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Monday, 4 July 2016

Doctor Who 9-05: The Girl Who Died

Episode:819|Serial:256|Writer:Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat|Air Date:17-Oct-2015

This week on Sci-Fi Adventures, I'm writing about The Girl Who Died, which is an entirely different episode to The Girl Who Waited (but likely not unrelated to The Woman Who Lived, which is coming up next).

Series 9 hasn't entirely won me over so far, but I'm hyped for this one just because of the talent involved. The best writer of modern Doctor Who teaming up with Steven Moffat, how can that not lead to awesome? Okay maybe I should wait until Mathieson writes more than two episodes before I declare him all-time champion of Doctor Who, especially as Moffat has crafted a formidable set of stories. But Moffat's been kind of hit and miss since taking the reins and Mathieson's two episodes were really good!

Oh, plus they've also got the former lead guitarist for The Vapors in the role of director. I've no idea if that's a good or bad thing, I just had to mention it.

Just so you know, I'll be filling my text with SPOILERS from start to finish, maybe even for Doctor Who episodes that came before this one. Episodes that aired after it are perfectly safe though, as this is actually my first time through the season.



The episode begins in medias res, or at rerum finis to be more accurate (assuming Google Translate can ever be accurate) as they've pulled a James Bond and started with the climax of an unseen adventure.

So we don't know exactly how Clara ended up lost in space and sharing her spacesuit with a deadly creature crawling its way brainwards, but the Doctor theorises it might be because she spent too long in the Spider Mines. The Doctor's on the phone with her from the relative safety of the TARDIS, elsewhere in time and/or space. But he's currently busy being shot at by four and a bit battle fleets, so every line he has is punctuated with sparks. They're shy battle fleets though so we never see them or their expensive laser fire on screen.

There's a great shot here which only reveals that the Doctor's materialised the TARDIS around Clara after he's already got her helmet off, but it doesn't work so well in a screencap, so here's a shot of him wiping dead brain bug off his boot instead. It's always nice to see someone inside the cavernous control room having a chat with someone standing outside the tiny police box exterior. In fact every episode should take place entirely in front of the TARDIS while the door's open (after the James Bond pre-credits scene).

Clara's a bit annoyed right now. Not because of her narrow escape from certain death, she's over that, but the fact that the Doctor's rules prevent them from doing more to help whoever they were helping. She's annoyed that he never explains the rules, so he tells her that the trick to being a time traveller is to make ripples, not tidal waves. Interesting thing to say considering he dropped a lake on someone last episode.

Suddenly, Vikings! The Doctor's not in the mood to get pillaged right now though, so he whips out the sonic sunglasses and explains to these primitive folk that within them is technology 9 million years in advance of their own. Basically, they mean that he doesn't have to do a damn thing they say.

Then one of the Vikings just reaches over, takes the glasses off his face and snaps them. R.I.P. the sonic sunglasses, they almost lasted five episodes. Thankfully Clara had the sense to close the TARDIS door earlier so they don’t have to worry about time travelling Vikings marauding across the time and space just yet. The two of them are going for a trip though.

Cut to opening credits.

Okay that's a nice shot. The production team found an actual medieval village to film in just a few miles away from their studio in Cardiff, and that's given the production values a massive boost (though they had to Viking it up a bit themselves and bring their own mountains).

The Vikings warriors march into town with their prisoners to the relief of the townsfolk, especially Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones who had dreamed that they would all die, a dream so real she was worried she'd made it happen. The leader throws her half of the sonic sunglasses as a gift. Not the greatest trophy of battle, but then it wasn't exactly a battle either.

Hey the Doctor got his manacles off! Clara's not so adept at escapology yet though.

Not sure why the Vikings thought these two were worth taking and not their TARDIS, but our heroes have been sailing for two days now and they're eager to take over and start bossing everyone around like they always do.

The Doctor's plan this time is to wow them with a yo-yo, to prove that he is Odin himself, walking amongst them in human form. Which I suppose isn't that far from the truth, though he's more of a semi-friendly incarnation of Loki. The Vikings are really not buying his act though, especially when he has this guy as competition:

And he's claiming to be Odin too! What are the chances that two aliens would try to pull the same Odin con in the exact same Viking village at the exact same moment in history? Giant Monty Python head in the clouds definitely beats yo-yo on the scale of godlike power though. And he's even brought his own super advanced eyewear!

