Doctor Who: The Girl Who Died

Posted on October 19, 2015

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Jenna Coleman and Maisie Williams in BBC America’s “Doctor Who.”

 

For the second week in a row, some weekend traveling has left us a bit behind on our weekend TV reviewing and for that, we apologize. Further apologies must be made for the relative lightness of this post, but since it’s the first part of a two-parter, like half the episodes this season, we figure it’s probably best to wait until the story’s over to offer any Big Thoughts on the whole thing.

Having said that, there’s a part of us that would have been perfectly fine viewing this as a done-in-one episode with no further story to come. It worked quite well in that classic Doctor Who way of showing our main hero and his companion stumbling across an alien invasion in ancient times, struggling with the question of whether or not to interfere, and then gleefully dropping said question and just getting on with the business of being heroes, consequences be damned. Like several of the episodes this season, it functions almost as a primer on the very basics of Doctor Who. And it’s because of that reoccurrence of this idea that we’re going to go ahead and assume it’s deliberate; that the creative team behind this show has decided to deliberately scale back and do a season-long examination of who the Doctor is and always has been.  We like this take. It functions very well as an answer to last season, which spent most of its episodes examining just what it means to be a companion to the Doctor and it gives Peter Capaldi, probably the biggest Doctor Who fan to ever get to portray the Doctor, a chance to do some very classic riffs on the character by paying homage to some its earliest actors. There’s quite a bit of William Hartnell, Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton in Capaldi’s version, which only makes sense because all of those actors were much closer to Capaldi’s age than the last few to inhabit the role.

So, an alien threat straight out of Monty Python, with accompanying (presumably deliberate because how can it not be?) homage invades totally historically inaccurate figures deep in the earth’s past (in this case, horned-helmet-wearing Vikings), only to run up against the superior thinking skills of the Doctor, who pulls a wholly implausible if not downright impossible (Electric eels? In northern Europe? With enough juice to power a giant magnet?) solution out of his ass at the very last second. That’s the quintessential classic Doctor Who episode, with none of the literal universe-shattering implications that have weighed down so much of his adventures in previous seasons. Just the Doctor and a plucky, smart English girl, doing right by some people who can’t or won’t do right by themselves.

But several things made this episode stand out from merely being typical. First and most important were the performances. Capaldi’s really come into his own in this role, to the point that it’s almost difficult for us to remember who his immediate predecessor even was. And we say that as huge Matt Smith fans. But after years of Sad Clown Doctors (even David “I don’t want to go” Tennant was part of the problem near the end of his tenure), it’s fun to have a Doctor less burdened by the past, even as he portrays the oldest Doctor in the show’s long history (not counting John Hurt’s “War Doctor”). What you get is someone who knows more than any other Doctor but who’s far less likely to wallow in that knowledge than any of the immediately prior ones (and by that we mean all the ones in the last decade). Capaldi’s helped along tremendously by Jenna Coleman. Even though we feel like this character is played out, there’s a certain almost sinister quality creeping into Coleman’s portrayal that interests us about where she’s going. Not only has too much time with The Doctor turned her into something of a cold and pushy person, some of her time with Missy appears to have rubbed off on her too. Not that she’s being portrayed as dark or immoral in any way, just that she’s way too comfortable making big life-and-death decisions without so much as batting an eye. It’s one thing when functionally immortal millenia-old beings with the perspectives of gods make those decisions, but it’s quite another when someone young and lacking in perspective can make them so easily. We suspect Clara’s arc will either wind up with her death or with the Doctor banishing her for her own good.

And while we’re happy to see a nod to Capaldi’s previous appearance on Doctor Who, as Caecilius, the Pompeian whose family the tenth Doctor saves from certain death, we honestly didn’t need an explanation as to why both characters have the same face. It’s not like we needed to be coached on the whole question of actors portraying characters. In other words, the reason the 12th Doctor and Caecilius have the same face is because Peter Capaldi was cast to play both characters. Any explanation other than that is going to come off too earnest and not nearly as explanatory as the writer would like. So he wears that face to remind him to save people or something? Okay, then, but you never really needed such visual cues in order to remember the most basic parts of your moral code.

But what really made this episode sing for us was the performance of Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams in a role that, on the surface, looks very much like her GOT character Arya Stark. At first glance, that is. And that might have been true if a less talented actress was playing her, but Williams found some depth in this character that made her stand apart as a dreamy, creative soul stuck in a warrior culture; a girl who makes fierce puppets in order to tell stories more comforting than ones where members of her village go out and never come back. We enjoyed everything about her arc and would have been fine with it ending in a more or less normal (for Doctor Who) kind of way (i.e., her death), but that final effects-laden shot depicting the newly immortal Ashildr growing cold and possibly even evil as the decades and centuries fly by was a brilliant use of Williams’ acting skills, not to mention that face, which can depict heartbreaking innocence or blood-chilling coldness equally as well – and make that change at the drop of a dime. It was a fun episode that looked like it was ending normally until the very last second, when that wordless shot of her face hinted at much more to come. Can’t wait for part two.

Picture Credit: BBC America

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