18 October 2015

Doctor Who: The Girl Who Died

In terms of eye-catching imagery, this one grabs your attention. “Doctor Who meets Game of Thrones!” says the Radio Times (slightly superficially, given the actual episode). “Vikings Vs Aliens!” cries another. And if you’re thinking that it sounds fairly typical for the series, this story takes a simpler plot, tells it well, and makes good use of the extra room for smaller, snappier scenes. After the spooky but rather scientific investigations of Under the Lake, I liked this one even more. It’s my kind of Doctor Who.

It’s also yet another take on an established genre. No, not Vikings, but the classic, Western movie trope of a village being under siege and having to train up the villagers to beat the invaders. Not that it’s the first time it’s been used in Doctor Who. Having the Doctor gatecrash another type of story is one of the show’s staples, as it allows everyone to have some fun, and it’s the only type of show that can get away with it so often. This episode has some fun with it, with the Doctor training up the villagers and doing his best army general impression. But mostly, it’s played for real. He knows full well that the villagers are going to die (he argues they have to die, using his logic, because otherwise it will cause too many ‘ripples’ in time). The odds are against him more than ever in this impossible situation.

If that sounds less action packed than most stories, you’d be right. The story breezes along rather nicely, with some steady direction. After a fast paced introduction where we’re (very) speedily thrown into the situation this week, the story settles down into... introspection. The Doctor isn’t a fighter - actually, there’s very little fighting in this story at all! - he’s a thinker. And when the enjoyable and especially funny quips die down, there’s a rare chance for the show to delve a bit deeper into the characters than they usually do in recent years. Or have the Doctor and Clara talk about weightier issues.

The standout emotional scene in the middle of the story is the Doctor ‘talking’ baby. It’s taking what was presented as a joke from previous episodes, and perhaps being inspired by Peter Capaldi translating the dinosaur in Deep Breath too. The sound of a baby crying alone didn’t work in sparking the village into action, so the Doctor translates it into language and it becomes sweet and sad and a glimpse into an unknown world. All of this in a few spoken lines - and it’s enough of a moment to hang the rest of the story onto it.

I feel sorry for the new aliens, though. The Mire look and sound pretty cool, and the design does a lot of the work for them. But they don’t get much of an outing in this episode, when most of it is devoted to the Doctor and Clara. Pitching them as Viking-like in morality makes them stand out from the rest of the show’s pantheon straight away, even though we know very little about them otherwise.

The episode strives to be entertaining, with the Doctor on fine form. This week Peter Capaldi is cast as a mad god and a rational thinker rolled into one, and a goofier side to some of his humour. As ever, he feels unpredictable - hell, this Doctor feels like Tom Baker, having that alien aloofness of not caring for human matters, masking the love of the trivial, and deep friendship with his companion. Clara, you could say, occupies some of the more traditional role as she’s becoming more like him - she can stand up to the aliens too. But also she’s definitely got that shared bond with the Doctor as they understand each other much better. (All the more important to keep those talky scenes rather than reduce it all to shorthand)

It’s Doctor Who on strong form - reminiscent in broad terms of last year’s Robot of Sherwood (down to some of the expansive sets and the sunny look), but even more successful, if a more sketchier drawn setting. The Viking setting is a catchy look, but populated with everyday characters, with more detail being sketched in with new girl Ashildr. She’s cleverly played as just a normal, quiet young girl, but cleverly written to make her more Viking and less modern and immediately likeable. Her strengths are slowly revealed, and they are in her character rather than in her funny quips: her heart, her storytelling, her innocence. It’s a good role to build a story around.

For all the build-up to this particular episode, overthinking fans might feel a bit underwhelmed by the result. Sure, Maisie Williams’s casting is exciting, even when you discount the theories as to her character - cue the inevitable list of old friends and foes. But the episode itself (titled The Girl Who Died!) acknowledges that her character will be important right from the start, even if it cheekily puts the Doctor’s interest in her down to a premonition - “remembering in the wrong order”. Looking back, it’s pure mystical foreshadowing, but at least we can be comforted in the knowledge of another 45 minutes continuing the story next week.

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