Way back in “Deep Breath,” Doctor Who made us a promise about this new incarnation: This was the Doctor with the veil lifted, with the disguises removed. Last season went to some lengths to sketch out just what that might mean, kicking around ideas of whether the Doctor was really a good man and presenting a more remote version of the Time Lord. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t, but the whole thing had a slightly didactic quality, as though the show were straining to construct an argument about the nature of the Doctor it never quite managed to work out. “Death In Heaven” largely resolved this as the Doctor proudly asserted his identity, and the episodes since have hit upon a much simpler, more pleasing way of presenting a Doctor without artifice. With the Doctor of “The Girl Who Died,” there’s almost nothing beneath the surface, and what you see is pretty much what you get. The Doctor isn’t playing the happy wanderer or the whimsical madman as a way to deflect attention from his true feelings, but he also hasn’t swung all the way back to wondering what emotions are in the first place.
Make no mistake: The Doctor of this episode is as alien as ever, but “The Girl Who Died” allows him to feel and then articulate recognizable emotions. When he feels rage and heartbreak after Ashildir’s death, he doesn’t hold back in his reactions or—and this is crucial, given how circumspect the Doctor can be—explaining just why he feels so strongly. In pretty much all phases of the episode, the Doctor is honest in ways we so rarely see him be. When Clara points out that he never actually tells her the rules of what they can and can’t do, he gradually admits that there really aren’t any hard-and-fast laws, just lots of unintended consequences. This isn’t an episode where the Doctor pretends to not have a plan right up to the opportune moment. He genuinely has no idea how he, Clara, and a bunch of Norse farmers and fishermen are going to defeat one of the galaxy’s most fearsome warrior races, and that melancholy hopelessness informs both his joy when he does come up with a plan and his heartbreak when he realizes he once again couldn’t save everyone.
But we can come back to that, because the straightforwardness of the Doctor isn’t just played for drama. Co-written by Steven Moffat and “Flatline” and “Mummy On The Orient Express” writer Jamie Mathieson, “The Girl Who Died” is a fantastically funny episode whenever it wants to be, and much of that has to do with just how damn underwhelming the Doctor can be. The opening destruction of the sonic sunglasses sets the tone, as the Doctor immediately accepts that, yeah, he and Clara are going with the Vikings. The scene with Odin and the yoyo is brilliantly played by Peter Capaldi, as he finds room for deeper emotions and more impressive moments—when he first sees Maisie Williams’ Ashildr, when he tells Clara that he got out of his handcuffs by magic—amid all the bickering with his companion about his lack of plan and his deeply unconvincing Odin impression. The Doctor’s voice as Odin a wonderful choice, as it’s the kind of half-assed imitation that someone would only undertake if he really, really thought the locals were dumb enough to believe anything. But then, he was going to bluff his way out with a yoyo, so that really goes without saying. Although one might at least have figured the Doctor was, you know, good with a yoyo, an assumption of which the episode most hilariously disabuses us.
It isn’t just the Doctor who gets a chance to comically underwhelm the audience, as the remaining Vikings prove woefully inadequate to the task of even the most basic fighting. A good chunk of this episode plays as a deeply silly Norse riff on The Seven Samurai, with the Doctor proving a perfectly capable trainer of perfectly incapable fighters. The trick for “The Girl Who Died” is to have fun with its guest characters without undercutting their capacity for pathos. Mathieson and Moffat write the disastrous training sessions as jokes that are funny right up the very moment that they’re not. In the moment, the episode has great fun with the Doctor as grumpy head coach, with him declaring he’s much too busy to learn names and tetchily reminding the Vikings just why they can’t be trusted with actual swords. The quick cut to the fiery aftermath of the reintroduction of said swords is a wonderfully audacious bit of comedy, pushing the episode’s slapstick quotient to the very limit. In this respect, the Vikings are a particularly good choice as a people to build this episode around. The episode doesn’t exactly strain for historical accuracy—yes, yes, the Vikings didn’t actually wear horned helmets, we know—and the village feels almost strategically low-budget, presenting a consciously more sanitized version of the medieval world to contrast with, say, the grime and violence of Maisie Williams’ other show.
