Ever since the first trailer for Season 9 was released Whovians have been formulating theories over who Maisie Williams was playing. Her familiarity with The Doctor, and his recognition of her has intrigued us for months. Also, there were aliens and Vikings to look forward to. The Girl Who Died promised to be a thrilling adventure, and it delivered in spades.
The episode begins at the end of an adventure. Clara is in trouble, floating through space with an alien inside her spacesuit. The Doctor rescues her—of course—and then episode really begins. A short chat between them makes it clear that Clara is still moving further away from who she was, and closer to something The Doctor isn’t sure of. Then the Vikings show up to take them hostage.
When The Doctor and Clara are brought back to the Viking’s village it’s clear early on that The Doctor recognizes the young Viking girl played by Maisie Williams. Interestingly it seems that the initial reaction is from The Doctor, not the girl as we saw unfold in the trailer. It’s quickly brushed over as The Doctor has more pressing concerns: Odin appears in the sky, and he sends down robots to take the village’s warriors to Valhalla. In the confusion both Clara and the girl are taken.
Valhalla is a little different than the Vikings might have imagined. Clara and the girl, Ashildr, are the only survivors of the trip, and they find themselves confronted by Odin himself. Without hesitation Clara jumps into the role of Doctor. Her attitude, tactics, and even dialogue are almost indistinguishable from The Doctor. She isn’t phased in the least by what’s happening, rather she attempts to take command of the situation in the face of unknowable danger. Very Doctor-like. Seeing this bravery Ashildr mistakes the attempt at talking down Odin as a platform to challenge him. This isn’t what Clara wanted , but it does cause Odin to reveal his true nature.
Clara and Ashildr return to the Village in order to inform them, and The Doctor, that a challenge has been issued. The Doctor has already worked out that Odin and his robots are actually a warrior race called the Mire. With little time to prepare The Doctor tries to dissuade the villagers from fighting in the face of certain destruction. But, being Vikings, they vow to fight and die if necessary.
The Doctor has a moment of doubt over whether he should stay to save the village, or leave. He considers the ripples that could stretch out through time if he lets even one small village fall to an alien threat. Clara is still able to reach his moral center, and helps him find the way to the right answer. Despite her changes, her evolution away from just a companion to something more, she still manages to bring The Doctor balance when he’s about to make a rash decision. It’s a touching scene that really highlights the depth of their relationship. Clara might have become the best companion right beneath our noses, and only now near her departure can we see the full beauty of her character.
The Mire arrive to fight, but The Doctor has out-clevered them before they attack. With Ashildr’s help The Doctor leads the village to victory. Putting false-Odin in his place, they drive the Mire off of Earth and send them scurrying. The only problem is that Ashildr sacrificed herself to win the war. Seeing this sends The Doctor fleeing. Yet again he has made some innocent person a weapon, and they paid the ultimate price. Clara tries to console him but the wound is so much deeper than just the loss of Ashildr. The Doctor is starting to get sick of losing people. He even imagines a foul fate for Clara.
The most interesting part of the episode is when The Doctor remembers why he chose the face he did. There’s a flashback to the 10th Doctor and Donna, when he broke the rules to save the family in Pompeii from Mount Vesuvius. He chose his current face as a reminder that he is The Doctor, and that he saves people. It’s an interesting moment that answers a long-standing question but ultimately feels unnecessary. I never needed, or wanted an explanation as to why Peter Capaldi was in the show before he was The Doctor. It’s a TV show. Casting and such. It doesn’t take away from the episode, but it’s almost too fourth wall-breaking for the sake of Moffat convincing everyone how clever he is.
This revelation leads The Doctor to think of a way to save Ashildr that makes her functionally immortal. He’s not sure he should have done it, but he did, and now he can only wait and see if it was the right decision. He actually realizes that his intervention made Ashildr something more than human. She’s now a hybrid. Davros’ prophecy might be coming true after all.
My only disappointment in The Girl Who Died is that it looks like Ashildr isn’t a returning character of old. The scene in the trailer is The Doctor recognizing her in the next episode, The Woman Who Lived. I’m a little disappointed because I really had my heart set on someone from the past coming back. The only thing that’s a little strange is that The Doctor seemed to recognize Ashildr at the beginning of the episode. Perhaps that was just a Moffat tease. In any event, The Girl Who Died played with Doctor Who canon, and introduced an interesting character. It was a playful and occasionally touching episode that isn’t over yet. I can’t wait for next week!