Doctor Who #965: The Girl Who Died

"Immortality isn't living forever. That's not what it feels like. Immortality is everybody else dying."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Oct.17 2015

IN THIS ONE... Guest-stars Maisie Williams. The Doctor saves a Viking village from the wrath of warrior aliens, but at what cost?

REVIEW: For what is on the surface a historical romp with comedy Vikings - and you know they're comedy Vikings because they have Hollywood horns on their helmets (grating to me) - this sure is a complex and important episode. But then, though it looks like a romp, one with two-dimensional villains, bouncy Sarah Jane Adventures-type welder warriors, and the Doctor training an army that faints at the sight of blood and pulling out references to past Doctors (the 2nd Doctor's expanded diary to go with those checkered pants, 7th's yo-yo), it's also very tragic. For example, the ridiculous notion that the Doctor can understand babies, formerly used as an engine for silly comedy, is here a thing of poetry and sadness, and what makes the Doctor decide to stay and damn the ripple effects it might have on history. And of course, there's Ishildr's deaths, both literal and metaphorical.

The Doctor immediately notices Ishildr, and so do we. She is, after all, played by The Game of Thrones' Maisie Williams. Her line "what took you so long, old man?" from the season trailer made some of us think she might be Susan returned, or some other Time Lady from his past. That line isn't spoken here, but expect it in the next episode. All Ishildr is here is a ready-made companion, a modern girl in a bygone time who is resourceful enough and sympathetic enough that she wouldn't be out of place in the TARDIS. She's what the Vikings call a Skald, a storyteller, and it's through those skills that the Maya are defeated, though not without a cost. Ishildr dies, but through the magic of a Maya medical kit absorbed into her body, she is restored and will live forever, an immortal on the slow road, unable to take shortcuts the way the Doctor can. It's a curse and the Doctor regrets it almost immediately, so to keep her from HIS fate, he gives her an extra kit to use on her own companion some day (foreshadowing!). Notably, he doesn't give it to Clara. (The existence of this technology is entirely dubious since it would mean everyone would have trounced the Maya by now and turned themselves into immortals, but it's required of the greater arc, so okay.) From Ishildr's point of view, her immortality will lead to a second death - though she doesn't put it into words in this episode - as her village is part of her identity. She believes, early on, that if she leaves it, she will die. We know the village can't exist forever, so it becomes a bit of a prophecy. Speaking of prophecy, the Doctor makes sure to say the alien tech inside her sort of makes her a "hybrid", which is supposed to fill us with dread, but just seemed weird on first viewing. They didn't sell the threat behind that word enough in The Witch's Familiar, and then didn't make not of it in the next two-parter, so it doesn't feel earned here. But that final symbolic sequence where the camera spins around Ishildr as time goes past around her, and as she changes from a sweet girl into someone who might blow up the world does. The Doctor has created a villain, and a historical tidal wave. Perhaps that's why he felt like he'd seen her before. Has she been a face in the crowd through human history, much as this episode has made it to the mural in Before the Flood?

A bad day for the Doctor and an example of what can go wrong when he doesn't stick to the rules of Time for Clara. She's still good as the Doctor's teacher, telling him here to do what he's good at, "winning", but there are things she doesn't understand, and that particular table is turning on her. A bad day it might be, but it's nevertheless a good episode for the Doctor. The tactics he teaches the village's irregulars are pretty much out of his handbook - the appearance of confidence giving him an advantage against a superior foe, etc. - and he realizes why his face looks familiar. See Theories for more on that.

