“The Girl Who Died” remains nothing short of incredible: the dialogue is spot on, in turns hilarious, poetic, pointed, and philosophical. Its exploration of themes surrounding masculinity and warrior culture, gender roles, storytelling, personal identity, and loss are expertly developed; it’s beautifully shot; the characterisation for the leads is spot on; it uses comedy to make serious points, and the final ten minutes are among the best parts of New Who.
Its central trick is much the same as the one “Vincent and the Doctor” employs, telling a seemingly run of the mill Doctor Who monster story/ historical romp that wraps up in 35 minutes because the key beats are so familiar, and use the extra time for a coda that makes the story have a lasting, powerful impact. But this episode does have one major advantage over “Vincent and the Doctor”: it’s written by Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat, who have more visible passion for the seemingly generic Doctor Who stories than Richard Curtis, so use this knowledge to craft a historical romp that has been made with a lot of skill and remarkable depth.
The Mire and Storytelling
A common criticism I’ve seen of the Mire being tricked into running away by the Ashildr’s fake Dragon is that they’re supposedly built up as a fierce warrior race that shouldn’t be frightened of a dragon. But the thing is, they’re not built up as a fierce warrior race. That’s just what they claim to be. But they’re not the Daleks, or the Cybermen, or the Sontarans. They’re just generic one-off Doctor Who villains #432. Not in a bad way. There are a couple of genuinely brilliant moments that set them apart from most one off Doctor who villains: I’m thinking in particular of the utterly gruesome moment where Odin drinks the testosterone-induced remains of the Viking warriors, and the moment where the Doctor asks if Odin would attack unarmed civilians, and Odin replies that “it wouldn’t be the first time”. I’m all for complex villains, but sometimes Doctor Who needs a genuinely horrible villain, and moments like that mark out Odin and the Mire as particularly loathesome (and between Gus, the Boneless, Odin and the “Oxygen” corporation, genuinely horrible villains seem to be a mark of Jamie Mathieson episodes). But while they are beautifully loathesome, the point is that there’s nothing to mark them out as especially fierce beyond their own reputations. Reputations based on their hyper-masculine posturing and the macho rubbish that they spout. While they clearly outmatch this unarmed village of Vikings, the viewer won’t look at them as among the most fearsome foes the Doctor, and that’s the point, one that the episode backs up and uses to set up the resolution.
How does it back this point up? Well, there are a couple of key quotes from the episode, that simply cannot be ignored when reading into the resolution, as they further build the argument that the Mire really aren’t all that high in the hierarchy of terrifying Doctor Who Villains. The first quote comes from Clara’s encounter with the Mire:
“ODIN: I have no reason to fear you.
CLARA: Except you’ve already analysed that and you know it’s a technology from a civilisation vastly more powerful than your own. And er, you will have also noticed that I’m wearing a space suit. So, I’m not from around here, and it’s highly unlikely I will have come alone. You see, you haven’t killed us because killing us would start a fight you didn’t come here to have, and you’re not sure you can win.”
This quote really gets at the centre of what the Mire represent. They aren’t an all-powerful warrior race, they’re bullies who pick on people smaller than them. The moment they get the sense they’ve picked a fight that they can’t win, they’re tempted to run away. For all their posturing, they are no more courageous than Brave Sir Robin from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“When danger reared its ugly head he bravely ran away and fled!”), a film referenced visually in Odin’s first appearance. This serves as set up for the climax, where they’re tricked into believing a rubbish wooden prop is a terrifying monster (Incidentally, I love the Doctor’s joyous “I know!” when Clara points out how rubbish the prop is). The second quote comes from the Doctor, after the Mire have been beaten:
“The mighty armies of the Mire. Brutal, sadistic, undefeated. Even I believed the stories. […] An army like yours, it lives or dies on its reputation, its story.”
The Doctor himself explicitly acknowledges that the Mire’s claim to being a fierce undefeated warrior race was something he believed until he met them. Then he realises that they’re only undefeated because they never fought a fight they thought they couldn’t win. They’re brutal cowards, and to beat them, all he has to do is prove that.
All of this sets up a joyous and powerful resolution. Odin and the Mire aren’t fierce, and they aren’t brave. That’s the point. They’ve built up a reputation of being one of the fiercest warrior races in the galaxy, but that’s a fiction, a story that they told. They’re not brave or powerful, they’re the playground bullies, who pick on the kids who are smaller and weaker than them, and run away the moment they think they’ve picked a fight they might lose.
Now Ashildr, she’s brave, in the real way. She’s a misfit in her village, the girl who girls called a boy and the boys said was just a girl. The girl who lives in stories, who makes puppets to calm herself when she’s scared for the people she loves. Because although she’s a misfit, she’s loved by her village. So she loves them in return, wants to defend their honour, and keep them safe. She defends them from a race far more powerful with one of her stories. A brave young girl defeats a group of bullies who disguise their cowardice with hyper-masculine posturing that inflates their reputation. And she does so by telling a story that comes from a place that’s braver and truer than they could ever dream of being. That’s not a plot hole, it’s the essence of Doctor Who, and it’s utterly beautiful.
Warrior Culture, Masculinity, and Gender roles
Another thread that runs through the episode, closely linked to the Mire, is that of socially assigned gender roles and characters that don’t conform to those roles. The Viking Warriors only characters killed (brutally so, being mulched into testosterone goo) in this episode, leaving the village without its traditional set of masculine protectors. Instead it falls to the men who don’t conform to the masculine warrior archetype to defend the village.
The defence of the village also centres around Ashildr, the main guest star of the episode, also self identifies as a girl who doesn’t fit into her socially defined gender role, stating that “the girls all thought I was a boy, the boys all said I was just a girl”. There’s a lovely nuance to this dialogue, with her rejection from both her female and male peers not held up as polar opposite scenarios, highlighting the different gendered expectations girls and boys place on girls who don’t conform to traditional gender roles, due to their different socialization. The girls think she is odd, and doesn’t fit, so reject her because of this, whereas the boys just see her as a girl, and always inherently inferior (note the use of the word “just”) because of this.
The other villagers are also defined by and large by the ways they do or don’t conform to gendered expectations: we are shown Lofty being a father, acting out the role of carer to his daughter, a role that is rarely socially associated with masculinity, a fact stressed by the Doctor’s “junior parent” line. It’s also worth noting that the actor who plays Lofty looks a little like Rory in some shots, which is oddly suitable considering his storyline centres around being a man who isn’t an alpha male being thrust into the role of a warrior. And his daughter’s dialogue as translated by the Doctor absolutely wonderful touch, taking a previously comic beat and making it something poetic and beautiful. Fathers protecting their daughters becomes another recurring theme of the episode through Einarr, as he admits he’d do anything to save Ashildr from the Mire, if only he could fight them. This is the key to the resolution: the men and women who are not made to fight the Mire refuse to engage with them on those terms, and find a different way to beat them.
Einnar in particular forms a parallel to the Doctor’s repetition of his percieved duty of care towards Clara. Clara also slots into this episode’s exploration of men and women who don’t fit their gender roles, with Clara notably being the only person in the room, save for the Doctor, who has held a sword in battle (prompting an impressed and surprised “oh yeah” expression from the Doctor). The Doctor remarks that she changed his belief that he doesn’t turn people into warriors, highlighting the way she has become more and more like him as she has developed. This parallel raises the question of gender roles in the TARDIS (as while there are male companions, even in the new series, the Doctor-Companion relationship is mostly defined along male-female lines), a subtly different social situation to the gender roles in the viking village. In “Under the Lake”, the Doctor says there is only room for one of him in the TARDIS, and here he tries to push Clara back into the role she should traditionally fill in the TARDIS: that of his subordinate, someone he has to protect from harm. And in a marked development from “Under the Lake”, where she is visibly impatient with the Doctor, but doesn’t say anything, she actively says that this isn’t something she wants, stresses the fact that she makes her own choices, and that she didn’t ask for this over protectiveness. Unlike the Doctor, Clara is now comfortable with who she has become, even if that doesn’t conform to what people want her to be (a marked development from series eight, where she was uncomfortable with her less socially accepted characteristics), and will insist on her right to be that person.
