Tonight’s Doctor Who episode had everything—spaceships, aliens, trickery, the power of stories, and the Doctor desperately struggling to win in an impossible situation. Twice. And it leads up to an ending that genuinely punches you in the gut. Spoilers ahead!
What’s great about “The Girl Who Died” is just how much story it manages to pack into 42 minutes. There’s not a single wasted minute in this episode, which manages to go through a bunch of storytelling scenarios in rapid succession while still taking enough time with each of them to make you feel something potent.
In “The Girl Who Died,” the Doctor and Clara have only just escaped a battle with some aliens (and Clara’s encounter with a brain-eating slug and asphyxiation inside her spacesuit) when they land in the Middle Ages and get captured by Vikings. The Doctor attempts to convince the Vikings he’s Odin—but just then, a much more impressive Fake Odin shows up to take the village’s best warriors to Valhalla.
Too bad, Valhalla turns out to be a slaughterhouse in space, where the Vikings are harvested for their testosterone, so the Mire, a warrior race, can drink it.
Clara almost talks the Mire into skedaddling away from Earth, but a Viking girl named Ashildr, horrified by the deaths of her friends, challenges the Mire to a fight instead.
The Doctor keeps trying to convince the Vikings to run and hide, but that’s not super honorable. He keeps wanting to leave them to their fate, but Clara won’t let him, plus he hears a baby crying (and he understands what she’s saying.) So instead the Doctor has to try and turn all the Vikings who weren’t good enough warriors to be harvested by the Mire into fighters. Cue a pretty hilarious training sequence. And then at last, Clara—influenced by Missy’s tutelage in the season opener—keeps needling the Doctor to find the clever thing he always finds, the way to win.
And eventually, the Doctor does find it—a combination of using the electric eels in the village to zap and magnetize the attacking alien force, and using Ashildr’s gift for storytelling to trick the Mire into believing they’re under attack by a great serpent. The village is saved! Except for one thing: Ashildr is killed by the feedback from the alien helmet the Doctor hooked her up to.
Then the Doctor, heartbroken that he keeps losing people, remembers where he saw his face before: back in “The Fires of Pompeii,” when it was worn by a Roman that the Doctor chose to save from Vesuvius. And the Doctor chose to wear this face to remind himself that he saves people, no matter what. So he saves Ashildr, with one slight catch. She’ll live forever, “barring accidents,” and never age.
So why does the Doctor choose to take such drastic measures to save Ashildr, when he’s let so many other people die? Maybe partly, he’s just tired of death in general, and that hits him especially hard at this moment. And maybe it’s because he set her up to wear the helmet. But it also seems to have to do with her powerful imagination and her faith in stories, something that speaks to the Doctor.
The Doctor is often criticized for the way he comes up with a quick and dirty solution to a problem, and then leaves before he gets to see the long-term consequences of his actions. But that’s how stories are. They end with the resolution of the immediate conflict, and then don’t show you all of the aftermath. A good ending to a story is one that ties up the immediate loose ends, but then doesn’t get bogged down in mopping up.
This very episode begins with an example: The Velosians are under attack by “four and a bit battlefleets,” and the Doctor lures the attackers halfway across the universe and drains their weapons. Clara asks what’s to stop the invaders from trying again, and the Doctor says the Velosians will be ready for them next time, plus he’s not actually the police despite what it says on his box. The bottom line is, the Doctor can only intervene a little bit, here and here, because if he tries to solve everybody’s problems all the time, he’ll create too many tidal waves instead of ripples.
So the Doctor is, as he’s observed himself in the past, like a story.
And the first thing we see about Ashildr is her belief in the power of imagination: She dreamed that all the Viking warriors who’ve just captured the Doctor and Clara have died on their raiding mission, and it was so vivid she thought it might come true. And when Ashildr challenges the Mire to war, it’s almost like she’s convincing herself of a story in which her village crushes the aliens.
Later on, the Doctor sees Ashildr doing a sort of puppet show in her hut, acting out a scene where they defeat the False Odin. And she tells the Doctor that she’s always been different: too boyish for a regular girl (sort of like Arya Stark!) and always making up stories, hoping that the right story will keep her village safe. And that’s when the Doctor decides to use Ashildr’s powerful imagination to close the trap on the Mire.
So it’s perhaps natural that the Doctor chooses to save this one person, amongst all the others he’s seen die.
