Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Girl Who Died written by Jamie Mathieson & Steven Moffat and directed by Ed Bazalgette

This story in a nutshell: Doctor Who has found the fun again...

Indefinable: 'Start winning, Doctor. It's what you're good at...' A far better utilisation of Peter Capaldi's comedic talents than Robot of Sherwood last season. What astonishes me is that it has taken this long to have another stab, another sign that the show (whilst pretty decent in quality) has been blacker than Dracula's scuddy underpants lately. Capaldi understands the nature of this episode from the off and runs with it, skipping about the village like a psychotic pixie, having a great laff rousing the Vikings from their slumber and understanding precisely when to turn on the frown. Even his hair seems freer and more uncontrolled this week. With irreverent lines to say, this Doctor is very funny indeed. It's taken a season and half to realise that and hope it doesn't take the same amount of time again before he is allowed to work on my funny bone again. How he seems to have completely forgotten about the people they are trying to save in the pre-titles sequence whilst doing several clever things at once made me chuckle, so did his reaction to the Vikings appearance (which entirely mirrored my own - it's not that I have anything against Vikings, it's just not a period that would be near the top of my list of places to visit if I had a time machine. In fact it would be somewhere near the bottom). He never used to be a hugger but now he's wrapping his arms around Clara at the first opportunity. Does this mean that Capaldi has lost that vein of assholeness that made him so unique last season? Love how he is working his way through the previous Doctor's wardrobe though, he's rocking those Troughton-esque trousers this week. We've experienced the Doctor having to stir the underdog countless times before but I have never seen it played for laughs so broadly (except perhaps his rousing speech in State of Decay). 'It's just one village' declares the Doctor, perfectly willing to leave until Clara massages his guilt and convinces him to help out, pushing his buttons in a way that only somebody who has gotten to know him well could. He's sick of losing good people in his adventures. It always seems that somebody has to be sacrificed. I rather like how off-hand the revelation of why the Doctor chose this particular face is, I was expecting a laboured explanation at the heart of a wanky episode. It works rather well in the context of the episode, although it is a bit of a big ask for the casual audience to understand the significance of Capaldi's previous appearance in Doctor Who. To hell with anyone who gets in the way of him saving the lives of those he chooses...aren't we entering Waters of Mars territory here? Let's hope next weeks episode gives him the slap on the wrist he needs to prevent him from playing God in the future.

Impossible Girl: Bestill my heart, an episode that doesn't bend Clara out of shape from the woman I recognise and manages to do interesting things with her. This is the best representation of Miss Oswald since...Flatline last year. Now what do these episodes have in common? She's quick into action, that's for sure. When faced with the prospect of being turned into Viking pulp on the alien ship she soon springs into life to save her skin. When she gentle touches the Doctor's aged face and tells him he decided to stay, you know that nobody knows this Doctor quite like Clara. We could do with more moments like that. The Doctor as good as admits that Clara has injected some humanity back into him so at least we have that to thank her for. When he tries to tidy Clara away before the fighting begins it feels like the first real conversation they have had since Christmas. She never asked for the Doctor to protect her and she can look after herself. Are we seeing the seeds being sown for her departure. Is she getting a little too cocky about her survival? I've been saying that all along, you know. Interestingly their roles are reversed once Ashildr dies, Clara is the responsible one who tried to convince him that he just has to accept it and the Doctor agonises over the one casualty of his (rubbish) plan. She shows remarkable maturity throughout. I was impressed.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I'm not actually the police, it's just what it says on the box...'
'You're Noggin' the Nog.'
'Immortality is not living forever, that's not what it feels like. Immortality is everybody else dying.'

