Series 9 Episode 5 - "The Girl Who Died"
Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Maisie Williams
Regular airtime: Saturdays, 8.25pm
US: 17 Oct 2015
The final 10 minutes of “The Girl Who Died”, were spent in breathless wonder at the sheer verve and range of storytelling on show. The big idea—exploring what would happen if the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) should inadvertently make a human being immortal for all intents and purposes—was a good one; the callbacks to previous Doctor Who eras, in this case, the Tennant years, were beautifully done; and guest star Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones) gave a good account of herself as Ashildr, the eponymous Viking girl. It is just a pity that the first three-quarters of the episode were so poor.
It’s not the setting. I don’t mind if the Doctor goes back to the era of the Vikings—he’s done so once before to fabulous effect, in the stand-out William Hartnell serial “The Time Meddler” (1965). But when said Vikings are portrayed with all the subtlety of a Miley Cyrus music video, the production tends to lose my goodwill. Playing up to some outdated “dumb warrior” stereotype, this particular bunch of Vikings are ridiculously credulous and doltish. At one point, trapped in a locked room, they fail to see that the weird energy beam that’s about to zap them into oblivion can be safely negotiated by running past it before it charges up—despite Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Ashildr having already escaped it that way right in front of them.
Then there’s the plot. It hangs together well enough, but in the final analysis what we see is the Doctor going all George Peppard on us. The resolution to the attack by the false Odin on the village is like watching some hideous mash-up of The A-Team and The Magnificent Seven, where the Doctor and Clara are the quip-tastic, endlessly resourceful mercenaries of the former, and the Vikings that were not exposed to the energy beam cull are the Mexican villagers of the latter. The traps they set up to confound the attackers all work perfectly—the fact that the assailants all obligingly stand in exactly the right place helps—and in a sequence that redefines the meaning of the word “far-fetched”, the source the Doctor finds for the electricity to power these gizmos scales new heights of preposterousness.
And what of “Odin”? David Schofield (Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean) does all that is asked of him, but it’s a hospital pass of a role, not helped along by the fact that the so-called god—actually an alien, of course—first appears to the villagers as a vision in the clouds that reminded one of nothing so much as God’s appearance in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). If the allusion was intentional, somebody’s mind is not on the job.
The real problem with the enemy—with the whole first half of the episode, in fact—is that he’s a colossal red herring. “The Girl Who Died” isn’t about saving innocent Vikings from alien marauders bent on sucking the “warrior juice” out of the brave and noble (no, I did not just make that up—testosterone’s the secret ingredient, apparently)—it’s just about Ashildr, who everyone in the village knows is “strange”. We apprehend that she forms the emotional fulcrum of the story very early on in the episode, and after that point, it becomes difficult to maintain any sort of emotional investment in the fates of the other Viking villagers. No one really cares what happens to them—not even the Doctor, who can’t be arsed learning people’s names, and so bestows withering nicknames on the villagers in the manner of Drill Sergeant Hartmann (R. Lee Ermey) in Full Metal Jacket (1987) or—what’s more likely—Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson’s send-up of code-name scenes in Spaced (1999-2001).
The interplay between characters is also somewhat tiresome. I cheered when the despised sonic sunglasses were broken by an irate Viking warrior, and groaned when it was revealed that one of the lenses still worked—hopefully the Doctor won’t stick the bridge back together with sticky tape, like people did to their NHS specs when glasses were meant for looking through, not flaunting. The manner in which the false Odin is finally sent packing—with a threat to humiliate him by uploading footage of his cowardly behaviour to the galactic equivalent of YouTube, complete with the Benny Hill theme tune playing in the background (will any viewer under the age of 25 get that reference?)—is embarrassing. The Doctor’s ability to speak the language of babies resurrects an old idea that’s best left alone.
The stylish cliff-hanger, recalling the 2002 remake of The Time Machine in its time-lapse imagery, sets up next week’s conclusion deftly, and no one will sleep through that one—not least because they’ll want to know if Williams is in line to replace Coleman as the Doctor’s companion. Some will hope for a great revelation, others for a happy ending. But as for me, I’ll be happy with something far simpler: an improvement.