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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Doctor Who blogging: “The Girl Who Died”

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[previous: “Before the Flood”]

warning: spoilers!

So, this was a fairly silly episode designed for one thing: to get the Doctor to turn Maisie Williams into an immortal human-alien hybrid in order to set up the next episode (and perhaps to set her up a big baddie for the rest of the season?). Could be she was already not quite fully human! Her Ashildr is a storyteller who was “strange” and “different” even before she was immortal, which is a bit of a shame actually, dramatically speaking. Clearly, come next week, we are going to see how Ashildr will have been changed by living for centuries and watching everyone (save one, perhaps) she knows and cares about die — might that have had more impact if she was “normal” to begin with?

Well, we’ll have to see where this story and this character goes next episode.

As for this episode, I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it, either. Though I did figure out a thing about the nitpicking I’ve been doing. There’s always going to be potentially nitpickable stuff in a show like Doctor Who, or in any science fiction or fantasy, where techno- or magicobabble is used to advance the story. It’s only when it feels like a cheat — or that it robs us of some important drama or character development — that it becomes an issue. For instance, in this episode, it’s kind of ridiculous that the Doctor is able to quickly reprogram an alien medical device to work on a human, but that didn’t really bother me; it’s not important in the grand scheme of the story, and there are any number of other bits of technobabble that could have done the same job (just call it a universal device, which wouldn’t be implausible for the visiting alien race, which clearly has experience with lots of lifeforms and is able to get a buzz off hormones that are alien to their own biology). Much more importantly, it doesn’t feel like a runaround that skips over an element of the story that we need.

So what here does deserve nitpicking, on that basis? The moment when Clara and Ashildr get beamed up to the alien ship.

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Nothing about this moment makes any damn sense. It has to be here, as the story exists, so that Clara can make some jokes about testosterone and so Ashildr can declare war on the aliens on behalf of her village. But why did Clara choose that precise moment to run to Ashildr? Why did she get Ashildr to use what was left of the sonic sunglasses to free her from her chains (why didn’t Clara use them herself)? Did Clara know this would attract the aliens’ attention and get them to beam her and Ashildr up as well? If so, why? What purpose did Clara have for this? (Yes, we’ve been getting the idea that Clara has turned reckless, but to what purpose could she have been indulging her recklessness here, especially when she had just learned that she does still need the Doctor when dealing with alien situations, like a killer space spider in your spacesuit? What did she think she was going to do on her own on the alien ship?) What purpose could she have had for bringing Ashildr along? If Clara didn’t expect the aliens to respond to this use of obviously superior and out-of-place tech, why the sudden urgency?

When a cheat like this is needed to move your story from Point A to Point B, it might be time to rethink your story. If Clara and Ashildr didn’t visit the ship, the aliens could have remained mysterious. If no one knew what to expect from another visit by the aliens, perhaps the Doctor — who also could have remained in the dark about their motives — might have been more insistent about the village running away and hiding to protect itself. There could still be an alien attack, and killing off Ashildr and resurrecting her could have still been the end point (and maybe that would have eliminated the painful Benny Hill reference, which did not work at all).

This episode could have been a lot darker and scarier if the aliens remained mysterious, and if the Doctor didn’t have all the answers about them. But then again, this show keeps running right up to dark and scary stuff and then circling around it and making a joke out of it. It often wants to be touching and moving but doesn’t know how to do it. (So, human babies are psychic now? “Babies can sense danger; they have to” seems reasonable enough. Babies can read the Doctor’s mind and know that he has decided to stay and help does not. Clara’s “The baby stopped crying” is meant to be moving, but moving has to be earned, and that wasn’t.)

The Doctor being fickle about what he’s “allowed” to do and what he isn’t, and which “rules” he’s going to break and which he isn’t, should make him seem capricious and alien and unknowable, but instead it just makes the character seem inconsistent. (This isn’t Capaldi’s fault. The writing is not supporting his performance.) Why is it okay to make a tidal wave to save Ashildr’s life, but not okay to make a tidal wave by, what the hell, uploading that ridiculous video of the Big Badass Aliens being scaredy-cats and defanging one of the most vicious warrior races in the galaxy?

