With “The Girl Who Died / The Woman Who Lived”, we’ve officially reached the halfway point of Doctor Who’s ninth season. In Doctor Who, the midway point of each season usually changes the trajectory the show is on and sets up the events of the season finale to come. Around this point in previous seasons, the Daleks were reintroduced to the series, the Cybermen were reintroduced to the series, we discovered Harold Saxon was manipulating Martha’s family from behind the scenes, we learned just how deadly the cracks in time were, River revealed she was Amy and Rory’s daughter, Amy and Rory left the series for good, and Danny discovered Clara’s secret double life with the Doctor. “The Girl Who Died” maintains that tradition by introducing Ashildr, a character who will play an important role in the Doctor and Clara’s final journey together.
“The Girl Who Died” (co-written by Steven Moffat and Jamie Mathieson) and “The Woman Who Lived” (penned by Catherine Tregenna) form a loose two-parter in the same way “A Good Man Goes To War / Let’s Kill Hitler” does in Series 6. These two episodes have very different settings and supporting casts, but they explore the same overarching themes, and the second episode resolves the storyline that the first episode started. If I have any major criticism with this story, it’s that it can suffer from tonal whiplash. On the one hand, it wants to be a tragic tale about how the Doctor unwittingly ruins someone’s life in an attempt to save it; how Ashildr nearly loses her humanity and becomes so miserable that she’s willing to try to kill someone just to escape her life. But on the other hand, it also wants to indulge in plenty of wacky, slapstick shenanigans in the same vein as “Robot Of Sherwood“, and those two tones do not mesh together well. The transitions between those two moods can be pretty clunky, especially in “The Woman Who Lived”.
In “The Girl Who Died”, the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara get roped into a conundrum where a 9th century village of Vikings declares war on an alien race called the Mire, a war they cannot possibly win. “The Girl Who Died” builds upon the conflict the Doctor and Clara just dealt with in “Before The Flood“, where Clara wants the Doctor to break his own rules more often so he can save more people, while the Doctor insists they tread softly on history, since he knows what can kind of damage their meddling can cause (even unintentionally) a lot better than she does. He’s immensely frustrated that the Vikings insist on defending their homes and dying for their pride, no matter how much he tries to talk some sense into them. He wants to do more for these people himself, but he knows he shouldn’t, because of how much history could change for the worse if the Mire decide to bring their wrath down upon humanity.
Eventually, the Doctor comes up with a plan to beat the Mire without any blood being shed, but it comes at a price. A young woman named Ashildr, who plays a vital role in his scheme, loses her life in the chaos. But the Doctor, pushed to his limits, refuses to accept this outcome and brings her back from the dead, which also comes at a price – making her immortal. His inability to walk from injustice, from people in need, leads him to cross a line. The last time that happened, he nearly went mad with power in “The Waters Of Mars“, and ultimately he will let his god complex get out of control again soon in “Hell Bent“. The Doctor, being the Doctor, doesn’t stick around to deal with the consequences of his rash actions. He gets out of Dodge as soon as he realizes what he’s done: he’s cursed Ashildr to the same kind of ageless existence that he himself grows tired of frequently.
When he meets Ashildr again, eight hundred years later from her perspective, he can relate to her struggles with her incredibly long life-span, how hard it is to cope with the fact that she’ll always remain the same while everyone else around her withers and dies. He’s also forced to confront the fact that he made this woman’s life a living hell and is appropriately shamed for it, so he takes responsibility for her. When he discovers just how much Ashildr’s moral code has eroded over the years, he’s very disappointed in her for how far she’s fallen, and he helps her find her way back to the light like a stern but supportive parent. In the aftermath, he passes along some wisdom to her, from one immortal being to another. He refuses to bring her along with him in the TARDIS because he’s well aware that they would be a terrible influence on each other.
Their callousness and world-weariness would cause them to bring out each other’s worst traits, and lose sight of what’s truly important in life – which is exactly what happened to the time lords of Gallifrey, in their elite, insular society. Instead, he encourages her to treasure the connections she makes with regular people, however fleeting they may be, because they’ll truly help her to stay grounded. They part ways on good terms, but he’s still wary of her and what she might get up to, and he’s right to feel uneasy, because the full consequences of making Ashildr immortal have not come back to bite him in the backside yet. He’s also still concerned about Clara. By now, he’s grimly accepted that he hasn’t been a good influence on her, and he knows it’s only a matter of time before something bad happens and he loses her, like he’s lost so many other companions. The events of this two-parter only remind him that their time together will come to an end eventually – and that separation will come even sooner than he thinks.
