THE GIRL WHO DIED
Jamie Mathieson has encouraging Doctor Who form: the interesting Flatline, and the slightly less interesting but competent Mummy On The Orient Express. We were less encouraged by "and Steven Moffat", but still, it was nice to start off at least vaguely optimistic.
Some Doctor Who episodes are a toppling heap of unmitigated bollocks at first viewing, and then any virtues they have emerge with a closer look. Others are entertaining the first time around, then on a second viewing fall to pieces in your hands. The Girl Who Died falls firmly into the second category. We quite enjoyed it on the first go-around, writing down things like "Even if it's not our taste, this is good Doctor Who". The second time through, however, we were struggling to see what we first saw in it.
We don't think it's fair, however, to judge an episode on how it seems after its initial impact has worn off. It's not the episode's fault that the second time through you know all the surprises. So we're not saying it's terrible. Okay? Okay.
It's a delightful slam-bang opening as we catch the dregs of the Doctor and Clara's previous adventure. (And we're pitifully grateful that it wasn't followed by "Six Hours Before", a device we've seen, ooh, a couple of hundred times too often.) Extra credit for "I'm not actually the police, that's just what it says on the box", but we do feel sorry for Jenna Coleman attempting the undeliverable "You're always talking about what you can and can't do, but you never tell me the rules". And sadly, that's the rule(s) and not the exception: as with all the episodes of this season so far, there's nothing subtle about this episode. No hidden depths, no deep allusions: it's all right out there on the table. They talk about what the Doctor can and can't do, and that's what the episode is about. Moffat clearly fell into a swimming pool as a child, because he seems deathly afraid of depth.
Meanwhile, Vikings. And not just Vikings. Comedy Vikings, complete with ahistorical yet reliably hilarious pointy hats. The Vikings put the smack down on the sonic sunglasses, and the audience collectively crosses its fingers that it's a fatal injury. And woohoo, it's Arya! We're thrilled to see her, because she classes up the joint, but we do wonder why they insisted on putting her into a setting that reminds us so forcefully of Game Of Thrones. Did they want us draw comparisons with a role, and a series, that's absolutely killing it? Isn't that a little…foolhardy?
Peter Capaldi struggles manfully with whimsical with his hilariously rubbish Odin (although to be honest, the "It's supposed to do that" thing is right on the knife's edge). And then the allegedly actual Odin appears. This is a bit of a flat moment, not least because we knew half-man, half-megaphone Brian Blessed was originally cast in this part but had to drop out. How awesome would that have been? Sigh. Then there's a bit of an awkward transition away from funny as some pretty effective-looking bucketheads appear and start whisking people away.
The next bit, with the people-squeezing walls, is genuinely scary, although they're still attempting an each-way bet with the gag of the pointy hat dropping to the floor. We were also wondering why they all seemed so surprised, given that only dead warriors get taken to Valhalla, but maybe they hadn't got up to that bit yet around the campfire. The Doctor needs a bit of a brush-up as well, as he maintains that gods never actually show up, when in Norse mythology you're always tripping over the bastards. Odin in particular was fond of popping in and disporting himself with the local maidens: the Doctor would have seemed more authentic if he'd enticed a few of the womenfolk behind a haystack.
Clara does her best Doctor impersonation, and it's all going swimmingly when Ashildr, who knows perfectly well that they are the only survivors but who has registered no problems with this up to this point, suddenly spits the dummy on realising her neighbours have been mashed up into cold-pressed warrior juice. Suddenly it's all grr! Argh! Vikings! War! Etc etc.
The next part is a bit annoying. They could have escaped this war, were it not for grr! Argh! They could have run away from this war, were it not for grr! Argh! It all seems so unnecessary that it's hard to care much about it.
What's more, the tone is very odd here. They're going for a gag-laden Seven Samurai thing, but in the middle of the sword-adjacent yuks, nobody ever seems to register that they've just lost half their village. Husbands, fathers, brothers, sons: gone forever. We know they're staunch, but come on. Surely we should see a bit more of a reaction than this.
As for the humour itself, the best we can do is that it works well enough. It's disappointing seeing the Doctor back wrestling with whimsy when the humour of the previous two episodes suited him so much better, but given how bad it's been sometimes, "mostly not very embarrassing" is high praise.
Then the tone lurches again with a lapse into baby talk. Peter Capaldi gives this all the gravitas in him, but alas, even this superhuman effort can't make it work. It's just too hilarious to take seriously. When it comes to babies, we think we'll stick with Stormageddon, Dark Lord Of All. At least they knew that was funny.
Fight! Fight! Fight! We like the way they upend expectations by throwing a party instead, but the following scenes do unfortunately have a vast Brian Blessed-shaped hole in them. Never mind, the plan works, and even if it is a little far-fetched it's entertaining enough on the first run-through.