The original plan was to make the character even more powerful, but unfortunately Brian Blessed had to drop out of the role due to illness and he took his voice with him.

Fake Odin announces over the cloudspeaker that their mightiest warriors will feast with him tonight in the halls of Valhalla and beams down some Big Daddies from 'BioShock' to hand out the invites.

Those are definitely not the worst looking monsters they've ever had on Doctor Who, and they get bonus points for being real suits instead of CGI. But, uh, what happened to Fake Odin's Norse mythology theme? Viking robots don't wear sandals!

Then again the image of Vikings wearing horned helmets was invented for a production of Wagner's Ring Cycle at a 19th-century music festival and there's no evidence to back it up, so the villagers aren't scoring maximum Viking points themselves.

The aliens are beaming away everyone with the guts and the weapons to stand up to Odin's iron soldiers, so my assumption was that they're tricking the Vikings into willingly giving up their warriors and leaving the town at their mercy. But the Doctor's smart enough to realise that advanced aliens probably didn't travel across the galaxy to pillage a Viking village; this is a harvest.

So the best thing for Clara and The Doctor to do right now is be entirely rubbish and non-threatening. Fortunately he's given himself a good head start on that by fumbling with his yo-yo.

Clara just has to ignore him though and ask the girl with the broken sonic glasses to think very hard about getting the manacles the Vikings put on her to open. Well, sonic glass now I guess.

The good news is that even after being snapped the glass is still both psychic and sonic enough to open manacles. The bad news is that the aliens detect the advanced technology and beam her and the girl away with the village warriors. Clara could've waited just two minutes and the aliens would've left her alone, but nope she had to be an idiot and give herself away for no good reason!

Huh, the halls of Vahalla are looking a bit more 'sci-fi' than 'Skyrim'. Seems that their god has a starship and they've been put into a cell on board.

Speaking of video games, I just realised that this is basically the plot of 'The Lost Vikings'. So all they have to do is team up and make cunning use of their individual Viking skills to defeat the puzzles and high-tech obstacles in their way and find a way home!

Or not.

Turns out that this isn't a cage, it's an abattoir, and the wall behind them is pushing them all into this metaphorical meat grinder. The Vikings do what they can to jam the mechanism while Clara tries to open the door at the other end of the death chamber, but it doesn't exactly work out for them.

Clara and the girl from Game of Thrones wake up to discover that they're not dead! Though everyone else is. Nothing left of them but their spiky helmets. Somehow I didn't expect an episode with Monty Python Odin was going to get so grim.

Fake Odin reveals that he left the two of them alive because of the sonic sunglasses, and Clara realises that he's worried that he might be getting into a fight with people far more advanced than he is. Turns out that Odin harvests warriors to extract their adrenaline and testosterone, basically as an energy drink. Which is really gross. Though it does explain why the execution device was designed to scare the crap out of them.

This is reminding me of a similar scene way back in 2005's The Christmas Invasion, where Rose was beamed up to a mothership and tried to talk down warlike aliens in the Doctor's place. Except Clara's been around the Doctor for so long now that she's actually managing it! She's going to talk the aliens into harvesting elsewhere and resolve the threat all by herself a third of the way into the story.

Clara's definitely can't have many episodes left now as she's getting far too competent to keep her job as the Doctor's wide-eyed sidekick. In fact she's practically got a companion of her own with the village girl trailing her right now.

But the girl is an old-school Viking and she's kind of pissed off about the death of half her town, so she interrupts the negotiations to reveal that she is Ashildr, daughter of Einarr, and she's not going to let Fake Odin leave without a fight!

Fake Odin's totally up for this, even with the possibility that Clara's forces are more powerful than his, and he beams them back down so they can ready the other half of the villagers to get slaughtered tomorrow morning. C'mon Ashildr, Clara totally had this! Now you've gone and escalated the situation to a full Doctor Who episode!

The Doctor's so damn happy to see Clara back again alive that he breaks one of his personal rules and actually hugs her, before getting on with the business of saving everyone's lives.

He's been doing a bit of research, reading through his pocket-sized "2000 Year Diary" (he's gotten a little forgetful in his third millennia) and it turns out that Odin's people are called the Mire and they would've left everyone alone once they'd got what they wanted if it wasn't for Ashildr. Fortunately the solution's easy: they just need to go hide in the woods for a few days until the aliens go away.

