“The universe is full of testosterone. Trust me, it’s unbearable.”
What is Doctor Who?
Doctor Who is a lie.
* * *
This week’s offering sees the Doctor and Clara landing in the middle of some Vikings, who immediately proceed to capture them and march them off to their village two days away. There, the Doctor and Clara witness a face in the sky claiming to be Odin harvest the village’s finest warriors and take them off to Valhalla. It turns out that “Odin” is actually the king of the Mire, a warlike alien race who wants to mash up the warriors and turn them into testosterone. That he can drink. To be more warlike.
I wish I was joking.
Anyway. This is not the point.
“What is the point, English Student?” I hear you cry.
The point, Constant Reader, is story.
The Girl Who Died is from its very title an episode which points up its own createdness. It is a story about mythmaking: its central character, Ashildr, the titular Girl Who Died, is a storyteller who Saves the Day using story. It’s no accident, either, that Odin shows up, improbably, right at the beginning of the tale: “What’s the one thing that gods never do?” asks the Doctor, rhetorically. “Show themselves!” In the Doctor Who universe, of course, gods are the most mythological myth of them all.
Initially, I was thinking of The Girl Who Died as a story that reveals itself as story; an episode that rather tautologically highlights the role of the individual because that’s what stories inevitably do. A story that reminds its principal character that he is story, and that he has to behave as stories do.
But I think it’s more (or less) complex than that. What The Girl Who Died is telling us is that stories are lies.
The title is, of course, a lie. (It has to be – otherwise spoilers.) The title is in itself a story – like the Impossible Girl, like the Girl Who Waited; but it is a lie. Because Ashildr isn’t going to be remembered for dying – she’s going to be remembered for living.
Odin, the god (and what are gods but collections of stories – remember The Rings of Akhaten?) is not really a god. His tale of Valhalla and glory is – a lie.
The story that the Vikings cook up for the Mire and for their king is a lie; the big giant snake is a lie, cleverly revealed through the use of an anachronism (another lie), the smartphone camera.
Fate itself, the story that time attempts to tell, is a lie, a lie which the Doctor chooses to challenge.
In the words of the Killers, then: “You’ve got to be stronger than the story.”
The question we have to ask, of course, is “What about this story?”
Is Doctor Who a lie? Or, rather – is the episode aware that it is a lie?
Well – yes. Look at the way the episode belies its own title. Look at the way the Doctor bangs on about the laws of time while squishing a space bug onto the grass of Earth. The quotation of The Fires of Pompeii reminds us that these laws are always being broken. Look, too, at Clara’s filming of the fake giant snake, which feels like it’s supposed to remind us that we are watching a filmed artefact: we’re watching the equivalent of a carved horsehead on a stick (a blue police box from the 60s) and imagining that it’s an enormous basilisk (a time machine). Look at the visual echo of The Pirate Planet in the Mire’s king – which is just that, an echo, without semantic content. It is the lie of story and storytelling which winds this all together. Like Before the Flood, The Girl Who Died deconstructs the processes which created it.
But if stories are lies, we also have to remember that they save the day – for the Vikings, at least. The right story in the right hands is powerful. So long as we know that the story is only a story – only a tool, to stop you doing something you shouldn’t, or to defend your home and your reality – stories are, like, the best thing ever. So The Girl Who Died doesn’t think of itself – or of Doctor Who – as a true story; only as a necessary story. Necessary for the Doctor, perhaps; necessary for us, as well.
Which is where I, personally, have issues. The Girl Who Died doesn’t subvert its title by complicating it – suggesting that perhaps there is more to girlhood, to womanhood, than dying – it subverts it by having the Doctor break his own laws. We can just as well call Ashildr the Girl Who Lived; that’s, when it boils down to it, all the achievement the episode ascribes to her. The BBC website tells us that “She refuses to take on the traditional role of a Viking girl”; I can only imagine that this bit of her character ended up on the cutting-room floor, because I don’t remember anything about it. Ashildr is a trophy, a cypher around which the Doctor’s moral dilemma can revolve. She is reduced, precisely, to a story, to be subverted or upheld; she is, in the lexicon of this episode, reduced to a lie. A tool to support male self-definition.
This story is not true. And it most certainly is not necessary.