Until Ashildr dies and the Doctor runs away. At which point, after yet more doomster stuff about how he'll feel when Clara's gone - while she's standing right there, which seems kind of rude - he suddenly remembers that he didn't get his new face off eBay after all. Nope, it was to remind him to save people and that, by the gods, is what he's going to do.
And he does. Although the Doctor talks about repairing Ashildr, he's actually raising her from the dead. There seems to be way more life after death in the Doctor Who universe than there used to be.
Then a load of cryptic pronouncements from the Doctor about how Ashildr will see him lots more times and not to thank him just yet. And fair enough too. He knows perfectly well how tough it is living a much longer life than everyone else, and yet he still visits it on Ashildr. Not because of Ashildr per se. But because of him. He wants to save someone, so he does, heedless of the consequences to her.
Um. And his subsequent regret seems to be centred not around Ashildr's welfare, but around the suspicion that he's made a timey wimey blooey. We don't think this is the way they meant it to come across, but it makes the Doctor look pretty bloody terrible. Dark Doctor? Fine. Lofty indifference to human affairs? OK, he has other things to think about. But actually bringing someone back from the dead and condemning them to a life of losing everything over and over just so that he can feel good about saving them is beyond the pale. Couple that with his deciding to help the village fight despite his previously made excellent point that it was setting Earth up for a return visit from the Mire, and he really does not come out of this smelling of roses.
What's more, it makes it yet another episode that's All About The Doctor. Please. Have mercy. Clara has no role other than this, either: telling the Doctor to think of a plan is the major reason why she's here at all.
After underlining with a nice thick black marker that Ashildr is now a hybrid, just like that nasty Dalek warned us about back on Skaro, the episode ends with a 360 degree shot of Ashildr so astonishingly cheesy that it's like taking a bath in warm rarebit. To be continued!
Meh. Like we said, it's not terrible. But the relentless emphasis on everything being an illustrated parable about the Doctor, the uncomfortable lurches in tone, the underpowered villain and a Doctor who's meant to look compassionate but is actually utterly selfish makes this best suited for a single viewing followed by quiet obscurity.
THE WOMAN WHO LIVED
Oh, arse. This looked like it was going to be great, but it so isn't. Arse. Arse arse arse.
Considering it's about somebody with a time machine, it's amazing that in more than fifty years of Doctor Who they've only gone back a couple of times to see what the Doctor hath wrought. When it has been done, it's been awesome (we don't want to spoil 'em, even after all this time, so check out The Monoids and Face Of Evil for yourself). And no wonder. Seeing what chaos the Doctor has left in his wake? How irresistible is that?
From the titles, not to mention what happened in the previous episode, it was pretty obvious that this is the way we're going here. Doctor makes someone immortal, Doctor has misgivings after the fact: FORESHADOWING. Here, we get to see how it all worked out.
And it starts off pretty well. The setting's about as wildly ahistorical as the Viking one (books! Electric eels! Bwa-hahahahaha!), with costuming all over the show, but never mind. It's all rompy and stuff, with Murray Gold doing his best comedy music and quipping a-go-go. Then Ashildr takes her mask off.
Yep, Ashildr. It's the seventeenth centuryish, and Ashildr has been alive for a very, very long time.
Did we say Ashildr? Because that's not her name any more. It's Lady Me now. Or, as we like to think of it, Despicable Me.
Because immortality hasn't treated Ashildr (we refuse to call her Me, because it's brain-liquidisingly dumb) all that kindly. Deaths, plagues, deaths, loneliness, deaths. Which is just as you'd expect given that that's exactly what the Doctor has outlined as the penalty of a long life at tedious length and on more than one occasion. And not that long ago, either. Big in the surprise department this is not.
As a result, it's made Ashildr a bit less cuddly than the last time we saw her. Human concerns? Human life? Pah. Maybe she'll save 'em, maybe she'll kill 'em. It's all the same to her, and none of it matters. The village that was the centre of her life? A distant memory.
Playing someone who's 800 when you're only 18 is a huge ask. Maisie Williams isn't 100% up to the task for every single moment of this, but during this very impressive beginning, she totally knocks it out of the park. "No one's mother, daughter, wife: my own companion. Singular. Unattached. Alone" isn't the easiest speech to deliver: in the wrong hands it could be excruciating. But instead, it's effective and touching.
In fact, if you could snip the episode off at around the twelve-minute mark and call it a day, you'd have an exquisite little jewel: fun comedy, nice acting, effective script. But they don't, because there's more than half an hour left to fill up. And that's where it all starts to slip.
Essentially, this episode is about showing us what Ashildr has become, with a side order of insinuating that she knows more about the Doctor than she's letting on. That leaves room for a lot of filler. And that comes in two varieties: the alien and the padding.