Keeping with this season’s main theme of how the Doctor and Clara are not always the best influence on each other, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) is still encouraging the Doctor to break his own rules more often, so he can save as many people as he can. Her heart’s in the right place and her desire to do good whenever she can is very commendable, but her perspective on what can go wrong if they meddle with history too much is also very limited compared to the Doctor’s. “The Girl Who Died” further displays how good she’s gotten at stepping into the Doctor’s shoes whenever she needs to, because she’s easily the second most capable person in the room in this adventure. She can size up her enemies in a matter of minutes by analyzing their actions; she can make up clever plans to save herself and her friends under pressure; and she nearly manages to talk down the leader of the Mire by being strategic and diplomatic, until Ashildr decides to get involved.
Throughout “The Girl Who Died”, Clara takes Ashildr under her wing and tries to keep her out of trouble, while also giving the Doctor some much-needed emotional support. Her scenes with Twelve are a highlight as always, as they argue over the right course of action. Clara still shows signs of becoming overly reckless, like how quickly she brushes off her close shave with death in the cold open, and she’s still completely convinced that the Doctor can solve any problem just by being clever enough or determined enough to find a solution for it. Eventually, her overconfidence will be her undoing. She’s almost completely absent in “The Woman Who Lived”, since it’s a companion-lite story. But in the coda, she seems to be perfectly content to let her travels in the TARDIS with the Doctor go on forever – in contrast to the Doctor’s weary acknowledgement that nothing good can last forever.
Arguably, the true star of this two-parter is Ashildr, played by Maisie Williams. Ashildr is a rather odd young woman who has a sharp mind and plenty of tomboyish traits, as a result of being raised by a village of Vikings. She’s been shunned all life by the outside world for not conforming to what people expect of her, and after a certain point, even she started to believe she brings bad luck. However, she loves her community dearly, because her friends and neighbors accept her when the rest of the world doesn’t. In particular, she and her father Einarr are very close. He’s usually a pretty gruff and stern man, but he has so much love for his daughter, and he’s so proud of her when she manages to find a good use for her gifts. Like a lot of Moffat era characters, Ashildr is a storyteller. She likes to make up tall tales to entertain herself, or keep her loved ones safe in her heart while they’re away.
Early on, about half of Ashildr’s village – people she’s known all her life – are slaughtered by the Mire, much to her horror. Angered by their deaths, Ashildr challenges the Mire to a fight she and her people cannot possibly win to avenge her fallen friends, and once she’s had some time to cool down, she’s just as horrified that she did something so foolish. She doesn’t waste any time blaming herself for dooming her home, and spends the rest of the episode trying to correct her mistake. Ashildr ultimately dies making amends for her actions (albeit unintentionally), when the Doctor’s plan to get rid of the Mire winds up killing her – crushing her father, her community, and the time lord. But thanks to the Doctor, she gets a second chance at life, which turns out to be just as much of a curse as it is a blessing. “The Girl Who Died’ spends a lot of time emphasizing her humanity, which makes her reappearance in “The Woman Who Lived” all the more shocking after she’s steadily begun to lose it.
After being a supporting character in “The Girl Who Died”, Ashildr takes center stage as the Doctor’s co-star in “The Woman Who Lived”. After eight hundred years have passed, Ashildr has grown a lot more jaded, bitter and wrathful. She’s emotionally closed herself off from the world, and she simply refuses to form attachments to people anymore after outliving everyone she’s ever loved, having her heart broken time and time again. As a result, she’s also starting to grow disturbingly indifferent to a loss of human life. While she’s a lot more cultured now (having found plenty of ways to pass the time, including robbing noblemen for sport), she’s lost touch with her roots and she’s forgotten nearly everything about her old life and her old home that she once loved so much. She even gives herself a new (and in my opinion goofy) name, to reflect her isolation and her self-reliance.
