It seems that series 9 of Doctor Who is able to deliver two-parters even when it isn’t. Bear with me; The Girl Who Died seems to strike a compromise on Steven Moffat’s new format by being simultaneously a self-contained adventure, wrapped up in forty-five minutes as is New Who’s tradition, yet also just the first half of something grand, unpredictable and exciting. The cliffhanger is unlike anything Doctor Who has hit us with over the years and, though next week’s pseudo follow-up may take place in a different part of the world centuries beyond the timeframe of this episode, there is still the sense that this story is only half done (if that). It’s a trick that has been used on occasion throughout the years (Series 6’s gap-jumping A Good Man Goes to War/Let’s Kill Hitler springs to mind), but it’s a pleasant way to appease both fans of the two-parter and those longing for a slight, silly historical runaround.
Though this episode is no Robot of Sherwood; while at face value it certainly appears to be yet another wacky, Horrible Histories-esque filler romp, there is something sombre and far more consequential bubbling away beneath the comedic anachronisms and Benny Hill references which sees The Girl Who Died (the clue was in the title) take on a markedly different tone and direction by the end. This bait and switch falls into the hands of heavily-promoted guest star Maisie Williams, whose hitherto predictable inclusion (she’s the sword-wielding, tomboyish daughter of a Northern warrior, who’d have thought?) becomes something far more important. You don’t pluck one of Game of Thrones’ star players from HBO for little more than a walk-on part.
The cynics among us likely went into this episode expecting a sly attempt to capitalise on Thrones’ storming success in the realms of genre television. While that’s hardly the case, this is still a rare example of Doctor Who remembering who its most loyal audience is; there are geek-pleasing elements abound (Vikings! Dragons! Odin! Benny Hill!) and, most refreshingly, Williams’ character Ashildr, the subject of many a fan theory, is something entirely new to the series. This is the kind of development that is all too rare in recent Who, which can be blamed for falling back on beloved classic series tropes far more than it dares to create new mythology, and it is utterly rewarding to see the blossoming of a story-arc that is entirely original. Moffat’s decision to pack his opening two-parter with enough classic characters to make Terrence Dicks wince seems all the more tactful now, being as he is evidently building to a crescendo of his own making for the first time in a long while.
The Girl Who Died hardly puts a foot wrong. It’s funny, fan-pleasing and ominous in equally generous doses. Hardly surprising, given that it’s a collaboration between Jamie Mathieson, who’s two series 8 episodes (Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline) were the runaway highlights of that year, and showrunner Steven Moffat, who has been on blistering form since Last Christmas. The joyful pairing of stars Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman is both stronger than ever and terrifyingly fragile; there is the vague scent of something harrowing on the horizon for them. But for now let’s bask in the latest entry in an unflinching run of phenomenal Doctor Who.