But they're prideful Vikings and they don't run or hide. They'd rather die with honour, even after the Doctor 'translates' a baby's suspiciously poetic cries to guilt them into leaving for the child's sake.

The Doctor's in a tough place now as he can't really help them win even if he wanted to, because a: they're really rubbish at fighting and don't stand a chance, and b: beating the Mire would send a message to the rest of the galaxy that Earth is worth something. Like he said earlier, the two of them can cause ripples but not tidal waves.

Fear of putting Earth on the galactic map has never really stopped him from defeating the million other alien threats he's faced over the years though. In fact he used to just give a speech about how "this planet is protected" and use his own reputation as a deterrent, but he's been keeping a lower profile since his terrified enemies started resorting to epic conspiracies to trap or kill him.

Anyway the Doctor changes his mind, as he was inevitably going to, and begins to train his troops in the art of swordplay. With wooden swords though, as they've proven they can't be trusted with anything sharp. Hang on, they're not wearing horns! Seems that Odin's got all their horned helmets now, conveniently removing all evidence of them from history (he's probably harvested other villages too).

The Doctor's got enough on his mind already without having to remember a dozen people's names, so he's decided to give them all nicknames instead. Like Lofty, Limpy, Heidi, Chuckles and ZZ Top. And soon he gives out the real swords too.

So yeah that doesn't work out so great and soon they've set their village on fire. I’m liking Clara’s Viking outfit by the way. She's blending in a bit better now she's gotten out of the spacesuit.
  
Clara wants to know what the Doctor's actual plan is, but it is how it looks. He'll teach them to be fighters, like he inadvertently did with her, so they can die a more honourable death for their futile cause. Of course she'll be fighting alongside them, and he's terrified something will happen to her. I've noticed that Clara's become more reckless than the Doctor has lately and it's forcing him to reign in his eccentricity and show more concern for the danger they're in.

But she's also become savvy enough now to know the routine; that this is all a waste of time distracting him from figuring out what he's missing until it's dramatically appropriate. There'll be something here he can use to win, there always is, she's sure of it. According to Missy in The Witch's Familiar, the Doctor's secret superpower is his absolute confidence that he's always going to win, so it makes sense that doubt is throwing him off his game, while she's only become bolder.

So the Doctor goes to chat with Ashildr on his quest to find what he's overlooking and learns that she likes to make things and she's got a great imagination. Not exactly the crucial pieces of the puzzle he needed but it helps flesh her out a little.

It's actually that crying baby from earlier that gives him the clue he needs to win, because it turns out that he really can speak baby. Which is dumb, because we already know what babies are saying when they cry. They're saying "WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" It turns out that babies are actually tiny humans you see, so if they're going to communicate concepts verbally it'll be by stringing words together like everyone else. Eventually, when they're a bit older.

They're definitely not going to be expressing something as complicated as "fire in the water" with their wailing, but here it is, just like the baby said. These are actually barrels of electric eels and who even knows where the Vikings got them. Well, northwestern South America I guess, seeing as that's where they come from.

With a tiny bit of eel electricity they have a fighting chance, so the the villagers spend the night A-Teaming up the gear they'll need to take on alien supersoldiers.

Man I still can't believe he actually speaks baby, I genuinely thought he was bullshitting all this time. Next they'll be saying he can really understand horses too. This has gone beyond suspending disbelief, this is the writers having fun with the blatantly ridiculous and hoping that viewers will get into the spirit of it.

The following morning, Fake Odin and his men arrive for their showdown, only to find the townsfolk busy partying in their mead hall. They’ve even got a band playing.

While the Doctor distracts Odin, Lofty throws metal rings onto their helmets. When the go ahead is given Ashildr's dad gets the eels going, sending enough electricity through their jury-rigged cables into the tagged armour suits to take them out of the fight.

You could point our a few examples of weirdness in this episode, like the horned helmets, the baby speak, the electric eels etc. But how about the fact that their cables are lighting up with arcs of electricity? I think that deserves a mention too. This isn't magic sci-fi electricity mind you, just the regular stuff you get from your typical average barrel of eels. Yeah I know Back to the Future did it too, but that doesn't make it right!

Also I’m pretty sure you couldn’t use eels to power an electromagnet built out of an anvil and pull a giant helmet off an alien's head, but whatever. I just hope they remembered to insulate the wires.

Oh damn, they've got a face like the sarlacc pit! Quick put their helmets back on, put their helmets back on!

