Saturday, 17 October 2015

Doctor Who - The Girl Who Died


Contains spoilers.

I think it's safe to declare now that this is the longest a Doctor Who season has gone without even a below average episode. Let's break that down and look at it in more detail. By episode five in their respective years: season one had Aliens of London; two had New Earth; three had Daleks in Manhatten; four had The Sontaran Stratagem; five had Victory of the Daleks; six had The Curse of the Black Spot; seven had The Power of Three; eight had Robot of Sherwood. Now, not all of these are terrible (New Earth and The Curse of the Black Spot are probably the most enjoyable of the bunch) but some are downright disasters (Aliens of London and Victory of the Daleks, I'm looking at you).

The Girl Who Died not only continues Doctor Who's streak of fantastic episodes this year, but offers us something we've never really encountered before, and turns out to be something quite special indeed. What begins as your standard 'Doctor Who in the past with aliens' narrative transforms into something quite emotional, and wraps up with a cliffhanger that, while not the most shocking, is the most interesting ending we've had so far this series.

But we'll get to that later. This episode can easily be broken into two sections; the opening thirty five minutes, and the closing ten. After accidentally running into Vikings in a small village, the Doctor and Clara are soon to be questioned when suddenly a Norse God appears in the sky and offers the village's bravest a chance to dine at the table of Valhalla. Giant robots teleport down, and beam the Viking warriors, along with Clara and a young girl named Ashildr (the excellent Maisie Williams), up to a mysterious location.

Long story short, the Vikings are killed and Ashildr ends up declaring war on the Mire, the species involved. So, the Doctor then has twenty four hours to train a town of fishermen and farmers into soldiers to prevent their impending doom. It's simple Doctor Who, and this story benefits from the different structure of the two-part story. This is an episode of two parts, but each tells a different story with mostly different characters in a different time period. We can go over that in a little while, but this new format allows The Girl Who Died to play out with the pace of a standalone episode, then deliver a whopper of a cliffhanger at the end. This episode rockets by at a dizzying speed, scarcely pausing to catch a breath.

There may not really be forty five minutes of heavy plot here, but there's more than enough for the first thirty five to work with. This episode being considerably lighter in tone than the previous four also strengthened it, this was without question the funniest, and most categorically enjoyable episode so far this series. We all know Peter Capaldi is fantastic at drama and seriousness, but his comedy work is just as impressive. He delivers small asides and sudden quickfire dialogue with ease, completely selling how insane the Doctor is, but in such a giddily enjoyable way.

Jenna Coleman is, again, on top form. In fact, these two are both so reliably great now that unless I explicitly say otherwise, just assume they were fantastic. Coleman too has a real knack for humour, her comic timing tonight was impeccable. After the Doctor declares he will give the civilians real swords for the first time, with a triumphant soundtrack blaring behind him, we hard cut to the Doctor sat, head in hands, on the floor, surrounded by small fires, passed out locals, wild roaming ducks and the screams of residents in the background. But it's Coleman's delivery - almost pausing between every word as she informs one of the now conscious farmers what just happened - that completes the scene. I could watch her tell that story a hundred times and never laugh any less.

The Mire threat is dealt with in an appropriately silly yet enjoyable way, and all seems good for the Doctor and Clara to say goodbye and set off. So, all round, the first thirty five minutes are perfectly solid stuff. But leave it to Doctor Who to take it up a notch. After the Mire leave, we discover that Ashildr died during the battle, and the final ten minutes take a whiplash-inducing right turn into a sequence of events unlike anything this series has offered yet. We know that Capaldi and Coleman bounce off each other delightfully well, but their best sequence tonight came when the Doctor recognised his own face while mourning Ashildr.

As the Doctor finally understands why his regeneration chose a face he had seen before, Clara watches on with a seamless combination of horror, perplexity and bemusement. There's an array of emotions and feelings on Coleman's face as Clara watches the Doctor go through this revelation out loud, and it's a truly remarkable sequence, given further emotional weight when the quickly cut flashbacks to David Tennant and Catherine Tate are considered too. He subconsciously took on the face of Caecilius from season four's The Fires of Pompeii in order to remind him that he can always, always save people. This reveal was a big risk, but a great one, and one that perfectly summarises what this show, and this character, is really all about.

And then the Doctor, using wonderfully sketchy science, revives Ashildr and once again all seems wrapped up. Until the last minute, when the Doctor throws the curve ball to Clara that by reviving Ashildr, he has taken away her ability to die. Clara instinctively questions this: is dying an ability? The Doctor tells her it is; for those burdened with the inability to die, it does not feel like immortality, it feels like everyone else dying. So he has left Ashildr a tool to choose one person to take on that ride with her, for when she, like the Doctor, truly understands what that feels like. Coupled with the knowledge that this is Clara's final season, the Doctor's words of not wanting to lose someone who means so much to you are tear inducing, sold completely by Capaldi in one of the most emotional sequences of his entire run.

This, right here, is what makes Doctor Who so brilliant, so unlike anything else on TV. It can ricochet across genres and tones within one forty five minute episode, and stick every landing with ease. This episode - thanks to its fantastic writing, clever thematic ideas and impeccable performances from Capaldi, Coleman and Williams - shows off this strength more than any other in recent memory. From its horror inspired opening sequence, through the fun and enjoyable middle act, to that unforgettably stunning final shot of the world continuing around Ashildr as her expression changes from joy to sorrow, The Girl Who Died had it all.

What a wonderful piece of television.

Notes- 
  • I'm still not fully over how funny this episode was. Moffat's giddy sense of humour can sometimes be too much, but Jamie Mathieson's smart storytelling kept the comedy grounded. The hard cut mentioned earlier was still this episode's best gag, it's the most I've laughed at this show in a very long time. 
  • Maisie Williams really was a delightful guest addition to this episode, I can't wait to see how much has happened to Ashildr when we catch up with her a few centuries later....next week. 
  • Again, that final shot was breathtaking. A complete 360 degree pan beginning on Ashildr's content smile, as we watch the world around her grow and change, before landing back on her face to an expression of pain and misery. There was more emotion in that one shot than there was in the entire script of last year's tonally equivalent but considerably weaker Robot of Sherwood
  • Would electric eels really conduct that much electricity? I know they had some help from "that metal thing in Clara's helmet", but I'm not sure about that. But who cares, what would Doctor Who be without some sketchy science now and again?
  • Also who cares if the Vikings had horns on their helmets. Historical accuracy is nice and all, but I'm not going to criticise an episode for giving in to a simple misconception like that. 
  • I don't think many others will share my love for this episode. I get the feeling this will be quite a divisive one. It's basically Kill the Moon MKII. Just not quite as mind-shatteringly brilliant as Kill the Moon
  • OK after questioning it for the last few weeks, I'm officially calling it now.  So far this is, for me, the show's strongest season yet.

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