I think the thing that is bothering me the most about this season of Doctor Who so far is that people seem to be generally enjoying it, and it appears to be receiving largely favorable reviews in spite of being, objectively, pretty bad. It’s a sign of how much Steven Moffat’s tenure as show runner has damaged the show that we’re all looking at these last few episodes like, “Wow, that was alright. That was fun.” I feel like our collective expectations for the show have just gotten so low that basically anything remotely coherent that’s not overtly offensive just blows us away. It’s pretty sad.
And that’s how I feel about “The Girl Who Died.” Like every other episode so far this year, it’s not terrible. It certainly makes a good deal more sense and relies on much less deus ex machina than last season. It even has a couple of moments where it feels like a proper episode of Doctor Who instead of Steven Moffat’s Mediocre Doctor Who Fanfic Hour. But it’s not good. (So why these sort of breathless puff pieces?)
“The Girl Who Died” commits two major sins, in my book. First, it continues the shows recent tradition of giving Clara almost nothing to do aside from cheerleading for the Doctor. Second, it shoves literally every point it’s trying to make down the viewers’ throats, explaining it all as if we’re all very, very stupid. The worst part of all of this is that the show has been doing this every week now, for five weeks straight, spoon-feeding us every plot point and straight up telling us how to feel about it. This episode, especially in its epilogue, is the absolute pinnacle of this kind of insufferable hand-holding. Before I get too far into that, though, let’s look at what Clara got to do this week.
Things actually started out promising, albeit with a cold open that apparently has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the story other than to give Clara an excuse to spend half the episode wearing a space suit. The real story starts when Clara and the Doctor find themselves captured by vikings and taken to the vikings’ village, where the Doctor tries to trick their kidnappers into thinking he’s Odin. Someone else has beaten him to it, though: a warlike alien, who beams all the best warriors in the village–along with Clara and a viking girl named Ashildr (guest star Maisie Williams)–up to his spaceship.
On the spaceship, the warriors are unceremoniously vaporized, while Clara and Ashildr manage to escape that immediate danger. When they find out that the warriors were harvested for testosterone (okay…), Clara gets one legitimately hilarious line and then manages to almost talk a way out of the situation for herself and Ashildr, only to have Ashildr start an actual war with the alien. They’re then beamed back to earth where they have to explain the the farmers and craftspeople that are left that they now have to fight a bunch of terrifying space people.
For the rest of the episode, Clara is relegated to nearly silent emotional support for the Doctor as he works through his feelings about saving people and possibly changing time or whatever. In the final fight against the alien, Clara gets to take a cell phone video and then pose with it a la Vanna White while the Doctor threatens to take it viral if the alien doesn’t leave earth alone. It’s actually kind of disturbing just how quiet Clara gets in the back half of the episode. Even though she gives all the appearance of being present, she’s little more than a prop for the Doctor’s angst to reflect off of.
Maisie William’s Ashildr fares little better, to be honest, and never manages to become a truly fleshed out character though Williams does her best with the weak material she’s given to work with. Ashildr and the other vikings barely react to the loss of all their village’s warriors, which makes no sense considering that everyone supposedly loves this community so much that they’d rather get killed by aliens than leave. There’s also just not much substance to Ashildr herself. Though we’re told that she feels sort of like an outcast (which again belies her attachment to her village) and that she likes stories and makes puppets, we’re not shown any of it, just told it, and then only when the plot demands a character with a strong attachment to the town and a penchant for puppets and storytelling.
The all around lack of subtlety in this episode would be astounding if it wasn’t so characteristic of the show these days. The (frankly extremely belated) revelation of why the Doctor “chose” his current face would have been nicer if it hadn’t served as such a great reminder of the show’s better days. A perfectly passable and sense-making ending–with the Doctor reviving Ashildr and leaving the extra dose of space magic healing for her–was ruined with a long sequence of heavy telegraphing about what next week’s episode is going to be about. Worst of all was that lengthy spinning shot of Ashildr with the Doctor talking in voice over. That was just downright silly.
The thing about Moffat-era Doctor Who that was re-emphasized in this episode is that Steven Moffat just doesn’t know how to quit while he’s ahead. Over and over again, he fails to create mystery, using foreshadowing that is so heavy-handed that there’s no such thing as spoilers for his episodes anymore. He comes up with ideas that are interesting and works with themes that ought to be compelling, only to have his stories consistently devolve into masturbatory self-congratulation as he wastes three quarters of an episode telling-not-showing us all just how clever he is.
I’ll be watching and writing about next week’s episode because I like Maisie Williams and I hate to leave a thing half-finished, but I’m not sure how much longer I can keep going with this show. I’m already exhausted, and I’m not even halfway through the season. Week after week, I have the same complaints, and the biggest one is Steven Moffat, who is quickly running this show right into the ground. I might keep watching the trainwreck happening, but I don’t know if I have it in me to keep writing a thousand words about it each week.