Having crossed-off the base-under-siege trope, Doctor Who this week tackles another adventure series staple: the defenceless town versus the all-powerful foe as the Doctor and Clara find themselves trapped in Viking territory where they must train a village shorn of its best warriors to fight for their lives against the formidable Mire.
Coming off the back of the moral issue-heavy Dalek two-parter and last week’s chilling, timey-wimey head scratcher Before the Flood, The Girl Who Dies makes for a welcome change of pace, blending wild fantasy and comic farce to mixed effect.
The result is a fun, fleet-footed historical caper that’s made all the better by some strong character moments, though it ultimately fails to pack a lasting punch due to some seriously weak monsters and a finale that, while shocking and unexpected, is all set-up and no pay-off.
After a bracing opening that sees Clara trapped in deep space with a hungry, flesh eating alien arachnid crawling up her spacesuit, our TARDIS duo land in medieval England where they’re swiftly captured by a gang of garden variety Vikings (pointy helmets, scraggy beards, a total disregard to social etiquette, you know the ones). They soon discover the Viking village is being terrorised by the ‘mighty god’ Odin, whose robot enforcers, the Mire, have completely wiped out the village’s warriors.
But when a mysterious girl called Ashildr (a guest-starring Maisie Williams), who seems to have an unknown connection with the Doctor, naively challenges Odin to a war, the Doctor is forced to train a ragbag clan of brave but useless villagers for a battle they seemingly can’t win. You can almost hear the Rocky music kicking in, can’t you?
Though I’m not ordinarily a fan of these sillier episodes, after two pretty dark stories it’s actually quite refreshing to return to a more light-hearted tale. Co-writers Steven Moffat and Jamie Mathieson – who also penned last year’s Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline – certainly make the most of it, packing the script with clever one-liners such as “premonition is just remembering backwards” and plenty of cutaway gags that see the Doctor’s optimism undermined by the sheer hapless ineptitude of his Viking soldiers.
The main drawback with this type of story is that they are often so light as to feel inconsequential (see last year’s Robot of Sherwood), but here Moffat and Mathieson rectify this flaw by wisely balancing the japery with a few more dramatic moments and emotional beats as the Doctor and Ashildr worry their actions are causing more harm than good.
Despite these attempts to add weight to all the levity, however, it’s not enough to prevent the main story from become a tepid affair. This is almost certainly down to the introduction of the desperately lightweight monsters the Mire.
Though the Doctor warns us at one point that they are one of the deadliest warrior races in the galaxy, it’s simply impossible to believe these clanging rusty post-boxes can pose a serious threat to anyone, and it’s telling that scenes of the Mire vaporising captured Vikings is met with disinterest rather than abject horror. It’s no surprise the big battle turns out to be a lacklustre affair that passes by in a blur of electric eels and a dodgy CGI serpent.
A further downside to a lighter story is the inevitable return of a lighter Time Lord. While Peter Capaldi puts his all into the Doctor’s goofy shenanigans, whipping out his yo-yo in an unconvincing attempt to impersonate an imposing god, he just never seems comfortable enough to make such antics work.
He’s on far better form, though, when tackling the story’s more poignant moments with the scene in which Twelve uses his ability to speak baby to translate a frightened child’s cry for his dead mother proving to be incredibly heart wrenching.
Jenna Colman’s scenes, sadly, are less inspiring. After a strong couple a weeks that have seen the rapid development of her increasing recklessness, Clara’s arc takes a back seat in this episode. This essentially leaves Clara stuck on the sidelines providing moral support to the Doctor as he goes about saving the day, and it’s always frustrating to see Colman’s talents wasted in this way.
There’s no doubt The Girl Who Died’s biggest draw is the arrival of Maisie Williams’ mysterious Ashildr. After an enormous build-up, her actual arrival initially comes as something of a let down as it’s hard to seen anything other than another Arya Stark in Ashildr, with Williams playing another headstrong tomboy with a determination to fight against the odds
But then comes that spectacular climax to completely change our perceptions of her character. Having donned a Mire helmet to help foil the monsters’ attack, we discover Ashildr has inadvertently died due to an electronic malfunction. Coming at the end of such an upbeat episode, Ashildr’s unexpected demise has a deeply wrenching effect, especially as we see the Doctor despair at once against causing the death of someone he was trying to save.
The shock of this tragedy drives the Doctor to do the unthinkable and break his own rules about treading carefully when meddling with time and space as he retrofits an alien repair kit to bring Ashildr back from the dead. With Ashildr now technically immortal, and in possession of another repair kit she can use should she ever find someone she can’t bear to lose, the stakes are now set incredibly high for what promises to be a spectacular part two.
Though it has its flaws, namely a lacklustre villain and some poor characterisation, The Girl Who Died serves as an enjoyable palette cleanser for series nine, replacing dark moral conundrums with plenty of gags and some poignant character moments. And while the denouement is essentially one long set-up for part two, the twist in the tale is so strong and unexpected it’s impossible not to get excited about The Girl Who Lived.
Next week can’t come soon enough.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: The Girl Who Lived on BBC iPlayer