An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

November 12, 2015

Dr. Who, Season 9, Episodes 5 and 6

Doctor Who, Season 9, episode 5, “The Girl Who Died,” written by Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat and directed by Ed Bazalgette and episode 6, “The Woman Who Lived,” written by Catherine Tregenna  and directed by Ed Bazalgette, originally aired October 17 and 24, 2015.

Reviewed by Usha Vishnuvajjala (

 “The Girl Who Died” and “The Woman Who Lived” form a two-episode story arc which centers on a Viking girl named Ashildr, played by Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones fame. This second foray into the Middle Ages in fourteen months is notable; since its reboot in 2005, Doctor Who has given the Middle Ages a wide berth. During the first seven seasons, showrunners set episodes in Pompeii, in Shakespeare’s London, and in a twenty-second-century acid-pumping factory located in a revamped fourteenth-century castle, but not a single episode in any part of the Middle Ages. That changed last year, with the episode “Robot of Sherwood,” set in in “1190-ish,” and this season, various medievalisms were sprinkled throughout the first four episodes, leading to “The Girl Who Died,” the fifth of the season.

In “The Girl Who Died,” visions of Odin appear in the sky, telling villagers what to do. The Doctor and his travelling companion Clara see them too, and soon discover that they are created by an alien spaceship from the future which is harvesting fighters from the village. This is a recurring treatment of history and legend for Doctor Who; historical people really do see Odin, Robin Hood, the eruption at Pompeii, witches in Shakespeare’s London, Agatha Christie’s disappearance, and so on, but the Doctor uncovers the driving forces behind such apparitions and events, which always turn out to be extraterrestrial. In the case of “The Girl Who Died,” this has the effect of allowing two versions of history to exist simultaneously: the experience of the people inhabiting the Viking village is consistent with a version of mythology, while the Doctor’s cynical view of such beliefs is also supported by the apparatus behind such experience.

The Doctor and Clara find themselves on the outskirts of a Viking village—time and place unspecified, but revealed in the following episode to be the 9th century—when the Doctor lands the TARDIS to wipe the remnants of a space-spider off his boot in the grass. As often happens, the TARDIS has taken them to a place where their intervention is needed to prevent an alien massacre of humans. On being ambushed by a group of Viking soldiers with swords, the Doctor is irritated, shouting, “No, no, not Vikings. I’m not in the mood for Vikings!” suggesting that he has had plenty of interactions with the Middle Ages off-screen (also suggested earlier this season when he believed himself to be dying and went to the twelfth century for a final weeks-long party). When he and Clara are brought, in chains, to the Vikings’ village, the Doctor tries to escape by claiming to be Odin in human form, only to be interrupted by Odin’s face appearing in the sky. Clara and Ashildr, the daughter of one of the soldiers, are among those beamed up to “Valhalla,” which is actually a spaceship in which Vikings are vaporized by a laser so their energy can be harnessed and drunk by the extraterrestrial “Odin.”

When the Doctor’s creative low-tech method for helping the Vikings defeat the alien spaceship goes slightly awry and leads to Ashildr’s death, the Doctor uses a small device to bring her back to life, which has the side effect of making her immortal. After giving her a second device for the companion of her choice, the Doctor and Clara leave the village. When the Doctor encounters her again in “The Woman Who Lived,” it is 1651 and she is a highway robber known as “The Knightmare” who calls herself “Me,” and doesn’t recognize the name Ashildr when the Doctor uses it.

This second episode, despite its postmedieval setting, contains more interesting commentary on the medieval period. “The Girl Who Died” is much more a vehicle for furthering or revisiting various parts of Doctor Who history and mythology (with plenty of inside jokes for longtime fans), while “The Woman Who Lived” is as much about Ashildr’s long life through the Middle Ages as it is about who she has become by 1651. This is poignantly foreshadowed by the final shot of “The Girl Who Died,” in which Ashildr is depicted standing on a cliff as a camera circles her slowly and shows the passage of time in the movement of stars, constellations, and the mountains behind her. The camera begins its circle on her contented face, and ends on her troubled one.

By the time we encounter her in the following episode, Ashildr has lived so long that she sometimes reads her own diaries for entertainment, because she has “had 800 years of adventure” and cannot remember most of what has happened to her. This provides the opportunity for the Doctor and, therefore, the viewer, to learn about her life in the Middle Ages, including founding a leper colony, becoming a medieval queen and faking her own death to hide her immortality, recovering from the Black Death but losing her children to it and swearing never to have any more, and curing an entire village of scarlet fever and narrowly escaping being drowned as a witch by “ungrateful peasants” as a result. In a flashback reminiscent of Virgina Woolf’s Orlando, Ashildr is shown fighting in the battle of Agincourt, which she describes as “my first stint as a man,” with “The Knightmare” being the most recent.

These flashbacks, and Ashildr’s narration of them from her vantage point in 1651, offer an account of the Middle Ages as impossibly long and varied. Ashildr has experienced wealth and power, but also poverty and loss; she has both killed and saved more people than she can remember; she has lived as both a man and a woman. The village that she once loved so much that she chose to stay there and die rather than leave “the sky, the hills, the sea, [and] the people” has become so distant that she is taken aback when the Doctor mentions it by name. Although Doctor Who is generally more invested in the experience and philosophy of the time-traveler than in the specific attributes of the times and places the Doctor visits, it is always concerned with shifting perceptions of history—both the fictional time-traveler’s and the viewers’. As with last season’s “Robot of Sherwood,” the long arc of “The Girl Who Died” and “The Woman Who Lived” push back against the idea of a singular medieval period. Instead, they depict Ashildr’s Middle Ages as a long period of change, development, and variation, so long that the ninth century is unrecognizable by the seventeenth, even to a woman who lived through it.

Usha Vishnuvajjala
Indiana University