Doctor Who used to be dark and scary and heartbreaking in the way this episode clearly wanted to be. Like in “The Fires of Pompeii,” the episode alluded to here, in which the (David Tennant) Doctor rescues a family — whose patriarch wore Peter Capaldi’s face — from the volcano. That episode was truly brutal, and full of angst and woe for the Doctor. I didn’t feel that here at all. And I would really have liked to. I really want the show to have the same impact on me it once did. But the writing simply isn’t up to it.

Random thoughts on “The Girl Who Died”:

• This is a bit Monty Python, isn’t it?

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But I guess the Vikings probably haven’t seen The Holy Grail

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I suppose that’s kind of my problem with the show lately: it’s a bit Monty Python.

• Two days on a Viking longboat, in a spacesuit, straight after a brush with death in a mine with killer spiders, and Clara still looks great:

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Hair still nice and shiny, eyeliner intact. There must be some killer product available on the TARDIS…

• Still, a few great quotes:

“Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow. Bet that means something — it sounds great.” –the Doctor

“What’s the one thing that gods never do? Gods never actually show up!” –the Doctor

“The universe is full of testosterone. Trust me, it’s unbearable.” –Clara

“Do babies die with honor?” –the Doctor

[next: “The Woman Who Lived”]


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  • Jemcat

    I didn’t mind this one and thought Peter Capaldi gave a really good performance which managed to just about hold it together if you squinted quite a bit at the nonsensical bits. Putting aside the Horrible Histories aspect of the Vikings (which is fine if you otherwise treat that part of the story with respect and don’t make it completely disposable), my main gripe was that the writers didn’t get to show us why Maisie Williams’ character was an outsider, how she managed to tell stories with her puppets, why she might be special and why we should invest emotionally in her. Instead we had some offhand dialogue (even worse, said by the character herself) to enable those labels to be affixed to her.
    I think this could have made a really good ‘historical’ if they had teased out more about the village, perhaps showed Maisie giving a performance of her puppets in the hall, seen her interact with other villagers or have a meaningful discussion with Clara and also if there was a real threat instead of straw men monsters to allow us to get to the only part of the story I suspect Steven Moffat was really interested in – Maisie Williams’ character becoming immortal. A pity for me as it wastes a setting which the show will be unable to revisit for some time. Why are the producers afraid of showing a linear story which is reasonably self-contained, rather than random bits put together?
    I get the feeling that this series is about episodes being seen by us out of order as to when they happened which means that the pay off may need to wait until the last moments of the final episode but it does leave these odd ends hanging. It also means that there is a need to hook viewers each week to get to the end point as yet again I feel that there is an arc (Clara’s Impending Doom) which is hanging over each episode and sometimes drowning out that episode’s unique voice.
    I liked the final scenes of the world whizzing by as Maisie stood still which should lead us nicely to next week and unlike the other episodes this year, I am actually interested in seeing the next part. I am hoping that the historical aspects are treated with more respect in the storyline and we have a better balance of the comic and the poignant. The still I saw of the lion creature gave off huge whiffs of Cocteau’s film. I hope that unearthly fairy tale feel is given in the episode as that could work beautifully (and not sacrificed for some pop cultural quippiness).

  • Bectoria

    I wonder if being a fan makes me harsh? Ever since Doctor Who has come back, I’ve been nitpicking and it’s not often I relax and think, this is a good episode. However, I nitpicked (is that a verb?) so much more in earlier new Who. I did not enjoy Fires of Pompeii at all except for Donna’s magnificence, and for me it was the actor, not the writing. I find it quite fascinating that in terms of film, I think I agree with you almost every time and in Doctor Who we differ dramatically (did I watch too much Press Gang as a child?). Whatever it is, I’m always fascinated by your opinion! (There was a new Horrible Histories actor in this too!)

  • Perhaps Madame de Pompadour’s discovery that “a door once opened may be stepped through in either direction” (The Girl in the Fireplace) explains how the baby knew that the Doctor would stay.

  • my main gripe was that the writers didn’t get to show us why Maisie Williams’ character was an outsider,

    Excellent point. And your solution for that is excellent, too.

  • You mean, the baby is in the Doctor’s head just like the Doctor is in the baby’s head?

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