Well, this was a pleasant surprise.
Not that I had low expectations for this episode. The trailers strongly suggested that the latest Doctor Who episode, The Girl Who Waited (written by Tom MacRae, directed by Nick Hurran) was going to play with the audience members’ minds. Promise is not the same as delivery, however. MacRae was also responsible for giving us the Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel two-parter in the revival’s second season, which was decent, but not as good as I’d hoped. Indeed, the contrast between these two episodes — a blockbuster two-parter and a bottled companion-heavy budget saver — may have played in MacRae’s favour. Do we remember Blink? Do we remember Midnight? It’s the quiet ones you should watch out for.
And The Girl Who Waited delivered. It’s a brilliant episode delivered through strong writing, compelling direction, and some of the best acting of the series. Once you get over a complicated set-up that takes some time to wrap your head around, you’re given a story that asks tough questions about the nature of causality and the worth of existence, about the pain of consequences and (convincingly, for a change) the power of love. This episode is a tearjerker that makes you care about a woman who isn’t supposed to exist. Between this and Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife, it’ll be a challenge to pick which comes out as the season’s best episode.
A full spoilery review can be found after the break.
The season arc has been put on the back burner for now (or so it seems), and the Doctor, Amy and Rory are off having adventures again. If you can suspend disbelief over whether Amy and Rory can so easily get over Amy’s kidnapping and the loss of Melody Pond to the causality that will bring about River Song, do so. You’ll enjoy the episode better.
The Doctor proposes a jaunt to Apalapucia, a world rated as the second greatest tourist destination in the Universe. Promising grand colonnades, the Doctor is a little put out to discover his TARDIS has landed inside a 1960s-style minimalist building, featuring white walls and a single door. Going out to explore without previous reconnaissance (as the Doctor typically does), he and Rory press a green button and enter a similarly stark white room containing a table, some chairs, and a gigantic magnifying glass. The doors close behind them while Amy is still in her TARDIS, looking for her camera phone. When she emerges, she hears the Doctor and Rory but can’t see them. Realizing they’re behind the door, she pushes a red button to open it.
Now, a bit of a nitpick here: you’re in a white room with a metal door, and you’re presented with two buttons, one red and one green, and you’re told to press one. Who in the world — especially a person who has travelled the universe with the Doctor and has seen machines do some pretty nasty things — up and decides to push the red button? Indeed, this fact probably explains why, when Rory tells Amy to push a button, he just tells her to push “the button” while not prefacing that statement with, “oh, and be sure to press the calming green one, and not the big blaring red one, since you know that bad things always happen when you push the big blaring red button that must not be pushed under any circumstances!” Carelessness on Rory’s part, and carelessness on Amy’s part, although those examples are dwarfed by the carelessness the Doctor shows in this episode (more on this later).
But leaving that aside, Amy gets separated from the Doctor and Rory while standing in the exact same room — which is quite a feat, even for this show. The Doctor and company soon find that the two rooms are separated by time moreso than by concrete and drywall, and the only way to communicate between the two is by the gigantic magnifying glass set in the table between them. Worse, time is moving differently between the two streams, as Amy quickly reports that she’s been waiting on the Doctor and Rory for a week without having need to eat (and also likely drink, bathe, change tampons and go to the bathroom).
And this is the complicated part of the set-up that may escape casual viewers and which took Erin and I a lot of time to work through in our heads. Time isn’t actually moving faster in Amy’s room; only her experience in time is. A computer interface speaks up at this moment and tells the Doctor and Rory that Apalapucia is under quarantine from the One Day Plague — a deadly illness that kills two-hearted beings in exactly one day. As the disease does not seem to have any cure, the people of Apalapucia have set up a hospice, where the infected are taken to die. Rather than have the ill lie about on their deathbeds, however, they’re able to compress a lifetime’s experience into an entire day, so that the infected can enjoy a lifetime of entertainments (cinemas, gardens, mountain climbing, art galleries) in the little time they have left, while their loved-ones watch in the green anchor room.
This is indeed a kindness, although somewhat creepy — especially considering that the ill appear, so far as we know, to spend the rest of their lives alone, separated even from other people afflicted by the plague. There are, the Doctor estimates, 40,000 separate timelines in this hospice, such that finding Amy’s personal timeline would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. A further complication is that the hospice is designed solely for Apalapucians and, despite being renown as the second best tourist destination in the Universe, the operators of the hospice don’t seem to be aware that one-hearted aliens might accidentally make use of their facilities. There’s no escape chute for Amy now that she’s in quarantine even though she’s immune to the plague. Worse, the medicine the robots insist on giving her will kill her if she takes it. And, seriously, these robots will not take ‘no’ for an answer, forcing Amy to take a lightning-fast sightseeing tour of the hospice’s service ducts.
