Brave Viking Warriors Slain by the Curse (The Girl Who Died)

(65 comments)

A girl has no spacesuit

It’s October 17th, 2015. Justin Bieber is still at number one, with The Weeknd and Jamie Lawson newly entering the charts. In news, Home Office figures are released showing that hate crimes in England and Wales have risen by 18% in a year, and the first primary debate for the 2016 Democratic Party nomination is held in Las Vegas, over the course of which Donald Trump gained more Twitter followers from live-tweeting events than any of the actual candidates.

On television, meanwhile, it’s the return of Jamie Mathieson and the debut of Maisie Williams’s Ashildr/Me. Let’s start with the latter, as it’s Series Nine’s big piece of celebrity stunt casting, and one the show seeks greater mileage out of than, say, Keeley Hawes or David Suchet’s appearances. Part of this is that Maisie Williams is coming to Doctor Who from a currently-airing hit show. But Game of Thrones is not the cultural juggernaut in the UK that it is in the US; its all-time high ratings were 3.5m for the Season Seven finale, which is more than a million lower than Doctor Who’s worst-ever episode, and more to the point came two years after this aired; the record at the time was the Season Five debut, at 2.6 million. This is still quite good, especially for a premium channel like Sky Atlantic, but the fact remains that at least in the UK, Maisie Williams is moving up a weight class in appearing on Doctor Who; indeed she pulled four million more viewers for this than she ever had on Sky Atlantic, and it remains the highest rated thing she’s ever appeared on in her native country.

And yet all of the marketing treated this as an absolutely huge thing. Williams’s casting got headlines, she’s prominent in the promotional photos for both this and The Woman Who Lived, and her returns at the end of the season are treated as big, audience-pleasing surprises. This is low-key odd, to be sure, though not hard to explain. What matters, obviously, is that Maisie Williams’s celebrity impact is bolstered by the fact that she’s famous for appearing on a hit sci-fi/fantasy show. This isn’t unheard of in Doctor Who—consider the guest casting of Jacqueline Pearce in The Two Doctors. But the era we’re reaching back to there is significant as well. As with the continuity-packed opening of The Magician’s Apprentice, there’s a clear statement about what sort of show Doctor Who is and who its intended audience is. The show is unapologetically catering to genre fans. This obviously isn’t being done with the gross incompetence of the late-Saward/Nathan-Turner era, nor in a way that’s overtly hostile to other types of viewers, but the core audience here is very clearly geeks. It’s an expansive definition of geeks that’s miles from the sort that use phrases like “ethics in video game journalism,” but it’s geeks all the same.

That said, understanding Williams’s casting entirely through the lens of marketing is a mistake. The more basic reason she’s here is that she’s uniquely suited to the role. The Girl Who Died essentially asks her to to play a likeable child heroine in a medieval setting. But each of her subsequent appearances add increasing levels of darkness to her character. This is more or less exactly her arc over the course of Game of Thrones, where she starts as a charming tomboy princess before acquiring a nuanced appreciation of the productive possibilities of stabbing people in the face. Maisie Williams is as obvious a choice for this character as Brian Blessed was for Odin (which of course they also tried only to be derailed by his medical difficulties in the early part of 2015); the promotional opportunities of casting a fan favorite from Game of Thrones were obvious, but clearly a bonus.

Past that, there’s not a ton to say about Ashildr here. Her starting point is not what’s interesting about her character, and the extent of what this story does with her is to make her a fairly standard “character who would be a perfect companion and so dies at the end of the story” figure, with the slight twist that she’s brought back as an immortal in a cliffhanger. So let’s put her aside for the moment and move on to Jamie Mathieson, the conquering hero of Series 8, who returns here for a story that is… markedly less beloved. So what’s up with that?

The most obvious answer is both probably correct and depressing as hell: Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline were scary, action-heavy pieces, as is his also acclaimed Series 10 piece, whereas this one is a goofy semi-comedy piece about bumbling Vikings. As should be obvious to anyone who’s read my work on the series, I have no sympathy whatsoever for this view. There are plenty of shows that do terrifying action set pieces better than the BBC ever will. The value of Doctor Who isn’t its half-measure attempts at being an action-horror show, it’s that they come sandwiched between the moon being an egg and the entirety of London being overtaken by a Blakean forest. 