All those choices—in the writing, in the acting, in the design and stylistic choices—invite the audience to think of this all as a joke, but the episode is ready to flip the switch. The episode doesn’t need to explicitly ask us what it would actually be like to take part in such a mess of a training session and then realize that an alien army is coming to kill everyone tomorrow—the looks on the Vikings’ faces during the dinner scene say it all. This could all so easily result in tonal whiplash, but Doctor Who is the perfect show to flit between emotional states in this way. After all, that’s the Doctor’s trademark. Sometimes the pathos comes by reconsidering what was began life as a source for goofy jokes, as with the Doctor’s ability to speak baby. Not to play down the emotional heart of Craig and Stormageddon’s relationship in “Closing Time,” but the 11th Doctor’s interactions with the baby there primarily functioned as comic relief, as one more way of hinting at how the Doctor was privy to a world far wilder and sillier than the one we know. When this Doctor speaks baby, he simply puts pained, sorrowful words to what emotions we could already more or less guess. The Doctor translating a baby’s anguished crying reveals something primal, something fundamental about the human experience.
Indeed, just about every time “The Girl Who Died” reaches a point where an explanation is required, it goes for the most resonant choice. Look at the scene where Clara asks the Doctor why he would abandon the town. There are several plausible ways the Doctor could answer this question. He could talk about his principled distaste for violence, perhaps alluding to mistakes he made in the Time War. He could gesture at the laws of time, as he did in episodes like, say, “The Fires Of Pompeii.” Those could work, but those reasons are distant. They work to the extent that the actors can imbue them with emotion, because they don’t necessarily offer something the audience can really connect with. But the Doctor’s answer here is crushingly practical. Sure, he might be able to save the town. It wouldn’t rip a hole in the universe or anything to do so. But it would mean declaring war on a species that takes every loss personally, and it would mean making a defenseless Earth the target of countless alien armies.
This response sidesteps a common and generally valid critique of the new series and the Moffat era in particular, in that the Doctor’s rationale isn’t all about him. His non-interference isn’t tied up in some insular angst about his Time Lord responsibilities, but is instead an inescapably pragmatic choice made with the best interests of the greatest number in mind, and it’s only then that we see how much it tears up the Doctor to have to make that calculation. Doctor Who talks a lot about the Doctor’s vast perspective, but this is the rare instance in which it succeeds in showing us, rather than simply telling us, what that entails. His argument is logical, but it’s not necessarily the logic of we humans, with our more limited view, and that indeed is what Clara is there to remind him of.
Once “The Girl Who Died” establishes that dilemma for the Doctor, of how to defeat the false Odin without putting humanity at greater risk, it answers the question in two distinct ways, one speaking to the head and the other to the heart. The first is in seeing how the Doctor does eventually work out a plan that will deliver victory for the Vikings. His strategy is pleasing on multiple levels, as it effectively takes the silliness on display in so much of the episode and weaponizes it against the more serious threat of the Mire. The solution lies not in making the Norse more fearsome but rather in getting the aliens to admit they are every bit as ridiculous as anything else going on here, with the Doctor showing off some clever psychology about the importance of reputations to boot. The preceding sequence, in which the Doctor realizes the electric eels are the solution as the townspeople gawp at him, is one of the best-realized examples of the Doctor appearing only dimly aware that there is anyone else in the room with him. Again, “The Girl Who Died” is very smart in when it makes the Doctor alien and comedic and when it makes him human and emotionally vulnerable.
And that indeed takes us to the other half of the payoff to that dilemma, as the Doctor realizes just why he chose this familiar face for himself. An existence such as the Doctor’s, with all the vast power and knowledge at his command, necessarily requires that he set rules for himself, that he concern himself primarily with keeping as many people safe as possible. The Doctor can’t help but see people at a distance, which is why it hurts all the more when he loses those that he lets get close to him. The Doctor mentions that’s why he always runs away sooner or later, a potentially interesting statement given that the opening two-parter once again asked the Doctor why he ran away from Gallifrey in the first place. But never mind such speculation, because the in-universe answer to why the Doctor and Caecilius share a face is so wonderfully simple: The Doctor chose it to remind himself that, whatever the rules and whatever his responsibilities, the thing that makes him the Doctor is the fact that he saves people. Reminded of his first and most basic promise, the Doctor decides to save Ashildir, and hang the consequences.
