Previously on Doctor Who, ‘Before the Flood’
The episode opens with the exploration of temporary vs. permanent fixes and the tenuous balance between making a difference and changing all of time and space. Saving Clara from asphyxiation and a brain-sucking sprite by materializing the TARDIS around her as she floats through space in a surplus orange space suit, the Doctor explains his latest “win” of saving the Velosians from attackers as only a band aid until the Velosians figure it out for themselves—he can’t sit around like Daenerys in Mereen fixing everyone’s lives forever.
“Clara, I’m not actually the police. It’s just what it says on the box… It’s ok to make ripples, not tidal waves.”
They step out into the forest and promptly get captured by Vikings; like most of the audience, Vikings are not here for the sonic sunglasses and snap them in two. This season seems to be all about taking away the Doctor’s tricks, both an enjoyable turn at seeing him do his own thing and perhaps a bit ominous.
Speaking of Game of Thrones, Arya Stark, or Ashildr, lives in their village. All her life she’s felt different, worrying that her dreams would cause people’s deaths, and her premonitions, which the Doctor explains as “remembering in the wrong direction,” catch the Doctor’s attention. He impersonates Odin, poorly using his yoyo as proof, but is massively upstaged by an Oz-type Odin pretender in the clouds and his giant robots who harvest their warriors for a “feast in Valhalla.” Thanks to their half of the sonic sunglasses, Clara and Ashildr get zapped up too, leaving the Doctor with the weakest villagers behind.
Name note: Hildr was one of the twelve Valkyries and is often a personification of battle in the sagas.
The warriors find themselves in a Star Wars trash compactor/Resident Evil laser chamber and are juiced for adrenaline and testosterone, but Clara and Ashildr are spared, again thanks to the glasses. Clara, polishing her Doctor Speech skills (which are actually getting quite good), assesses that the glasses are obviously far above Fake Odin’s pay grade, so he might as well just run on home. Her speech almost works, but Ashildr can’t let this stand and summons Jaqen H’gar challenges them to war. Fake Odin sends them back with a promise to crush the village tomorrow. Sleep well, Vikings, I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.
“So what are you? Farmers, fishermen, web designers… Maybe not that last one.”
The Doctor desperately tries to talk the villagers into hiding in the woods, but despite their total lack of battle experience, they won’t hear of it. A crying, fearful baby gives the Doctor an opportunity to interpret and put it all into perspective, which only makes them more serious about fighting. Previous instances of the Doctor speaking baby: Melody Pond and Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#4a7097″ class=”” size=””]”I’m so sick of losing. I don’t mean the war. I’ll lose any war you like. I’m sick of losing people.” – The Doctor[/pullquote]
Privately the Doctor laments to Clara that such an unbalanced win would surely become news to other warrior races who would head to earth before their time, and this ripple would become a tidal wave of human carnage. With shades of Deep Breath, he loses himself in interpreting the baby’s cries again: she hears other worlds and wonders if there is other kindness out there.
“The sky is crying now. Fire in the water.” He closes his eyes, and Clara pats his face. “You just decided to stay.” Someone keep an eye on this Alia Atreides baby.
So the Doctor leads a sword clinic, dubbing everyone ridiculously (Lofty, Daphne, Noggin the Nog, ZZ Top, Heidi, and Limpy), while he thinks. Eventually they earn real swords, immediately producing hilarious results—one guy passes out, knocking over a torch, letting out the horses, lighting a house on fire, etc. Mayhem and a great comedic moment.
That evening, with the Mire’s forges striking from the clouds ominously, the Doctor mopes over their inevitable deaths and reiterates his increasing anxiety over Clara’s well-being, but Clara channels Missy and tells him to buck up and be brilliant. Next he consults Ashildr, who reveals her talent for making fantastical statues/puppets. Like the Doctor, she believes that if she makes up the right story, she’ll protect her loved ones. Another cry from the Sage Baby sparks an idea: “fire in the water” refers to the baby’s favorite electric eels. He has a plan!
“That. is. rubbish,” Clara says.
Incidentally, the Vikings would only have electric eels if they’d brought some back from the Amazon, which is somewhat possible although not documented. By the way, they’re not eels either—they’re fish. That’s your biology lesson for the day.