Odin's one of these aliens as well by the way, he's just wearing holographic camouflage so that he can look like a Viking god and be portrayed by an actor.

The magnets also grabbed their guns, so Clara keeps the Doctor covered while he “reverses the polarity of the neutron flow” to get one of the helmets doing what he needs it to and puts it onto Ashildr's head. He also basically admits that all the times Pertwee’s Doctor said the line he was just lying to save explaining what he was actually doing.

So this episode reveals that he was telling the truth about understanding baby Stormageddon a few years back, but reversing the polarity is bullshit. Probably.

Suddenly a vicious CGI sea serpent bursts in through the door and goes right for the Mire! Their weapons do absolutely nothing against the beast so they crap themselves and start to beam away back to the ship, despite Fake Odin yelling at them to stay and fight.

Hey this is the leviathan teased in the mural back in Under the Lake!

Well, kind of. It's much smaller and far less spiky. Also it looks nothing like it.

Anyway, the Doctor tells Ashildr she can stop what she's doing now, they've won. And it's still only 30 minutes in! They're going to have to sabotage their victory a second time if they want to get a full episode of out this.

The serpent effect glitches out, leaving a ship figurehead in its place, and poor Odin's very confused. Turns out that they hacked into his visual sensors with the stolen helmet, so the Mire saw what Ashildr wanted them to see. She's a natural with telepathic technology I guess.

Fortunately they filmed the whole epic Mire vs. boat confrontation on Clara's phone, so they can stick the Benny Hill theme on it and upload it to the galactic internet, utterly ruining the Mire's reputation as unbeatable warriors.

I'm not even joking, they really do play the clip with Yackety Sax over the top to show Odin what the galaxy will be watching unless he agrees to piss off and never come back.

And off he goes, in an effect that couldn't have looked cheaper if they'd built the ship with washing-up bottles and empty toilet rolls. It has to have been a deliberate choice though, as it takes extra effort to make something appear that retro. (I cheated the camera pan a bit by the way to keep the ship from being cropped out of the GIF.)

So Vikings get a victory they can live with, the Mire are going to do their harvesting elsewhere, and 10th century Earth gets to remain in galactic obscurity. Ultimate happy victory!

Well except for Ashildr dying. They discover that the helmet must have drained her of energy while she was broadcasting the serpent illusion, which is kind of the opposite of what you want a helmet to do. But hey, at least a girl has finally died in The Girl Who Died, so the title makes sense now.

Capaldi's Doctor's been portrayed as being colder and more pragmatic than his previous regenerations, especially in his first series, and people have been calling him out on not giving a damn about anyone except Clara. But here he makes it clear that Ashildr's death is really tearing him up.

What's worse is that he knows he could change time and save her life (unless the TARDIS stops him again like in Before the Flood), but he's not supposed to. Plus bad things tend to happen whenever he decides he's above his own rules, like in Waters of Mars when he got a bit 'Time Lord Victorious' for five minutes until someone killed herself to fix his meddling and shake him out of his arrogance.

But as he's moping around he catches his reflection in some water and the 12th Doctor theme kicks in! It's taken a season and a half, but he's come to an epiphany and he finally knows the answer to two questions he asked back in Don’t Breathe: "Who frowned me this face?" and "Why did I choose this face?"

He realises that he's regenerated to resemble a man called Caecilius he met about five series ago in The Fires of Pompeii. For some reason his subconscious chose this guy as the template for his new body, like he was trying to tell himself something (or maybe because the producers really wanted to hire Peter Capaldi again).

Hey it's David Tennant making a cameo through stock footage! Well Capaldi turned up in his episode so I suppose it's only fair.

It's interesting seeing series four footage show up in series nine, as the show switched to HD cameras in 2010 and has a far more natural and cinematic look now. If that's not a contradiction. This actually looks pretty good though.

4-02: The Fires of Pompeii
Ah, there's the Russell T. Davis era look I remember! Though it's kind of hard to see with that inexplicably blinding light coming out of the TARDIS control room (they weren't so good at showing the interior and exterior at the same time back then).

The Fires of Pompeii ended with the 10th Doctor about to take off in his TARDIS and leave the people of Pompeii to die in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, as history demanded. But his companion Donna Noble talked him into at least saving Caecilius's family; they both knew he shouldn't save everyone, but that didn't mean he couldn't save someone.