But the existence of a silly story among the consensus picks does force something of a reevaluation of Jamie Mathieson. Were his reputation to rest entirely on Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline, and Oxygen he’d straightforwardly be read as a gun writer. A very good gun writer who never made a misstep, but a gun writer nevertheless. But this story is pure frock. I mean, sure, it has potentially the highest death toll of any of Mathieson’s stories (depending on how many people you think were in the kitchen on the Orient Express), but it’s a story in which the scary aliens are defeated by telling the right story and then setting the video footage to “Yakety Sax.” One could opt to put weight on the fact that Moffat takes a cowriting credit here, but an inspection of Moffat’s other cowriting credits makes it clear that this is not always an indicator that the episode has been substantially rewritten—more likely Moffat fine-tuned Ashildr’s resurrection and glossed a few other bits to set up what he’d need later in the season, as opposed to embarking on a large-scale reworking of Mathieson’s script.

So what’s consistent here? First of all, there’s Mathieson’s deft creation of central concepts. Unlike the Boneless and the Mummy, the Mire are not a particularly clever monster (although the conceit of them slaughtering Vikings to drink their testosterone is wonderful), but they’re also not the actual concept here. The concept is the Doctor pulling a Seven Samurai to protect a village of bumbling Vikings. This isn’t a neat visual concept in the same way as the sixty-six second countdowns of Mummy on the Orient Express or the anamorphic horrors of Flatline, but it’s still an effective central concept. It’s worth comparing to Under the Lake/Before the Flood, in that it harkens back to the big central set-focused approach of Troughton-era bases under siege. One doesn’t really notice that this is the second base under siege story in a row, in part because a frock base under siege is a fairly odd concept. It’s not quite without historical precedents, but most of those are ones where you’d have to spend a bit arguing the case. This, on the other hand, is straightforward: a contained location preparing itself for the inevitable onslaught of some clanking robot monsters. But there are other advantages here. Changing the futuristic base to a village full of Viking screwups changes the whole tone of things. Lofty, Daphne, Noggin the Nog, ZZ Top, Heidi, Limpy, and Einarr are mostly un-characterized, but there’s still a feeling of humanity to the village that no undersea base or space station has ever really matched. When Ashildr says that leaving it would be death itself, there’s a weight to it that it’s hard to imagine anyone from the Drum or the acid monastery ever offering much of anything.

The second thing to remain consistent is Mathieson’s conception of who the Doctor is. We talked back with Mummy on the Orient Express about Mathieson’s effective cleaving of the “lonely god” gordian knot by portraying the Doctor as someone who is simultaneously exhausted by the moral consequences of what he does and compelled to continue doing it. And that’s the backbone of the Doctor’s plot here. His default setting through the entire story is a sort of wearied irritation at the entire setup—a frustration that the village won’t just flee the Mire and avoid the entire doomed confrontation. This isn’t presented as a selfish “not my problem” unwillingness to help, but rather as a dread of the expected outcome, a mood set by his defensiveness over the resolution of the unseen adventure saving the Velosians, where he talks about the outcome being “the best I could do.” He stays and helps because he has to—because there is a baby who is scared and crying and he can plausibly make a difference. But for most of the story he doesn’t believe he can, and is preparing the village for “a good death” while furiously resenting them for making him. 

Balanced against this is Clara. This is the one episode of the season that actually has a spine of Doctor/Clara interactions running through it—everywhere else they’re either separated for most of the episode (The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, Before the Flood, The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion, Face the Raven, Hell Bent), the episode is a procedural action piece that doesn’t stop much for character moments (Under the Lake, Sleep No More) or Clara is simply absent from the episode entirely (The Woman Who Lived, Heaven Sent). But here there are five separate conversations across the episode in which the Doctor and Clara aren’t talking in pragmatic terms about what they’re going to do or delivering exposition, but are either debriefing on what they’ve done or discussing their feelings about what they’re going to do. What this means in practice is that Clara spends most of the episode essentially coaching the Doctor through the defense of the village, performing the emotional labor of helping him work through his adventure in a psychologically healthy way.

This is a gendered dynamic to be sure, but so is the Doctor/companion one. Women often do provide emotional labor of exactly this sort. Clara, at least, is given agency in this and has this treated as a skill she has honed; the assertion that this labor is her hobby calls back to Into the Dalek where she explicitly notes that he couldn’t afford her. In other words, the emotional labor is actually being portrayed as work to be respected. It’s a small flourish, but it speaks volumes about the maturity of this relationship. 