It seems pretty clear to us that Ashildr's story, and her relationship with the Doctor, is where writer Catherine Tregenna's heart is in this episode. But someone decreed that there had to be more to it than that, and so they shove in a random alien. (They pick now to insist Doctor Who is SF?) It's hard to know what's the worst thing about this plotline. Is it the utter randomness? Is it the smirksome resemblance to Vincent from Beauty And The Beast? Randomness. Beast. Randomness. Beast. Nope, we can't decide. You choose. The only good thing we have to say about it is that the poor bastard playing Leandro (Leandro? Really?) is Aryion Bakare, the excellent Stephen from the underappreciated Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Trying to detect him underneath the makeup and speculating about how much damage this part is doing to his CV is about the most entertaining strand of this plot point.
And the padding's bad in a whole other way. We're not sure what thought process led to the decision that following a heartbreaking character study with a comedy burglary was a good idea, but if that particular joint comes round in your vicinity we suggest you pass. There's nothing wrong with it as a set piece, if they must (although we do think they deployed Yakety Sax in the wrong episode), but it's just a waste of time. It adds nothing and it does nothing. And even worse, the sonic sunglasses are back.
And the knockabout comedy continues with Rufus Hound as Other Highwayman. Again, perfectly well done, but enough padding to stuff an entire IKEAsworth of sofas with weird Scandi names. Interspersed with - and this is the worst part of all - interminable recaps of the agony of immortality and how it's All The Doctor's Fault for a) making Ashildr immortal and b) not taking her away from it all. Forced to throw the same barbs for the umpteenth time, Maisie Williams starts to sound less world-weary immortal and more sulky teenager. No deepening of the character, no progression, just blah and blah and again and again until we're ready to scream. We get it! Stop telling us!
Not only is this repetitive, it's also on shaky ground. If it's true that humans appreciate every moment of our tiny little lives, why do we have sayings like "carpe diem"? (Even an immortal would have to recognise that if an aphorism's hung around for a couple of thousand years there must be something to it.) It seems to us that humans only look like they're having endless fun compared to all the Vikings, Time Agents, vampires et al that do nothing but sit around pouting about how annoying eternity is.
What's more, all this reproachiness means it's - tadaa! - All About The Doctor. Yes! Again!
All of the hanging stuff wouldn't be padding, of course, if it served to inch forward the character development. But it really, really doesn't. Don't care, don't care, don’t care…care! Out of nowhere, Ashildr does a total 180. Hot things falling out of the sky are mysteriously sufficient, when everything else she's seen hasn't been, to convince her that she does actually mind if humans live or die. We think the idea is that a dawning tendresse for Sam is meant to be helping to turn her around - you know, the kiss and all - but we're not buying it. Three seconds before her change of heart, she's slamming an amulet (slamulet) into his chest with a carefree smile.
This is not how you do character development. What's more, even in a season full of totally in your face thematic development, this script stands out. In the bad way. It couldn't be more on the nose if it crawled up into your sinuses. "Doctor! What have I done? What have I done to these people?" Argh! "It's awful, isn’t it? It's infuriating! You think you don't care, and then you fall off the wagon!" Nrrrgh! Accompanied, inexplicably, by a slo-mo shot of the Doctor jumping off the gallows platform. WT actual F?
And in case we had slipped into a coma earlier in the episode, there's a coda that spells the whole thing out again. We were whimpering for mercy. Just time for another dollop of portentous hinting re Ashildr and ominous foreshadowing re Clara and they finally put us out of our misery.
Ugh, what a waste. It's got a great idea behind it, and it starts so well. But you need more than an idea. You've got to develop it, you've got to progress it, you've got to lay the groundwork for your characters to grow. Oh, and you do not throw in a ThunderCat to fill up the running time unless you want the entire audience to roll its eyes and reach for the remote. We're calling the first twelve minutes canon. The rest we're ripping out of our journals.
READ IT AND WHEAT
We complained to ourselves, all pedanty-like, that "Cut down like corn" was an anachronism because they didn't have corn at that time in that area, then out-pedanted ourselves by realising that "corn" has been used for "grains" for centuries (Corn Laws and suchlike).
CELLO, YOU FOOL, I LOVE YOU
There's a recurring musical theme in here that is not the same as, but is eerily reminiscent of, the Game Of Thrones theme. Sneaky!
Clayton (another Game of Thrones alumnus) is "half-blind and deaf as a post", yet he hears Ashildr calling him from the next room immediately.
MY LITTLE PONY
What do they think they're doing with the direction in the action scenes? it's all over the place. Whoever allowed that fake horse head into the frame should be roasted over an open flame.
The Doctor's delivery of the explanation for why Sam probably isn't immortal is exquisite and one of the few thoroughly funny things in the piece.