This week’s Doctor Who review looks at The Girl Who Died – Vikings, aliens, and even a sea monster, this episode promises a lot. Oh, and also Maisie Williams is in it.
After a pre-titles sequence with the Doctor plucking Clara out of deep space, we are thrown right into the world of the Vikings. Fully armed and wearing historically inaccurate helmets (or were they space helmets for cows?), the Doctor and Clara find a village under the watchful eye of a god claiming to be Odin. It is not long before the conspiracy is unmasked and the village is facing certain doom at the hands of the Mire.
There was a lot of speculation going around in the lead up to this episode, all surrounding Maisie Williams’ character. Was she River Song, Jenny, the Rani, Romana, the Doctor, or maybe even K-9? No, she was an ordinary Viking girl. Or, perhaps not so ordinary. She does seem to have qualities that have set her apart from her fellow villagers, and she does prove somewhat key to the plot in many ways.
What I liked about her character, Ashildr (and I swear I thought it was ‘Isildur’ for a good chunk of the episode), was that she drove the story whenever she appeared. Sometimes through her actions, sometimes through her pathos – much of the plot was built by her. She could be brash, hot-headed, and eager to defend the honour of her people, but she could also be imaginative and loving, honest and forthright. It is a testament to the talents of Williams that she is able to portray so many sides to one character with only a few minutes of screen time overall.
The villain of the episode, Odin (David Schofield) has some visual similarities to the Pirate Captain from the 1978 serial The Pirate Planet. He was somewhat less shouty but still a brash and self-centred figure whose bluster and pride were at the forefront. We’ve seen an awful lot of warrior races in Doctor Who and the Mire didn’t really strike me as particularly intimidating or even impressive one. They were somewhat reminiscent of some monsters from the 60s: big, bulky and straddling the line between monsters and robots.
The Mire served as a very simple foil for the vikings – warriors intent on destroying them and giving the Doctor a threat to face. This story wasn’t really about them, it was much more about the Doctor and his impact on time and space. As a result, we finally get a glimpse of why the Doctor now looks so much like Caecilius from The Fire of Pompeii (2008). It is a reminder – he is the Doctor, and he saves people, the rules be damned.
The most interesting aspect of this episode for me was seeing the Doctor wrestling with his choices, with how much he can, or should interfere with events. It’s an issue the show has gone back and forth on many times; the Eleventh Doctor was notoriously glib with the laws of time (especially in A Christmas Carol, 2010) while other Doctors have been a little more cautious. The Doctor recalls the effects that time travellers can have and echoes something said by the Seventh Doctor:
“Every great decision creates ripples, like a huge boulder dropped in a lake. The ripples merge, rebound off the banks in unforeseeable ways. The heavier the decision, the larger the waves, the more uncertain the consequences.”
Ultimately, the Doctor decides to interfere. His compassion wins him over. His need to do the right thing pushes him to do the unthinkable – lead a band of farmers and fishermen to defeat one of the mightiest warriors in the universe. It’s a very classic Doctor-y move and comes across spectacularly.
However, there are losses. Ashildr dies of heart failure (presumably from self-inflicted fright?) and the Doctor is in despair. Remembering what Donna said to him back in The Fires of Pompeii, he resolves to save her and as a result, he gives her something akin to immortality – talk about going beyond the call of duty. This is shown to not be quite the rescue he may have first thought it to be. We have seen immortality as a curse plenty of times before in Doctor Who. As the Tenth Doctor famously said in The Lazarus Experiment:
“I’m old enough to know that a longer life isn’t always a better one. In the end, you just get tired. Tired of the struggle, tired of losing everyone that matters to you, tired of watching everything turn to dust. If you live long enough, Lazarus, the only certainty left is that you’ll end up alone.”
So the Doctor gave Ashildr a second medical chip, so that she could one day chose someone to share the rest of time with her rather than being alone. But a bright (but a little awkward if you ask me) sequence where the camera spins about Ashildr shows that all is not well with her, and a darkness may have been awoken within her.
With more hints that Clara may be on a dark road herself, becoming more ruthless and uncompromising (as, inversely, the Doctor becomes less ruthless and more compassionate), one has to wonder at the parallels being drawn. And also wonder if the Doctor has sensed the path Clara is on, and hence did not offer her immortality too, for fear of what she would do with it.
Next week, Maisie Williams returns once again in The Woman Who Lived!