I haven’t yet talked much about the episode’s big guest star, as Game Of Thrones favorite Maisie Williams plays the title character, an individual who is quite rudely not Susan or the Rani or River or Jenny or a Clara fragment or whoever else. Rather, she’s just a brave, kindhearted girl that neither the Doctor nor the town could bear to lose. Williams is very good here, although I suspect it’s next week’s “The Woman Who Lived” that will really see her show off her acting chops and challenge the Doctor, so I’ll save most of my discussion of her work for that next week. Her best quality here is one that likely won’t surprise those familiar with Arya Stark, as she has a presence here that feels both authentically medieval and eminently relatable. When she undoes Clara’s very smart work talking the Mire into leaving and declares war on them, she reveals herself the product of a culture nearly as alien to us as the Mire, yet it also feels completely logical for her to defend her town’s honor in this way. Much as this season’s episodes have seen Peter Capaldi move from playing the Doctor to, at least to the extent it’s possible, being the Doctor, so too does Maisie Williams show the difference between pretending to be a Viking girl and really inhabiting the role.
The episode is less revelatory with respect to Clara, though nor does she feel like an afterthought. “The Girl Who Died” doesn’t exactly avoid a common pitfall of the show’s handling of Clara, in that this is yet another episode in which she seems to exist primarily to provide emotional guidance for the Doctor’s journey; she doesn’t necessarily need to be a co-lead like past new series companions, but she also feels overdue for another showcase like Mathieson’s own “Flatline.” That said, Clara makes it clear she has become just as quick-witted as the Doctor in assessing and understanding new threats, and her scene bluffing the Mire into almost leaving is a great demonstration of this increasingly Doctor-ish conception of Clara. Indeed, it’s now Clara who is the TARDIS traveler more prone to deflection, as she ignores the Doctor wondering just what he has made of her. I’m still not really sure the show is committing enough to the idea that the Doctor is changing Clara into something dangerous, if only because all companions tend to be supportive and less aware than they should of the carnage unfolding around them, but what we get here works well, at least in the immediate context of the episode itself.
So yep, I might as well say it: “The Girl Who Died” is a damn triumph. More than that, it’s a triumph because it feels so resolutely like a Doctor Who episode. There are silly comedy villagers and ridiculous aliens and (intentionally, I think) bad special effects, but the day to dismiss an episode of Doctor Who because it has any of those things is to miss so much of what makes Doctor Who charming in the first place. This episode takes a potentially goofy premise, something that seems not so dissimilar from last year’s lightweight but fun “Robot Of Sherwood,” and it instead spins out some of the best-executed moral dilemmas and emotional journeys in the show’s history. That’s a blend that Doctor Who does better than perhaps any other show, and all the pieces—the writing, the acting, the directing—combine to create what is quite possibly the best episode yet of this Doctor’s tenure.
And, best of all, the entire thing is in service of next week’s sequel, in which we get to see the consequences explored of the Doctor’s decision to revive Ashildir. Whatever else this decision is, it’s not a mistake: After all, the Doctor knows exactly what he’s doing to Ashildir by yreating her with the Mire battlefield medical kit. Given his past distaste for immortals—and his own not especially subtle comments about how hard it is for him to endure when everyone around him inevitably grows old and leaves him—the Doctor makes a remarkable decision here, one he later admits may well have been born of anger and emotion. To which I can only say: good. Maybe the Doctor did the wrong thing here for the right reasons, or perhaps the right thing for the wrong reasons. Either way, the Doctor is fallible in this episode not in a way that indicts him but rather in a way that makes him all the more recognizable to the rest of us. The choices the Doctor makes and the consequences he faces operate on a scale incomprehensibly more vast than our own. But “The Girl Who Died” remembers that what motivates the Doctor’s decisions are fundamentally the same emotions that we all feel, and that’s what makes this such a brilliant hour of television.
- So, the Mire are apparently harvesting the Vikings for their testosterone, which the false Odin then drinks. Which, hmm. That feels a bit … odd, but the show pretty much completely earns this moment by having Clara observe that the universe is already overflowing with warrior juice, which, yes, that’s certainly accurate.
- Handling directorial duties for this episode is Edward Bazalgette, who in another life was the lead guitarist for the Vapors, otherwise known as the band that gave us “Turning Japanese.” Bazalgette’s work is generally strong here. I suppose it’s possible he could have made the Viking village look a bit more impressive, but that also nicely complements a lot of the humor the episode goes for, and that shot of the Doctor and Clara looking up at the sky as the Mire forges thunder is worth the price of admission.
- “She might meet someone she can’t bear to lose. That happens. I’m told.” That line might be the new high water mark for Capaldi’s work as the Doctor. Such quiet heartbreak in that delivery.