The ninth series of the revived Doctor Who continues to have an unbroken string of excellence that embodies both the classic show and the new. “The Girl Who Died” was probably the most anticipated episode because of its guest appearances by Game of Thrones actress Maisie Williams, and while it was for the most part silly, it was a pretty good brand of silly.
The Doctor and Clara land near a Viking village and are taken hostage until Odin appears in the sky and calls for the villagers to send their mightiest warriors to Valhalla. In reality, these are a famous warrior race called the Mire who feed on adrenaline and testosterone and have decided to snack on some Norsemen. Stuck miles away from the Tardis, The Doctor and Clara are forced to fight one of the most dreaded enemies in the universe with primitive weapons and their wits.
First, let’s tackle Williams. She’s wonderful as the Viking daughter Ashildr, mostly because she’s basically just playing Arya Stark. It’s the same determined fire, the same need to prove herself in battle, and underneath it the same commentary on fathers and daughters that made the first Game of Thrones series magical up until…well, you know. She’s a potent foil to Clara and a good fit with The Doctor, and is again a good indicator that the Tardis crew needs to expand to three. She’s a middle ground between Jenna Coleman’s unending pluckiness and Peter Capaldi’s manic malaise.
“The Girl Who Died” feels at times more like a really good Fifth Doctor adventure. There’s the kindness and guilt in The Doctor over lives lost that was Peter Davison’s trademark, as well as the penchant for improvisational solutions and a willingness to rely on other people as allies. You could drop the episode in somewhere back in the ‘80s, and it would fit right in.
It’s also hokey. Shamelessly, unabashedly hokey. Odin is such a cheesy villainous throwback that I was half-hoping he was going to turn out to be The War Chief or The Pirate Captain in disguise. I swear by the Seal of Rassilon he is wearing a plastic Thor helmet on his head that can be found in the Halloween section of any dollar store. The Mire are sufficiently terrifying, but their leader is a one-dimensional mustache-twirling, scenery-eating glory. He was the antagonist equivalent of eating an entire birthday cake by yourself.
Side note on the Mire: I have no idea why Doctor Who the television series keeps creating these armored, top-heavy, ruthless villains like the Mire and the Judoon when they could just bring their obvious inspiration, the Selachians, from the novels and audio plays to the screen.
There are times when the episode stretches itself to ridiculous lengths. How exactly Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat expected us to believe that pre-Columbus Vikings somehow had acquired and domesticated electric eels found only in South America I don’t know. It’s especially lazy when you can find a much more sensible candidate with five minutes' work on Wikipedia. It’s not “the moon is an egg” stupid, but that really shouldn’t be where we draw the line on fact-checking scripts.
The more significant writing failure involves the ending, which I’m going to try very hard not to spoil. Let’s just say that The Doctor needs to save someone’s life, and that person becomes functionally immortal as a result. Previously Rose Tyler had to become a god to do that to Jack Harkness, but here The Doctor does it with a standard-issue Mire medical kit. If the Mire have a medical kit as standard issue that makes them immune to death, why would they ever run away from anything? It’s a literal deus ex machina, and a pretty sloppy one at that.
There’s also the question of introducing proof of immortality to Earth with all the centuries of European imperialism, exploration and exploitation still ahead, but to be fair, it’s implied that The Doctor will address this. Capaldi does some really marvelous things in this episode, including a mixture of speaking baby and translating the dinosaur from “Deep Breath” that is touching and wonderful. Where he really shines, though, is in a deep moment of self-reflection, literally in this case as he contemplates his face in a pool of water.
The Doctor finally admits, maybe for the first time on screen, that he can do anything. That he actually is all-powerful if he chooses to be, but that he binds himself by the laws of the Time Lords. Yes, the Tenth Doctor had his “Time Lord Victorious” moment, but it’s nothing like this. Ten’s choice to subvert a fixed point was immediately rectified by time itself. Twelve’s choice can’t be. Parallels are also drawn between Ten’s unwillingness to save Pompeii and the reason the Twelfth Doctor resembles Caecilius.
The consequences of interference and The Doctor’s willingness to endanger time for the sake of lives is a long-running theme that’s been sadly missing for many years. It was that streak of interference that made the Second Doctor reticent to contact the Time Lords to help stop the War Chief, and doing so cost him his life as punishment. The Eighth Doctor would find himself constantly dealing with the fallout from saving Charley Pollard from a doomed airship, an act that nearly destroyed the linear universe because of the damage it did to the web of time.
Between “Before the Flood” and the events this week, we’re seeing The Doctor tackle his true nemesis: fate. There’s a rage to it that is frightening to behold. He’s slowly becoming obsessed with the idea that time is not fair. Time wants him to be part of Davros’s creation. Time needs him to die in an undersea research base. Time wants him to accept that people he cares about will not make it through his adventures.
And I get the feeling that The Doctor is about to kick time’s cold, unfeeling ass, and if anyone has a problems with that, he makes it clear that person can go to Hell.
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