Then years later in Forest of the Night, Clara convinced him to do the exact opposite and leave her own students to die with their families, showing that Donna Noble is unequivocally the better companion! No really, Donna was a grounding force that kept him in check, which is what a companion's meant to do, while Clara has become addicted to his lifestyle and she's enabling him.

Anyway he realises he's wearing Caecilius's face to remind him that he's the Doctor and he saves people, so he's going to save Ashildr!

But it wasn't time paradoxes he was worried about earlier when he said he wasn't supposed to save her, as he's got another way to bring her back. He gets a battlefield medical kit out of the Mire helmet and places it on Ashildr's forehead, explaining that the device will repair her... forever.

Well no wonder the Mire have a reputation of being unbeatable if they all carry immortality kits with them! Which... they haven't used, weirdly. In fact the Doctor gives the resurrected Ashildr a second medical kit he's found, so that she doesn't have to spend eternity alone. It's up to her who she gives it to though, which sounds like a recipe for... well, tidal waves.

The Doctor's already regretting what he's done here though, as forever is a long time to watch everyone you care about die. He's only been doing it for 2000 years and he has a hard enough time coping sometimes. The pain drives him to make dumb emotional choices... like when he decided to save Ashildr with an immortality device for example.

And the end episode ends with an awesome 45 second time lapse shot showing what the passing of centuries has done to Ashildr's spirit. But then I took it down to 64 colours, deleted most of the frames and sped it up to about 6 seconds, because I'm a monster who still uses GIFs in 2016.

Hey, no cliffhanger this time!


CONCLUSION

Man I typed 'helmet' a lot just now. It's been that kind of episode.

So the first two parter this series was about the Doctor's arch-enemies either dying or faking their death, the second was about a 'dead' villain killing an undertaker to create an army of ghosts and now the third two parter is about someone who can't die. I'm spotting a bit of a pattern, and as it's leading to a two part season finale named 'Heaven Sent' and 'Hell Bent' I'm expecting it to continue. I'm hoping it doesn't though, as the Doctor's been worried about Clara dying for five straight episodes now and it's getting kind of depressing.

Plus I don't really want to see the series pick holes in its premise like this, because it gets to the point where I want to agree with it and say 'Yeah, the Doctor really shouldn't bring a companion with him on these incredibly dangerous adventures'. But then they've covered what happens when the Doctor travels solo too and it doesn't tend to end well either. After a while alone he get a bit arrogant and emotional, and does things not entirely unlike what he did to Ashildr with the alien immortality device here. The guy just needs a new companion is all; Clara's a great sidekick to have around, she nearly ended this episode 15 minutes in single-handedly, but their relationship doesn't seem entirely healthy at this point.

Speaking of the alien immortality device, the episode hints pretty strongly that Ashildr's now a candidate to be the prophesied Hybrid mentioned by Davros in the The Witch's Familiar. It's a bit of a stretch though, saying she's a hybrid between two warrior races just because she's got some alien tech in her. It's like calling the Doctor a hybrid because he's Time Lord with the face of a Roman. I was dreading the explanation for his face by the way, as I was expecting it to involve convoluted time fuckery and borderline supernatural bullshit, so it was a pleasant surprise when the answer turned out to be entirely sensible. Well, as sensible as a man subconsciously reconstructing his body to look like someone he met a thousand years ago can be. It worked for me!

I think that's The Girl Who Died all over really: aspects of it don't entirely align with sense or reality, but I was enjoying the story and the dialogue enough to just go with it. Plus it helps that it looks great; they get a lot of production value out of that medieval town. Every episode I've seen this series has been alright, but this been the most alright of them so far, for me at least. I wouldn't put it on the level of Jamie Mathieson's series 8 episodes Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline, but it's a solid piece of Doctor Who.


Doctor Who will return with The Woman Who Lived. But before then it's another Sci-Fi Adventures feature presentation, as I take an in-depth look at Star Trek III: The Search for Spock! Seriously, I'll probably write three paragraphs on Chekov's outfit alone.

If you've got any opinions on The Girl Who Died or my writing then drop a comment in the box below. It doesn't matter if you're reading this five hours after I posted it or five years, most episodes I write about are far more ancient than this one and the 'Recent Comments' thing on the right will make sure your words are seen.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the stronger episodes of the series, eels aside. It feels like Capaldi clicks with this episode, and he sells the Doctor's indecision and torment well.

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