To what length can The Doctor go to save people? As I mentioned in previous reviews, this is a question that the series has explored throughout its 50-year history to varying degrees of success. Is it in the best interest of the universe to potentially shift the course of time and space for the sake of saving a few souls? Or, as the Doctor concisely puts it in “The Girl Who Died”— can he only make “ripples” but not “tidal waves?” If Season Eight found The Doctor asking himself if he was a good man, Season Nine’s focus appears to be measuring his own parameters as the universe’s savior.
“The Girl Who Died” posits itself as one of the biggest challenges to this doctrine, which is funny because the majority of the hour presents itself as a light, frothy historical in the vein of last year’s Robin Hood-themed tale, “Robot of Sherwood.” Whereas Season Two’s previous entries found loopholes where The Doctor didn’t have to come down one way or the other, this episode ends with a major question mark. Yes, The Doctor saves the day, but was his decision dictated by what was right for the greater good, or his own hero complex?
After going into the near future for “Under the Lake/Before the Flood,” “The Girl Who Died” finds The Doctor and Clara landing smack in the middle of a Vikings hunting party where they are instantly captured and The Doctor’s sonic sunglasses are crushed. The two are promptly taken into town where The Doctor catches the eye of Ashildre (Maisie Williams), the teenage daughter of one of the villagers.
As is his design, The Doctor pulls out a yo-yo and tries to uses his “mystical skills” to prove to the villagers that he is the Norse God, Odin. Unfortunately, in a standard case of worst timing imaginable, a helmeted figure claiming to be Odin appears in the sky. The “God” promptly dispatches a pack of armored minions to gather up the village’s strongest warriors. When Clara sees that one of the minions is targeting the young Ashildre, she latches onto her and uses a piece of the broken sonic sunglasses to be beamed away with her. The captured team soon find themselves in the hull of what appears to be a spacecraft. The girls manage to avoid being zapped into nothingness when the “Odin” figure reveals that he’s only interested in killing the warriors so as to drink their testosterone (kind of nasty when you think about it, but I will let that one slide). Clara, in a what-would-the-Doctor-do moment, tries to manipulate the being into traveling elsewhere to harvest warriors’ power. Unfortunately, Ashildre abruptly takes the lead and, per her Viking upbringing, declares war on the creature. And so, “Odin” offers a challenge—he’ll pit 10 of his best soldiers against 10 of theirs.
Back at the village, The Doctor has discovered the identity of the interlopers: they are the Mire, one of the universe’s most feared warrior races. Once Clara and Ashildre return with news of their encounter, The Doctor suggests the village’s best course of action is to straight-up flee. They have no warriors left and no chance of winning such a battle. The villagers, however, stay firm to their Viking mentality, even in the face of certain death. Just as a frustrated Doctor is about to depart, the cries of a frightened young baby (remember, The Doctor can speak baby) encourage him to stay and train this motley crew of non-warriors. Easier said than done, considering none of them have ever held a sword. Indeed, in one of the show’s most hilarious bits of editing, The Doctor announces that the crew is ready to train with real swords—no sooner have they picked up their weapons than we cut to the chaotic aftermath wherein a hut is on fire, one soldier is unconscious and another has fainted from the sight of blood.
During this time, The Doctor also learns more about Ashildre. Obviously, one of the biggest pieces of news circling this season involved the casting of the Game of Thrones’ actress and what role she would be playing. Would she be a regenerated form of Jenny, The Doctor’s “daughter” from the Tennant era? Or possibly even a regenerated Susan from the classic series? The Doctor’s confused sense of recognition at the beginning certainly seems to give credence to some such theory, as does a moment where Ashildre herself reiterates how she’s always felt “different” from the other children.
Ultimately—spoilers—neither of these theories really hold water, though this should not detract from Williams’ portrayal, which is predictably endearing. While never betraying the fact that she’s merely a young girl with limited experience, Williams boasts an innate sense of confidence and self-possession that bodes well in her scenes with Capaldi.
Realizing that defeating the Mire in the tradition sense is unfeasible, The Doctor hatches an alternate strategy. The plan initially appears to go off without a hitch, with The Doctor and the villagers setting up several booby traps involving anvils and electric eels to disable the Mire’s warriors. Meanwhile, Ashildre straps on one of the warrior’s projection helmets and projects a fake image of a gigantic serpent monster. The bad guys flee and our heroes blackmail their leader into never returning, lest they leak iPhone-filmed proof of their cowardice. They depart and the episode appears to have come to an early close. With nearly ten minutes of running time left, however, it seems inevitable that there be complications. To be fair, the complication in question is right there in the title—namely, Ashildre appears to have died from the effects of the helmet.
Dismayed that he has inadvertently caused the death of an innocent, The Doctor bemoans that he’s “sick of losing people.” And yet to interfere in any way would risk creating the aforementioned “tidal wave” in time. It’s at this point that The Doctor catches his own reflection and has an epiphany. Way back in “Deep Breath,” Capaldi’s first episode, The Doctor made mention about how his face seemed familiar and asked if there was a reason he choose this particular face. Of course, any major Who fan knew that Capaldi himself previously appeared as Caecilius in the Season Four episode, “The Fires of Pompeii” (also, if we’re counting Torchwood, he also played a government agent in the excellent “Children of Earth” mini-arc). Though not one of that season’s strongest, “The Fires of Pompeii” shares DNA with “The Girl Who Died,” in that it concluded with The Doctor throwing caution to the wind by saving Caecilius and his family, despite the fact that the rules of time prohibited him from interfering. This, The Doctor concludes, is why he subconsciously decided to take on Caecilius’ face—to remind himself. “I’m the Doctor and I save people,” he proclaims. “And if anyone happens to be listening that has any kind of a problem with that, to hell with you!”
The Doctor promptly hurries back and embeds Ashildre with a piece of alien medicine that heals her. As she wakes up, he provides her with another healing device to use at her choosing. What initially proves to be a joyous occasion, however, soon becomes more complicated when The Doctor reveals to Clara that the medicine inside her will keep on healing her. In other words, she is now immortal. As we’ve learned from the adventures of Who/Torchwood character Jack Harkness, ever-lasting life is not all it’s cracked up to be—it ostensibly means watching helplessly as everyone and everything you love dies while you stay exactly the same. Thus, the episode ends with a stunning visual—Ashildre stands amidst a beautiful (albeit CGI-ed) landscape. As the camera moves, we watch as the skies, waters and land all shift around her. When we finally see Ashildre’s face again, her innocent girlish demeanor has transformed into something much sadder and darker. She has, in a sense, become the tidal wave.
Of course, Maisie Williams will be returning for next week’s installment (set in the 1600s), so her character arc is not yet complete. That being said, based on her performance here, I’m looking forward to what the more mature version of the character looks like. In any case, though billed as a two parter, “The Girl Who Died” stands up remarkably as its own story. As with the best Who adventures, it explores more complexities of time travel, whilst never losing a sense of whimsy and fun. It’s another homerun in a season that, so far, has a pretty great batting average.