With much fanfare Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams has guest starred on Doctor Who in both this and last weeks episode, a time-spanning tale that focused on her character Ashildr, a young viking girl whose life is forever altered by an encounter with the Time Lord. The continued embrace of the two-parter format this season is offering the opportunity for stories with greater scale and reflection, not just in regards to action but also emotion, as is the case here.
The Girl Who Died throws the Doctor and Clara into Earth’s past, taken captive by a Viking settlement which is then attacked by an alien which has assumed the identity of Norse God Odin. The Woman Who Lives picks up the tale 800 years later, in England, 1651. Tracking an alien artifact the Doctor meets a highwayman, revealed to be a young Viking girl who survived the attack thanks to the Doctor’s intervention, rendering her immortal. He struggles to endure her plight after suffering hundreds of years of loss and pain while recruiting her to help in his ongoing search. However, she knows far more about his arrival than she lets on and has her own plans for the artifact.
The Girl Who Died is a rather entertaining episode, throwing together a primitive culture (Vikings!) against one that is more technologically advanced. An underdog story with the best warriors lost, leaving them with the Doctor’s cunning and Ashildr’s grit saving the day. As a stand alone episode it would be entertaining enough (if a little contrived) but it saves the final act to introduce something of a twist. The Doctor choosing to break his own rules and bring Ashildr back from the dead, having sacrificed herself to save her village. An act using some advanced technology that comes with far reaching ramifications: she is now immortal. Judging her to be of noble character, it seems the right decision and the episode closes out with a montage showing the world changing around a forever youthful girl, ending with a ominous look growing on her face.
The Girl Who Lived explores this portent, the Doctor being reunited with her 800 years later. The fallout from his decision to save her becoming apparent, not only in how she has suffered but how she has affected the unfolding of time. Ashildr, having long ago given up that and all other names, has developed a cold core and hardened exterior to survive. Her journals, shown in flashbacks as the Doctor reads, show some harrowing content. Sufficient time to forget much of her past and sufficient pain to align herself with a nefarious alien and look for a life elsewhere, even at the expense of the Doctor.
Much has been made of how the Doctor arrives to save the day and then leaves the party, the aftermath of the Doctor’s arrival is rarely visited. This two parter goes a long way to address those he leaves in his wake. Ashildr is a permanent fixture now, unchanged by time and directly created by the Doctor’s actions. Reminiscent of Captain Jack Harkness in some regards, only not so much with the hornyness. A confident character, forged by time into a very capable and intelligent young woman.
Her sentiment, “I live in the world you leave behind” resonates. It is often difficult to tell whether the Doctor doesn’t care or just has a grander perspective on things when it comes to the feelings of individuals. Granted it does change depending on which Regeneration you’re dealing with. She is a living testament to his ‘playing God’, her suffering driving home how his actions have harmed her and subsequently people caught up in her life. This pain isn’t just confined to Ashildr, but is a mirror for the Doctor too. As an equal in this regard, Ashildr asks “How many Claras have you lost?”. It’s a gut wrenching moment solidified by Capaldi’s reaction. More than any other story in the history of the show this tale forces him to confront the mess he often leaves behind but also allows empathy for the situation he is in. Very deftly constructed work.
This two-parter continues the theme for the season, being how the Doctor can make life or death decisions that have far reaching repercussions, not just immediately, but in the far flung future. From the opener with choosing to save or strand a young Davros to the tale of the Fisher King and now with the creation of an immortal companion of sorts. The story goes some way to exonerating the Doctor of his legacy of changing peoples lives and leaving them. Ashildr’s future path sees her install herself as a caretaker of sorts, to live through time and clean up the mess he leaves behind (read: former companions). It is a noble cause and a little nod at the end suggests we haven’t seen the last of her.
Capaldi is reveling in the role, alien but human. And Jenna Colemen, in the first part, demonstrates her transformation into the Doctor’s equal, completed by her taking a companion of her own in Ashildr. As to Maisie Williams, the first part parallels much of the Arya character she is so synonymous with, but the second allows her more to work with, switching between the confident and the comical with some far more somber and moving moments.
While the overarching exploration of immortality is well done, the supporting plots are a little underwhelming. Budget constraints are evident, the Viking village is a little ‘sanitized’ and the whole “lion race” invading thing seemed a contrived subplot, with the creature being far from imposing. But it’s a perfunctory plot, one designed to put the Doctor and Ashildr head to head. In that regard it succeeds, but it’s entirely forgettable.
The Girl Who… two-parter is a curious thing, the central ideas looking at the trials of immortality are fascinating, Ashildr providing a great foil to the Doctor. Not only in terms of character but also the weight of their longevity. The background period romps are entertaining enough but not the focus here. A somber affair but no less engaging as a result.