The following will contain SPOILERS for Doctor Who episode 5, “The Girl Who Died.” We recommend you watch it prior to reading, unless you’re weird.
Jeez, Doctor Who, way to title your episode with a massive plot spoiler… or did they? I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve enjoyed Series 9 immeasurably thus far, and the fifth episode, “The Girl Who Died,” is not changing anything yet. It may not be as conceptually adventurous as some of the others, but it’s got a solid story along with some frigging amazing dialogue scenes, some huge revelations, furthers the themes of the year and of Capaldi’s era so far, and it nicely sets up the next episode. I mean, you can’t get a whole lot better than that. Oh, and did I mention it features Arya Stark herself Maisie Williams as a viking maiden with a furious imagination? Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat sure packed a lot in this week!
Well, I say they packed in a lot, but on the surface, this episode, which is a mainly standalone adventure that will have a crossover for next week, is a pretty standard Doctor Who – the Doctor and his companion get caught up in the plight of a “primitive” culture about to be annihilated by a much more advanced race and he has to save them. That’s probably 70% of all the episodes ever. But, the beauty of the show is how the writers manipulate that tried and true plot to make it something new and different. Or, in this case, to use it as a springboard for larger thematic issues.
Let’s get the “easy” stuff out of the way first. The basic plot for this episode is based on Seven Samurai, or The Magnificent Seven, or A Bug’s Life, or Battle Beyond the Stars – a village of peasants is attacked by marauders, given a concerted period of time to prepare for further attack, are forced to seek help from outsiders, are taught to fight and defend themselves, and eventually win. This story’s been done a bunch, clearly, but it almost always works because it’s the perfect example of the underdogs standing up to adversity. Adversity in this case comes in the form of a pretty ingenious villain, the Mire, an alien race that’s real, real ugly and that harvests aggression and testosterone from warlike peoples to strengthen their own armies.
Actually, come to think of it, this episode is a LOT like Battle Beyond the Stars, the 1980 Roger Corman-produced science fiction movie that was meant to capitalize on the success of Star Wars by doing Seven Samurai in space. The villain in that movie enslaves and wipes out whole planets and species in order to surgically upgrade himself, and he appears for the first time over the hero planet as a giant projection of his head in the sky. This, as I was just typing the previous paragraph, is supremely like the way the Fake Odin/leader of the Mire (David Schofield) appears and really close to their M.O. Anyway, I’m obsessed with that movie, clearly.
Back to Doctor Who. It was a really great idea to have the Mire attack a group of Vikings, as they are celebrated as being one of the fiercest warrior races in history, and then to have all of their greatest fighters taken and disposed of, leaving only the weak, the infirm, the young, the old, and the cowardly to fight a war, basically entirely caused by one brave girl, Ashildr (Williams), thinking she’s helping. Because she’s a dreamer, a storyteller, a bit of an outsider among her people. She was abducted along with Clara as the only women from the camp taken because they exhibited something special. Clearly we know Clara’s mettle, but we later learn Ashildr’s and it leads to deep and interesting places. She tells us that she’s mistaken for a boy by the girls and left out by the boys because she’s a girl. She also creates elaborate puppets and scenarios while the soldiers are out battling, as a means of controlling her fears.
And, naturally, as you might expect, the Mire are defeated, and the Doctor does it by figuring out some crazy plan involving Ashildr’s imagination and electric eels. Weird, right? I feel like if I had one bit of criticism for the episode, it would be to set up a little more that there were eels and/or that Ashildr built weird things. That seemed to come a bit out of nowhere. Not enough to ruin anything, by far, but still kinda like “Oh. All right.” However, most of this stems from the fact that they had to get Ashildr to be the title of the episode, and then deal with that. This is where the episode went from making me smile and not to making me fist pump.
First, let’s go with the Doctor and Clara stuff. So far this series, the Doctor has been doubting himself and Clara being the one to tell him he’s doing the right thing, showing the utmost faith in him. This, I’m sure, will lead to Clara’s ultimate fate; the fact that the Doctor keeps bringing up how he’s worried about her, and showing that he does care for her deeply and doesn’t want anything to happen to her basically ensures a sad and tragic ending for her. But that’ll be for later. Right now, it also means that the Doctor once again has to figure out what to do in order to “win.” As Missy said in “The Witch’s Familiar,” the Doctor knows he’s going to win in the end.
But we also get the idea of ripples in the timeline versus tidal waves. Saving a small group of people might be just ripples, but turning an entire hostile race against a planet is a tidal wave. There were hints and asides that led me to believe they’d start talking about the Twelfth Doctor’s face, but I wasn’t expecting it to be in this episode! How awesome! He realizes the reason he picked that face – meaning the face of Caecilius, whom Capaldi played in Series 4’s “The Fires of Pompeii” – was to remind himself that he’s the Doctor, and he saves people. Big-upped by the sudden excitement at the possibility, and the anger of having lost Ashildr in the first place, the Doctor tinkers with the Mire soldier’s helmet, which has a self-repairing function, and gives it to the girl, bringing her back to life.
However, not everything good is happy. I love the moment of doubt afterwards when the Doctor realizes he may have done something horrible – in bringing Ashildr back, he effectively made her immortal, and he gave her a second one to keep someone she cares about alive as well. This goes back to the Doctor being so very old, and having lost so very many people. In saving her, her may have damned Ashildr to his own, rather horrible fate, and has created – GASP – an alien/human hybrid!! Just like Davros said! The end of the episode shows us that, yes, the fate of the Viking girl might indeed not be so great, as she goes from smiling to sad to resolutely cold in a way that only Maisie Williams can, showing much more age in her face than she actually possesses.
There’s so much I adore about “The Girl Who Died” that I can sort of overlook the wholly uncomplicated plot, because the episode was about so much more, and will set up nicely next week’s episode, “The Woman Who Lived,” written by Catherine Tregenna, where, it seems, Ashildr is now a highwayman(woman) in the 1650s going by the name of “The Knightmare.” Having lived for possibly close to a thousand years, and at the very least 600, Ashildr will surely not be the same person, and I can’t wait to see what Williams does with it!
Let me know your thoughts about everything in this episode in the comments below! (And tell me I’m not right about the Battle Beyond the Stars thing!)
Images: BBC America
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor, a film and TV critic, and the resident Whovian for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!