The Good:  
* Somebody snapped the sonic glasses. This episode instantly scores at least an eight.
* Whilst I am sure that plenty of this episodes content has come straight from a Ladybird Book of Vikings (much like Amy's Cavalier nightmare in The Pandorica Opens), this is a far more entertaining take on the culture than the last time they rocked up on the shores of a Doctor Who story.
* I'm going to make a sweeping statement about Doctor Who now and the kind of Doctor Who that I really seem to enjoy. This is a show that excels at being funny. There you have it. By it's very nature Doctor Who is absurd, a rational person would look at the nuts and bolts of the series (Liz sums it up rather nicely in Spearhead from Space) and laugh until a little bit of wee came out. I'm not talking about the sort of material that is trying to be dramatic and winds up being blissfully unintentionally hilarious (see The Chase, Warriors of the Deep and Time and the Rani) but the thread of humour that runs through the show like Blackpool through a stick of rock. It's a show that doesn't always take itself seriously (which covers a multitude of sins) and it is also a show that when it goes all out for the comic jugular (The Pirate Planet, City of Death, The Two Doctors, Boom Town, The Unicorn and the Wasp) it often ends up being some of the most entertaining material the show has to offer. So why oh why is there is this Bidmeadish obsession with some fans who declare 'STOP THIS SILLINESS!' followed by 'FUNNY DOCTOR WHO IS NOT REAL DOCTOR WHO!' They are the kind of people I would imagine who want the series to stick to a rigid formula of corridors, monsters and quarries, who favour science over emotion in drama. If the show was dark all the time it would have no texture to it and if it was serious all the time it would be as preachy and dreary as every other drama on telly. The Girl Who Died is the first episode that I have wanted to watch again after transmission because the experience of watching it was such a delight. My critical faculties were numbed by the wealth of genuinely funny gags, light-hearted banter and enjoyable characterisation. So I'm going to list a few moments that made me genuinely laugh out loud because I think it is worth remembering that Doctor Who is a show that can be laughed at without losing respect for it in the slightest, without it losing one drop of integrity. Odin turning up and upstaging the less-than-Godly Doctor and his yo-yo is straight out of Monty Python, made all the more amusing because the head in the clouds is like something out of Tellytubbies. The scene where the Doctor assesses his line up of fighters is ripped straight out of the Red Dwarf episode Meltdown only one thing is missing (Ghandi is not doing press ups in this episode, more's the pity). The cut to the aftermath of his practice battle had me in stitches. But that's nothing to the inclusion of the Benny Hill theme tune in the recording of Odin crapping himself at the sight of an immobile piece of wood. I fear that might be the comedy tipping point for a lot of people but I thought it was sublime. My friend Jack and I were sniggering like school kids with their hands on their first porn mag.
* Doesn't the show look beautiful at the moment? The restrained texturing in the cinematography and lighting is providing a series full of memorable images and lashings of atmosphere. Whilst I love the bold colours and vivid flashiness of the Russell T Davies era, I can see the logic in pulling away from that kind of comic book visual pallet into something a little more nuanced. Director Ed Bazabette directs with plenty of energy and pizazz but he remembers to fill the episode with beautiful images too; the gentle pan over the sunny Viking village, a strident cut to the atmospherically lit alien spaceship, the thoughtful conversation between the Doctor and Clara at dusk and that remarkable slow motion circle around the freshly immortal Ashildr all impressing me greatly.
* Bizarrely enough the hulking great robots that stomp through the village impressed me more than the Fisher King last week, despite the fact that he clearly had more work go into him. There is something very dress up and go about them, something very classic Who. You can imagine a kid shoving together some cardboard boxes and making a decent replica. They're a bit rubbish, but so is the villain and so they go together like pie and mash.
* So much has been written about the appearance of Maisie Williams appearing as an enigmatic character that will have an impact on the Doctor's life that it is possible that you might have bought into the hype (the ratings raised slightly this week so there's a good chance your mate did too) and felt slightly let down by her lack of prominence in the episode. Until the climax, where she takes centre stage and promises to have a much stronger role next week. It reminds me of the promise of Daleks invading London in their second ever appearance in the show only to put out an episode where they only feature in the closing seconds, rising out of the water. Williams is a fine actress who has wowed me in countless programmes and what works magic with her gentle characterisation this week. But it's next week when the fireworks are going to explode. Despite the title, I was unprepared for the impact of Ashildr's death. How the episode lurches suddenly into a morality play on the back of the hi-jinks demonstrates real assurance and trust in the audience. Should the Doctor save one life? Would it have any consequences? Tune in next week.

The Bad:
* The original villains of season nine have been a bit half arsed, haven't they? Odin is essentially there to get his butt kicked and he's the first comedy bad guy we've come across in a while. David Schofield doesn't give a bad performance but it's all pretty bog standard chest thumping and bawling about his own magnificence. That's the writing to blame rather than the actor. I can't stop going on about lists in this review but 'Odin' would rank somewhere in the bowels of a ranking of best villains. Next week you wont even remember him. Although I do love how the Doctor makes him bugger off by essentially threatening to load a video onto his Facebook and show all his thuggish mates the guy shitting himself in battle. That's new.
* Talking baby was cute the first time around, if a little laboured. The Doctor changing his mind on the strength of a baby chatting away to him lacks significance.
* I wouldn't be the first person to recommend the Doctor for the post of chief tactician if the best he can come up with is barrels of eels and a projection of a big snake. It says something about the nature of their opponents that this is enough to scare them away. I was expecting something more somehow. When Clara says it is rubbish, I don't think she's talking about the shield.
* They shouldn't feature clips showing David Tennant and Catherine Tate at their radiant best. It invites comparison, and when one of your regulars is Clara it's a battle you cannot win.

The Shallow Bit: Jenna Coleman looks older and more edible than ever in this episode. Visually at least it appears that Clara is growing up. Astonishing that I should be entrenched in an episode that throws a bunch of sweaty, muscled fighting men at me and I shouldn't feel the slightest twitch. It must be the filthy, matted beards. Although Lofty is worth a second look. 

