The Vikings gave us a lot of words that we use in common English.
I saw it on a Horrible Histories once so it’s true. One of them was ‘happy’. That’s fortunate, because it’s a great word to apply to ‘The Girl Who
Waited Died’ – 45 minutes of Saturday-morning style fun that should make fans very happy indeed.
With cartoonish vigour we’re dropped into the middle of an adventure, just as Neil Gaiman wanted us to be in ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ with The Beatles or Rain Gods, but had to cut for reasons of time. Here Jamie Mathieson gives us TARDIS console pyrotechnics, talk of battle, and Clara drifting through the void while an unseen creepy-crawly makes a bid for her delicious brain. As openers go, it’s the most impressive since ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’.
Then we’re set down in a Viking village so far in the backwater that they haven’t heard that Vikings didn’t actually wear horns on their helmets. Without sonic sunnies to hide behind, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor does a top Tom Baker impersonation and whips out a familiar yo-yo. He’s softened since the last time he whipped it out in Season 8’s ‘Kill the Moon’, hasn’t he?
The Heavens open, and in yo-yo the Mire (another Viking word, etymology fans): a deadly race who, like a militant Tropicana, have come to squeeze only the ripest warriors for their manly juices, with no bits in.
What follows might rankle those who sat stony-faced during ‘Robot of Sherwood’, as we get a Viking version of Dad’s Army with The Doctor as Captain Mainwaring to a Homestead Guard of incompetents.
And then it becomes Home Alone as The Doctor works out a plan involving electric eels, some anvils, a ‘rubbish’ figurehead and a feasting hall. Compared to recent episodes, The Mire’s defeat is a pleasingly simple solution, But they’re simple villains; essentially tinned Sontarans or Judoon. And anyway, it’s not really about baddies this week is it? Just like The Doctor, your attention’s split between a straightforward foe and a mysterious girl.
It’s a thesis for another time, but even through other writers Moffat likes to make a mystery of women, doesn’t he? River, Clara, Missy… Now Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams continues the tradition.
Ashildr believes in the power of stories. That’s another Moffatism right there: the power of stories. From ‘Silence in the Library’ all the way to ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’ and the many chapters in between.
It’s a sign of Maisie Williams’ envied natural talent that she lifts Ashildr above being convenience or novelty. Were it not her in the role – and had the significance of her character not been so unsubtly telegraphed by trailers – the episode would have risked being as lightweight as that other immortality tale ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’.
Her death is no surprise, but why would it be? Unlike the infuriatingly opaque ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ the spoiler’s right there in the title. Just as it is in next week’s. What is a surprise is The Doctor’s reaction to it.
He’s watched so many people become ghosts and now his conscious suddenly springs out. Do you want to know how The Doctor ‘frowned’ his face? Like ‘how many toilets does the TARDIS have?’ it’s a question that never really needed to exist. You didn’t stare at Colin Baker’s curls or Karen Gillan’s eyes and ponder the origins. To misquote the Time Lord, you never ask why, only who.
If it had to be done, then this was how to do it: simple, poetic, ferocious, and unapologetically fan-service-y. Capaldi nails it. It’s his finest moment on the show to date. The grand old man of time exerting his privilege. And it’d be surprising if such a succinct manifesto didn’t have ramifications for Season 9’s finale.
The Doctor saves Ashildr. Because some days not everyone dies. Some days everybody lives. But living forever? That’s even more complicated, as the unorthodox but beautiful final 30 seconds communicate.
After the dead feints of the previous two cliffhangers, it’ll be refreshing to spend a week thinking about the consequences of someone living instead of fake dying. It gives us a more profound cliffhanger than we’re used to.
Is Ashildr the foretold Hybrid that Davros spoke of? Given what Steven Moffat’s said recently, probably not. But that just makes it all the more delicious. She’s something new.
‘The Girl Who Died’ is a treat of two parts. Funny and serious, flippant and sincere, mad but with method in the madness. There’s probably no other way to describe it. Not even in Viking.
Aired at 8.20pm on Saturday 17 October 2015 on BBC One.
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