Doctor Who Series 9, Episode 5
“The Girl Who Died”
Posted by Sage
Five episodes of the already terrific ninth series of New Who are out in the world, and I’m prepared at this moment to pin at least one major theme to the top of the Doctor’s timeline. (That Twitter-styles “timeline,” not time-styles). Series 8 showed us a Doctor who was struggling for self-identification, and sought clues in his enemies and companions, his inclinations and drives. In “Death In Heaven,” the Doctor accurately labeled himself “an idiot,” and that was that as far as that one particular personal crisis was concerned. Since that very moment, this regeneration got comfortable in areas that he wasn’t sure he had clearance for, like gentle humor and open affection. Now Twelve is looking outward; all the self-diagnosing that went on last year didn’t leave time to dissect every action that affected people in his path. This series of the show sees the Doctor exploring what he can do, and why exactly he should or shouldn’t do it.
Every Doctor struggles with the vast scope of his abilities, of course. To push the button or not; to punish or be merciful; to indulge friends or stick to the path – all of these questions are well-worn Doctor Who territory. The show’s lifeblood is the way it drops a god – a vengeful and a compassionate one – into the lives and problems of mortals to see what he’ll do. Philosophizing this out won’t ever get old, because there’s no set of guidelines to reference. “What’s the one thing that gods never do?” the Doctor asks the Vikings. “Gods never actually show up.”
In “The Girl Who Died,” the Doctor and Clara have to make an emergency spider-related landing, and find themselves captives of a Viking hunting party. They return to the village along with the warriors, and attempt to strategize their escape while their jailers accept their heroes’ welcome. The tactic the Doctor decides on is “toys from the 1950s,” and Clara’s reaction to his sad and unconvincing yo-yo display wouldn’t be out of place on a girl watching her drunk boyfriend attempt the Cha-Cha Slide at a wedding. She’s mortified. He is very much not Odin.
But Odin’s ears must have been burning, because he takes that opportunity to show up in the sky. And the Teletubbies sun baby must have been living rough since the ’90s. The big face (also v. Monty Python in nature) declares that the most skilled and bravest warriors will feast with him in Valhalla that evening. (Or die historic on the Fury Road? Maybe.) If Valhalla were real, the Doctor would know it (and the Promised Land certainly turned out to be a crock), so he underlines their directive to Clara: don’t get chosen. Passivity isn’t Clara’s thing, so she races to Ashildr, the Viking girl who caught the Doctor’s attention as they were led into town. She asks Ashildr to put one half of the Doctor’s broken shades to her face (RIP sonic sunglasses; some of us weren’t boring pissbabies and actually liked you), look at Clara’s shackles, and think “open.” The medieval robot warriors who were just beamed down into their midst won’t be kept waiting, and Clara and Ashildr are transported away along with the returned men.
The women and warriors re-materialize in a corridor of what’s obviously a space craft. Ashildr and Clara are instantly cautious, but their concerns are brushed off. “There’s is nothing to fear!” one of the men shouts. “We are Odin’s chosen!” Then he’s obliterated by a few dozen laser beams. One of the walls begins moving with an intent to push the rest of the men into the kill zone. Ashildr and Clara run to the opposite door and try to pull it open. The remaining warriors meet the same fate as their brother, and the women make it into Odin’s inner sanctuary.
When threatened, Clara slides easily into “be the Doctor” mode. She puffs herself out, adopts an air of amused derision, and lists off her various advantages. This usually gets the bad guy talking, as it does the second False Odin we’ve met in this hour. The face from the sun isn’t a man, but has adopted a man’s face. He wanted the warriors of this village so that their testosterone could be distilled into his daily multi-vitamin And, as Clara points out, he’s done that. So False Odin should fuck off to other galaxies to drain their fighters dry. “The universe is full of testosterone,” she reasons. “Trust me, it’s unbearable.” And that’s a t-shirt coming soon to a Head Over Feels shop near you.
