Critiquing Capaldi: “The Girl Who Died”

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“What’s the one thing that gods never do? Gods never actually show up!”

If that’s the case, then I’m having an extremely difficult time trying to explain Jamie Mathieson. With his large amount of followers who shower him with praise, to his omniscience about how the world (of Doctor Who) works, “god” does seem, like the only apt description for him. He’s someone who deserves to be praised for what he has provided us, which so far was not only the two best episodes of Series 8 but two of the greatest stories in the show’s history. Jamie Mathieson is someone who understands that Doctor Who can sometimes be the best show on television, why it is so brilliant, as well as what the show’s ethos actually is.

The other person who gets this is Steven Moffat. Now, I can’t say everything he has written personally meets my idea of what Doctor Who is, but for the majority of his stories, I would say he does. Despite his somewhat controversial and slightly inconsistent run, it’s still clear as day that Moffat was the best man to take over from Russell T Davies. He does understand the programme extremely well, and he does know why it is has touched the hearts of millions of people. He’s contributed to that greatly as well.

Theoretically, as The Girl Who Died is a co-write between the two on the show (at the moment) who understand it best, it should be fantastic. Two heads are better than one after all, and what a fine pair of heads we have here. Is The Girl Who Died a great story? Quite simply, yes it is. While I can understand why this one is divisive, to me it hits all the high notes. The Girl Who Died proves that the Mathieson/Moffat team up was a fantastic idea, and is arguably the best story of the Capaldi era so far.

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Why does this story work? Well like all good stories, it features the writers playing to their greatest strengths. On the surface, before I watched this episode for the first time, I couldn’t really have seen a light comedic romp with the Vikings being the result of a Mathieson/Moffat team up, however when I rewatched it, and on subsequent rewatches, it’s obvious. When you break this apart, this is more of a character piece on the relationship between the Doctor and Clara, and who the Doctor is than an almost Gareth Roberts like romp you could see on the surface. This isn’t the first time Moffat has hidden something deep and presented it as quite light, the Eleventh Doctor was written that way throughout almost his entire tenure. Here, with the kick of Mathieson’s understanding, as well as the realism and extra dimensions he brings to the lead characters, this story shows probably the best and most interesting use of the Doctor/Clara relationship so far.

The episode’s strongest moments are the ones between the Doctor and Clara, obviously. The foreshadowing is very strong in this one, something which makes this one particularly rewatchable as I always seem to pick up another nod or reference to future events each time I watch it. What is best presented here is the duty of care. A lot of the time in the New Series, it has been the companions who have looked out for the Doctor, telling him when to stop when they need to. Here, it is subverted. The duty of care scene is lovely and brilliant for both characters. The Doctor shows his caring nature for Clara and shows that he really does love her, while Clara remains stubborn and reckless, traits which would usually be associated with the Doctor. The scene, though, while the traits and foreshadowing are obvious in retrospect, it’s actually quite subtly written. It’s poetic and powerful but feels very naturalistic at the same time. It’s also beautifully acted by Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. I must also note that this episode contains a reason why I think Jenna Coleman is a seriously talented actress. As well as the great material she has to deliver, her standoff with Odin is magnificent (and very Doctory), the fact she gives a phenomenal performance while also having an obvious cold, one which sounds awful, is remarkable.

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You also get the face reveal scene. While I would have been fine with this not being explained myself, the real world explanation that Peter Capaldi was just born to play the role suits me fine, it is written in a phenomenal way. The “I’m the Doctor and I save people line”, which seems really cheesy on the surface, is actually remarkably important. Firstly, when did he get this face? He got this face after Clara, the woman who was becoming and now has become the Doctor, saved him by persuading the Time Lords to give him a new regeneration cycle. Then you begin to piece together the scene with Caecilius, which is shown explicitly here. The Doctor chose to save an ordinary man, not because he wanted to be a hero, not because he felt like he had a duty to, but instead out of the kindness of his hearts. Because he couldn’t face seeing anybody else dying. I’ve never really been one to vision the Doctor as a hero, and he isn’t, he admits that himself. But he’s definitely a man who makes people better, and one who saves people. Who never asks to be thanked. It’s a phenomenal scene. What could have been explained via a throwaway line, or even ignored completely, turned into an ethos of what the show is.

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The other really interesting thing about this episode is Ashildr, played by the wonderful Maisie Williams. I remember she received a lot of social media buzz and attention for being in it, and I can see why, as she’s brilliant. Okay, she doesn’t really have too much to do here, as this isn’t her story as much as the next one is, but the scenes she does appear in are great. She’s presented as a character which doesn’t appear to be exactly who she seems to be, which she is. Some of it’s not presented very subtly, the “I’ve always been strange” is quite heavy in terms of dialogue, but sometimes you do have to tell the audience things. What’s really cool is Ashildr as a storyteller, something which will get touched upon in the next episode. The belief of the power in stories is something I feel is possibly quite meta. Doctor Who can use its stories for better, to educate, to inform, to heal, to comfort. Ashildr is presented as a layered and an interesting character throughout. She’s certainly a character you know there’s more than meets the eye too, so it’s a treat we get to see more of her.

This episode is also really funny. While this episode is still extreme layered and detailed, it also works extremely well as a lighthearted romp. The jokes are fast and witty, and it’s easy to see that Mathieson was a stand-up comedian before writing screenplays. The episode is ridiculously enjoyable, and it’s one which is hard to watch, particularly in the middle 15 minutes, without cracking a smile. The delivery is top notch, the lines are great, one of the funniest 45 minutes of the Capaldi era.

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Production wise, this one is phenomenal. Ed Bazagalette’s direction is stunning, particularly that final shot of Ashildr, which has to be on of the greatest, most layered, and most unnerving shots in the show’s history. It really makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and it’s a moment I always look forward to. Murray Gold also gives his best score of the series, and one of his best scores to date. Sometimes epic, sometimes beautiful, sometimes both, Gold really sets the scene with his music in this one. I’d also listen to every piece from this one on its own without visuals, something I can only say for a few episodes. One of his finest works to date.

Overall: The Moffat and Mathieson team up was a match made in Valhalla. A funny, enjoyable, character piece, and one of the best stories of the revival.

Previous Score: 10
New Score: 10

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