Escaping the Inevitable Boredom, Doctor Who: The Girl Who Died, Reviews, 22/10/2015

This weekend was so busy with the election, my work with the Syria Film Festival, and a pile of other things that I never even got the time to watch Doctor Who until Tuesday night. But at least the episode itself was pretty brilliant. And packed once again with fascinating ideas and stories.

The story itself is a wonderful idea, and one so well-suited to how the Doctor as a character is understood today that I’m surprised no one had done it yet. The Magnificent Seven with aliens instead of bandits. I don't want to continue the discussion without warning you of 

SPOILERS

even though it's been nearly a week since broadcast. It’s only polite.

Doctor Who stories are basically about tricking and
cheating your way out of danger. He basically is a
sci-fi Trickster god, like Loki, Hermes, or Raven.
Wait a second . . . 
The driving concept of this week's monsters, The Mire, feeds into the story’s central theme. At first it seems to be just a cheeky joke that The Mire distills adrenaline and testosterone from male warriors and mainlines that shit like crack rocks to get high.

And it is a good joke. Clara even gets the follow-up line, as she’s trying to talk them into leaving Earth, that there's plenty of excess testosterone in the universe. But her bargaining with the Mire’s leader gets tripped up precisely because of a mistake from Maisie Williams’ Ashildir that’s more usually associated with testosterone. 

After seeing her clan's warriors vaporized and turned into speed for The Mire, she's spoiling for a fight. When she hears Clara convince The Mire that this is a fight they don’t want to have, she thinks it's a real threat, and amps it up.

The Girl Who Died is fundamentally about the Doctor’s generally non-violent approach to conflict. I say generally because the Doctor is no absolute pacifist. But he doesn’t become a warrior on behalf of another. He’s a travelling wizard who teaches otherwise vulnerable people and communities how to protect themselves. 

Only when he's dealing with galactic-scale threats like Daleks and Cybermen does he take a truly aggressive stance. In situations like The Mire raiding this Norwegian village, he can’t outright blow them up because an entire Mire battlefleet would return to blow all of Earth to smithereens. 

The Girl Who Died is the first piece of entertainment that's
so casually understood the nature of social media shaming,
even though it's such an ordinary thing today. And the
story took place in a medieval Viking village. That's
what I love about Doctor Who.
The plan he develops forces The Mire to leave and forget that their raid on this little Earth village ever happened. And with such a meta-textual edge as well. The Doctor literally hijacks the storytelling agency of his situation so The Mire can do nothing else. 

This is the essence of the Doctor's non-violent conflict resolution: he changes the situation so that the aggressors are no longer in control of how events unfold. He lets the powerless take the power to write the story.

This leads to another fantastic idea in this story: social media shame as a weapon, used for the sake of protecting the vulnerable from aggression instead of the sadly common reverse

With a little technobabbly setup, the Doctor creates an illusion for The Mire: they see a reasonably decent CGI dragon attacking them, but really it's just a villager riding a shit-looking prop dragon made from a disused longboat. 

As someone commented at Phil Sandifer’s review, they were essentially attacked by a Doctor Who special effect from both the classic and the 21st century series at the same time. Then the Doctor, Clara, and the rest of the village blackmail the villains into ignoring Earth and imagining this never happened. Or else they’ll post the video of them looking like morons to the Galactic Facebook.

It’s Ashildir's skill as a storyteller that lets her so effectively hijack the Mire’s perceptions. But it's also depressingly fitting that the effort of controlling the alien technology kills her. After all, she wouldn't have had to do this if she hadn't lost her temper on The Mire's ship and ruined Clara's attempt to talk them into leaving.

Ashildir's death could have been very conventional,
the complex female character reduced to a moment of
dramatic irony: sacrificing herself as the only casualty
of the fight she mistakenly started. But Doctor Who had
something much more interesting in store for her.
Ashildir's death is the moment when The Girl Who Died turns on a dime from comedic romp to tragedy. The Doctor knows how unjust it is for his friend to have had to sacrifice herself. He came up with this whole plan so he could keep them from paying for Ashildir's mistake with their lives. Same with Ashildir herself. 

The Doctor's idealism – that there are other ways to handle even the most terrible conflicts than resorting to violence and death – is an essential part of his heroism. He’s driven by the urge to help, to leave the places he visits in better condition than when he arrived. 

The question hanging at the cliffhanger of The Girl Who Died is whether his intervention really saved Ashildir or condemned her. She spoke about how she could never leave her home village, because this one place is where she is unconditionally loved. 

Yet this last sequence – as years, decades, and centuries pass by an unchanging Ashildir – shows the truth. She's outlived her village, her clan, her culture, everything that made her what she was. She faces the greatest torture of immortality: everyone around her has died and she’s alone.

I’m impressed with how Jamie Mathieson could change tone so expertly. I'd say he's one of the best storytellers that Doctor Who has right now. 

He can even find a new angle to explore the dark side of the Doctor's character. The tragic section of The Girl Who Died gives Peter Capaldi his best heart-rending scene as the Doctor so far, as he reflects on the inevitable loneliness of his own immortality. 

He’s tired of the wearing repetition of his friends leaving and disappearing. Free of the rage and guilt of the Time War, the Doctor's primal internal conflict now seems to be fighting the constant drag of depression in the face of the impermanent, fleeting quality of his life.

The Mire do exactly what this story needs them for and
nothing more: to be a cartoonish, over-the-top, pure
camp Doctor Who villain. They are exemplary at it.
Yet there's also a hypocrisy to this as well. His drive to save the people he cares about, in Ashildir's case, seems to condemn her to the same tortured never-ending existence from which he's suffering. 

I’m not going to continue long in this vein. This post is long enough, and The Woman Who Lived is probably going to give me plenty more to chew on about the nature of immortality. 

To close, I'd say that The Girl Who Died is definitely the best single episode of Doctor Who this season. With Catherine Tregenna writing its second part on Saturday, the story as a whole should be brilliant. But it does more than simply be good.

The Girl Who Died pushes Doctor Who forward, which no other story has really done. Apprentice/Familiar was a well-executed standard story format of the Davies and Moffat aesthetic. Lake/Flood was a depressingly retrograde throwback to the worst superficiality of 1960s Doctor Who and Frank Miller style themes of angst and violence. 

Died/Lived is the first Doctor Who story to live up to Steven Moffat’s mandate this season that the multi-part stories would radically shift in style and tone between episodes. 

It also pushes the Doctor as a character into new territory. Instead of returning to the same conflicts of the Time War era or floundering around without knowing what to do otherwise, Mathieson explores the ethical and personal consequences of his current state as a potentially immortal time traveller.

Someone else commented at Phil’s review that Mathieson seems to be in a similar relationship to Moffat as a younger Moffat was to Russell T Davies. Moffat is now the longest-running producer in Doctor Who’s history, except for John Nathan-Turner. 

He’s perceptive enough to realize that his own creative well for Doctor Who is beginning to run dry. Between this more experimental year and the new side project Class under Patrick Ness, he appears to be working on a succession plan.

Leading into the Capaldi years, Moffat talked about how Doctor Who is driven by change. It's remained so inventive because it doesn't stick with an approach long enough to get complacent. There's always the itch to try something new. 

So far, the only writer who's really doing new things with Doctor Who and The Doctor is Jamie Mathieson. Maybe he deserves a shot at the leader’s chair.

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