‘Doctor Who’ spoiler-free review: ‘The Girl Who Died’

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Primary teachers of the world – look away now!

In this episode of Doctor Who, there are Vikings and (gasp!) they are not completely historically accurate! Inside a peasant’s hut, there is the anachronism of a leather-bound book, while, in a costuming decision bound to inflame the great Viking headgear controversy, warriors wear helmets that, yes indeed, have horns on them.

And do you know what? It matters not one jot.

‘The Girl Who Died’ is an episode that looks beyond fixed historical truths to find the truths in the fictions we tell ourselves. It’s a witty episode that cares more about the representation of Vikings in popular culture – from Flash Gordon to Noggin the Nog – than it does about historicity.

It cares about Doctor Who too, taking time to celebrate the programme’s own myths: whether it’s the one about the lonely wanderer in space and time, or the one about the face he found himself wearing, and where he saw it before…

Doctor Who The Girl Who Died Mire

In this, it feels like the next logical continuation of the Capaldi era: a period that has seen the programme increasingly willing to revivify its own past – wearing its Troughton trousers with pride; doffing its cap to the funny-discomfiting eccentricities of the early Tom Baker years.

That’s not to say that ‘The Girl Who Died’ doesn’t take us to fresh places: Vikings, remarkably, haven’t formed the basis of a Doctor Who story since 1965’s ‘The Time Meddler’. Still, there’s something especially familiar about the characterisation of the Doctor here.

Like Pertwee’s Doctor, famously, in ‘The Daemons’, he is keen to refute the existence of the supernatural – and even paraphrases Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

There are dialogue nods, too, to both ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ and ‘The War Games’ – the kinds of thing that were once called ‘kisses to the past’ and now feel like a joining up of dots to find a consistency in this character who is, in so many ways, so changeable.

Doctor Who The Girl Who Died Odin (DAVID SCHOFIELD) Peter Capaldi Twelfth

Why Moffat and Mathieson are able to do this is, in part, because Capaldi is a Who fan, but, rather more, because he is an actor of natural gravitas who lends himself to the kind of grown-up dialogue that is the polar opposite of more ‘humany wumany’ offerings.

The ongoing storyline of Clara’s increasing callousness in the face of death and danger gets another airing and is treated with a tender delicacy from Capaldi’s Doctor that suggests he cares because she chooses not to. He’s a dab hand with the farce too, commandeering a makeshift squad of Viking warriors in a manner that’s more Captain Mainwaring than Erik the Red.

Mathieson and Moffat know where to get their laughs – this cannot be a surprise. But what’s more impressive is the way dialogue is used to build worlds, singing with a lyricism that comes directly out of the situation: a Viking community for whom sagas and story-telling are the things that give their culture meaning.

It’s always pleasing to watch a Doctor Who story that salutes the power of words to shape experience because it feels, instinctively, so right: so right for this character who favours puns over guns, and so right for this programme too, which is, at its best, a celebration of creativity.

Doctor Who The Girl Who Died Odin (DAVID SCHOFIELD) Mire

‘The Girl Who Died’ wears its heart on its sleeve, and declares that its sympathies are with the outsider, the introvert and the dreamer.

And at the heart of all this is Maisie Williams’s character: the self-same character who has been slow-burning the internet ever since she was first heard to utter, ‘What took you so long, old man?’

It’s a lovely performance – you’d expect no less from Maisie – and one which is worthy of the unique place which this character has in this story and, it seems, this season. If the opening scene of ‘The Girl Who Died’ leads you to expect a sassy genre mash-up, we end in quite a different place, with a CGI directorial flourish that is as impressive as it is quietly intriguing.

Oh, and just for the avoidance of doubt, we end with three words too: ‘To Be Continued…’


Airs at 8.20pm on Saturday 17 October 2015 on BBC One.

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