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With director Ed Bazalgette announced for this year's Doctor Who Christmas Special, I thought I'd take a look at the first episode he directed: The Girl Who Died. Much of the disappointment many have of this episode stems from the poor marketing of Series 9: Maisie Williams' character was hyped up to ridiculous proportions in the Series 9 trailer that many expected her to be an important character from the series' past mythology.
The picture above is from the following episode The Woman Who Lived however without context it suggested the character is someone we should already have been familiar with. You can imagine then that many were upset when it turned out she was just an ordinary viking girl called Ashildr who happens to become important later on. This was one of a few problems I had with the same trailer - my other notable complaint is that to advertise it as the 'Same old, same old' (as 12 says in the trailer) was a silly mistake as it suggested to audiences that there was nothing new about this series of Doctor Who.
It's a shame that the marketing spoilt the enjoyment of certain episodes as The Girl Who Died in particular is an episode that deserves a higher level of appreciation.
The Girl Who Died sees the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) arrive in a viking village, where they are confronted by vikings who subsequently destroy the Doctor's Sonic Shades. Much to the Doctor's surprise, Odin (David Schofield) is very much 'real' in this village and invites the viking warriors to the majestic hall Valhalla on Asgard. Clara and Ashildr (Maisie Williams) are taken with them and they find themselves onboard a spaceship, where Ashildr declares war on Odin and the advanced warrior race known as the Mire. With the warriors killed, the Doctor decides to train the farmers and local traders left to fight but it seems like his work is cut out when they appear to be completely useless.
The idea of the Doctor teaching the Viking traders/farmers how to fight is a very funny one given that it subverts the image you usually see on television of the Vikings all being fighters. In real life of course there would have been sections of the Viking community whose job was to sell livestock and plant crops; in fact, the warriors people are most familiar with were probably a very small part of who the vikings were. It is hugely entertaining therefore to see vikings who are unfamiliar with how to wield a sword become the warriors they rely on. It is The comedy is very well-directed by David Schofield and has a Dad's Army feel about it, where the Doctor assumes the role of Captain Mainwaring (a very fun performance by Peter Capaldi) and the vikings are 'stupid boy' Private Pike. There's a very British idea to the concept too, in that we are willing to see the underdogs overcome the threat and emerge triumphant over those who are much more likely to win. It possibly wouldn't have been as much fun with the viking warriors taking on Odin and the Mire but by giving the viking community what seems like a very thin chance of success the episode is undeniably a product of this country and not, say, America (who through BBC America co-produced Series 9 with the BBC).
The Girl Who Died is possibly an episode that has a lot in common with the Key to Time serial The Pirate Planet. Odin is a character who reminds me a lot of the Pirate Captain from that serial: he has a very similar look and larger-than-life presence to the Captain and you have to wonder if Jamie Matheson was inspired by the serial when he wrote this story. The Girl Who Died doesn't quite reach the heights of The Pirate Planet but Odin is a very fun character that suits an episode like this aiming for a very light and comedic tone. I don't think he's a character with potential to return but as a one-off character he is huge fun to watch; it's a shame that Brian Blessed couldn't play the part as originally planned as this feels like the perfect character for him. I can see why they wanted Brian Blessed for the role:
Unfortunately his alien army aren't quite as memorable. The Mire are just your generic 'Monster of the week' villains and display too many similarities to past Doctor Who monsters such as the Sontarans and the Draconians. I can't imagine the Mire will catch on the same way as, say, the Sontarans have since their first appearance in The Time Warrior and I can't even imagine Big Finish using them in their audio dramas. It doesn't feel like there's a lot that could be done with The Mire; their characterisation is pretty much non-existent and despite being an alien 'species' they have a more robotic feel to the way they move and interact. You never quite get the sense they are this big warrior race we're told they are either; they feel more like background monsters than anything else.
The way they are defeated is extremely clever though. The 'fire in the water' pay-off
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with electric eels
is hugely satisfying after the build-up to the Mire fight and sees the Doctor use his vast intellect instead of just waving his Sonic Screwdriver around. In any other episode the other part of the solution with
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Odin terrified by a giant wooden puppet by Ashildr and Clara threatening to upload footage of the incident recorded on a mobile phone to a galactic video-sharing network
wouldn't really work but in an episode like this that's clearly not intended to be taken seriously it is a strong conclusion to what is a very fun episode to watch. I like the use of the Benny Hill theme for example, even if it's a joke that you see coming before it happens.
What surprised me was how early the revelation of why the 12th Doctor has the same face as Caelicius was explained. At the time of broadcast it felt way too soon for it to be revealed in episode five of Series 9 and in hindsight I still believe it should have been kept back for Hell Bent. It's such a pivotal moment for this Doctor as it leads to him saving someone who goes on to inadvertently cause Clara's two exits (yes, she doesn't just have one exit but two - in the previous series counting the Christmas Special she left three times then came back). This time her last exit is permanent but it doesn't happen until the very last episode Hell Bent. It's disappointingly never explained why 12 also shares the same face as Frobisher from Torchwood: Children of Earth:
...although the best time for that to be explored would be for John Barrowman to return as Captain Jack.
Now onto the revelation of Ashildr: a moment that was built up to before the first episode of Series 9 even aired. Whilst Maisie Williams is amazing in the role of Ashildr, the revelation that she's just some random viking girl
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who is made immortal by the Doctor
is ultimately disappointing thanks to the unnecessary hype surrounding the mystery of her character. I would much rather she had turned out to be a newly-regenerated Susan or Romana rather than a random girl from the past. It's a very unsatisfying reveal - the complete opposite of, for example, Missy as the Master in Dark Water/Death In Heaven the previous year - and I wish they hadn't hyped Maisie Williams' in Doctor Who up so much purely because of the Game of Thrones connection. If there's nothing we should know about the character, then don't make a big deal over her. Ashildr turns out to be a very intriguing character anyway and Maisie Williams has so much chemistry with Jenna Coleman (who is also brilliant in this episode) but there's no way her character should have been undermined by a fake mystery.
Overall, The Girl Who Died is a fun episode with some great comedy moments from Peter Capaldi and a viking community unfamiliar with sword-fighting. There's clear inspiration from The Pirate Planet; like the Pirate Captain in that serial Odin is a very fun antagonist who adds to one of the show's most light-hearted comedy episodes. It's nice to see the Doctor use his brains rather than a Sonic Screwdriver or Sonic Shades for once too; the conclusion with electric eels is very clever and one of the new series' best episode resolutions. Unfortunately the Mire is a very generic threat and the mystery surrounding Ashildr ultimately leads to a disappointing reveal that doesn't mean a great deal until later episodes in the series. The Girl Who Died is a very funny episode though that perfectly uses Peter Capaldi's comedy talent and features a pivotal moment for the Doctor where he discovers why he has the same face as Caelicius from The Fires of Pompeii (a moment that really should have been in the Series 9 finale Hell Bent).