So Mathieson stands revealed as a writer with more gears than his reputation would suggest—a writer who’s actually capable of managing the breadth of Doctor Who. There aren’t a lot of new series writers you can say that about—most have a particular type of episode they’re associated with. Peter Harness writes political ones, Mark Gatiss writes genre pastiches, and Paul Cornell writes emotional tearjerkers. This doesn’t always accurately describe the scope of their abilities—we talked about this with Gareth Roberts, but an even better example is Moffat, who had a particular type of episode he wrote under Davies but who necessarily expanded his range when he took over the show. But it’s still rare, on the new series, for a writer to demonstrate flexibility early like this. (Hell, it’s rare on the classic series—there are a lot more writers like Eric Saward, Terry Nation, or Malcolm Hulke who have clear pigeonholes than there are like Robert Holmes or Louis Marks.) There’s obvious value in this. One of the reasons the Capaldi era is on the whole more consistent than the Smith era is that Moffat finally cultivated a stable of writers he could turn to consistently. If we count Gatiss in their number—and I think his Capaldi era contributions justify that—then as of Series Nine eight out of twelve episodes can be assigned to reliable hands that aren’t going to screw them up, and that’s assuming no one but Moffat takes more than one episode. That Chibnall has opted to completely ignore this and bring in a completely new set of hands is certainly not a guaranteed disaster, but it stands out as the one deeply dubious decision he’s made so far. 

But of Moffat’s new stable of reliable writers, it is Mathieson who has at this point emerged as the great utility player, going from gun to frock and from stories focused on the Doctor to ones focused on Clara without ever seeming to be thrown off his stride or letting himself get reduced to a pigeonhole. He is, obviously, not my favorite Capaldi-era writer, but he is easily the era’s MVP—the writer whose name on an episode most immediately augurs a simple, straightforward quality. And while The Girl Who Died is often viewed as his weakest effort, in many ways it is the exact opposite: the one where he proves himself to be indispensable. 

Comments

Homunculette 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Great essay, El. I completely agree with your assessment of Mathieson, and I'm very glad you were able to plumb this episode's depths a bit. I think he's actually my favorite writer of the Capaldi era. He and Harness are the two writers that impressed me so much I went back and watched their whole back catalogue, and they're both extremely solid. Harness is generally an extremely serious writer, while Mathieson seems to have reserved his most tonally serious work for Doctor Who.

I don't think I've ever seen you talk about Dirk Gently, El, but I think it would be a good Pop Between Realities for the Capaldi book. Two of the three writers are Doctor Who alumni - Matt Jones and Jamie Mathieson - and the whole thing is a low-budget riff on Sherlock.

Personally, I would love to see Jamie Mathieson running Doctor Who, maybe in the far-off post-Chibnall era, and he has expressed interest in doing so. At the very least I'd love him to write more Doctor Who.

Also - do you have any plans to cover the Doctor Who short story Mathieson wrote?

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mx_mond 4 months, 3 weeks ago

For me, Mathieson demonstrates the biggest versatility and the most consistent quality of the three new writers of the Capaldi era and “The Girl Who Died” is my favourite of his episodes. Like Homunculette, I would be very happy to see him as a future showrunner.

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John 3 months, 2 weeks ago

Aren't there six new writers of the Capaldi era? Harness, Mathieson, Cottrell Boyce, Tregenna, Dollard, and Bartlett, no?

Even if you want to kick out Tregenna and Bartlett for each writing only one episode, Cottrell Boyce and Dollard both wrote two.

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Przemek 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I would imagine Moffat's main contribution to "The Girl Who Died" would be the explanation of why did the Twelfth Doctor choose this particular face, given that it was Moffat himself who set this mystery up way back in "Deep Breath". The scene itself is one of my favourite parts of this episode and the decision to even address this issue is certainly interesting. Although it makes the fact that the Sixth Doctor apparently chose the face of a man who shot the Fifth Doctor very amusing.

This episode was certainly good and I enjoyed your exploration of the relationship between the Doctor and Clara here - she's been his "carer" for such a long time now, it's nice of him to finally acknowledge it and appreciate her for it. To be honest I completely forgot this was Mathieson's episode - which just goes to show how easy it is to pigeonhole DW writers. It's a real pity he won't be returning for Chibnall Who and I agree with everyone who said they would like to see Mathieson become the showrunner one day.

Aside from that, not my favourite episode simply because I don't care much for Vikings (and I usually much prefer gun to frock anyway). And since I consider "The Woman Who Lived" rather disappointing the whole two-parter just leaves me a bit cold.

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mx_mond 4 months, 3 weeks ago

“It's a real pity he won't be returning for Chibnall Who”

They had a meeting and he was invited to pitch some ideas. It didn’t work out this time, but there’s definitely some interest on Chibnall’s part in getting him again, so I think there is a real possiblity it could happen in later seasons.

