Dr Who Recap: Viking Aliens, Arya Stark, And The Surprise Reveal Hiding In Plain Sight
Plus: the secret return of an old favourite...
There were two thoughts that flittered through the minds of Doctor Who fans when the trailer for this week’s The Girl Who Died aired.
First: “Oh, Doctor Who’s doing Vikings again.”
Then: “Hang on, Doctor Who has never done Vikings!”*
It seems like an obvious fit – so obvious that the show must surely have done by now. But apparently not. So consequently, the prospect of a Viking episode seemed both exciting and boring. Yes, it’s a new historical location, but will it just be ticking a box? Filling a gap?
Not even a little bit.
This episode, credited to both Jamie Mathieson and showrunner Steven Moffat, begins in the middle of what seems like an unrelated but thrilling story: Clara is floating in space with a spider crawling around inside her spacesuit, but the Doctor is currently in the middle of some dangerous battle.
This adventure is interrupted when they stop off in ancient Scandinavia so the Doctor can wipe the remains of the spider off his shoe. But then some Vikings show up, take them captive, and a new adventure begins.
In an ingenious storytelling device true to the show’s DNA, a familiar story is rendered thrilling by unfamiliar execution: an alien race harvesting warriors to make delicious warrior juice is about to take on a small but proud village of fishermen and farmers. The Doctor and Clara must figure out how to rally the non-fighters into a force that can put up a reasonable defence.
Somehow key to all of this is teenager Ashildr (Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams), a girl who doesn’t quite fit in but may possess the key to defeating the Mire. Great name for a monstrous race, by the way. The Mire.
But then the plot gives way to something of monumental importance to both the show and the Doctor.
Back when it was announced that Peter Capaldi would play the Twelfth Doctor, many noted that he’d already appeared in the show before, as Caecilius in 2008’s The Fires of Pompeii. (He also appeared in Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood, which isn’t relevant but if I don’t say it I’ll get tweets.) It was addressed fleetingly in the Twelfth Doctor’s first episode, Deep Breath, but framed as a hand-wave to acknowledge the similarity, and maybe hint at a mystery.
It was a mystery that could well have gone unsolved; one for the fans to ponder. However, in this week’s episode, the fact that the Twelfth Doctor has the exact same face as some guy he met ages ago in Ancient Pompeii is put front and centre: the Doctor catches his reflection, realises he looks just like that Caecilius bloke, and we’re treated to a proper flashback featuring David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor and Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble.
Is it fan service? Well, yes. But is it just fan service? Not at all! This is a revelation that propels both plot and character. The jolt of recognition reminds the Doctor why he does what he does, and forces him into action. It’s what turns a failure (saving the village, but losing the girl) into a victory (saving the village and saving the girl), with just the necessary hint of danger and melancholy (he had to break some rules to save the girl, and that rule-breaking will come back to haunt him).
In Pompeii, it was Donna’s heartfelt plea to save a single soul from the legendary volcano that got to him, and made him change his ways. In The Girl Who Died, seeing the face of the man he saved reflected back at him is a stark reminder of the lesson he learned back then. Coupled with that is the heartbreak he felt after eventually losing Donna, itself reflected when he looks at Clara. He knows he’s going to lose her, he knows it’s going to be soon, and he knows it’s going to hurt. That’s why he’s so willing to break his recent no-hug rule.
The Girl Who Died is what Who does best: a trip to a historical setting, a fierce new alien menace, a strong emotional journey, lots of quality jokes, and a bittersweet ending.
Questions To Ponder
- *Or has it? Those familiar with these recaps know that I frustratingly, off-puttingly, solipsistically refer to all of the spin-off media – books, audios, comics, etc – as canon. Doctor Who is perhaps the only franchise with such strong ties to its ephemera, and so I generally treat it as a whole. Your experience may differ. All that said, the Eleventh Doctor was once mistaken for Loki when he encountered Vikings in 12th Century Scotland, as seen in the 2012 novel Dark Horizons. And the Third Doctor met the real Odin in the 2013 short story The Spear of Destiny. Given The Girl That Died featured an alien merely impersonating Odin, this all seems pretty reconcilable. Continuity stands!
- Could there actually have been electric eels in Viking-era Scandinavia? Probably not, but also probably maybe, as this brilliant Radio Times article explains.
- What was the most fannish line of dialogue? It wasn’t “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow” — the Doctor says that every second episode these days. It was “Time will tell. It always does”, undoubtedly a callback to that time the Seventh Doctor said it in Remembrance of the Daleks.
- Does the Doctor carry around his 2000 Year Diary now? Fans with long memories or even just the ability to google shit will know that the Second Doctor had a 500 Year Diary. 500 Years? A bit short-sighted in retrospect.
- Did you know this was the 100th Doctor Who story since its 2005 return? Of course, this calculation assumes that all the two-parters count as a single story. The 100th episode was 2013’s The Crimson Horror. To compare, the 100th episode of the original series was 1966’s Escape Switch – by god they cranked them out quickly in the beginning – and the 100th story was 1978’s The Stones of Blood. Isn’t trivia fun? Feel free to recite these facts to friends and on first dates!
Future Sixth Doctor Colin Baker appears as Commander Maxil, a Chancellery guard on Gallifrey. Maxil actually shoots the Doctor, so it’s not quite as touching as the later scene between Tenth Doctor and Caecilius, but given you could retroactively interpret it as a disguised Sixth Doctor trying to hurry his regeneration along, the story takes on a much funnier tone than perhaps intended.
Arc of Infinity comes in a box set with Time-Flight, but don’t let that stop you.
Doctor Who screens at 7:30pm Sundays on ABC, before reruns at 8:30ppm Mondays and 12:15am Tuesdays.