With the framework set up to put Amy in peril and to keep the Doctor on the sidelines, the Doctor uses the TARDIS to try and break into Amy’s time stream and send Rory out to rescue her. Here, MacRae moves into the heart of this episode, as before Rory has a chance to get out of the gallery the TARDIS lands in, he’s confronted by what looks to be a samurai warrior. The warrior turns out to be Amy herself… an Amy who has been waiting thirty-six years for rescue, and who has long ago gotten very, very sick of waiting.
So, what are the Doctor and Rory to do? Do they rescue the older Amy and doom the younger one to thirty-six years of waiting? Or do they take advantage of the separate time streams and the TARDIS, home in on the younger Amy and rescue her, wiping the older Amy from existence? Rory and the Doctor clearly favour the latter solution, but are stopped in their tracks when sixty-year-old Amy tells them flat out, “No!”
As good as the writing is at this point, and as brilliant as Nick Hurran’s direction has been (I love the set design), The Girl Who Waited hinges on two things: Karen Gillan’s acting, and her make-up. Both deliver. Indeed, I’d rate the make-up job for sixty-year-old Amy Pond to be amongst the best I’ve ever seen. The key is that they don’t overdo it. It’s very subtly done, and only really becomes clear when young Amy and old Amy are seen side-by side. Then there’s Karen Gillan’s portrayal of Amy Pond thirty-six years on.
This Amy is hardened woman, who hasn’t just survived thirty-six years fighting off the robots alone, but has thrived to some extent. She’s lived on her wits, made her own sonic screwdriver (or, as she angrily corrects Rory and the Doctor, “sonic probe”), knows how to reprogram the Interface and the black boxes of the robots, and gotten suitably bad-ass with a sword (probably stolen from the gallery). And yet sixty-year-old Amy Pond is scarred. She bitterly rebukes the Doctor for letting her wait thirty-six years. Loneliness has clearly forced her to make compromises. She disarmed and reprogrammed one of the robots for company, calling it Rory. It shows a surprising amount of initiative during its few scenes with Rory and Amy (notice how it picks up the camera glasses that Rory throws away in anger?), so one wonders what else it can do.
Karen Gillan sells it all. You see the anger in her eyes, and yet you see the vulnerability as she picks up her lipstick and debates with herself whether to put it on, now that her husband has arrived. There is a wealth of physical cues here over and above the dialogue, and I was riveted by the performance, especially when old Amy and young Amy get to interact.
But let’s not sell Arthur Darvill short. He matches Karen as Rory deals with the painful realization of what his wife has gone through. His anger at the Doctor’s carelessness is palpable, and his horror at the choice that he has to make is clear. It’s Rory that gets through to older Amy, challenging her to tell her younger self to her face why rescue is impossible. He does this on his own initiative. It’s a brilliant move, and one that suits Rory perfectly. There have been complaints that Rory has been the third wheel of this production, and Arthur Darvill is credited for making Rory as compelling as he is. Handed excellent material by writer MacRae, Darvill’s Rory shines.
MacRae’s The Girl Who Waited asks strong questions that the audience cannot comfortably answer. It’s intriguing that older Amy would rather doom her younger self to thirty-six years of (in her words) “hell” rather than wipe out that existence through the Doctor’s rewriting of history. It’s an interesting counterpoint to the Doctor’s actions in A Christmas Carol when Karzan’s life was rewritten wholesale. It speaks volumes that the Doctor holds back when Amy tells him not to interfere. If he’s willing to listen when his companion tells him to hold off rewriting her life, what right, really, did he have to change Karzan’s existence so completely?
Frankly, the Doctor doesn’t come off well in this story, and nor should he, I think. He lies to older Amy in saying that the paradox of rescuing her and young Amy is remotely possible. And although Matt Smith puts a lot of pain in the Doctor’s eyes throughout the episode, he’s still able to look older Amy in the face and slam the TARDIS door against her, condemning the woman to certain death. It was his carelessness that got her into this mess in the first place, remember? This actually enhances the scene in Let’s Kill Hitler where he expresses his extreme guilt over the way his recent life has played out, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s still in this mess.
Did I say that the season’s arc is on the back burner? I may have lied. MacRae touches on themes that the season has explored before, casting them in a much darker light. The Doctor has interfered with Amy’s personal history, rewriting thirty-six years of her existence in order to spare her the pain of it. So why can’t the Doctor use his abilities as a time traveller to rewrite River Song’s personal history, giving her the time spent growing up with her parents and sparing years being brainwashed and, among other things, being menaced by a modified NASA spacesuit? And let’s not discount the casual arrogance of the Doctor using his abilities on Karzan in A Christmas Carol. Why do some rules apply and some don’t? I’m not sure if even the Doctor knows, and I suspect that this is going to lead to a terrible fall for the man.
Either way, The Girl Who Waited is brilliantly conceived, excellently produced and fantastically acted, and it forces us to question the assumptions we’ve had about the Doctor, and the season so far. It’s a wonderful episode with some truly heartrending scenes. Like Blink, it’s one I’ll be happy to watch over and over again. Not bad for the season’s budget saver.