But little Ashildr won’t be so easily satisfied, and this was guest star Maisie Williams’ first chance to shine in the episode. The Viking girl has been raised on honor and family, and doesn’t have the distance that Clara and the Doctor’s experience and rootlessness allows them to have. She wants revenge. In her emotional moment, she rages at False Odin. “We will crush you in the field of battle,” she promises, and that’s a check that the cleaned out little village just can’t cash. False Odin dumps Clara and Ashildr back where he got them with a promise to return the next day with ten of his foot soldiers. Ashildr’s father sweeps her up into a hug, and the Doctor tries very, very hard to stay cool about losing “someone who matters” to him. (You know how it is: rockin’ and rollin’ and whatnot.) He fails in every possible way.
Still, there’s an Easy Button for this problem: get the hell out of there. The Doctor advises the Vikings to use their day grace period to leave their village. But even though they’ll be able to return to it once the Mire are really and truly gone, that self-sacrificing honor thing can’t be talked out of them in one town meeting. Lost causes are only lost causes if they’re the last possible solution. This stubbornness, the Doctor tells the townspeople, is just stupid. Especially since the Mire have already harvested the villagers who could actually put up a fight.
Admire me, for I got this far into the recap without melting into Whouffaldi trash juice, which is what I am. This episode is teeming with shippiness; none of us are safe. This two-parter is another Who credit for “Mummy on the Orient Express” and “Flatline” writer Jamie Mathieson. And though by virtue of the freelance style of British television, he wrote most of those two scripts before he was aware of what the Doctor and Clara’s relationship would look like in Series 8, he did observe during a live commentary of “Mummy” at Gallifrey One that the chemistry between them in the hallway scene is “sizzling.” Meaning he has eyes. Also: honorary Ship Captain. Anyway, Mathieson was just announced as a guest at the con again this year, and I’m looking forward to asking him how much of the Clara/12 dialogue was his own this time around. I digress.
Clara Oswald is a divisive companion because of the space she dares to take up. And sometimes her outspokenness is interpreted as a dominance over the Doctor. Which, first of all: if it is, what’s wrong with that? Secondly: he’s a GOD. This scene shows that Clara can hold her judgement in when she knows that the Doctor needs to make a decision on his own. But she will hold his hand (or his face) while he makes it. She knows what he’s going to do anyway. Even after Series 8, she still knows him better than he knows himself. To help him get there, Clara asks the Doctor to keep translating the Viking baby’s cries for her. He does. “Mother I hear thunder, Mother I hear shouting. You are my world, but I hear other worlds now. Beyond the unfolding of your smile, is there other kindness? I’m afraid, will they be kind?” The Doctor’s grasp of Baby was played for laughs in “Closing Time,” when Stormmageddon dubbed every other adult but his mother a “peasant.” But in the universe of Doctor Who where language and ideas are the best weapons at anyone’s disposal, Twelve is a Doctor who has twice spoken for creatures who can’t otherwise make themselves understood. The dinosaur in “Deep Breath” and the Viking baby in this episode are both alienated by their inability to communicate. He is a voice for the voiceless. The Doctor pauses in his translation, and Clara lays her hand on his cheek. “You just decided to stay.” And here comes the “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” montage!
