The two-part story of The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived is a challenge to review. It is, at heart, an average episode of Doctor Who, and I'm not entirely sure what to think of it. Do I criticize the slip in quality compared to the previous two stories of the season, or accept that the writers, director and showrunners put together a competent production that entertained for a good two hours? Do I credit the show for introducing some thought-provoking concepts and some heartfelt drama, or do I criticize the two-parter for taking some easy outs in terms of resolution, and sacrificing narrative logic for some admittedly cool ideas?
Did I say this was a challenge to review? That may be my review right there.
A full spoilerific review will follow after the break.
Say what I will about The Girl Who Diedand The Woman Who Lived, but they have kept up a bit of a pattern this season. Looking back on the previous episodes, I realize now that each two parter has provided a standard Doctor Who story with a difference thrown in. The Magician's Apprentice/The Witch's Familiar was a Dalek thrash with another old enemy tossed in for good measure, coupled with a potential temporal paradox that shook the Doctor's assumptions about his life and his enemies to the core. Under the Lake and Before the Flood gave us a classic base under siege story, spiced up with a delicious bootstrap paradox.
With The Girl Who Died, the showrunners decided that since it's mid-season, it's time for our historical episode. After a strange cold open where we see the Doctor and Clara deal with the aftermath of an adventure in space involving an alien spider in Clara's spacesuit (eek!), we're back to Earth and exploring a wood when some Vikings come to play. The Doctor's attempts to get out of their predicament go hilariously wrong, and the TARDIS crew are handily separated from their TARDIS and taken on a two-day journey to the Vikings' village.
Well, irked by his failure to not get themselves captured, the Doctor tries another blustery tactic, impersonating Odin, to try and ensure his safety. However, it's not the Doctor's day, because, with a crash of thunder, a Monty Python-version of Odin appears in the sky, and calls the bravest and "arrg!"-iest warriors to Valhalla, also sweeping up Clara and a young Viking woman named Ashildr in his fishing net. The only Vikings remaining are the very old, the very young, and the very unlikely to survive in a pitched battle. The Doctor realizes that what he's just witnessed is a harvest.
It is a joy, however, to see Clara take charge and almost bluster her way out of a confrontation with the alien warlord who's harvested the Viking warriors for their testosterone (eww!). We really see Clara's growth in this scene, to the point where she's nearly the equal to the Doctor. She almost successfully talks the villain into walking away without a fight when Ashildr figures out what has happened and goes full righteous Viking. Of course, this can't be seen as anything other than a horrendous sign of disrespect to the Viking village, and how dare he? Did he want to make something of it? The villian, matching the Vikings for testosterone, says, "sure, how about tomorrow?" and sends Clara and Ashildir back to prepare the village as best they can.
The Girl Who Died also gives Peter Capaldi plenty of opportunity to show his range as the Doctor. He first tries to convince the Vikings to walk away -- probably knowing that this strategy won't work since they're, well, Vikings, but he's got to try. He agrees to help them in this suicide mission because he speaks baby and is moved by the cries of a fearful infant. He is dismissive and somewhat condescending to brute force strategies even though he teaches them, and he's constantly looking for the winning move that he can pull out of a hat. Tellingly, only Clara can catch all of these emotions.
The solution to the Viking's problem is satisfying and in keeping of the show's preference for using intelligence to overcome brute force, but then the episode moves to its big twist, when Ashildr is revealed to have saved the village at the cost of her own life, putting the Doctor in despair.
This leads up to the Doctor's moral crisis. I wonder if I'm able to accept it because the season has been prepping him with the previous two stories. In the first two parter, the Doctor was handed an opportunity to end the Daleks and the Time War before it even started. In the second two parter, the Doctor was handed a chance to save lives, even if it meant running afoul of the boostrap paradox. In both cases, the Doctor is confronted with the fact that people die under his watch, and he can't do anything about it.
That's got to wear at him, possibly especially so now that he's run through his original alotment of regenerations and is on his fourteenth incarnation. Notice how he calls his regeneration "a bit of a clerical error". Is the Doctor feeling the weight of his immortality and the fact that he is forced to see people die again and again while he keeps going on? Perhaps this explains why he makes what is possibly the most questionable decision of his recent incarnations, when he extracts a medical chip from one of the aliens' suits and inserts it into Ashildr, rendering the woman functionally immortal.
It's such a patently unwise decision, it makes me wonder if the Doctor is thinking straight. The callback to The Fires of Pompeiiand the Doctor's monologue about "why this face" in Deep Breath emphasizes this. I think the main reason why I'm able to accept this is because there's the promise of consequences, what with the next episode being entitled The Woman Who Lived. There's also that curious secret plot about why Peter Capaldi's face is on the twelfth Doctor, Caecilius in The Fires of Pompeii and John Frobisher from Torchwood: Children of Earth that Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat have been snickering about between themselves for years. There is a sense that this is building to something. I hope I'm right.
Consequences do strike with The Woman Who Lived, when the Doctor and Ashildr stumble upon each other roughly eight hundred years into the future, where Ashildr has forgotten her name and is running around swashbuckling as the highwaywoman Knightmare. Strangely enough, Clara isn't in this episode that much, but that allows Peter Capaldi and Ashildr's Maisie Williams to just light up the screen with their chemistry and their acting chops. Writer Catherine Tregenna and Maisie really sell the horror of living so long when everybody dies around you. The revelation of Ashildr's dead children hits with the force of a body blow.
Really, if the episode had been mostly Ashildr and the Doctor confronting each other over the wisdom of the Doctor's "gift", this episode would have been remarkable. Unfortunately, plots still needed resolving. There's a story about a rival highwayman, and a hunt for an alien amulet that allows musician Murray Gold to make full use of his "Sneak! Sneak! Sneak! They're sneaking and it's funny!" score, and Rufus Hound's performance as highwayman Sam Swift is delightful to behold. Unfortunately, there's also an alien King Lionheart (taken rather too literally for one's liking). Ashildr falls for Leandro's deception way too easily for someone who's become an expert in just about everything over 800 years.
The climactic scene is only held together by the acting of Capaldi and Maisie, giving us a sense that Ashildr may have been so desperate for escape, she blinded herself to Leandro's obvious evil intensions, and possibly Capaldi's Doctor was biding his time, waiting for Ashildr to realize her mistake and realize she really does care ("Welcome back!"). Unfortunately, the alien invasion is way too conveniently shoehorned into and out of the story, with the effects of the alien amulet explained by cliched melodramatic one-liners from Leandro. It's here where I get the sense that the writers were so focused on their brilliant idea of giving Maisie Williams immortality, that the surrounding plotline that had to be resolved got short shrift.
The clash of styles, the brilliance of the concept and the problems of the resolution all combine to render The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived to be a rather average outing of Doctor Who, though that little extra remains. So far, I remain quite pleased with how the series is developing, and next week looks to be interesting indeed.