• 20th October 2015 • Review by Seb Patrick •
So, first and foremost, congratulations to Jamie Mathieson, who has now written three legitimately excellent episodes of Doctor Who. It seems harsh that the reward for writing “Mummy on the Orient Express” and “Flatline” and being voted DWM‘s best writer of the year by a ludicrous margin is to face a significantly increased level of scrutiny, to the extent that anything less this week would have been a massive letdown; but that’s how it goes sometimes. For myself, I was hugely excited to see what he’d do next, but also a little fearful that there was no way that this promising new talent would be able to follow up on his impressive debut performance.
I needn’t have worried. What already characterises Mathieson’s writing is a huge amount of confidence, and that’s evident throughout “The Girl Who Died”. It’s a slick, smart, witty, characterful, touching story that’s actually about something meaningful beyond its standard immediate alien threat. In other words, it’s pretty much exactly what I want my Doctor Who to be like, and in keeping with basically the entirety of series 9 up to this point.
It’s hard to remember a non-showrunner writer making this much of an impact on the show since… well, since Moffat in 2005, frankly. There have been great individual episodes by other writers, of course, but they’ve tended to come either after a stuttering start (Tom Macrae on “The Girl Who Waited”, Neil Cross with “Hide”), or from one-off hires that haven’t yet returned (Shearman, Jones, Nye, Curtis). Some may argue for Gareth Roberts or Mark Gatiss, but I’d say the only other writers to have penned as many episodes of this standard in the New era are Moffat, RTD and Paul Cornell. And they were all writers who we already knew could write pretty bloody well beforehand.
Aside from that aforementioned confidence, the most striking aspect of Mathieson’s Who up to this point has been just how well he writes the leading man. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say he’s the best yet at characterising Capaldi’s incarnation – even moreso than Moffat. Although it’s difficult to know exactly who to give the kudos for on a shared-credit episode such as this (although it seems likely to me that Moffat’s role here will have been steering through the parts that needed to line up with both the series arc as a whole, and the non-Mathieson-written second half), I feel comfortable in crediting him with the supreme quotability of the Doctor in this episode.
Capaldi is good no matter what you give him, of course, but he really seems to sing when given Mathieson-written dialogue (“I’m not actually the police, that’s just what it says on the box!”) not to mention whenever his realisation that he’s there first and foremost to rescue people is the pivot of the episode’s plot (the second time it’s happened, now, under this writer’s pen). Significantly, the episode sits just above “pretty good” until reaching the Doctor’s speech about losing (“I’ll lose any war you like… I’m sick of losing people“), but even before then the memorable lines – whether funny, or profound, or both – just keep on coming.
(Even if some of them come from previous episodes. But let’s be honest, I am never, ever going to tire of hearing the Doctor say “Time will tell. It always does.”)
There’s literally only one problem I have with Capaldi’s Doctor at the moment, and it’s the costume. He looked so sharp and elegant in those first few appearances, but from the closing scenes of “Death in Heaven” onwards he’s started dressing (and wearing his hair) like a surprised pensioner answering the door in his pyjamas. The Hartnell-esque trousers are great, but let’s lose the t-shirt and hoodie soon, please.
It’s not always easy for Doctor Who to move you with things that aren’t about the central characters. But as a recent father watching this, every single moment involving the crying baby and the Doctor’s translation struck me right to the core. More than that, though, I truly cared about the plight of the villagers, and in particular about the love and protective fear that drives Ashildr’s father. When the time came for the assault on the village, I had genuine concern for their wellbeing, which isn’t always a given in a story where you know at least some people are going to die (which is, you know, almost every Doctor Who story ever); and it’s a rare example of the episode’s title actually carrying premonitive weight.
I’m conscious that we haven’t talked about Clara a whole bunch on this site – indeed, in a few of my reviews, I’ve already expressed concern about not having enough to say about her. The fact that I’ve never quite fully clicked with the character (not helped by just how much I loved Amy and Rory) means it’s all too easy to take for granted how good Jenna Coleman is at what she does. But this year (ironically, the “extra” year she’s ended up having that she originally wasn’t going to) has so far given her a much more clearly defined role in the dynamic; and while she doesn’t yet have an obvious “arc” going on (although more on that later) that’s actually tended to be for the better, as the “Impossible Girl” year made it difficult for her to really work as an ordinary companion, and the Danny arc just didn’t really work much for her at all.