The Mire present a bit of a challenge for the Doctor, because they’re legendary warriors whose ruthlessness and power is known throughout the galaxy. So even if he manages to figure out a way for one tiny Viking village to defeat the Mire, this will attract way too much attention. Earth will be on everyone’s radar, over a thousand years before UNIT is around to defend it. It’s that whole “ripples versus tidal waves” thing again.
So the Doctor has to find a way to defeat the Mire without it being a famous victory—and he does it by undermining their legend.
The whole episode is laced with the idea of trickery as a barbed form of storytelling. The Mire are powerful enough to take what they want, but they prefer to trick people with their whole “false gods” schtick, because it’s easier and possibly more fun. The Doctor notes that the whole point of gods is that they never show up, and the Mire leader later says that gods are basically farmers and Heaven is the “gilded door” of the slaughterhouse.
So the Doctor and Ashildr come up with a scenario where the Mire are not just defeated, but fooled. They turn the Mire’s love of trickery against them, along with the electric eels that a baby told the Doctor about. (And the scenes where the Doctor interprets the crying of the baby are incredibly affecting and powerful.) As I mentioned, the electric eels zap the Mire and capture one of their helmets—but then it’s Ashildr’s imaginative projection that makes them think a puppet is a monster.
And then the Doctor basically uses this to blackmail the Mire into not just going away, but never telling anybody how they were tricked and humiliated. “The story’s over,” the Doctor says. “Happy ending.” Cue the “Yakety-Sax” soundtrack.
There’s only one casualty: Ashildr. Except that the Doctor can’t let it end like this, because he’s bought into the story about how “the Doctor always saves people.”
It’s officially a theme: There’s something wrong with Clara. This has been mentioned or hinted at in pretty much every episode this season thus far. And some of this may be due to the fact that she spent a bit too much time swanning around with Missy, and some of Missy’s attitude rubbed off. But mostly, it’s the culmination of her arc last season, where she started out revolted at the Doctor’s callousness only to learn to emulate it.
This time around, she keeps needling the Doctor to find the winning move, the way he always does, and stop writing the Vikings off. (And she’s right, of course.) But once again, she’s a bit too gung-ho for the Doctor’s liking, and he’s worried something will happen to her. He tells her once again that he’s got a “duty of care” towards her (something she said about the children she was escorting back in “Nightmare in Silver.”)
And the Doctor, in the middle of trying to train the weakest Vikings to be fighters, tells Clara that he used to think he wasn’t about making people into warriors, until he saw what he had done to Clara. (The notion that the Doctor turns people into weapons has come up a lot in the past, and Davros made a big point of it back in “Journey’s End.”)
What’s new in this episode, though, is the way it links the Doctor’s need to save people at all costs with his tendency to weaponize people. The Doctor loves to create a scenario where “everybody lives,” but that sometimes requires him to ask an awful lot of the people around him. Particularly his companions.
And if the Doctor’s savior complex is in the process of turning Clara into a monster, what has it made Ashildr into? He decides, after remembering his lookalike from Pompeii, to give her a battlefield medical kit from the Mire helmet that will bring her back from the dead. And ensure that she’ll never die again. He also gives her a second battlefield medical kit, so she can give the gift of immortality to one other person. In case she meets someone she can’t bear to lose, the same way the Doctor can’t bear the thought of one day losing Clara.
“I’m sick of losing people,” he says. (And he has a bit of a “Waters of Mars” moment where he says the rules don’t apply to him, and yells at the Time Lords who may or may not be listening, telling them that if they have a problem with his rule-breaking, “to hell with you.”)
The thing is, the whole episode up to this point is laced with reminders that this village and its people mean everything to Ashildr, and that they’re what fire her prodigious imagination. Nowhere else will she be understood or accepted as the strange creature she is, she tells the Doctor. Living on after her village is dead would be like death to her. And that’s, in effect, what the Doctor winds up giving her.
The Doctor is so sick of watching everyone die, he goes and creates someone else who will have to watch everyone die. And as the kicker, the Doctor realizes that Ashildr, infused with alien technology that will not let her die, could be considered a hybrid—and according to the season opener, the Doctor is possibly destined to play a crucial role in creating a legendary scourge, the fusion of two warrior races, “the hybrid.”
So this time around, the Doctor may have literally created a monster.