Jamie Mathieson (writer)


Jamie Mathieson discusses the historical accuracy and some of the other challenges he faced when writing Viking adventure The Girl Who Died.

[Published in The Essential Doctor Who #8 Adventures in History (Panini UK, June 2016), pp. 27-29. Posted here by kind permission of Doctor Who Magazine editor Tom Spilsbury.]

In 2015 Jamie Mathieson co-wrote The Girl Who Died with Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat. Whose idea was it to pit the Doctor against Vikings in this episode? “That was all Steven,” says Jamie. “I'd pitched four or five full-page outlines. There was one with an earworm, but someone said, 'Oh, Toby Whithouse is doing that [in the episodes Under the Lake and Before the Flood].' I was like, 'Oh, that's fine, I've got an underwater idea...' And Toby was doing that as well. I had a Zygon idea but Peter Harness was doing that – everything was already covered! So it's almost like they took pity on me. They said, 'Steven has always wanted to do the Doctor meets Vikings, how about that?' I said, 'Great!'”

“So I came up with a Viking story,” he continues. “But it was this monstrous thing which would have taken the budget of a small movie. They basically trimmed that down. Steven being Steven, he focused on a key aspect of it: the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) doing a thing like in [US TV shows] MacGyver or The A-Team, where he pulls together the group of villagers and what he's got to work with in the village, and manages to jemmy together a solution to the problem of the Mire.”

How did Jamie research the Vikings – did he read any particular books? “Er, no,” he admits. “It was strictly Google.” He and the production team chose to ignore certain historical aspects anyway. “The real Vikings did not have horns on their helmets,” says Jamie. “That's a Hollywood invention. But if we'd done Vikings without horns, 99.9 per cent of the audience would see them and go, 'They're not Vikings!' You've only got 45 minutes to tell the story, so is it worth five minutes of screen time to explain that historical detail? It's a bit of a dilemma what to do.”

One way the production team considered getting round the problem was by using the alien Mire. “In the initial design the Mire had horns and futuristic armour,” says Jamie. “So the reason our particular village of Vikings had horns on their helmets was because they were copying that. But that design looked like the Mire were Vikings from the future – which they're not, so it might have got confusing. But there's still an echo of that idea in there: the Mire without their helmets have sawn-off horns, like the [comics character] Hellboy.”   

“I'm sure I also wrote witticisms for the Doctor about why these Vikings had horns on their helmets,” Jamie continues. “Then I realised you can't really do that – you can't really point out where it's not quite right. Because what Doctor Who does with history...” He pauses to gather his thoughts. “It's a bit like when they did the Middle Ages in Robot of Sherwood [2014]. It's not really the Middle Ages, but a swashbuckling, Errol Flynn version – the myth of it.”

Jamie is aware that this wasn't always the case, that when Doctor Who began in the 1960s, stories set in Earth's past were “a bit of a history lesson. But it's changed massively since then. Now we do a shorthand version of history because we haven't got time for that level of detail. We also have to consider the tone of the show. Every episode is an adrenaline-fuelled adventure ride. Any history we use has to reflect that.”

One of the very first Doctor Who to play with that original premise of 'educational' history was The Time Meddler (1965) – which featured Vikings. “I knew they'd been in it before. There's a picture of William Hartnell holding a Viking helmet,” says Jamie, smiling. “And it has horns! So that was already canon in the Doctor Who universe way back when. That's how far back our consistency monitor goes!” Jamie knows he got at least one bit of history right. “I looked up Viking names and made sure I used real ones.” Then he laughs. “There's only one name that wasn't real Viking – but it doesn't make it fully on to screen.” It comes when the Doctor refers to one Viking as 'Lofty'. Lofty protests that his real name is Bro-

“No, it's not,” the Doctor interjects. “It's Lofty.”

Jamie explains: “The name Lofty starts to say is 'Brot'. That was my nickname for my brother when we were kids. All the others are genuine Viking names.”

One of those names, says Jamie, “I picked off that list pretty much at random. It sounded cool, and meant 'shield-maiden' or whatever the translation was.” This was Ashildr, the character played by Maisie Williams, who subsequently appeared in episodes by other writers. “It's not like you spend hours pondering names,” says Jamie. “You just choose one and move on. But the one I chose – Ashildr – is now part of the canon and she's off having adventures in a stolen TARDIS. Obviously, she's renamed herself 'Me' but people still call her Ashildr. There's The Legends of Ashildr spin-off book and all this kind of thing. That staggers me!”

How closely did he work with the other writers who wrote for Ashilr, such as Catherine Tregenna, who wrote follow-up story The Woman Who Lived?

“Not at all,” says Jamie. “I think Catherine saw drafts of my scripts but I had no idea what was going to happen to Ashildr next. That was out of my hands. I only discovered what happened to her when I saw the episodes go out!”

Ashildr is, of course, at the heart of Jamie's story. “Initially, part of the point of the episode was that the only people fighting were male, so Ashildr was the one who broke the mould. Feminism – the idea of feminism – is a distant dream in the future, but she's given a sword and basically kicks ass. When writing it, I happened to read about this recent discovery of female Viking skeletons buried with their swords, putting rest to the idea that the women just stayed at home and looked after the kids. But if you were to ask the person in the street whether, in the time of the Vikings, women fought alongside the men, they would say no. That's the conventional wisdom – and Doctor Who usually does conventional wisdom in historical stories. It's the same as with the horns on the helmets.”

“There was more of that kind of thing,” he remembers. “The Vikings go 'Ugh!' when Ashildr picks up a sword. And in early drafts, the Doctor and Clara (Jenna Coleman) were kidnapped by the Vikings because Clara was wearing trousers. That totally freaked them out; to the Vikings, genders were so clearly delineated. But as we developed the script, focusing on the adventure, some of that stuff got a bit lost.”

We mention that Ashildr seems to be the only Viking woman to speak in the episode. “The end result is that it looks skewed towards males,” he admits. “You could accuse that of covert sexism, which is a bit of a pity given that the whole idea of the episode was to make a feminist point.”

Thinking back to the script, Jamie regrets that one of his favourite scenes didn't make it to the screen. “The Doctor made some crack: 'Yes, Ashildr is wearing a skirt and swinging a sword – but the world didn't end, get over it.' Then, out of nowhere, one of the Vikings said, 'We fought your people many times, Doctor. They died like everyone else.' The Doctor looked thunderous – had the Vikings met Time Lords before? But the Vikings meant the Scots! I think that would have been a lovely moment...”

Eel Feelings

Electric eels are crucial to the end of The Girl Who Died. But aren't they native to the Amazon and Orinoco? There's a moment's pause, before Jamie bursts out laughing. “Oh no! Oh, brilliant!” He sighs. “Oh, well...”

We assumed this was a particularly clever bit of historical extrapolation. “Go on,” says Jamie, warily. Well, there is evidence that Viking expeditions reached Newfoundland and Baghdad, and that Vikings waged battles from Africa to the Arctic. Surely by including electric eels in his story, Jamie meant us to understand that, as a result of the Mire, these Vikings were trading more widely than previously thought.

“Yes, that is exactly what I was about to say,” he says, laughing. “It's not that much of a stretch, is it? That they would somehow carry a tank full of electric eels all the way back from South America in the holds of their boats and then start a little Coy pond of them back home. That's completely feasible.”

“I think the electric eel idea was there from the very first outline,” he continues. “It's one of the few ideas that stayed from outline to final script, which is so rare. But I'm very fond of those eels.”