It’s notable, though, that this series has seen fit to separate her from the Doctor for significant chunks of the running time of every episode so far. Doing this has always been a pretty standard storytelling technique in Who, of course, but it seems to be happening even more often, and for longer, this year. And this time around, the character has looked fully capable of carrying it. Hardened now by travel with the Doctor, and by the losses she’s suffered, she’s started to get pretty good at basically being him (that opening titles gag in “Death in Heaven” feels like an even more deliberate foreshadowing). And yet you wonder if it’s going to foster an overconfidence that might, ultimately, be her downfall.
Whatever happens, though, I actually feel like I’ll miss her a bit when she leaves – something I wouldn’t have said during any of her previous series in the role.
“Stunt casting” is a phrase rarely used in anything other than a pejorative sense, but it’s hard to argue against the idea that putting Maisie Williams in series 9 was exactly that. She attracted a significant amount of attention to this episode from the moment her casting was announced, due to her being an important player in one of the biggest genre shows around at the moment, and there’s no point denying that.
But equally, there’s a reason she’s an important player in one of the biggest genre shows around at the moment, and it’s because she’s a terrifically good actress for her age. And this episode sorely needed (or, perhaps more accurately, was probably written with in mind) an actress able to occupy something of a visual middle ground in both age and gender (I’d have pegged the character as only being around 14, which made Clara’s “I’ll fight you for her” feel a bit uncomfortable; so I was surprised when, like I’d imagine many viewers did, I Wikied her afterwards to discover that she’s 18) with the nous and chops and whatever else to really pull off this strange, powered-yet-fearful, storyteller of a character.
When you’ve got a lead pair who are as good at their jobs as Capaldi and Coleman are, it’s rare indeed to find someone who can stand up to them and hold their own, but Williams undoubtedly does that here. Next week’s episode looks as if it’ll give her an even more integral role – and it remains to be seen if she’ll be up to that as well – but even taken entirely on its own this is a hugely memorable guest appearance.
(Incidentally, while Doctor Who has dealt with “functionally immortal” characters before, and even given us one instance of someone becoming so, it’s clear that Ashildr’s experience will be vastly different from that of Captain Jack. For starters, she’s not a time traveller – indeed, her immediate worldview isn’t even equipped yet to cope with the idea of lasting immortality, of aliens and other worlds. In this sense, then, what she’s reminiscent of more than anything is Hob Gadling, the best character from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. It looks from the trailers like “The Woman Who Lived” will be set entirely in one time period, but I really hope that’s misdirection and we get to properly explore her lifetime through the ages.)
I must admit to always feeling slightly apprehensive at the start of “historical” Who episodes. They just don’t really do it for me in the way they do for many – and despite (or perhaps because of) several childhood visits to the unique-smelling Jorvik Viking Centre I’ve never been that interested in the helmeted, bearded seafarers of legend, either. But “The Girl Who Died” is exactly the kind of episode to make me like them, by going down the Asterix route and basically playing them for laughs.
Of course, it does this by stripping away (to wit: killing off in the first few minutes) the classic image of the “warrior” viking, and giving us a bunch of hapless leftover losers who could have stepped straight off the set of Horrible Histories. Some viewers may not have got on with the breezy, madcap tone of the middle act, but from “Noggin the Nog” to a Father Ted-esque smash cut, it felt to me like everything “Robot of Sherwood” was trying to do, but done better.
A word, too, for the direction – on this programme, directors don’t usually get the headlines the way the writers do, but this series was possibly the most consistently visually compelling and distinctive that it’s ever had. It wasn’t just a case of one or two directors jumping out and putting their mark on the episodes – every episode had flair and style, and while a lot of the time this could be put down to attracting big names like Ben Wheatley and Rachel Talalay, even established Who directors like Douglas Mackinnon seemed to up their game to fit in with the series’ aesthetic.
The above, you may recall, is a quote from my “Death in Heaven” review – but pleasingly, it’s a facet of the show that has carried through to series 9. Once again, the visual direction throughout this series so far has been superb, and Ed Bazalgette (who I was delighted to discover just after the episode aired was formerly the guitarist in The Vapors, of “Turning Japanese” fame) gives “The Girl Who Died” a lovely, rich lighting and colour palette. It’s in the final sequence that he really gets to show off, of course, but it’s worth noting just how important the clarity in the climactic battle scene is. Given that it’s a pretty confusing plan, the camera can’t afford to be very confusing in portraying exactly what happens – and it pulls it off.