Maisie Williams really shows off her acting chops in “The Woman Who Lived”, because the icy, haughty and emotionally distant character she plays in this episode bares very little resemblance to the odd but sweet-natured girl we were introduced to in the previous installment, while still betraying brief glimmers of her old self from time to time in her performance, on the rare occasions Ashildr lets her guard down. In “The Woman Who Lived”, Ashildr serves as a darker mirror to the Doctor, providing a glimpse of who he could have become if he spurned all Earthly attachments and withdrew from society entirely. In fact, the Doctor has attempted to do such a thing in the past, as a way of coping with his grief, like when he gave up companions entirely in the Series 4 specials, or when he tried to retire to Victorian London in “The Snowmen“, until Clara pulled him out of his funk.
She also serves as a darker mirror to Captain Jack Harkness, another character who was made immortal without his consent by Rose, abandoned by the Doctor to deal with his eternal life all on his own, and grew colder over time from his isolation. Jack didn’t hold too much of a grudge against the Doctor and Rose for his hardships, because he still considered them to be his friends, while Ashildr has come to greatly resent the Doctor over eight hundred years and does not have any problems tossing him under the bus the next time she sees him. In her eyes, the Doctor selfishly abandoned her to drag herself through the centuries, taking the slow path, while he jaunts about time and space in his TARDIS, doing whatever he likes. She envies that, and she’s not interested in hearing his condescending compassion or his self-righteous judgment.
She teams up with an alien invader to get a ride off-world (knowing there’s a good chance he’ll betray her), and is even willing to kill someone to complete her plans. However, she has an attack of conscience when her actions nearly doom her world and bring death and destruction upon innocent people. After trying her best for so long to bury her better nature out of selfishness and bitterness, Ashildr ultimately has a change of heart, to once again fix what she broke. She uses the second Mire med-kit the Doctor gave her (should she ever want to make someone else immortal) to stop the invasion, therefore ensuring she’ll always be one of a kind in the universe. After accepting how wrong she was, she’s a lot more open to hearing the Doctor out, and she starts the long process of making peace with her existence by finding a new purpose in life. However, just because she no longer resents the Doctor doesn’t mean we might not see her return in an antagonistic role again in the future.
In “The Girl Who Died”, a little village in Scandinavia is regularly visited by ‘Odin”, a false god who’s really the leader of an alien race called the Mire, collecting humans to kill for resources – harvesting the best warriors that the Vikings have to offer. The Mire essentially serve as foils to the Vikings: they both have very militant cultures, they both value the same qualities in combat, and they both take a lot of pride in their respective conquests, except the alien warriors are significantly more cold-hearted and cruel than the human ones. The Vikings, for all of their many, many faults, are shown to genuinely care about each other and look out for each other as a group, and while they are extremely hostile and distrusting of outsiders, they are capable of swallowing their pride and learning from their mistakes when the situation calls for it – something that can not be said for the Mire.
One of the main themes of this episode is the power of mind over muscle. The Vikings are very stubborn, superstitious people who value bravery, strength and fighting prowess. When they’re confronted with the unknown and the threat of certain death, they cling to their pride and machismo that helped to get them into this mess in the first place. However, as time passes, even they have to admit the Doctor has a point. They can’t beat the Mire with just brute strength, when their enemies have vastly superior technology that can easily crush them. They’ll have to think outside the box to outwit them, and fittingly enough, the Doctor’s plan to defeat the Mire involves weaponizing their own pride against them, essentially blackmailing their leader with the threat of completely ruining their reputation throughout the cosmos if he doesn’t comply to the Doctor’s demands.
In “The Woman Who Lived”, it’s very obvious Leandro, Ashildr’s co-conspirator, is just using her, and the episode wisely doesn’t even try to hide that twist. Leandro is a pretty generic villain, with a stock motive about wanting to conquer the Earth with his people. But that’s perfectly fine, because much like the Mire in the previous episode, this story is not about him: he’s merely a catalyst for the conflict our main characters have to deal with. If Ashildr is a foil to the Doctor, then Leandro is one for her: he represents who she could become if she completely gives into her selfish impulses and goes through life tossing anyone and everyone aside for her own self-gain. Appropriately enough, Leandro is immediately killed off by his own brethren once he fails his mission, because they’re just as callous and merciless as he is.