The Doctor makes a poor drill sergeant and the Vikings are even worse cadets. Their first training session – in which they aren’t even given real swords to play with – ends in barns on fire, horses gone wild, and men getting the vapors from the sight of blood. (Nice use of a small time jump there.) Clara can’t believe that this sad excuse for boot camp is the Doctor’s actual game plan. She refuses to. Even when he tells her that’s all he’s got to work with, she maintains that there’s another plan in there much more creative and promising than this one. After all his griping about soldiers last year, Clara also can’t believe that the Doctor is encouraging these men to engage in combat at all; she asks him what’s changed. “You,” he answers. And then, regretfully: “Oh, Clara Oswald, what have I made of you?” It’s open to interpretation what the Doctor is feeling here, but I know where I land on the meaning. In “Before The Flood,” Clara orders that the Doctor not sacrifice himself for her safety because he’s made himself “essential” to her. She casts off that blame and puts it on his shoulders, because there was once a Clara Oswald who was just fine with standing Wednesday dates. Taking into consideration the conversation that happens between the two of them later in the episode, I believe that the Doctor is turning that accusation around on her here. She was always important, but she is now essential. And if he’s not leaving, she’s not either. So he’s willing to let some of his prejudices lapse if it’ll increase her chance of survival. At the same time, the Doctor’s rhetorical question is another instance of foreshadowing for whatever is going to take Clara away at the end of the season. (*crosses fingers* Time Lady Clara. TIME LADY CLARA.) He’s made her into someone who can’t be satisfied by even the best version of the life she left behind; she’s got too much Doctor in her now (heyoo). He’s ashamed of how he’s let the fun he’s having with her as she becomes more and more alien every day win out over his better judgement. She’s not even gone yet, and he’s already blaming himself. He’s a dangerous way for anyone to spend their time, he knows.
Coach Clara told the Doctor to start thinking like a winner, and finally he works out the play that will bring them that victory. He hears the baby crying again – let’s call her Lofty, Jr. Her father takes her to the boat house to see the fish, because it soothes her. One of her translated cries makes perfect sense when the Doctor sees what’s in the tank, and he does what he always does when he’s done something good and needs attention: he yells Clara’s name until she comes around to shut him up. “Fire in the water” is Lofty Jr.’s understanding of electric eels. For some reason, their existence is incredibly relevant. The Doctor cancels everyone’s sleep for the night to get preparations for Plan B underway. There’s a war the next day, after all. “This just in: we’re going to win the hell out of it.”
False Odin and his robot soldiers arrive in the village as scheduled, but no one there is armed for the kind of battle they’re expecting. Clara and the Doctor dance (together, by the by) over to False Odin to tell him they just decided to throw an imminent death party instead of putting up a fight. (“Lovely to meet you, face to convincing hologram.”) The enemy is confused, right on schedule, and they pause for explanation long enough for Lofty to ring-toss a piece of metal onto one of the the Mire’s helmets. That’s the eels’ cue to get to work, and they short out the soldiers’ armor completely. Another jolt magnetizes a set of anvils; their weapons and helmets fly up to meet them. The Doctor grabs one of them (while Clara covers him with one of the Mire’s guns, like a boss) and races to set up the lynchpin of this whole operation: Ashildr.
The entire scheme works like clockwork, aside from one major failing. Ashildr isn’t moving under the helmet; when it’s removed, she flops into her father’s arms. There’s no pulse, and sometimes the Doctor would give anything to give up this life. His plan used up Ashildr’s entire heart. (“Daughter, listen to me. This town has lost so much. If we lose you too, they’ll be nothing left.”) The Doctor retreats to the barn in shame and grief. Clara follows, because of course she does. Even his wins are losses, he tells her. And there’s no “it gets better” for the Doctor; his long game is even worse.
Look at you, with your eyes and your never giving up and your anger and your kindness. One day the memory of that will hurt so much that I won’t be able to breathe. And I’ll do what I always do. I’ll get in my box and I’ll run and I’ll run, in case all the pain ever catches up. And every place I go, it will be there.
This monologue has everything and nothing to do with Clara. The Doctor speaks from experience. He’s running from so many lifetimes of pain and from the memory of every life that’s ever touched his. Clara isn’t any more or less important than those others, but she is the here and now. She’s the first face this face saw, and who even knows what would have become of this regeneration if she’d walked away at the end of “Deep Breath” instead of inviting him out for coffee? Besides, it’s ironclad canon that the Doctor loves Clara, in whatever way you’d like to think of it.