THEORIES: The Doctor's face. In Deep Breath, it felt familiar to him, like a message his core self was trying to give this incarnation. We've discussed this kind of thing before, as the re-casting of an actor has happened before (Maxil/6th). Was there a bank of faces in the Matrix the Time Lords were limited to? Or just only so many faces in all of space-time? We just didn't have enough data. Now it seems that the Time Lord's subconscious DOES base the new regenerated look (and probably personality) on past experiences and future needs. If Doc12 were to be perpetually "cross" and somewhat distant from humanity, then he would at least have the face of a man he once saved when "godly" Time Lord concerns who have dictated he should not. Caecilius from The Fires of Pompeii. This a reminder that his priority is to help people. Past looks might also have worked like this. For example, 7th's diminutive stature a reaction to the bigger-than-life bluster of the 6th Doctor, or 10th's good looks a "fix" to the awkward Rose/9th relationship, etc.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High(ish-ildr)
- The comedy and cardboard villains sometimes drag down what is nonetheless the most important episode of the season, plotwise, but it does have some stand-out moments for the leads.

16 comments:

Tim Knight said...

The horned Viking helmets grated with me as well and kept me thinking that either (a) they were NOT really Vikings and there was going to be some clever twist to explain the inaccuracy; or (b) they were somehow tied in to the Vikings seen back in The Time Meddler and this would be referenced, even if obliquely.

Again, I agree with you on the ridiculous-but-is-needed-for-the-story, superpowerful medical kit (but this kind of "great-trailer-moment-damn-the-longterm-consequences" is a hardwired Moffetism - look at The Silent or the Vashta Nerada for other ridiculous examples of this).

Did enjoy the bits about the Doctor's face, and Maisie Williams can do no wrong.

LiamKav said...

I wasn't that keen on the face revelation. It just seemed a bit... underwhelming. And also mildly confusing... the lesson he's supposed to take is that sometimes saving just one person is enough, but then making Ashildr immortal was the wrong thing to do and he kind of regrets it maybe?

Siskoid said...

For me, it's just a little unnecessary. I think it was suggested by Deep Breath; I didn't need a full on scene - flashing back to 10 and Donna no less - to get it.

Brendoon said...

Ashildur is a character who makes me laugh for an odd reason: a decade or so back I was nursing an idea for a Novel about an immortal with a mortal sized memory. after thirty years ir so I figured his memories would be unreliable so he had to keep a library of diaries to remember things. Ha ha!!!
I never attempted the novel, but the idea was obviously still floating out in the ether and got picked up by someone who was a bit better at doing something with their ideas. That makes the mind boggle about human inventiveness and the source of creativity.
The french "Trobadours" were named after the word "Trouver," literally "finders" who would pull their stories out of the air. Hmmm.....

Siskoid said...

Hm, interesting adventure seed for both my Doctor Who RPG campaign and my old GURPS Vikings one...

Andrew Gilbertson said...

"I wasn't that keen on the face revelation. It just seemed a bit... underwhelming."

Seconded. I was expecting a big reveal (I wouldn't have required it, but since the show made a point of mentioning it, I assumed it would become important), and this felt a bit... throwaway. Apparently, the Doctor wanted to remind himself to do something that he always does anyway, except in episodes where they want to make him seem callous and write him forgetting his most basic, core ethos? Well, good thing he reminded himself of it, then, I guess...


The medical tech thing here was a very poor choice, though... especially as a later episode reveals that it apparently allows her to outlive all other immortals; so it's not just a Deus Ex Machina, it is the Deus of Deus Ex Machinas. :-) I would think that the universe should be filled with these ultra-immortals, since this is the top-notchest of all immortality pills. The Maya must be the universe's greatest inventors, since even Time Lord medical technology (primarily Zero Rooms, from what I can remember) seem far less effective; even Karn revivals last only a few minutes, rather than 'all of eternity.'

Siskoid said...

Definitely. I'm sure there are more immortals rattling around in the end days, we just don't see them. Or they're more evolved and smarter than Me and have left this dimension.

Andrew Gilbertson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Gilbertson said...

She says that she'd outlived all the other immortals (hence the source of my eye-roll). Of course, the concept of outliving immortals, similar to Q's 'omnipotence' being surprised during TNG, just shows that the writers don't understand these concepts fully; like a seven-year-old in an argument, they made Ashildr "Infinity plus one!" :-) But it still compounds the absurdity to suggest this medical tech not only gives her (ONLY her, and not the Maya!) immortality, but it is some kind of super-immortality that outlasts regular immortality (which, considering it came too an end, meant that the other 'immortals' possessed merely extremely-long lifespans, since dying at all disqualifies them from the concept.)