“Winning is all about looking happier than the other guy”: The Doctor and Winning
“How are you going to win?” Clara asks the Doctor for the first time in this episode, highlighting a key part of what Clara has taken on about being the Doctor: always look for a way out, always assume you’re going to win. It’s a recurring theme of series nine, something she figured out in the “consider the Doctor” pre titles scene when quizzed by Missy in “The Witch’s Familiar“. The Doctor wins not because he’s cleverer, or faster, or stronger than his enemies: he wins because he assumes he’s going to. Clara drives him to remember this in this episode, that there is always a way for him to win, and he just has to find it. And this is something that drives her own Doctor-like behavior. In this episode we see her confronting the Odin as the Doctor would, wearing the Doctor’s spacesuit and taking Ashildr on as her companion, using several Doctorish tricks to try and outwit Odin. She unnerves Odin with her confidence, gets the measure of him by recognizing his motivations, the risk vs. benefit mindset that lies beneath his “glory of war” bombast, and appealing to that mindset. And Clara fills the Doctor’s role perfectly, only failing to send him away because of Ashildr’s understandably emotional response to Odin, as she insists on engage with him on his terms, the language of warfare.
We also hear about winning from the Doctor. “Winning is all about looking happier than the other guy” he tells the villagers, one of a series of maxims the Doctor gives about how he operates. The episode is poking fun at and deconstructing Doctor Who tropes (including ones we probably hadn’t noticed such as “always walk briskly – it makes you a moving target”) to turn them into something joyous, the source of what is wonderful and silly and mad about the Doctor’s brand of heroism.
But while the episode engages in the fun side of the Doctor’s heroism, it also engages with the harsher realities of his lifestyle. Winning is a part of the Doctor’s life, but so is losing:
“I’ll lose any war you like. I’m sick of losing people”
The Doctor thought he’d found a way to save the village without losing anyone, but instead he loses the innocent girl he’d made a connection to. It’s the other side of always finding a way to win: said victory almost always comes at a price. The Doctor’s frustration at this knowledge that drives his decision to save Ashildr, to break the narrative rules that have confined him all this time.
This is a decision prompted by the Doctor remembering where he got his face. For all that it’s a reference to a fairly obscure episode from seven years ago, it’s a very well done use of continuity, efficiently explaining what a less clued up viewer needs to know. When the Doctor looked like David Tennant, he saved a guy who looked like Peter Capaldi, so subconsciously chose that man’s face when regenerating to remember saving people, ordinary people is at the heart of what he does, even when he thinks there is no way. This is a fitting way for him to remember the source of his current face: his inability to remember the source of his face was linked to his uncertainty about his identity in “Deep Breath”, so it is suitable that remembering where he got his face helps him remember what his identity is built on.
The Power of Titles, and Ashildr escaping the Refridgerator
In a Meta fictional episode that explores the power of storytelling, it is fitting that the title becomes a crucial part of the narrative foreshadowing. It hangs over the episode, an ever looming threat of Ashildr’s death, so that the tension doesn’t rest on who will live or die, but when the character played by the big guest star is going to die, and what the ramifications of that will be. The possible ramifications are first foreshadowed in the Doctor’s “How are you going to win?” talk. The Doctor tells Clara “A good death is the best anyone can hope for, unless you happen to be immortal”, the first in text hint of the alternative to Ashildr dying tragically, as the title suggests is certain to be her eventual fate.
And as discussed above, the Doctor does save her, in a way that has serious moral implications. The Doctor acknowledges this immediately, and is visibly terrified of what he has done. And it’s not without reason: when the Doctor speaks to Ashildr the evening before the battle, she compares losing the people she loves to dying. And at the end of the episode, the Doctor acknowledges that in saving her, that is the fate he has consigned her to. Losing her friends, family and home, would result in the loss of her identity, a death of the self. This is a neat twist on the title, as this is ultimately what happens to her: whether the Doctor saves her or mourns for her, she is still “The Girl Who Died”.
However, for all that the Doctor’s decision is not an example of flawless morality, it is worth acknowledging that the episode ultimately falls down in favour of the Doctor saving people. Clara says that Ashildr deserved to be saved, and the Doctor agrees with her. The Doctor’s “I’m the Doctor, and I save people!” is played as a joyous moment in the story, albeit one with a lingering unease. Partly because Doctor Who’s morality has changed since the days of “The Time Lord Victorious”: when faced with a choice between saving people and rigidly following cold, arbitrary, rules of Time and Space, the show increasingly favours the former, even if it acknowledges that this action will have consequences. But also, in a meta fictional story deeply concerned with gender, it is worth noting that once again this season, we have a story engaging with the “woman in refrigerator” trope. And ultimately, the show is making the argument for a different story for plucky female characters in genre fiction. The story concludes by suggesting that a story about a female character dying to give the male lead angst is a bad story, and that exploring the implications of making her immortal in order to save her is, ultimately far more interesting.