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Daru 4 months, 2 weeks ago

I would really love to see his come back at some point to write - so that's gladdening to hear that there is a possibility there.

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Lambda 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I find in particular Mathieson just gets the little things to make sense better than anyone else. The Doctor "speaking baby" in this story is a great example. First time this came up, it made for a perfectly good throwaway joke. I laughed. But then as it started to recur and become sort of canon, it became objectionable because as soon as you take ten seconds to think about it, it's just so damn insular, the idea that grown human thought is universal and also found in babies and horses, and that you don't want to imagine any other sort of thought.

Until this story, where it's beautifully written so, without explicitly contradicting what came before, you can just read it as the baby being very intuitively sensitive to the people around it and hence just knowing things aren't right, which I reckon babies probably really can do, and the "speaking baby" being for the Doctor to take this crying reaction and put it into flowery words. Which is great.

Opinion on "There are plenty of shows that do terrifying action set pieces better than the BBC ever will." They might do the actual mechanics of the terrifying action set pieces better, but they're hopeless at putting them in a story with someone like the Doctor as protagonist, and hence ensuring the audience (members like me) are awake and care about what happens in them. (Which isn't to take the opposite side, I just like both approaches. Or perhaps "no story containing the Doctor is ever truly gun.")

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David Anderson 4 months, 3 weeks ago

The hand TARDIS scene surely frocks Flatline in one swoop.

Aside from that scene I can see the claim that other shows could just about do Flatline or Oxygen. (Though maybe not with protagonists like the Doctor and Clara.) But could anything else do Mummy? By the standards of anything that does sf action horror
that I can think of it's terribly frock. (Farscape maybe.)
One of the things Doctor Who does is easily bridge tonal shifts by virtue of the fact that genocidal giant pepper pots and time travelling police boxes are normal.)

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Echo 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Game of Thrones is absolutely a cultural juggernaut over here in the UK. The Atlantic figures don't reflect those who pirated the show or used an unofficial stream on night of transmission (or for older demographics, DVD box sets), and it's been almost a cliche for every news outlet to run an annual article saying GoT is the most pirated show of the year. Numbers aside, everyone knows it and knows what it is - even those who hadn't seen it knew Maisie Williams, at least by appearance. She was great in the role, but it was absolutely marketing-focused.

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S 4 months, 3 weeks ago

everyone knows it and knows what it is - even those who hadn't seen it knew Maisie Williams, at least by appearance

Doesn't follow. Everyone knows Downton Abbey and knows what it is too, but that doesn't mean those who don't watch it could pick any of the cast out of a line-up, or would necessarily recognise any of their names (other than the legitimately famous ones like Maggie Smith or the one out of Paddington who goes to the prostitutes).

Heck I watched two series of Game of Thrones before I stopped on account of it was shit, and I couldn't necessarily recognise any of the cast.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 4 months, 2 weeks ago

I knew what GoT was but I didn't know Maisie Williams was in it. I only knew her from The Falling and I thought they were casting a critic-loved, award-nominated young actress who could play a teenager who is hundreds years old.

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David Anderson 4 months, 3 weeks ago

It certainly gets a lot of column inches on the Guardian website. My impression is more than any other genre show except perhaps Doctor Who.
An audience of 2.6 million is still more than the last couple of seasons of Humans, which is Channel 4's current big sf show.

El has pointed out in previous posts that the standard for cultural juggernaut in the UK and the US are different due to the difference in viewing habits. Looking at wikipedia I see that the US audience for the Season Five premiere of Game of Thrones was 8 million. Out of the UK population of one sixth of the US, 2.6 million is pretty respectable. It's just that BBC One or ITV headline shows like Poldark or Line of Duty Season Four get viewing numbers in the 8 or 9 millions despite the UK having that smaller population.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 4 months, 3 weeks ago

The fact that Doctor Who gets more column inches than a lot of shows that get better ratings does tend to suggest that column inches do not track strictly to ratings, but rather to a combination of ratings and audience engagement. GoT fans are more inclined to read about their show than, say, Line of Duty fans.

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David Anderson 4 months, 3 weeks ago

My impression is that there are quite a lot of column inches for Line of Duty as well. (When I was saying GoT gets more column inches than other genre shows I was using 'genre' in the marked sense of 'sf/ fantasy. I.e. genres perceived as not mainstream. And even then in a complex sense where I wasn't thinking of The Handmaid's Tale.)

