Monday, 19 October 2015


Vikings, alien warriors, The Benny Hill Show and reflections on the power of storytelling. New scriptwriter Jamie Mathieson delivers a hat-trick.

Ashilda: a blessing or a curse? (Image copyright: BBC)

My God, this is how to do it. ‘The Girl Who Died’ is proof positive that Jamie Mathieson's double whammy of ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ and ‘Flatline’ wasn’t a creative flash in the pan. More than those, it shows how expertly he can blend comedy and drama into a fizzy, enjoyable, blood-and-thunder fantasy cocktail. The episode also had the first big surprise of this series, as everything appeared to be wrapped up in 45 minutes.

For long term Doctor Who fans, there was something of late 1970s producer Graham Williams’ style to this story, when pseudo-historical and comic elements were high in the mix, while the idea of a mythical god, in this case Odin (David Schofield, doing his best Brian Blessed), concealing an alien intelligence has its roots in the tenure of Williams’ predecessor Philip Hinchcliffe. The skewed plot, with Viking civilians left to fight the alien Mire, and the comedy which ensued, was very Williams; the Doctor’s haunted ruminations on abandoning the village as it wasn’t important enough to the timeline, meanwhile, alluded to the Doctor’s ‘Olympian detachment’ under Hinchcliffe.

Presumably they couldn't afford Brian Blessed.
Image copyright: BBC)
Something else that Mathieson has inherited from the Hinchcliffe oeuvre is the gift for brilliant dialogue that the producer’s script editor Robert Holmes had. A large part of the atmosphere of any setting – historical, future or otherwise – comes from the richness of the words the characters are given to say, and Mathieson slipped effortlessly into the right metre here. Ashilda’s mournful ‘We’ll be cut down like corn’ is a great image to describe an ancient battle, while Odin’s ‘What is Heaven but the gilded door of the abattoir?’ merits a whole article on its own. Particularly striking was the Doctor’s translation of baby talk. What could have come across as plain silly was presented as poetic and haunting, thanks to Capaldi’s committed performance. You can take your pick from the many other examples of how good the dialogue was.

Against the backdrop of comedy Vikings and ingeniously designed monsters, ‘The Girl Who Died’ belonged to three actors: Capaldi, Coleman and Maisie Williams (no relation). The Doctor/Clara relationship is going somewhere really interesting, as the Time Lord recognises his influence on her may not have been entirely beneficial; Clara, meanwhile, is becoming more and more of an adrenaline junkie. Their increasingly complex relationship is an effective contrast with the innocence, melancholy and righteous anger of the remarkable Maisie Williams, 18 but looking at least 5 years younger. I’ve never seen Game of Thrones, but, on her own, she carried Channel 4’s internet thriller Cyberbully earlier this year. Be great if she turned out to be the new companion, but I doubt it somehow.

The face of the Twelfth Doctor's conscience.
Image copyright: BBC)
By the hammer of the gods, ‘The Girl Who Died’ showed how to do continuity (and I’m guessing this was Steven Moffat’s main input to the episode): the Doctor recognising his new face was set up as far back as his first episode ‘Deep Breath’. Here he realises that he wears it as a result of his survivor guilt, as shown in a jaw-dropping clip from ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ (now 8 years old), that explicitly linked the Doctor with Caecilius, Peter Capaldi’s first role in the series, whose family the Time Lord decided to go back for and save. Not only is it a neat way of explaining the casting of the lead actor in two different roles – not that they had to – but the idea was organic to the story and consistent with developments in the Doctor’s character since 2005.

Amid all the fun and drama was a literate subtext about the power of storytelling. The Vikings believed in Odin, but, as the Doctor astutely pointed out, you can tell a real god because ‘they never show up’, and the Mire’s Odin was subsequently revealed as a fraud. Ashilda made up stories, and it was the Mire’s belief in one of hers which was the threatened downfall of their status as unbeatable warriors on the intergalactic equivalent of YouTube. An apt reference, as where else can reputations – another form of storytelling – be so easily made and destroyed today? It’s obvious that this kind of parable was what they were trying for with last year’s ‘Robot of Sherwood’, but that didn’t quite come off.  

The by now customary pop culture references were present and correct: The Benny Hill Show theme (inspired), The Magnificent Seven and The Man Who Would Be King (the Doctor training the villagers to fight) and this year’s second reference to Monty Python’s Flying Circus (Odin in the clouds was a dead ringer for Terry Gilliam’s cartoon God).

Pleasingly, there are no easy answers here, something of a theme in Mathieson’s scripts. The Time Lord’s ‘I’m the Doctor! And I save people!’ declamation proved equivocal, as his saving of Ashilda’s life (reckless? Certainly. Selfish? Possibly) was shown as an act of compassion that he knew could have terrible consequences. Her immortality as result of a Mire implant could be as much of a curse as a blessing, something Ashilda’s chilling look into the camera (top) as time rolled by, leaving her unchanged, seemed to confirm. A superb ending, particularly as it contrasted the sham Odin at the beginning with an ordinary young woman who by the end had effectively become a god.

Yes, this is how to do it. Mind you, I still think the series is on far too late: if ever there was a great Saturday night treat for kids of all ages, it was ‘The Girl Who Died’.   

Bit to rewind: The Doctor realises where he got his new face from.

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