When Fake Odin and the Mire arrive, they find the unarmed Vikings throwing a party, which confuses them enough to fall into the Doctor’s electrical trap. The remainders are scared away by a holographic snake dragon (not unlike the cafeteria mural from last episode) that Ashildr imagines through one of their helmets, leaving only Fake Odin. The Doctor threatens to ruin his reputation by uploading the recorded incidents dubbed to Yackity Sax unless Fake Odin leaves forever. Their victory is short-lived as Ashildr dies from using the helmet—no win is completely consequence free for the Doctor.
“I’m so sick of losing. I don’t mean the war. I’ll lose any war you like. I’m sick of losing people. Look at you, with your eyes, your never giving up, with your anger and your kindness. And one day the memory of that will hurt so much I won’t be able to breathe. I’ll do what I always do, I’ll get in the box and I’ll run and I’ll run in case all the pain ever catches up. And every place I go it will be there.”
Agonizing about not being able to change things, he catches his reflection in the water, flashing to a vision of himself asking, “Who frowned me this face?” Then he recalls Donna asking 10 to just save someone, leading to 10 saving Caecilius in The Fires of Pompeii, also played by Capaldi, and realizes that he chose this face to remind himself to save people no matter what. An oft-cited continuity hole, his previous appearance explanation neglects that he was also John Frobisher in Torchwood. In this case we turn to the Whovian Spatial Genetic Multiplicity theory, often referred to in the case of Gwyneth from “The Unquiet Dead” and Gwen Cooper in Torchwood. In summary, sometimes significant physical traits echo through time in unrelated people. It’s also called Repeatedly Casting Actors We Like, but that’s not as fancy.
Reinvigorated by this vision, the Doctor interrupts Ashildr’s funeral and places a Mire battlefield repair kit on her forehead. It disappears into her skull, never to stop repairing her, which means exactly what you think it means—he’s created a functionally immortal hybrid (Season Theme!). As usual, he runs before repercussions kick in, but at least he leaves her a second one.
“She might meet someone she can’t bear to lose. That happens, I believe.”
In closing, Ashildr watches the world spin year after year, until the smiles drops off her face and her eyebrow raises. So that’s how attack eyebrows are born.
While technically another two-parter, this first half was essentially a complete story with a bridge over to next week and out to several season themes. Using the backbone of a typical Who episode with overly simple settings, the story itself is light and predictable in contrast to last episode, but the design spotlights the Doctor’s inner thoughts. More and more he’s focusing on his fear of losing Clara, which we know he will, as though he’s preemptively trying to win the impending scenario in which this happens. He’s uncharacteristically honest about hidden feelings, about winging it through time, and about brutally practical solutions to consequences he can’t control. Even his baby translation treats us to the particular sonorous quality of Capaldi’s voice, which perfectly embodies the wisdom and pain of past lives.
While I generally prefer darker Who episodes, “The Girl Who Died” had a wonderful comedic spirit blended with melancholy reflection and inevitable sadness, a very Classic Who hallmark, and for that reason it is pretty great. My personal feeling about all the flashbacks to other Doctors is that they interrupt the mood established by this new Who era and can be jarring, but many people love the past-Who show-and-tell and enjoy seeing “their” Doctor, so I won’t complain too much. What’s truly beautiful about this moment is that strike of revelation that elevates the Doctor to joy. Some other callouts appearing without flashbacks: “Time will tell. It always does,” is from the 7th Doctor, 2000-year diary refers to the 2nd Doctor’s 500-year diary, and “reversing the polarity of the neutron flow” is from the 3rd.
As a History Channel Vikings fan, I have to mention the slightly annoying freshness of the Viking village and unlikelihood that the blacksmith would be a skinny weakling, but all that is really just trappings for the larger story. Maisie Williams did a fine job as Ashildr, although there wasn’t anything especially unique for her to do until the final scene; perhaps next week in “The Woman Who Lived,” we’ll get to see more of her range.
The Doctor: “Immortality is everyone else dying.”
Clara: “Okay, it’s official. Silence is even worse in a Scottish accent.”
Doctor Who S9E5
A simple Who storyline with comedic punch and deep reflection from the Doctor on his nature and limitations. Excellent dialogue. Sufficiently impressive aliens for limited use. No real down sides.