The Story That Tried
by Cynthianna***Spoiler Alert!***
Hey, Vikings! It's been fifty years since we last seen them on Doctor Who, so Jamie Mathieson's script idea was a welcome breath of fresh air we thought. We loved his last season's scripts for Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline, both which are possibly the best written episodes in several years. Then we caught the co-writer's name--Steven Moffat, the show's producer who seemingly feels compelled to write or re-write every episode. Oh, well... maybe Jamie's magic will outshine any alterations Mr. Moffat makes to the story?
When people write together as a professional writing team, the reader/viewer usually can't tell where one author starts writing and then stops and his or her partner begins writing. (For instance, my husband and I just recently sold a jointly-authored Y.A. sci-fi novel series--more news to come!) Alas, there were several things that jumped off the screen in The Girl Who Died that just didn't seem to mesh as well with the overall writing-style. I suppose these rough bits were Moffat's additions? The first thing that really jarred was the title itself. Like last week's introductory scene, where the Doctor explains the entire story premise upfront, the title sort of gave away the "big secret" that a girl was going to die. Since it probably wasn't going to be the companion character, that left Ashildr, the Viking girl who helps the Doctor and Clara. Talk about killing all the mystery and tension!
The Vikings had a lovely village set, and it was great to see the Doctor materialize in another place rather than contemporary London or Wales again. Since the Vikings ruled an area from North America to Russia and south to Turkey, the village could have been anywhere within their realm. However, one thing jumped out that shouldn't have been there: the horns on the helmets.
According to my daughter, who attended graduate school in archaeology at the University of Southern Denmark and is a professional Viking re-enactor in Europe, Vikings warriors never wore helmets with those big longhorns on the top. That's a fallacy perpetually kept alive by Bugs Bunny's famous What's Opera, Doc? and Asterix and Obelix comic strips. Take it from me, they just didn't, and my daughter can provide the historic proof to back it up. Also, the modern belt buckle I spotted on Ashildr's costume (why was she wearing pants and not skirts like Viking women usually did?) wasn't found in that time period, either. Vikings used beautifully forged decorative pins to hold their clothes together in the places that weren't tied or sewn together. One would hope the BBC costume department had enough of a budget to call an expert in Viking clothing to double-check these things, but perhaps Mr. Moffat thought such anachronisms funny?
The "Mire" villains reminded us of Sontarans or the Judoon from previous seasons. "Odin" looked like the pirate captain in the Douglas Adams' script The Pirate Planet in the Key to Time series during the Tom Baker years, too. The Doctor's odd nasty remark that "God never makes an appearance" (like he does in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) to explain the appearance of the aliens to the Viking villagers sounded more like an atheist's complaint than something the character of the Doctor would say, as he generally respects other cultures. Once again, it sounded like an addition made by another writer with an ax to grind--Mr. Moffat, by chance?
Peter Capaldi seemed to be channeling bits of Tom Baker--along with Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee--in his performance. His Troughton-like plaid trousers looked a bit out of place with his "'90s grunge band look" hoodie and t-shirt under the jacket. Last year's more sophisticated style of dressing seemed to suit him better than the uber-casual teenage boy look he's sporting this season.
The Doctor's more warmhearted approach (he actually hugs Clara without prompting) is a nice touch this time out, but his unusual decision to re-animate "the girl who died" seemed completely out of character for him. The Doctor usually insists that the time line shouldn't be altered for anyone and that death is final. (If it isn't, why has he not gone back to save his companion Adric who died during his fifth incarnation?) One suspects neither the girl's death nor her resurrection was included in the original story idea Mr. Mathieson pitched, and that it was added to give a guest appearance slot to Maisie Williams for two episodes as a ratings gimmick.
The "reason" for the Doctor changing his mind about bringing her back to life came across as an weak attempt to appease fans. Some must be dying to know why the Doctor looks very much like the Roman father from the 2008 Fires of Pompeii episode, but it seemed contrived. After all, Colin Baker appeared in the fifth Doctor episode Arc of Infinity as Maxil, a Gallifreyan guard, and we were never given an explanation for why the sixth Doctor had Maxil's face, and the audience handled it just fine. Yet another example of an alteration made to Mathieson's original script?
We're given hints that poor Ashildr is now immortal, and she's going to hate it and go insane since she will outlive all her loved ones. It makes sense, but then again, Captain Jack Harkness is also an immortal Doctor Who character who hasn't gone insane, and he's outlived everyone and died horribly numerous times to boot. (He just keeps coming back no matter how many little pieces he's pulverized into, poor man!) Why is Ashildr different? And does this mean that Jack has a chance to come back on the show to help a fellow immortal cope with the meaning of her existence? Captain Jack fans are anxious to know!
Over all, The Girl Who Died seemed like one long set-up for its second part/sequel next week. If some of the "additions" to the script had been left out, and the story focused more on the Doctor and the other characters, perhaps it would have been stronger. So far this season's writing hasn't lived up to the quality of last season's non-Moffat written episodes--not including the dreadful Moon/Dragon's Egg "worse episode ever" as it's been called. (We suspected it had been written by Moffat as well.) If Jamie Mathieson is allowed to write for Doctor Who without a "co-writer" tampering with his story ideas, perhaps the writing will improve.
Or not. Let's hope they keep trying.
What do you think? Please leave your comments below. And check out my reviews of earlier episodes of this season of Doctor Who: