The other week I wrote a first impression review of Doctor Who Season 9, arriving at the conclusion that thus far it had actually given me a reason to bother keeping up with the series week-by-week, episode-by-episode.
Whenever there's a really strong streak in Doctor Who the current fear is that something is going to come along and collapse it into a pile of inconsistent writing, as has been the case over the last few years. A season like this, comprised of a series of two-parter episodes, is particularly at risk as one poor narrative can dissolve two episodes instead of just one.
As it currently stands I'm pleasantly surprised to find that I've only really got two issues with the season. The first being that it seems to be in danger of getting too bogged down in one locale (two-thirds of the season so far has been Earthbound). The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) have the whole of time and space at their disposal and staying too long on Earth gets stale quickly when we know there's so much else to explore, but there's still time this season to change that.
The second issue is that the 'death of the Doctor (but not really)' and/or 'death of Clara (but not really)' plot-lines have seriously begun eating their own tails, being reused and recycled far too often over the last few seasons to the point where they've really lost their dramatic flair.
This week's offering, The Girl Who Died, was written by Jamie Mathieson and showrunner Steven Moffat, and it may be a good thing that it feels less like the start of a solid two-parter than previous instalments Under the Lake (S09E03) and Before the Flood (S09E04).
S09E05: The Girl Who Died
The Girl Who Died introduced us to the feisty viking Ashildr and her village as they come under siege by the Mire, and thankfully it managed to keep the momentum of the season going.
An enjoyable episode that just dipped its toe into the darker stuff, it was punctuated by genuine humour from the delightfully madcap intro to the Monty Python God tribute. It largely managed to keep itself from tipping too far into awkward exposition or cringingly awful dialogue (jury's still out on the handling of that baby-talk subplot though).
"I've always been different, all my life I've known that. The girls all thought I was a boy, the boys all said I was just a girl, my head is always full of stories. I know I'm strange; everyone knows I'm strange. But here I'm loved. You tell me to run, to save my life... I tell you that leaving this place would be death itself." Ashildr
Maisie Williams' excellent performance as Ashildr definitely recalls a lot of elements from her turn as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones (particularly her comments on being mistaken for a boy) but next episode looks like it'll open up her character development a little more, which will be nice to see. She's a good actress and hopefully one that can avoid too much typecasting as the wild wolf-child type.
References to Earlier Incarnations
There's a bunch of throwbacks in this episode, to name a few:
- Clara's orange spacesuit, seen before in Kill the Moon (S08E07) and The Impossible Planet (S02E08).
- The Doctor's yo-yo, used by the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and again by Capaldi in Kill the Moon.
- The 2000 Year Diary, which could be referencing the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton), the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and/or River Song (Alex Kingston) all of whom had their own time diaries.
- The phrase "reversing the polarity of the neutron flow" said by the Doctor is a repeating phrase through Doctor Who, starting from the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee).
And that's all without mentioning the explicit one (we'll get to that).
As this episode trundled nicely on towards its conclusion there was something that seemed to stick out to me, not an overt reference but subtleties in the tone, something recalling the Tenth/Eleventh Doctors (David Tennant & Matt Smith).
This was underscored strongly by the exchange between Ashildr and the Doctor, which initially felt a little off. Ashildr's side of the argument seemed to recall the optimistic belief in and love of humanity of the Eleventh Doctor whilst Capaldi was the scathing fire and blood of the Ninth (Christopher Eccleston) and Tenth.
Ashildr: "I pity you."
Doctor: "I will mourn for you. I know which I'd prefer."
Ashildr: "You think they're all idiots, don't you?"
Doctor: "What, you mean the rest of the universe? Um, basically yes I do."
Ashildr: "But they're kind and brave and strong and I love them."
Doctor: "Good, good. But that won't save you."
Again the conversation between the Doctor and Clara that they have following Ashildr's death recalls the Tenth, who did go in for elements of the dramatic:
Doctor: "I'm so sick of losing."
Clara: "You didn't lose, you saved the town."
Doctor: "I don't mean the war. I'll lose any war you like. I'm sick of losing people. Look at you, with your eyes, your never giving up, and your anger, and your kindness; and one day the memory of that will hurt so much that I wont be able to breathe and I'll do what I always do, I'll get in my box and I'll run and I'll run in case all the pain ever catches up and every place I go it will be there."
Reminds me somewhat of:
Tenth Doctor: "I don't age. I regenerate. But humans decay; you wither and you die. Imagine watching that happen to someone that you..."
Rose Tyler: "What, Doctor?"
Tenth Doctor: "You can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can't spend the rest of mine with you. I have to live on. Alone. That's the curse of the Time Lords."
There have been a lot of references to Tennant-era Who throughout this season, like the parallels between the claustrophobic, water-logged base in Under the Lake and the Tenth Doctor episode The Waters of Mars. This episode it became obvious why.
"I'm The Doctor, And I Save People"
I think we've found Capaldi's "allons-y!"; a bit clunkier sure, but it works.
And now the link has been made. Back to Pompeii and Capaldi's first appearance as Lucius Caecilius in S04E02: The Fires of Pompeii, where David Tennant's Doctor's moral dilemma was whether or not to save one family from a fixed point in time. Back to Capaldi's genesis as the Twelfth Doctor in S08E01: Deep Breath where he wonders why he chose the face of Caecilius. And it was a great reveal.
After saving Ashildr the Doctor fears that he's made a terrible mistake, that he's doomed the girl to never die, creating in her a part-human, part-alien immortal hybrid who bears witness to the fall of her world. We've seen this struggle before in Doctor Who and Torchwood through Capt. Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), brought back to life by Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) and then tormented by the fact that he cannot die. The Doctor understands the struggle as it's one he's been through himself so many times, as he says: "immortality means watching everyone else die".
Lastly the "hybrid" comment made of Ashildr by the Doctor at the conclusion felt important, perhaps linking back to the first episode of the season, The Magician’s Apprentice, wherein Davros (Julian Bleach) spoke of a prophecy concerning a hybrid. At the time we were led to believe that this was referring to Davros' attempt to create a Timelord/Dalek hybrid, but could it be referring to Ashildr instead? Is this the overarching narrative strand that's going to tie up this season?
Speaking of Which...
Where does all this leave Ashildr? As fun as this episode was it did feel like it was primarily concerned with laying the groundwork for her appearance in next week's The Woman Who Lived. The unusual nature of the cliffhanger is interesting as it's one that doesn't necessarily need picked up immediately, though we know that it will because well, we've seen the trailer for Episode 6.
The official synopsis follows below...
"England, 1651. The deadly Highwayman ‘The Nightmare’ and his sidekick stalk the dark streets of London. But when they find loot that’s not of this world, they come face to face with the Doctor. Who is the Nightmare in league with? And can the Doctor avoid the hangman’s noose and protect Earth from a devilish betrayal?"
Will Ashildr play a part in this devilish betrayal? She certainly seemed less than happy with her new immortality at the episode conclusion, her expression fading out from joy to sorrow and through to anger, and she's clearly not pleased with the Doctor in the trailer. Either way next week's episode is shaping up to be pretty exciting - but where's Clara?
Episode 6 of Doctor Who Season 9, The Woman Who Lived, will air on BBC One at 8.20pm GMT, 24th October 2015.