Sam Swift, a scruffy local robber, is Ashildr’s biggest rival in “The Woman Who Lived”. Sam is clearly not that bright (during an encounter with the ‘Knightmare’, she completely forgets to do her man voice, and he doesn’t pick up on the discrepancy at all), but he’s still a fairly competent thief to those he harasses. Ironically, despite having a feud with the Knightmare, he’s infatuated with her other alter-ego, Lady Me. Sam is a boisterous womanizer who likes to use humor to mask his fears. It seems he became a robber because he wanted the glory and attention of being a criminal as much as he wanted the money, and he eventually gets in way over his head. He starts to have a lot of regrets about his life choices when he’s hauled off straight to the hangman’s noose, and after he’s been ‘pardoned’ (thanks to the Doctor), he gains a brand new leash on life. It’s actually surprisingly heartwarming to see this guy get a second chance to turn his life around, and the resolution to his subplot ties up a lot of this story’s main themes very effectively.
“The Girl Who Died” is directed by Ed Bazalgette, who makes the tone of this two-parter feel like a cross between a whimsical period piece, and a wacky, rural sitcom. While there are plenty of light-hearted, comedic moments scattered throughout both episodes, the establishing shots can have an appropriately stunning sense of grandeur to them as well, like a full rotating shot of Ashildr watching the years fly by around her at the end of the first episode. This is probably one of the most visually beautiful stories of Series 9 when it comes to all the location shooting that was done for it in Margam Castle in Port Talbot, Castell Coch in Tongwynlais, and Llanharan House in Llanharan. Both “The Girl Who Died” and “The Woman Who Lived” sport a lot of gorgeous countryside scenery, with lush green forests and wide open fields as far as the eyes can see.
When it comes to the show’s special effects, they’re a mixed bag this week. Some of them do their job well, like the Eyes of Hades creating a door to another dimension, while others are less than convincing, like the prologue of Clara drifting aimlessly through space or ‘Odin” manifesting above the Viking village as a giant, disembodied head. Murray Gold’s score has a distinctively Scandinavian flavor to it to match the medieval setting, and tracks like “Something In The Spacesuit“, “Two Days On A Longboat“, “I Am Ashildr“, “In A Way, She’s A Hybrid“, “I Call Myself Me” and “They Need Us” can range from being suspenseful, boisterous, militant, and mournful. “I Am Ashildr” in particular serves as the immortal Viking’s leitmotif across the two episodes. Notably, “The Last Thing We Need” is actually reused from “Robot Of Sherwood”, and it combines “A Good Man?” (the Twelfth Doctor’s theme) with “The Mad Man With A Box” (the Eleventh Doctor’s secondary theme) to beautiful effect during Twelve and Ashildr’s final talk together.
“The Girl Who Died / The Woman Who Lived” is a pretty solid two-parter that focuses more on character drama than stopping the usual monster of the week, and gives us a deeper look at the Twelfth Doctor’s personality. It could definitely have benefitted from having a more consistent tone, or even just making the transitions between the lighter and darker moments smoother in part two, but overall I’ve grown to appreciate it more over the years.
* When the titles for these two episodes were announced back in 2015, I actually thought they were referring to Clara, since she had that whole Impossible Girl arc in Series 7. Instead, it turns out they were about Maisie Williams.
* “Clara, we’re going with the Vikings”.
* “People talk about premonition as if it’s something strange. It’s not. It’s just remembering in the wrong direction”.
* I like how the chain of events that leads to Ashildr becoming immortal is caused by all three of our leads doing something foolish. Clara draws attention to herself and gets herself captured, despite the Doctor warning her not to. Ashildr challenges the Mire to a battle, despite Clara warning her not to. And the Doctor decides to bring Ashildr back from the dead, despite knowing it’s not a good idea.
* “Yes, I am a false Odin. That’s exactly right, I lied. The big fella in the sky, he lied too. You all know it. Because what’s the one thing that gods never do? Gods never actually show up!”
* “Nectar!” Gross, just gross.
* “I applaud your courage, but I deplore your stupidity. And I will mourn your deaths, which will be terrifying, painful, and without honor”.
* “Well, Heidi faints at the mention of blood, not just the sight any more. He’s actually upgraded his phobia”.