With the prospect of yet more Rachel Talalay episodes still to come, it’s clear that one of the biggest defining characteristics of what I’m deciding to call the “Moffat II” era is the assurance of a bloody well-directed episode every single week.
Ten years in to this Doctor Who run, and it’s nice to see that it’s still possible to mix up the format of the episodes a bit. The distinctive approach to two-parters taken by this series so far has really helped things to feel fresh, and it seems like each pairing has got progressively more unusual. The opening story was a relatively straightforward tale of two halves, while “Lake”/”Flood” took a time-twisty approach to its narrative by having the second part be set decades before the first. And now we’ve got an entirely self-contained story that’s nevertheless going to feed into an immediately-following episode featuring the same character hundreds of years later and in the hands of a different writer. With “The Zygon Invasion” and “The Zygon Inversion” still to come, and absolutely no way of knowing how the final two pairs will fit together, it’s a bold experiment that, for this writer at least, is paying off handsomely. I wouldn’t want to see every series structured like this, but I’m very happy to see this one do so.
I’m not someone who’s been demanding an explanation for why the Twelfth Doctor looks like Caecilius. I didn’t need one for why the Sixth looked like Maxil, either, or why the Third looked like Worzel Gummidge, or why Amy looked like a Roman soothsayer. Quite frankly I’d have been happy enough without being told that Martha was Adeola’s cousin. Actors sometimes play multiple roles in the same thing, especially when it’s as long-running as Doctor Who.
(And besides, the Twelfth Doctor doesn’t even look that much like Caecilius anyway. It’s like when I see episodes of The Thick of It and am surprised that up until the latter couple of series and movie, Malcolm Tucker had brown hair, not grey.)
But despite not needing the explanation, I’m not going to say I’m unhappy about getting it, because by gum, as far as hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moments go, that one is – in the Doctor’s own words – a doozy. It’s not the only thing that elevates the status of this episode – and it would be unfair to reduce its appeal to that one moment – but it’s the one people are going to remember for a long time.
I can only apologise for how difficult I’m finding it to get annoyed about the sonic shades. I think it’s because it’s quite clear that the show knows it’s winding people up. Moffat and Mathieson can’t possibly have known the extent of the reaction their appearances in the opening few episodes would get; but it’s clear they at least had an inkling how it would go, as here they tease their immediate and brutal destruction before still managing to make a plot point out of them and having them feature in the Next Time trailer.
I still think they’re a one-off gag, but maybe they’re a one-off series gag rather than a one-off episode gag. Either way, Doctor Who fans can frankly stand to be trolled a little bit, so I’m fine with it.
Okay, so let’s round off with a bit of mindless speculation about the series arc that will no doubt be proven utterly wrong in a few weeks’ time and thus render this review historically inaccurate. But it’s still fun to do.
So yes, I’m fully behind the increasingly popular theory that the Doctor, from his perspective, has already had his last meeting with Clara from hers. Which is to say that he’s “lost” her (although I wouldn’t be willing to stake a bet on whether Moffat’s actually going to be willing to kill her off or not), and is breaking the rules by having further adventures with her now. Almost everything he says to her in this episode points towards him having the pain of already having lost her, and obviously the entire thing is basically thematically about using time travel to break the rules (as, indeed, have the previous two stories been, albeit to differing extents).
(And while I’ve already had fellow URP! writers disagreeing with me on this, now I’ve had it pointed out to me that the cloister bell keeps going off like an alarm almost every time Clara’s in the TARDIS, I’m taking that as a massive clue, too.)
We’ve been here before, of course – I was one of the people convinced that that’s how series 7A was playing out with Amy and Rory, too – but a lot more seems to add up to it this time. And actually, it would feel nicely metatextual to have “the extra series that Coleman originally wasn’t going to do” be about a series of stories that Clara was never actually meant to take part in. As well as feeling painfully ironic that she just finally started to make sense when she’d already gone.
Actually, one more, because I think it’s a point worth reiterating: when was the last time a series’ first five episodes in a row were this consistently good? Traditionally, even the best series tend to only really soar after the halfway point (and that was even true, “Listen” aside, of last year’s) – so for a run to be this strong already bodes incredibly well for the second half. Any number of hand-wringing newspaper articles about viewing figures, confused ramblings in the “moffat hate” tag on Tumblr or normally-reliable online reviewers of note who bafflingly don’t seem to be in a good mood with the show this year that you can throw at me won’t change my assertion that Doctor Who is currently in as strong a place creatively as it has ever, ever been.