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Sleepyscholar 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I agree with you, and I was going to post pretty well the same thing before you saved me the trouble. I think there's an interesting comparison here with Love Island, which is absolutely massive despite having relatively modest viewing figures.

All the same, I'm not sure that this invalidates the thrust of El's argument, which is that Maisie Williams is a big deal for geeks rather than for the mainstream audience.

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Peeeeeeet 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I'd forgotten he wrote this one, which goes some way towards proving your point. That said, I feel like you're in danger of doing the same thing with Frock and Gun that happened with terms such as Mary Sue, Manic Pixie Dream Girl and Deus Ex Machina, that is applying them so broadly that they lose any usefulness. "Gun" was originally about a specifically Peter Darvill-Evans way of doing things, where things are dominated by the Military Industrial Complex, all relationships are fundamentally abusive and heroes are people like Abslom Daak. The only Mathieson episode that comes anywhere close to that is Oxygen. Certainly if either Mummy or Flatline had been NAs (and they both have quite a strong NA flavour, to me), nobody would have made the claim that they were "Gun" books.

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Aylwin 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I think frock/gun is different from the other things you mention in that it is not about defining a type but about placing things on a spectrum between two ideal types. An individual story can occupy any position on that range, and do so through any number of different mixtures of ingredients. (The other concepts mentioned are also about story components rather than stories as a whole.)

I do think playing up the gun-ness of Mummy is slanting things a little for the sake of a tidy argument, though. (If it is the most popular of the Mathieson episodes, it needs to be classed as firmly gun to make a "TGWD is less popular because it's too frock" case properly convincing.) It seems to me to have a good deal of frockery about it, as in the sheer preposterous campness of its setting, the musical number, or the emphatically non-violent resolution (or even, indeed, its strong showing in the field of actual frocks).

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S 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Gun stories have soldiers in them, like Deceit or Lucifer Rising or Warhead or Blood Heat or even Shadowmind.

(Frock stories can have soliders in them, but if so they tend to be zen warrior-monks or psychic voyagers or just there for the pacifist hero to haul into an ambulance in the tedious epilogue. But gun stories always include soldiers who are there to shoot ineffectually at the monsters and be killed by them.)

I don't think there's even a single gun in the story in question.

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Aylwin 4 months, 3 weeks ago

If you mean Mummy, there are two soldiers (well, an armed guard and the captain, who is an ex-soldier) who shoot ineffectually at the monster and are killed by it.

(I may not have been clear before, but certainly there is plenty of gunnishness about Mummy, a lot more than in TGWD. I just think it's more mixed than Flatline, let alone Oxygen.)

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MatthewB 4 months, 3 weeks ago

And, of course, the mummy is ALSO a soldier.

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taiey 1 month, 3 weeks ago

Mummy is sort of the most inescapably series 8 of stories; partly the hairpin turn taking Clara from trying to be Sensible to embracing her addiction, but also in the way the mummy being an old soldier would come out of absolutely nowhere if it wasn't for *everyone* being a soldier this season.

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Aylwin 4 months, 3 weeks ago

So I was just ruminating vaguely on the similiarities of the-Orient-Express-in-space and the-Titanic-in-space, and now I've landed myself with the observation that Astrid with the forklift is an instalment in a tradition of arrival-of-the-heavy-machinery-operating-cavalry in RTD's work which also includes Jackie with the wrecker in Parting of the Ways and Ianto with the digger in Children of Earth episode 2, and that this stretches back as far as that teacher with the digger in the last episode of Dark Season, and I have nowhere to put it.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 4 months, 2 weeks ago

There was also Jack's literal barn-storming in Countrycide!

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Elizabeth Sandifer 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Well, first of all I don't think those terms have lost usefulness. Second of all, the fact that the distinction came out of Orman and Roberts talking during the VNA era means it doesn't have wider applicability. There were always classic series examples being reached to in order to illustrate it, and the distinction is just as much between the Saward and Williams eras as between Deceit and The Highest Science.

Aylwin's point about it being a spectrum is relevant. And I don't think there's any Doctor Who story that's devoid of frock; there's too much queerness intrinsic in the concept to ever let that happen. (Are there stories wholly devoid of gun? Possibly. This is one of the reasons the distinction has always intrinsically favored frock.)

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Lambda 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I was thinking about that. I reckon you could theoretically have a Doctor Who story devoid of gun, but it would need to have no peril or bad guys in it. Which is an interesting idea, but has never actually happened. (Well, maybe the early parts of Black Orchid. Which I don't think works, but not in a way which suggests it can't work.)