* “I pity you” “I will mourn for you. I know which I’d prefer”.
* “You think they’re all idiots, don’t you?” “What, you mean the rest of the universe? Basically, yes, I do”.
* “Why is Lofty stealing the baby?” Doctor, why is kidnapping the first place your mind went to?
* “That was hilarious. It’s just lucky that nobody recorded that. Oh, wait a minute, we did” The look on Twelve’s face during that line: that is the face of a man who can’t wait to start spilling some tea.
* “The Girl Who Died” also ties up a loose end from “Deep Breath“, by explaining why the Doctor chose his new face. And the flashback to “The Fires Of Pompeii” is very surreal. The David Tennant years and Peter Capaldi years of Doctor Who are so tonally different from each other that it almost feels like we’re flashing back to a different show.
* In addition to playing Caecilus and the Twelfth Doctor, Peter also portrayed John Frobisher in “Torchwood: Children Of Earth”. It’s kind of amusing to me that the Doctor Who universe has multiple Peter Capaldis in it.
* “I’m the Doctor, and I save people. And if anyone happens to be listening, and you’ve got any kind of a problem with that, to hell with you!”
* “But Ashildr isn’t just human any more. There’s a little piece of alien inside her, so in a way, she’s… In a way, she’s a hybrid”.
* During the next-time trailer for “The Woman Who Lived”, the scream that’s used when a noblewoman spots Leandro in the bushes is far more shrill than the one in the actual episode. And to be honest, I kind of prefer it over the final version; it’s much funnier.
* “We’re cursed! The Knightmare is in league with the devil!” “Aye, Satan’s sidekick, me”.
* “This is my robbery!” “Well, can’t we share it? Isn’t that what robbery’s all about?”
* “I cured an entire village of scarlet fever once, almost got drowned as a witch for my troubles. Fortunately, I’m really good at holding my breath. Ungrateful peasants”.
* “No, who told you that?” “Maybe I just worked it out”.
* “Humans need shared experiences” “I’m regretting sharing this one”.
* “What’s wrong with my nose? It’s perfectly normal, innit?” “For an anteater maybe” Savage as fuck.
* “Shut up. You’re not my dad” That sounded pretty emo, Ashildr.
* “Oh, dear God. You’re just like every other man. I’m not looking for a husband, you oaf. I’m looking for a horse to get me out of town. You said no”.
* “Oh, Ashildr, daughter of Einarr, what happened to you?” “You did, Doctor. You happened”.
* “He’ll kill you…” “He’ll have to be fast. And if he does, perhaps it’s about time”.
* The best gag in this episode is when some local lawmen apprehend the Doctor. They seem to be very angry and appalled that he would consider robbing Lady Me of her fortune. But they start singing a different tune very quickly, when he tells them how they can get some of her money for themselves. Police corruption for the win.
* The most cringe-worthy scene in this episode has to be one where Sam Swift ropes the Doctor into his gallows humor routine, while he’s trying to prolong his execution. The Twelfth Doctor is a man with many talents, but stand-up comedy is not one of them, and the same thing can be said about Sam Swift.
* “We were meant to escape!” “You shall. In death“.
* I have to say, I do not feel very sympathetic towards the villagers when lions from space show up and start shooting at them. They all came to watch someone be publicly executed as a rather sick form of entertainment, and they were all too happy to hang the Doctor when they couldn’t have Sam – only to run like rats themselves when they were in danger of being bumped off. If you ask me, everyone got their just deserts in this climax.
* “People like us, we go on too long. We forget what matters. The last thing we need is each other. We need the mayflies. See, the mayflies, they know more than we do. They know how beautiful and precious life is because it’s fleeting. Look how Sam Swift made every last moment count, right to the gallows. Look how glad he is to be alive”.
* Rather fittingly, Captain Jack Harkness gets name-dropped when the Doctor tells Ashildr that she might run into him someday. Based on what we know of Ashildr’s personality, she would almost certainly find his womanizing ways to be insufferable.
* “So are we enemies now?” “Of course not. Enemies are never a problem. It’s your friends you have to watch out for. And, my friend, I’ll be watching out for you”.
* “Ashildr, I think I’m very glad I saved you” “Oh, I think everyone will be” Yeah, honey, about that…