running at tempo molto vivace. It deconstructs and reconstructs the themes behind modern Doctor Who at the same time. It takes what could have been a significant guest star part and turns in the best episode of the season so far. It reveals something of the Doctor’s past and finally brings this current incarnation of the Time Lord into sharper focus. It is, in short, the best that I think Steven Moffat-era Doctor Who can offer.
I’ve been a bit of a hard case on Doctor Who so far this season. Where I know other reviewers on the Internet have spoken about the first, third, and fourth episodes of this season in strong terms, I deliberately played up the negatives. Episode 1 was shock and awe, but it gave little solid ground for viewers to stand on. Episodes 3 and 4 were praised for their strong performances and paced, economic storytelling, but I thought they veered a little too close to formula. I thought that only episode 2, with its carefully constructed constraints, represented a strong offering for this season.
Well, this episode is “The Witch’s Familiar” on steroids in a good way. None of the usual set pieces of Doctor Who drama are on display here. Access to the TARDIS is gone in the first five minutes. Access to the sonic screwdriver/glasses is gone thirty seconds later. It’s just the Doctor and Clara on an adventure, alone, among Vikings.
Then there is the guest role played by Game Of Thrones star Maisie Williams. For a chunk of the episode, Clara effectively becomes the Doctor for the purposes of the story. She tries to save captives. She negotiates with aliens. She offers a strategy for exiting a tricky situation that could work. In that space, Williams’ Ashildr becomes her companion. That is Ashildr’s introduction. After that, she develops singular nuance. She is moving on a different plane than the rest of her fellow Vikings, and the Doctor immediately reacts differently to her because of it. We cannot say how or why, but I suppose that this will be revealed next week.
If I can level one criticism at the tone of the episode is that the show in recent years has become a little too self-aware of its own machinery. A key part of Doctor Who has always been sections of the script that say “magic happens here.” More recently, the Doctor actively points out his role as the Grand Magus, the wizard who pulls more than rabbits out of hats. We saw that in the “Witch’s Familiar” three weeks ago when the true nature of everything was finally revealed.
This sort of behavior was something hinted at in Steven Moffat’s writing in “Forest of the Dead” almost seven and a half years ago when River Song said:
Now my Doctor, I’ve seen whole armies turn and run away. And he’d just swagger off back to his TARDIS and open the doors with a snap of his fingers. The Doctor in the TARDIS. Next stop, everywhere.
Next stop everywhere is looking pretty near these days. Perhaps that is why River Song will finally return this Christmas after a prolonged absence.
There is, in the midst of all this swagger, the potential to lose something in the Doctor’s character. It was something that was observed as Tom Baker went on in his time as the Doctor: Arrogance brings a loss of fear and vulnerability. It’s hard to show fear or feel weak when you are bulletproof.
So what holds the Doctor in check? If, as we are reminded, the Doctor may not be bound by rules, he is still bound by cause and effect. Since time is a mutable thing for him, it is easy to see where the waves go when the pebble is tossed into the pool. We see this, this week. We see this when the Doctor unleashes something new in the Universe, something it hasn’t quite seen before. What will the consequences of that creation be? In the “Magician’s Apprentice,” we revisited an old question of cause and effect. Here, it happens again and the consequences are much more open ended.
Finally, there is the relationship of the Doctor and Clara to deal with. Since she jumped into her adventures with the Doctor with both feet in “The Last Christmas,” something of an inversion has begun to occur. Where past companions are often about “no, don’t,” she’s all about “yes, let’s.” Need to do five impossible things before breakfast, Clara will want the Doctor to make it six. She’s become an instigator and provocateur. This asserts a kind of equality of status not often seen among with his companions. The Lalla Ward incarnation of Romana perhaps comes the closest, but even she too often fell back into the role of the helpless female. As this week’s episode shows, Clara may be in danger… but she’s rarely helpless.
In the end, it all works. It zips along at a pace that always keeps the viewer guessing. It starts out with the appearance of being a fairly standard yarn, points this out in fact, and then subverts it at every turn. It also functions simultaneously on two different levels. There is the resolution of an overt battle, with a very modern solution. At the same time, there is an interior battle… which creates a cliffhanger of a much more philosophical nature. How will that resolve? I believe we will find out this coming Saturday.