I was thinking you could characterise the standard Doctor Who story as "people should be frock, not gun" (hence requiring the presence of both,) with frock stories being where this is easy, and gun stories being where this is hard. And because it's sometimes easy and sometimes hard, you need both in general. (Though a person might need one far more than the other depending on their personal experiences and needs.)

I was also thinking it might be a triangle rather than just a continuum. Is Ghost Light frock or gun? I think it's too busy making commentary on things to be much of either. It's not about it being easy or hard, it's about the reasons why.

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mx_mond 4 months, 3 weeks ago

“ I reckon you could theoretically have a Doctor Who story devoid of gun, but it would need to have no peril or bad guys in it.”

Most of Twice Upon a Time would qualify as well, with the exception of the two soldiers aiming at each other (although this is resolved in a very frocky way) and the RTD (that’s Rusty the Dalek) sequence.

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David Anderson 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Listen has no peril or bad guys. Although on the surface a lot of it has a decidedly gun aesthetic: as you say, if the standard Doctor Who story is people should be frock not gun, then Listen is the distillation of that.
That said, while the Doctor's values obviously include never carrying a gun, I'm not sure they're pure frock. As I understand it, problem solving - the finding of clever solutions to puzzles - is more of a gun value than a frock value. Robots of Death is as a Christie-style murder mystery a fairly gun story (apart from the art deco aesthetic). One aspect of the Doctor is always going to appeal to the sort of people who think all the world's problems could be solved by throwing sufficient software engineers at them.

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Nindokag 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Wait, fandom doesn't like The Girl Who Died? I continue to be surprised and baffled every time I find out what "fandom" likes and doesn't like.

This is one of my favorite episodes not just of the Capaldi era but of all time. For me it's the funniest thing since City of Death. I started laughing as soon as Capaldi said he's not in the mood for Vikings, and barely stopped until the sudden serious turn at the end. Completely lost it when the doctor started giving people nicknames because he couldn't be bothered to remember their real names.

Comedy is subjective, sure. If you didn't laugh, then you didn't laugh. But I'll never understand why fandom seems to prefer grim slogs like Caves of Androzani over the comedy ones.

I loved Flatline and Oxygen too; but never noticed they were all by the same guy. Mathieson is my new favorite writer and I didn't even know it.

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Homunculette 4 months, 3 weeks ago

For me TGWD is everything Robot of Sherwood failed to be - it's actually funny, for one thing, and it actually had a lot of interesting things to say about performance and storytelling.

It's interesting that Capaldi got one iteration of this kind of story per season - RoS, TGWD, and Eaters of Light, all of which have similar settings and themes.

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mx_mond 4 months, 3 weeks ago

In my subjective rankings, those three are somewhere in the top of their respectives seasons, but I never thought to look for similarities between them, thanks for pointing it out!

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ScarvesandCelery 4 months, 3 weeks ago

It's less that fandom as a whole doesn't like "The Girl Who Died", and more that fandom doesn't have a lot of love for the episode. There's no wave of criticism denouncing it as "the worst episode ever", and most responses are at least mildly positive but it (depressingly) frequently ranks behind the (depressingly actually well received) "Under the Lake/ Before the Flood" on series nine ranking lists.

Which is a shame, because I think it's one of the highlights of the Capaldi era.

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homunculette 4 months, 3 weeks ago

On the bright side, that makes it ripe for reevaluation a few years down the line!

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ScarvesandCelery 4 months, 3 weeks ago

That is indeed what I'm hoping will happen.

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Przemek 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I have this thing where whenever I notice a work presenting itself as "the funny one" it automatically becomes less funny to me. The key to humour is surprise; if I'm anticipating a joke, its impact is lessened. Which is why I find it hard to e.g. enjoy Terry Pratchett or be over the moon about comedy DW episodes. I much prefer the ones that mix jokes with horror or action, like Moffat's episodes do.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 4 months, 2 weeks ago

I think some delicious humour in DW can greatly elevate the episode. I remember that I guffawed when first watching Flatline. The tiny TARDIS just tickled my funny bone.
That and Thin Ice are some of the funniest DW episodes lately.

