Almost every episode in Series 9 has in some way played around with the audience's expectation and subverted more conventional means of storytelling. The Girl Who Died takes this to a new extreme: constantly questioning its identity as the season's quirky comic historical. This is a story which desperately wants you to rewatch it and appreciate it on multiple levels. However, the trappings of its apparent genre and trying perhaps too hard to capture everything prevents it from excelling at anything.
From the opening moments, The Girl Who Died is trying to fool you. "This is an exciting romp which doesn't take itself too seriously!" it screams, with it's silly cold open and its Vikings with horned helmets. It doesn't stop there - with it's standard issue alien warrior race villains and (admittedly very) funny resolution, one could certainly argue there's no pretence at all and that this really is just a standard adventure. But then you realise that the Mire have been defeated with 10-15 minutes still on the clock.
|"I am a very serious threat" said the sun from the tellytubbies.|
The reveal of why The Doctor chose Caecilius' face is honestly kind of flimsy in my opinion and I don't believe we've heard the end of it. I also question the wisdom of using clips from 7 years and 2 Doctors ago to resolve a plot line no one really cared about. But it's on this reveal that you start to become more aware of just how full of contemplation and deeper thinking this episode is. From the beginning we're led to question the rules The Doctor abides by, setting up for the tidal wave he sets in motion at the end. It asks whether The Doctor truly has a duty of care to his companions, and to what extent he should. Was saving Ashildr the right thing to do?
It is in the nature of part one episodes to raise more questions than answers. The Magician's Apprentice and Under The Lake both do, but where they asked questions about the story (how do Clara and Missy survive? et al.), The Girl Who Died opens up the flood gates to many of the thematic questions which have been bubbling away in the background throughout Season 9, and is perhaps the best "part one" so far because of it.
Despite retreading ground and even repeated lines verbatim from Under The Lake, the relationship between The Doctor and Clara feels far more organic here. The magic of Twelve and Clara is how much is left unsaid and while Whithouse's two parter had it's moments it was way too heavy handed. Within the opening ten minutes of The Girl Who Died, Clara takes charge in a notable way but what stands out is her decreasing concern for people leading to a scared and discomforted Ashildr to declare war on the Mire. We get more instances of Clara's safety being the main motivator for him to act, and the most interesting part: Clara calling out The Doctor's "duty of care" attitude.
Something which has sat quite uncomfortably with all season is the extent to which The Doctor has been protective over Clara. While initially a mark of his obsession to solve her mystery, and later as a more obvious sign of how much Twelve really cares, it has been upsetting to see the mutual respect between Twelve and Clara undermined somewhat by this feeling of superiority and responsibility. It's reasonable for Twelve to feel this way, but I've never thought Clara would be the type to accept it and I'm glad she's said something even if it has brought her one step closer to the moment she goes too far.
Speaking of Clara, I'm interested to see in the next episode how she handles Ashildr's immortality as one of the main themes of the season has been Clara's relationship with death and I feel like her reaction to The Doctor making someone immortal should be integral to that. But we've also seen lots of undone death with consequences this season, and will continue to with Osgood later. Given her history with Danny, maybe even her mother if we want to get super meta, Clara's reaction to The Doctor granting functional immortality seems like an obvious route to explore Ashildr further and I hope there's a place for it in The Woman Who Lived.
Now I've mused a bit, but this story definitely has problems. Big ones. For one, there's no getting around the Mire being very poorly done villains. There's nothing about them which is very interesting and absolutely nothing to give them credence as one of the greatest warrior races. Which is, to be fair, kind of a plot point, but the total lack of threat from them holds back the urgency of the story and makes said plot point underwhelming, unsurprising, and ineffective. Usually the blessing of the historical romp is that the lack of heavy stuff allows the episode to play around with the villains a bit more, but the additional focus on Ashildr and The Doctor's face means this is lost and we're left with a weaker story among a group which tends to come in below average anyway.
While it is clear that the consequences and reasons are more to do with The Doctor's changing perspective, I do feel like we needed more reason to be convinced that Ashildr would be the girl significant enough for The Doctor to break the rules and grant immortality. Perhaps this will be resolved soon with the sense he's seen her before, but for now I don't fully appreciate why it's her that led him to the conclusion about his choice of face.
There's also a common issue of forced humour which plagues a lot of the Moffat era. There are some scenes, such The Doctor and Clara's mocking defeat of Odin, which work within the context of the episode and are genuinely funny. But there are also more obvious scripted comedy scenes which both try too hard to amuse and aren't actually funny enough to justify themselves. Having said that, this isn't as much of a problem here as it was in the deeply uncomfortable The Caretaker from last season.
Overall this is a mixed bag. It's not perfect, but I like that: The story is never going to go down as the most ingenious, but if the themes of it are carried through well enough it could go be remembered as understated and beautiful episode; with lots of ideas relevant to Series 9 without betraying its roots as the rompy adventure. Curiously making it a rare case which could end up being more than the sum of its parts.