Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The Girl Who Died – Tony's Spoiler-Free Review

There’s a real temptation on first watch to dismiss Jamie Mathieson’s first script this year as the Robot of Sherwood of the run - mostly fun but inconsequential. Really though, the only similarities between the two are the fact that they’re both period pieces with some funny bits, and the monsters are armour-covered avatars of naff-ness. This one's as inconsequential as a heart attack.

It’s important to get over the idea of The Girl Who Died being a comedy episode fast or you’ll miss the real importance of its dramatic pulse. Not that it makes it particularly easy to get past the comedy idea – the pre-credits sequence bristles with the kind of electric writing you’ll expect from Mathieson after his Series 8 double, Mummy On The Orient Express and Flatline, there’s a moment that will at least have some in fandom punching the air, and we get started on the main strand of the adventure because the Doctor underestimates the seriousness of the situation. 

After the credits, we’re in solid historical territory and Mathieson has some fun with the idea that the whole ‘travelling to the past’ thing is somewhat old hat to this Doctor, as he pulls a routine that is pretty condescending to the locals, and is immediately called on it – again. Really, if there’s one subtextual message in the Doctor’s entry into this adventure it’s Do Not Underestimate The Locals. 

When your attempt to condescend to the locals is not only immediately called out, but then massively upstaged by someone with more advanced technology than a yoyo and a piece of string, you’re not having a good day in the past. And when the local tomboy (your actual Maisie Williams, surprising this newbie to her work with her comfort and natural ease in her role) and Clara get separated from the Doctor and the locals, we get another example of how far Clara has come as a citizen of the universe. When her plan to make some aliens bog off and leave the locals alone goes awry, what we have is an approaching cataclysm, and the Doctor as the only person who can stand in its way. His attempts to do so are unambitious though, and Clara tells him to find the way to win. When that way comes to him, there’s a sense of triumph to it, and a note of The Eleventh Hour – notsomuch “I’m the Doctor. Basically, run,” but certainly a sense that aliens have reputations too, and that a solid Youtube shaming would be as mortifying for them as it would be for us.
So much then for the actual alien-defeating plot.

It’s impossible to overstate how much this story is not about the alien-defeating plot though. Obviously the alien-defeating is key, it provides the catalyst, the action and ultimately, the girl who died. But you need to keep two things in mind.

Firstly, the quality of the writing here is breathtaking. Both in terms of the comedy (which occasionally tips its hat to Red Dwarf, particularly in one training sequence), but more, much more in terms of the drama, Mathieson proves he’s no Series 8 fluke. Seriously, there are lines here you’ll pause and rewind just to hear them spoken again and again. The Doctor speaking baby brings a heartbreaking lyricism to the piece this time round - no Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All, but such beauty of thought, anyone who actually has a baby will be bawling watching it, and anyone who appreciate the culture in which this story is set will note a characteristic elegance. And when the girl who dies expires as advertised, we see the dark thread that’s becoming a kind of subtle series arc, the Doctor chafing at the rules that govern his life and actions. We’ve seen the Doctor do this before, deciding to throw caution to the wind and becoming The Time Lord Victorious. And then people started dying, the Tennant Doctor taking the lesson of the deaths as his warning to mend his ways. The Twelfth Doctor so far in this series has embarked on a course that seems to magnify his own power and his own abilities and his own need to win not just against the notional bad guys but against the forces of time and death itself, over any potential consequences. In Before The Flood he changes the past to beat the Fisher King, but more importantly to save Clara, his best friend in the universe, arguing that yes, there’ll be consequences, like maybe the universe will be ruled by cats in the future, but that’s just too bad – the universe must bend to the will of the Doctor right here and right now. The Girl Who Died takes that dangerous reasoning forward in leaps and bounds, and again, Mathieson and Capaldi are a match made in heaven, the Doctor telling Clara how important she is to him, and what he always runs away from, and how one day her not being there will be more than he can bear – a forward call to Jenna Coleman’s departure, and a hint as to what the consequences of it might be on the Twelfth Doctor.

Shakespeare’s tragedies are traditionally the stories of excellent or exceptional people with one fatal flaw, and Series 9 so far has been showing us the Twelfth Doctor’s catastrophic failing – after the ‘Am I a good man?’ insecurity of Series 8, what’s clear in Series 9 is that he’s trying very hard to ‘be the Doctor,’ to be the legend his other selves have made, with all that he has. That means he’s open to learning the right lessons, but can occasionally misapply them in horrifying ways. That’s certainly what he seems to do at the climax of The Girl Who Died, screaming a “To Hell with you!” to time, space and causality, and doing what he emotionally needs to do, rather than what he should or what he’s allowed to do. In terms of the impacts that time travelers are “allowed” to make, Clara jokingly calls him a tidal wave at the start of the episode, and he’s horrified. By the end of it, you’ll know she was categorically right. 

Did I mention this really isn’t Robot of Sherwood?

On first watching, there’s a possibility you’ll feel The Girl Who Died doesn’t stand up to the hardcore vibe of Classic Who in a New Who style that was threaded through the first four episodes. If you feel that way, go away for an hour and do something else. Then come back and watch it again. Yes, the actual alien threat may be lighter and less doom-laden than the heart of the Dalek empire or the creepy dripping corridors of the ghost-infested Drum. But in terms of exhilarating character drama, The Girl Who Died is a third unqualified success from Mathieson, with Capaldi on blistering, heart-wrenching form, and Maisie Williams stealing any hearts that are left. In terms of sheer storytelling power, Series 9 is shaping up to be the strongest set of stories in recent Who history, and The Girl Who Died in no way drops the ball, instead hitting it far, far out of the park and making you need to know what happens next.
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