★★★★★ Jamie Mathieson doesn’t let you down, does he? In 2014, he wrote Mummy on the Orient Express (OK, I wasn’t wild about that one but it was the fans’ favourite) and then he delivered Flatline, which I loved, loved, LOVED for its originality, dimensionally transcendental playfulness and downright grunge.
The Girl Who Died is another top-drawer submission from this relative newcomer to Doctor Who. It taps into a very traditional vein but again slyly transcends it, and achieves that holy grail of TV drama – unpredictability.
What’s so traditional? The Doctor and his companion show up, are seized by suspicious locals then must win them over and help them save themselves from an alien menace. Using only their wits, a bit of jiggery-pokery and whatever junk is close at hand. It’s the Doctor Who plot.
But Mathieson (co-writing with Steven Moffat) accomplishes it with so many deft touches, it rarely feels predictable. It never bores. I lost count of the times I thought, “Oh, I didn’t expect that.” After a lifetime of watching this series, that’s rare.
Sometimes it’s big moments, such as the Doctor being upstaged by Odin high in the clouds. Mostly, it’s smaller incidents. The opening shot, an extreme close-up of Clara’s eye, upside down, as she tumbles in space (a steal from Gravity)… The Viking snapping the Doctor’s silly sonic shades… The Mire abruptly hoovering up the Vikings then distilling their testosterone and adrenaline into Odin’s “nec-tar”… The beat when Ashildr gets up before Clara to follow the Doctor outside… The “fire in the water” scene where a baby’s bleating leads the Doctor to a barrel of electric eels… Who makes this stuff up?
Everyone gets decent lines. The Doctor: “People talk about premonition as if it’s something strange. It’s not. It’s just remembering something in the wrong direction.” Clara: “The universe is full of testosterone. Trust me. It’s unbearable.” Even the Brian-Blessed-lite Odin has some zingers: “What is God but the cattle’s name for farmer? What is Heaven but the gilded door of the abattoir?”
Everything that is meant to be funny is funny; the sad moments are sad. Throughout, the direction is impeccable – often you don’t notice how good it is, which is how it should be, although occasional moments that need to, stand out and impress. No surprise that this episode is directed by Ed Bazalgette who shot much of Poldark. It’s not specified where this takes place but it could so easily have received the now ubiquitous Nordic noir treatment; happily, it is Nordic lush, bathed in a gorgeous light.
Lest it go unsaid, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are excellent in this episode. The humour is bang on – in his delivery of simple lines such as “Clara, we’re going with the Vikings,” to his drilling of the Dad’s Army line-up of farmers and fishermen, naming them Lofty, Daphne, Noggin the Nog, ZZ Top, Heidi and Limpy; all the way to Clara filming the defeat of the Mire on her iPhone and syncing it with the Benny Hill theme.
When Ashildr fulfils the promise of the episode title and dies, it is genuinely sorrowful – or, more importantly, I believe in the Doctor’s sorrow. “I’m so sick of losing… I don’t mean the war. I’ll lose any war you like. I’m sick of losing people.” It’s easy to infer he’s considering Clara here more than Ashildr. Not for the first time this series, he’s voiced his “duty of care” for Clara, his fears for her safety, as though he has a presentiment that he will lose her quite soon.
I’ve immediately warmed to Ashildr, played by 18-year-old Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams. A Viking tomboy, an outsider who weaves stories to will her menfolk safe home, she tells Clara: “I’ve always been different. The girls all thought I was a boy. The boys all said I was just a girl. Everyone knows I’m strange.”
I fancy Ashildr is a pinch from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, especially Sally Potter’s opulent movie version in which Elizabeth I (played by Quentin Crisp; a dead ringer for Capaldi) urges the androgynous Orlando (Tilda Swinton): “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” Subsequently, he/she lives on for centuries.
The first proper hint of Ashildr’s destiny comes almost exactly at the halfway point of The Girl Who Died. The Doctor and Clara are sitting outside at dusk, discussing their strategy, and one beat after he utters the word “immortal”, Ashildr emerges from the Viking farmhouse. A lovely subtle touch.
At the start of the adventure he cautions Clara, “We’re time travellers. We tread softly. It’s OK to make ripples but not tidal waves.” But by its close he’s been very naughty and bestowed immortality upon Ashildr, even though it sounds dreadful: “Immortality isn’t living for ever. That isn’t what it feels like. Immortality is everyone else dying.”
There’s a shadow of Captain Jack Harkness about Ashildr, and of course she’s being set up as a Moffat-era Fantasy Female in the mould of River Song, Missy and Clara when she was the Impossible Girl – another woman who can pop up at any point in the Time Lord’s timeline. I can live with that. And I relish Steven Moffat in myth-making mode.
If there’s any lapse, it’s the whiff of sphincters tightening when the Doctor realises, “I know where I got this face. I know what it’s for” – abruptly reminding us that Capaldi guest-starred in the 2008 tale, The Fires of Pompeii. Who cares? (In the 1980s, producer John Nathan-Turner didn’t satisfy an anal urge to explain why a Gallifreyan commander and the sixth Doctor both shared Colin Baker’s face and temperament.)
The fannish impulse to close a continuity loophole is best resisted. It jars. Seven-year-old footage of David Tennant and Catherine Tate courts a smile but recalls a time when Who was on a high in the UK, drawing up to ten million viewers. Shots of Caecilius serve only to show how Capaldi has aged in the interim. He doesn’t have that face.
But back to now. The final shot of Ashildr is a thing of beauty. She stands alone on a Nordic headland gazing out to sea and witnesses the passing of eternity. The camera whirls dizzyingly around her, 360°, while the heavens move. The shot begins with her faintly smiling, but by the time we return to her face, almost a minute later, there’s a look of sorrow that hardens, so subtly, into a glint of determination. Immortality hurts.
Every story since 1963 reviewed in RT’s Doctor Who Story Guide
Episode one: The Magician’s Apprentice ★★★★★
Episode two: The Witch’s Familiar ★★★★★
Episode three: Under the Lake ★★★
Episode four: Before the Flood ★★★