Perhaps I spoke too soon when I said that the Doctor’s identity issues were cleared up in series 8. There was one remaining question, and a huge one at that. Steven Moffat promised us that the show would explain why this Doctor looks exactly like Lobus Caecilius from “The Fires Of Pompeii” in series 4. I don’t think Doctor Who was obligated to address it, and I’m relieved that the justification wasn’t overly timey-wimey. Much like the Sorting Hat, Time Lord regeneration takes personal will – conscious or otherwise – into consideration. Twelve acts like he’s remembering something when he works out the hint he was trying to send his future self. Was Caecilius a fleeting thought that he had during the process? How many other reminders and re-dos do you think are cooking in that brain? My own brain aches to think about it.
Clara and the Doctor race back to see Ashildr, and the Doctor presents a small chip that he scavenged from the Mire’s helmet. It’s a healer that will never stop working; the chip is absorbed into Ashildr, and the village and its visitors wait a few breathless moments for it to kick in. As Ashildr stirs, the Doctor hands a second chip to her father. “Who’s it for?” he asks. “Whoever she wants.” The Doctor immediately wants to leave. He can’t face what he’s done, and he can’t be the one to explain her new state to Ashildr. It’s a cowardly moment for him, and so very personal. He took away Ashildr’s tragic death but he also took away her ability to die. And “dying is an ability, believe me.” Clara asks the Doctor why he gave Ashildr two of the chips if hers would last an eternity. A Tenth Doctor “does it really need saying?” would be appropriate here, but the Doctor answers anyway. “Immortality isn’t living forever, that’s not what it feels like. Immortality is everybody else dying.”
There are shades of series 2 all over this set of episodes, especially in regards to Clara and the Doctor’s reckless dependence on each other. This Doctor monologue was very Ten and Rose in “School Reunion.” The jokes, flirting, and deflection fall away, and all that’s left is the weight of a future loss.
Rose: I thought you and me were — Well, I obviously got it wrong. I’ve been to the year 5 billion, right, but this… Now, this is really seeing the future. You just leave us behind. Is that what you’re gonna do to me?
The Doctor: No. Not to you.
Rose: But Sarah Jane. You were that close to her once, and now you never even mention her. Why not?
The Doctor: I don’t age. I regenerate. But humans decay; you wither and you die. Imagine watching that happen to someone that you—
Rose: What, Doctor?
The Doctor: You can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can’t spend the rest of mine with you. I have to live on. Alone. That’s the curse of the Time Lords.
But the Doctor gives Ashildr something he’d never give himself, which is the power to bring someone into this life with him for good. He doesn’t trust himself to check his emotions; it’s selfish enough, he thinks, that he invites companions onto the TARDIS even for a time. He is the tidal wave. The biggest and most destructive one. If he could, would he make Clara immortal too so they’d never have to stop running? He’s worried that he would, and it would be for his own comfort. But a curse shared is still a curse. And though Clara is safe, Ashildr carries that burden now too.
Timey Wimey Observations
- How about that cold open, huh? The “love sprite” was a simple and elegant visual trick. We never even saw the thing, but the sight of that moving lump in Clara’s spacesuit was enough to give me goosebumps for the rest of the night.
- “It’s the best I could do Clara. I’m not actually police, it’s just what it says on the box.”
- “How did you do that?” “Magic.” What is personal space?
- The Doctor’s “yeah? cool.” face when Clara raised her hand for the “who’s held a sword in battle?” survey.
- “You’ve made an impact there.” “Stop it.” “She’s nice. I’ll fight you for her.” Clara Oswald Is Bisexual 2K15 and Also Whatever Year This Is.
- “Winning is all about looking happier than the other guy.”
- Peter Capaldi and Maisie Williams were lovely together, and I hope to see a lot more interaction this week.
- The way the Doctor’s hand lingered on Ashildr’s when he outfitted her with the Mire helmet.
- Do you think Ashildr is the hybrid that Davros predicted in “The Witch’s Familiar”? It certainly seems that the Doctor does, but why ever would it be so obvious?
- WHY ISN’T CLARA IN THE TRAILER FOR THIS WEEK.
What did you think of Maisie William’s and “The Girl Who Died,” you guys? Kim will be back next week to take you through the next chapter of Ashildr’s story. Until then, let’s discuss this one in the comments.