Result: I haven't supped down on a crisp and sweet glass of lemonade in a while when it comes to Doctor Who, it's been all full bodied wines and black coffee. Actually with all the thigh slapping, sweat and cheering going on I guess this is more like a glass of frosty beer, straight from the fridge. For the first time ever I watched an episode with a friend, 12 hours flight time away and 9 hours apart and I'm really pleased that it was this episode because more than any other this season The Girl Who Died is the kind of sunny and witty piece of fluff where it is better to share the laughter. Our consensus was that it was the most enjoyable the series had been for some time. The new series of Doctor Who has taken on a bit of a Friends approach, where you can sum it up with a casual description. This was the one with the Vikings and robots. To describe it like that is to do the script a disservice though, which throws in some interesting curveballs and remains unpredictable and entertaining throughout. It's not often that I don't have a clue where a story is heading for it's entire length. The mood shifts in the flash of a rapier too, from comedy to drama and back again, exuding the sort of confidence I don't often see on television these days. Interesting that by ejecting all the timey wimey clever cleverness from the series for one week allows for more time for the show to breathe, for the people to come to life and for the Doctor and Clara to engage in real conversation. Factually inaccurate they may be but the Vikings were a likeable bunch and I genuinely cared about their fate. I really like the nature of this episode as well, a one part adventure with consequences that spill off into another individual piece next week. When Steven Moffat said he was going to mess about with the nature of the two part story he wasn't kidding. Some of the elements didn't come off; the Doctor's plan is genuinely naff and the chief villain of the piece is so forgettable I don't think I will remember him beyond the length of this sentence and the CGI snake isn't a patch on the one we witnessed a few episodes back. But The Girl Who Died rises above those problems by remaining so damn sunny throughout, putting a great big smile on my face and giving me moments to consider too. There's nothing quite like it in Doctor Who, which is something of a rarity these days and for that alone it should be celebrated. Especially the Benny Hill sequence. The bulk of this episode deserves a solid 7/10 but thanks to the additional weight of the last ten minutes: 8/10


Paolo said...

Loved the "Noggin the Nog" joke :)

Carl R said...

Elements of season 24 Sylvester McCoy here - not necessary plot elements, but a certain lightness of touch. Whether you like this or not might ultimately depend on whether you can appreciate the turn the show took back in the mid-late 80s. Personally this was one of my favourite episodes in some time, and I think it struck a number of chords. A piece written by a couple of writers who both really wanted to cheer people up.

YaleBird said...

This is one of my favorite Doctor Who stories in years. It's not just laugh-out-loud funny - "The Big Bang, dinosaurs, bipeds and a mounting sense of futility" had me in stitches - but it has some of the most genuine dramatic moments the series has had for a long time. The line "do babies die with honor?" damn near stopped my heart. And the Doctor's grief over Ashildr is so wonderfully understated. And that final shot was something I will remember for a long, long time.

Isn't this what Doctor Who was always meant to be? Mystery and wonder wrapped up in fun and terror.

Anonymous said...

As an unashamed fan of Seasons 17 and 24 +, I LOVE humour in Doctor Who and it's the thing I most missed during the Davison era (specially at the beginning). Back in the 80s were a lot of fans who celebrated the withdrawal of funny elements in DW when JNT came aboard but I still don't understand what some people have against having a good laugh with (not at) the program

Adam Graham said...

I actually disagree about the talking baby thing. During the Matt Smith era, this was simply a comedic goof. "Ha ha, he speaks baby. The baby wants to be called something."

With Capaldi, it's entirely a different thing. He did with the Tyranosaurus Rex last season. When the Doctor is translating, he feels what the other is feeling and voices it. In effect, Capaldi is playing a dinosaur or a baby girl, and quite believably too. He can overdo it, but once a season is pretty good.

Blueshift said...

Odin was originally cast as Brian Blessed who had to pull out at the last minute, and knowing that you suddenly realise how that character should have worked, and feel really really sad that it didn't happen :(

Richard S. said...

You know, I didn't really see this as a "comedy". I pretty much instantly saw this as Doctor Who does "The Seven Samurai" (and I really, really pray you see the connection, too). I also get the strong sense that Clara is becoming a Time Lord in Training. See "Kill the Moon" and "Flatline" for other instances of her having to think and act like a Time Lord.

Umm... vats of electric eels? Seriously?? I was expecting something a bit more slapstick, like booby traps, pits, and anvils swinging from the rafters.

Oh, and finally:

David Pirtle said...

Hoorah! An episode where you liked Clara!

I love this episode. As much as I enjoyed the convoluted nonsense of the previous one, it's nice to see the show still willing to toss all that out the window and just have a good time. Maisie Williams is terrific in this, too. She's much more suited to this kind of role than she is "Me" or, for that matter, the dark figure she becomes in Game of Thrones after five seasons or so.