When looking back on my favorite episodes of last season, I realized that they were almost all written by either Jamie Mathieson or Steven Moffat. Needless to say, I had high hopes for “The Girl Who Died,” a story written by both Mathieson and Moffat. While I enjoyed “The Girl Who Died,” it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I felt that I was slow to engage with the story and I missed the luxury of time that the two-part episodes provided for setting up the story. However, once I got into the story, I found many ideas to explore in an episode that could have been just a romp.
The story contains the strengths of both Mathieson and Moffat. Mathieson has traditionally brought a great deal of humor to his episodes and this was no exception. From the Monty Python-esque Odin to the Doctor’s interactions with the Viking men, there were plenty of lighthearted moments. Moffat, I’m assuming, brought the emotional heft to the episode, i.e. the quieter moments between the Doctor and Clara or Ashildr’s death.
The main aspect that kept me from ranking this episode among the best had to do with the pacing. After several two-parters in a row, the story felt rushed. The beginning flew through things so quickly that I didn’t really fully engage with the episode until Clara was confronting the Mire. Additionally, the beginning of the episode felt a bit disjointed as it shifted tones quickly.
However, this episode had a great deal to recommend it as well. It continued to develop the characters of the Doctor and Clara, as well as some of the themes of the season so far.
This episode catches the Doctor at an interesting moment. He discusses the idea of a time traveler making ripples, not tidal waves as how he judges what he can and can’t do. He has lost a great deal of the edge that he had last season without really changing his attitude. He still clearly thinks that humans are pudding brains, but now his approach is more blunt than cruel. Even so, he manages to find a very Doctor-ish solution to the problem of the small Viking town going against one of the greatest warrior races in the universe; instead of fighting them, he finds a way to outwit them without causing harm to anyone.
Apparently, the Doctor had some kind of sense that this incarnation would need a little help finding his way because we finally learn the reason that the Doctor chose this particular face for himself. He chose this face to remind himself that the Doctor saves people whenever he can. Pompeii’s destruction was a fixed point that he could not change, but Donna reminded him that he could still save someone from the tragedy. He rescued Caecilius and his family proving that even if he couldn’t change the event, he could still make a difference, no matter how small in the grand scheme of things.
This revelation, along with, perhaps, confronting the limitations of his abilities in the previous episode, leads the Doctor into a moment that feels a bit reminiscent of the “Time Lord victorious” arc during David Tennant’s tenure. He brings Ashildr back from the dead and possibly grants her immortality. It is entirely possible that he has once again overstepped his bounds as a Time Lord and created a ripple that turns into a tidal wave.
The episode also continues to deepen the relationship between the Doctor and Clara. Once again we see how distraught the Doctor is at the thought of losing Clara; he mentions his duty of care and tries to get her to leave before the battle so that nothing happens to her. This is the most preoccupied I’ve ever seen the Doctor with the thought of losing a companion, which makes me wonder if he knows something that we have yet to find out.
Of course the episode also continues to focus on how traveling with the Doctor has changed Clara. When the Mire brings her to “Valhalla,” she witnesses the death of all the Viking warriors without even batting an eye. She tries to save them, but she has no trouble accepting their death when she can’t help them. She has clearly taken on the Doctor’s morality here, in that she sees the bigger picture and is willing to accept some casualties along the way. She also functions almost as a Time Lord in her own right as she negotiates with the Mire. Furthermore, she shows that she has the utmost faith in the Doctor as she tells everyone that he will come up with a plan to save them and even tells him to “start winning, Doctor. It’s what you’re good at.” As opposed to previous seasons, where Clara tried to keep the Doctor as her “hobby” (a fact she mentions in this episode), it’s clear that he is much more than that to her. We see very little of her life outside the TARDIS anymore.
Aside from the theme of Clara in danger, we also touch on several other reoccurring themes of the season. First, we have another episode centered around death and/or cheating death. From “The Magician’s Apprentice”/”The Witch’s Familiar” we had Missy returned from the dead, Davros cheating death and decaying Daleks regenerated. In “Under the Lake”/”Before the Flood” we had the ghosts who were another way of returning from the dead. In this episode we have our most blatant resurrection: the Doctor uses alien technology to bring Ashildr back from the dead. Rather than suffer a devastating loss in the middle of his triumph, the Doctor chooses to do what he can to save her, even if that might mean that she is now immortal. Maisie Williams does a great job of conveying, simply through the expression on her face in the final scene that this immortality might be more of a burden than a blessing; her expression changes from happy to sad to just cold and hard. After all the Doctor was speaking from experience when he said, “immortality isn’t living forever…immortality is everyone else dying.”
Besides the resurrection theme, this episode brings back the idea of a hybrid, except this time it is Ashildr who has become a human-alien hybrid. We last heard about a hybrid in relation to the “prophecy” of which Davros spoke: the Doctor’s role in the coming of the Time Lord-Dalek hybrid. While Ashildr is not a Time Lord-Dalek hybrid, it doesn’t seem coincidental that she is the second hybrid we’ve encountered in the season so far.
I also noticed one of Moffat’s favorite themes at work in this story: the power of storytelling. It’s not surprising that a writer would prize storytelling, but Moffat often makes use of themes in his episodes. From the eleventh Doctor’s famous quote about how we’re all stories in the end to all River’s detective novel in “The Angels Take Manhattan,” he loves to explore the power of storytelling. Therefore, it seemed appropriate that the Doctor is able to defeat one of the most fearsome alien races by having a girl tell a story. Once again the story is more powerful than the sword…or laser gun as the case may be.
Overall, I enjoyed the episode, it just fell a bit short of my expectations. As I mentioned before, I found the beginning a bit choppy, but there’s something else. This episode makes use of my least favorite of the Doctor’s skills: his ability to speak baby. I can accept a lot of ridiculous things, but this is just too much. It was okay as a throwaway gag, but it just keeps coming back. In this episode, it’s not even played for laughs. Instead, the Doctor meets the most soulful and profound baby ever. “Beyond the unfolding of your smile, is there other kindness?” Really? A baby said that? I think I preferred the Doctor speaking horse.