I suppose they could have left that reality, and 'outlived' was her quick shorthand, but... yeah, a sloppy, Mary Sue McGuffin. (Which may be the first time an inanimate object has been accused of being a Mary Sue).

Siskoid said...

She can make claims and they can be lies or errors. But yeah.

LiamKav said...

Andrew:

I'm with a lot of what you say, although seperating "character lying" from "writer lying" is always a tricky thing. However, I'm going to call our your use of the term "Mary Sue". Partly because I think it's become a bit of a shorthand for "girl character who is slightly too awesome and the boys don't like it but don't want to appear sexist" (eg, Rey in The Force Awakens), and partly because I don't think that Ashildr is actually a Mary Sue at all, unless you are saying that Steven Moffat secretely wants to be a 16 year old female immortal.

Andrew Gilbertson said...

LiamKav, sorry, I was trying to clarify with the 'inanimate object' bit; I was (tongue-in-cheek) calling the Maya Medical Capsule a Mary Sue, as it just comes out of nowhere into a universe with immortals and creates a 'more awesome immortality than any of them!' :-)

I do think the Mary Sue is a legitimately deplorable trope (for instance, I think that Ahsoka's role on the Star Wars Rebels show has veered dangerously close to being one)- but I agree that it has become greatly overused, and often lost the original meaning. (Not 'being too awesome,' but being an unrealistic, unflawed guest character that comes in and outshines the main cast to demonstrate how 'awesome' she is, and often has a random relationship with one of the characters or is the subject of infatuation with everyone she meets, etc. In other words, a poorly written, OTT character whose naratively-unearned 'amazingness' is being rammed down the viewers' throats, and who lacks and form of narrative or trait balance, insead being unrealistically skilled, beloved, and unflawed.)

And for the record, I don't think Rey was one at all, nor was Ashildr. Clara verged on that, for me, when UNIT called *her* in to help *them* in Magician's Apprentice... but again, didn't tick all the check boxes (certainly not poorly written, for one) to quite qualify. Thus far, I can't think of any Mary Sues in recent Doctor Who... except for that darned Maya Medical Device. :-)

Andrew Gilbertson said...

Though, I suppose not the author avatar aspect, unless Steven Moffat secretly wants to be a computer chip/medkit.

Anonymous said...

The way I work it, if you get the feeling the author really really wants to either be the character or marry the character, it's a Mary Sue.

"and you know they're comedy Vikings because they have Hollywood horns on their helmets (grating to me)"

What was grating to me was that they called themselves Vikings at all. Viking is a verb, it's the act of going off in a boat and raiding. There were no Viking peoples, but there were societies that included members who went a-Viking.

All that aside, I was fine with the Doctor's revelation about his face -- the show explicitly asked the question and they felt obligated to explicitly answer, fair enough -- and I liked the little speech the Doctor gave (though the echo reverb was a bit much).

I don't need to tell you that Maisie Williams rocked out loud.

The rest of the plot was very "meh", but it was all a machine for making Ashildr immortal, so fair enough. E. L. Fudge cookies are delicious, I do not likewise require the Keebler bakery itself to be delicious.

Siskoid said...

"Mary Sue" used to have that definition, but now people are using it as the opposite of "nerfed", so I try to stay away from it entirely until the next edition of Webster's comes out.

Right, they weren't Vikings, they were Norsemen.

Brian said...

I really got the sense of a village of Norse farmers hitting hard times (partly as a result of how "Odin" had been demanding things of them) and deciding to give 'going a'viking' a try...then being pleasantly surprised to discover The Doctor and Clara out there only a few days from home with their shinies! Of course, they weren't very good at being "vikings" so they just brought their prisoners home and treated them like guests (also explaining why they dressed up like thrice-told Edda rejects)...

 

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