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Mark Pompeo 4 months, 3 weeks ago

In regards to Chibnall not bringing back any of the good Capaldi era writers, paticularly Mathieson and Sarah Dollard (I'm indifferent on Harness. Of his three scripts I give him one A, a B, and a D for grades.), I recall reading it's because Chibnall is going with a "writers room" approach instead of commissioning scripts to individual writers, not uncommon for TV but new to Doctor Who. So while I'm upset the loss of a couple great writers, maybe a brand new wiring approach will yield a different type of a quality we haven't seen before. Maybe it will yield even better consistency than the Capaldi era. Holding out hope for sure.

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David Anderson 4 months, 3 weeks ago

That's what I've heard, but I'm not sure it's a good thing. The writers' room model obviously works where you want everyone to be on the same page with season plot and character development. I think Doctor Who works best as an anthology show tied together by the Doctor and companions and season arcs risk being a distraction from what it does well. (In especially grumpy classic series dinosaur moments, I think continuity is a distraction from what Doctor Who does well.)

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Kit 4 months, 3 weeks ago

of course Doctor Who works as an anthology show in a way that almost none have the opportunity to, and very few of those manage successfully. But, typing as someone who has no faith in Chibnall's writing at all, I'm very pleased that he's taking a different approach his first time out. It looks like there going to be a series arc this year, something which Dr Who has barely managed to pull off once in 37 years of broadcast: this makes sense to cover with a team who are all on the same page, rather than papering over yawping cracks with reshoots and inserts.

If the collaborative approach fucks up, then Chibnall can obviously try a year of wild abandon, with old and new freelancers, next time. But in a soft reboot with so much publicity to bring a new audience, why not try a new approach while you have the chance? The mantle of showrunner has effectively been lowered upon him - why not have him bring a team he's comfortable working with along? I don't hold out high hopes for Chibnall Who to meet my taste, but I'd rather he gets to do what inspires him with the job, than to try and slot into what's expected onscreen or behind the camera.

Cartmel threw out all the old writers*, and (for the circumstances) built a exciting stable of brand new people quickly, to results that reinvigorated the show. As El notes here, Moffat took five years to effectively pull together a reliable team, and the fresh blood was welcome. If Chibnall gives us something Who hasn't typically done before with his new team, great! If it's a Pertwee-like arc of the Doctor getting a new squad of pals together and trying to get off Earth again, while having lots of grounded-in-real-life RTD-esque vignettes, hey, those have built the audience before, and he's starting from a diminished position.


* okay, by the time he got there, the only existing writers were Pip & Jane, but he still tried to throw them out even sooner than immediately.

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mx_mond 4 months, 3 weeks ago

We know Chibnall met with both Dollard and Mathieson, so it’s not that he doesn’t want to bring them back.

As for the writer’s room, I think he mentioned in one of the Comic-Con interviews that the approach he took is a mix (dare I say... a Hybrid?) of the American writers room and the British method. Until we get more details about it we don’t know precisely how that works, but it seems to indicate that there is some element of the old model present.

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Mark Pompeo 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Interesting! I hadn't heard about the "hybrid" portion of his plans. Maybe it could be something like commissioning the initial story ideas and drafts out to freelancers but then a consistent group of ppl editing and honing the scripts instead of just Chibnall.

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Kat 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Yeah, that was the original rumor but it’s not clear to me that that’s what actually happened. In the Comic Con panel, he said there will be 5 “guest writers,” which implies the same old British freelancing method which has been the case all along, as well as (I’m assuming) meaning that Chibnall is writing the other 5 himself. None of that is 100% confirmed, of course — I’m just reading between the lines.

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Aylwin 4 months, 2 weeks ago

I had previously missed the fact that there are only going to be ten episodes. So was Ian Levine's reaction when that news originally came out the inspiration for Trump's Iran tweet? Or is he affecting not to care these days?

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Przemek 4 months, 2 weeks ago

From Wikipedia: "Episodes will run for an average of 50 minutes each, with the premiere running for 65 minutes".

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Chris C 4 months, 3 weeks ago

"Fans don't rate it because there wouldn't be electric eels there" is the sort of thing a Doctor Who episode can wear as a badge of honour. This episode seems calibrated to frustrate the type of person who fetishised MotoE and Flatline as a more businesslike alternative to NuWho's status quo - luxuriating in baby-translation, the Doctor talking at length about his feelings, a laid-back plot and comedy climax complete with cartoon logic. It also takes the cheeky step of literalising the gun/frock debate within the story and firmly declaring its own allegiances.

Actually it's impressively hardworking all around, feeling engaged with the text of not only Capaldi, Smith and Tennant but even an inflection of The Mind Robber (in the phrasing of Ashildr's illusory dragon). It's every bit a dense thesis statement about how Doctor Who rolls in this era, even structurally, as the unassuming romp withdraws to reveal an altogether stranger coda. The final shot of Ashildr is simply not something you can imagine Doctor Who attempting at any time before now.

