Not a fan of the sonic shades? Then today’s your lucky day, as they’re quickly disposed of by an irate Viking (The post credits ‘Next Time’ sequence hints they’ll be back though). And all of this happens after the Doctor has already defeated four and a bit battle fleets and saved Clara from asphyxiation and death by love sprite. It’s a whirlwind start to an episode that’s cunningly a moral dilemma wolf in monster-of-the-week sheep’s clothing.
When the Doctor and Clara are captured by a hunting party of Vikings and taken back to their village, a simple escape is foremost on their minds. All that changes, however, when a heavenly visage of Odin appears in the sky above the village ‘inviting’ their finest warriors to come feast in the halls of Valhalla. One thing leads to another and before the Doctor knows it, he’s caught in the middle of a ‘pistols at dawn’ dustup between the Viking village’s farmers, fishermen and blacksmiths and the formidable, alien warrior race The Mire.
If the previous adventure (“Under The Lake”/ “Before The Flood”) felt like the classic Troughton era, this week brings us gloriously, goofily into the Third Doctor’s era, an atmosphere which suffuses the episode long before the Doctor actually utters the immortal words ‘reverse the polarity of the neutron flow’. The sunny outdoor location lends a cheery shine to the episode and its lustre is further enhanced by the dialogue with positively sparkles with clever wit and daft humour. Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat’s script is a wonderful exercise in subverting expectations, springing off in unexpected directions just when you think you’ve got it pegged.
Up until the appearance of the Allfather in the sky – looking and acting like God from “Monty Python And The Holy Grail” – it feels like a run-of-the-mill historical (Capaldi’s face when the Doctor beholds the vision in the sky is priceless) and even after that it promises to be a standard advanced aggressor versus primitive locals throw down until it moves into much darker philosophical territory. In fact, much of the episode ends up being a set-up for a decision the Doctor makes, the consequences of which will presumably be explored in “The Woman Who Lived”. Now with so much of the episode just window dressing, you might feel cheated. At least you would if it wasn’t so much fun.
The dialogue is sublime and Capaldi just nails it, moving seamlessly from drama to comedy to tragedy with a twinkly charm and curmudgeonly gravitas. The Doctor is desperate to ensure he only makes ‘ripples not tidal waves’ in the oceans of time, but is convinced to act when his ‘gift’ of understanding baby language returns in a devastatingly poignant, poetic fashion.
Jenna Coleman’s Clara is much more independently minded in this episode, and her Doctor-ness is off the charts when she and Ashildr (guest star Maisie Williams) confront ‘Fauxdin’ aboard the Mire spaceship. I have to admit, initially I thought the lightning disintegration chamber was going to be yet another bait and switch death ray/ teleport moment so it was a pleasant – if grisly – surprise to find that no, it was a macabre form of HRT for the Mire (a fantastic creature design when you finally get to see them, by the way).
As the Doctor apparently saves the day, the episode reveals its true intentions with a final melancholy flourish. Maisie Williams’ Ashildr – who hasn’t really seemed the kind of character meriting a guest star of Williams’ calibre – comes to the fore as her true importance to the Doctor is revealed. We’re also finally given the answer to the “Fires Of Pompeii” question asked in “Deep Breath” and – in the Doctor’s own words – it’s a doozy. His face, an echo of Pompeii citizen Caecilius (seen in flashback along with Donna and the 10th Doctor), was chosen by the Doctor to remind him that saving people, saving one individual person, is important. Important enough to risk the ripples and tidal waves that may result. So the Doctor does what he does best – he wins. He revives Ashildr using salvaged Mire technology, and in doing so curses her to immortality, something the Doctor has always taken a very dim view of.
Because he’s a romantic at hearts, he leaves a second ‘dose’ so that when she encounters someone she can’t bear to lose, she won’t have to. As the Doctor agonises over the decision, the theme of ‘the hybrid’ comes up again, echoing Davros’ prophecy and the Doctor darkly muses that he may have just made a terrible mistake. The portentous ending to the episode suggests he has. Series 9 shows no signs of slacking off. “The Girl Who Died” is “Doctor Who” at its bonkers, dramatic, magical best.