Where to start on this week’s Doctor Who? The show starts with the end of some other adventure we’ll never get to see, with Clara floating in space and an alien bug creature crawling up inside her suit. Of course The Doctor saves her with his usual style and wit. After stomping out the bug they step outside, arguing, while he scrapes off his boot on the grass. That’s when we find out what this episode is really about: Vikings. Yes Clara and The Doctor are accosted by a swarm of Viking warriors.
Capaldi’s Doctor has never been a fan of the brutish and less intelligent and it shows here. Attempting to frighten them with his super-advanced technology, the sonic shades, Steven Moffat is most definitely screwing with the audience at this point. After introducing the shades to the complaints of many fans (not this one though!), here The Doctor’s new toy is plucked from his face and snapped in half. Oh no! I guess that means they’re worthless now right? Well … not really as we see later in the episode each half is still functional, whether there is any lingering negative effects of the damage, we’ll have to wait and see. I really hope they don’t get magically fixed by next week though. I’d love to see The Doctor walking around wearing a pair of taped up glasses.
Once Clara and The Doctor are brought to the Vikings’ village, we see our special guest star for the week, a young Viking girl played by Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams. This girl, Ashildr, becomes the catalyst for everything that will happen this week, and possibly going forward. This week is about themes, long running themes and new ones that will likely come into play in coming weeks. One of these themes is The Doctor’s rules. Clara mentions something most fans have noticed, that The Doctor doesn’t really define his rules and seems to break them when it suits him. Along with this, The Doctor talks a lot about the idea of his guidelines for changing time, “ripples, not tidal waves” is what he says. The idea that enough ripples could create a tidal wave down the line is an interesting one for sure but considering the huge changes he’s facilitated over the years it also feels like a cop out. The show has gone back and forth on this idea of not affecting the timeline too much, until he wants to. Then somehow the dire consequences vanish. It’s a convenient and sloppy plot crutch but not a new one for this show.
A real high point, however brief, this week is The Doctor’s attempt to get them out of trouble once captured by the Vikings. Taking out his trusty Yo-Yo, Capaldi claims to be Odin, the Viking god. Unfortunately, the Vikings don’t seem impressed or convinced by this. Maybe it’s because it’s, well, a yo-yo, not to mention that The Doctor is just terrible with it and plays it off even worse. It’s these moments of snobbiness combined with silliness that really let Capaldi shine.
Unfortunately for them just as he’s making his godly claim, who shows up but the real Odin, a floating apparition in the sky asking for the village’s best warriors to come to Valhalla with him. Of course we quickly realize this is a trick. Alien soldiers show up to claim the warriors. Another alien ruse committed against poor stupid earthlings. We really must be seen as the rubes of the galaxy.
Here we get a couple giant dumb moments that feel out of character and more a convenience of plot. The first being Clara noticing the young miss Ashildr has half of the sonic shades on her face and has her use them to free her from chains. Doing so makes the aliens scan her as a threat and someone to abduct along with the other warriors. Why wouldn’t she just wait the literal thirty seconds till they were safe to do this? Well because then the two ladies wouldn’t be on the alien ship and have to talk their way out of there. This gives us a nice moment of Clara’s best impression of The Doctor. Threatening the aliens to scare them off from the planet, she’s almost successful until Ashildr opens her big mouth and challenges them to combat. It was funny to see Clara reacting to her just like The Doctor would, basically telling her to shut up with an exasperated look.
Of course we all knew there would have to be more of a confrontation. So when The Doctor tells them to simply run away we know that’s not going to happen. What we do get is a fun confrontation that is about brains over brawn, The Doctor’s specialty. Using electric eels they just conveniently have around the village and a hologram generator from one of the alien warriors, The Doctor and villagers are able to repel the alien horde. Though not without loss, the titular “girl who died” ends up being poor Ashildr, giving up her life to save her people.
Here is where several threads get woven together. Ever since Capaldi took over as The Doctor, Steven Moffat has teased, both in the show and the press, that he had a way to explain Capaldi being in an old episode of Who. We finally got a sort of answer here. Flashing back to “The Fires of Pompeii” episode, The Doctor realizes he chose this face, one that came from a moment of huge calamity but where he decided to bend the rules to save people, as a reminder that that’s what he does, he saves people. Through a little techno hocus pocus, not only does he save Ashildr but makes her immortal. As we see in this week’s cliffhanger she never grows any older as the ages pass around her.
This brings us back to those threads, first off the ripples. Will Ashildr merely be a ripple in the time stream or could her immortal presence reverberate into a tidal wave centuries later? Also The Doctor realizes he’s made something not all human … a hybrid. When we encountered Davros and Missy a few weeks ago, talk of hybrids littered the show. Could this girl be what Moffat was alluding to? Perhaps an immortal adventuring Viking girl could be a perfect replacement companion for when Clara leaves this year, hmm.
Though this year is more about two parters and less about a big bad looming over the whole season, they’re doing a great job at laying the groundwork for overarching themes and ideas to carry through week to week. This week did all that in spades while still being a more kid friendly, goofy episode. The plot had a few too many convenient happenstances, like the TARDIS being too far to get to quickly, and those eels … come on! But forgiving them, it was a great culmination of a number of things as well as a new launching pad for the future. Perhaps Maisie Williams will become a frequent guest for Capaldi’s Doctor much like John Barrowman was for Tennant. Time will tell …