This episode is crucial to making Series 9 work and perhaps even Capaldi's entire tenure, which is what makes its average reputation so simultaneously hilarious and frustrating.

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Mark Pompeo 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Spot on about the cruciality of this episode to the whole of Season 9! That never really clicked for me until you said it, but yeah the whole second half of the season would take on such a diminished quality if this episode hadn't gone off so well. I don't even want to imagine an alternate version of "Face the Raven" where Ashildr/Me never worked as a character because they bungled her intro and setup.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 4 months, 2 weeks ago

Face the Raven would obviously work if they just moved the setting to a Cardiff Rift-hidden sidestreet being run by Jack Harkness and/or Gwen Cooper.

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Tarantulette 4 months, 3 weeks ago

It also taps perfectly into the legacy/notoriety of Kinda. The Mire, embodiments of toxic masculinity, are frightened by a cool-looking CGI snake when it's really just a cheap puppet. The day is literally saved by Doctor Who's rubbish effects; the show weaponises those things some might find laughable about it.

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Chris C 4 months, 1 week ago

Oh, that is GOOD. Never thought about that. The need for a special-CGI-edition snake is invalidated by the presence of a young girl's imagination, transforming the cheap puppet snake. Love it.
Sounds like it also possesses a little bit of the same DNA as The Rescue.

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MattM 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I'm in two minds about this episode. I liked most of what people seemed to hate (Ashildur, the silly ending, both were great) but it just didn't gel for me. I think there was a lot of tonal dissonance in how it was shot (or at least how I remember) - very grey and bleak looking visuals but silly and fun - it should have been bright and colourful surely?

The Mire looked a bit too clunky. Not quite sure what they were going for with those costumes.

The biggest issue was that in retrospect it feels a lot like an episode written around having Brian Blessed as the villain, but without Brian Blessed in it. I can honestly imagine it being a fan favourite if things had worked out and they'd got him. There's lots of space in it for a big lout OTT villain performance, but what we get is a lot more subdued.

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UrsulaL 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I wonder about how much of the lack of fan appriciation comes from the fact that this episode is explicitly about a girl? And not just that, they specifically kill off all the manly-men in the first few minutes, and dismiss their virtues as a testosterone excess that makes them only good to be consumed.

The remaining men are lumped in with the women and children, those who stay home and attend to the domestic. The Doctor even gives one the girl's name Heidi.

And making Ashildar, a girl, immortal, is part of Moffat's clear agenda to shape the show into one where a female Doctor is not only possible, but inevitable. She gives the show a chance to preview what the Doctor's immortality might look like in a feminine context.

So those who are uncomfortable with the path to a woman Doctor are going to be uncomfortable here.

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Daibhid C 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Past that, there’s not a ton to say about Ashildr here. Her starting point is not what’s interesting about her character

I guess everybody sees things differently, but for my money "Possibly neuro-atypical Viking puppeteer girl" was much more interesting than "Yet Another Lonely Immortal". Although I did like the later character as well.

the conceit of them slaughtering Vikings to drink their testosterone is wonderful

As the token Worrier About The Science round these parts (and, yes, the electric eels did annoy me, but the sequence was so wonderful I forgave it) it should probably bother me that this doesn't actually make sense. In fact, I reckon the fact it doesn't make sense makes perfect sense. Of course a literalisation of toxic masculinity is an entirely pointless act that they do because it's never occurred to them to question it. What else would it be?

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Rodolfo Piskorski 4 months, 2 weeks ago

Why shouldn't the eels have been there?

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Tarantulette 4 months ago

The logic runs that electric eels are native to South America, and as such should be nowhere near 10th century Scandinavia.

"Logic"! In Doctor Who! As if! ;)

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Daru 4 months, 2 weeks ago

"...but it’s a story in which the scary aliens are defeated by telling the right story and then setting the video footage to “Yakety Sax.”"

This is *exactly* what I love about this story, that obfuscation, turning the narrative that bullies use back upon themselves and using the ridiculous as a weapon were all just sheer brilliance. Then having Ashildr's fate turn into something potentially monstrous as a cliffhanger was great stuff. perfect Doctor Who for me, and storytelling that makes so much sense in the era that the show is in when it's not quite the 'golden child' ratings wise, but with it having the freedom to buck trends a lot more.

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director dada 2 months ago

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