Doctor Who: The Girl Who Waited
Rory's choice, Amy's choices
|"Don't you lecture me, blue box man flying through time and space on whimsy. All I've got — all I've had for 36 years is cold, hard reality. So no, I don't have a 'sonic screwdriver', because I'm not off on a romp. I call it what it is — a probe. And I call my life what it is — hell." — Amy Pond gives the Doctor what for in The Girl Who Waited.|
Mere hours after laughing out loud at the ludicrous climax to Torchwood: Miracle Day (post coming soon), I found myself joyfully laughing with the latest episode of Doctor Who, The Girl Who Waited.
Not only laughing with it, but accepting its plot and wondering how it would be resolved; finding tension in the story's moral and philosophical implications; and, even, caring about the Doctor's companions, probably for the first time in Steven Moffat's nearly two years as show-runner.
Also for the first time, Karen Gillan's performance — or rather, her performances, were revelatory. Gillan may be a real actor, not just a performer with a pretty face.
Add to all that first-string performances from both Arthur Darvill and Matt Smith and this tight, three-actor episode sings. Only in its opening movements are there any stumbles, and they are minor ones.
The situation arises because, as happens so often, the Doctor gets something a little wrong.
His first mistake is a direct result of his traditional attitude towards safety and common sense. Intending to take Rory and Amy for a holiday on a the planet Apalapucia, he lands the Tardis without first checking for a local newscast.
Rather than a five-galaxy hotel, the Tardis lands within the stark, clinical confines of what seems to be an empty medical facility, in fact a hospice.
Apalapucia,it turns out, is under planet-wide quarantine, due to an outbreak of Chen7, a disease to which the planet's native inhabitants and even Time Lords (though not humans) are vulnerable and for which there is no cure. (Both the Apalapucians and Time Lords have two hearts. What? You've never heard of a disease which strikes any animal with four legs, but not two? Never mind. Accept the conceit and carry on.)
The Doctor's second error happens when he gets the timing of the rescue mission a little wrong too, which leaves Amy on her own for more than 36 years.
The hospice, or Kindness Facility, runs two streams of time, one slow and one fast. Slow, for the dying, and fast, for their loved ones, who could make many visits over the dying one's last day of life.
Amy is trapped in the fast zone, Rory and the Doctor in the slow. When Rory goes out on the rescue mission, the Doctor stays behind, because of the plague. (No haz-mat suit in the Tardis? Accept that one, too.)
There is one other complication. The facility's "nurses" are helpful robots — who don't recognize humans as aliens, or recognize that their "help" will kill humans.
Not only does Amy spend 36-plus years on her own, she spends 36-plus years on the run.
As I said, Gillan's performance is a revelation. Older Amy is no caricature, but a nuanced portrayal of a person-who-is-old, not of an old-person, if you you see the difference.
Gillan convinces us that Amy was a woman smart and inventive and strong enough to not only survive — utterly alone and always running — but even to stay sane. (I even — almost — believed she could cobble together a sonic screw-driver.)
And so it is that Rory is saved not by the Amy he knows and loves, but by the woman she would become after 36 years of, as she puts it, living in hell.
Though shalt not suffer a paradox to live!
The Doctor is appalled by what has happened, but says he can "fix everything". Old Amy, though, realizes that fixing "everything" means "fixing" her. Time will be re-written, so that she will have never existed.
But the Doctor's plan requires that Old Amy help Young Amy, which the former only agrees to on condition that she, too, can enter the Tardis.
The Doctor hems, the Doctor haws, but finally concedes that yes, the Tardis "could sustain the paradox" and so Rory, Amy and Amy work together to get back to the little blue box.
It is only at the moment of truth, in one of the episode's few nods to the season's continuity, that we are reminded that "the Doctor lies", and Gillan is required to one-up her own previous career-best performance.
The look on Old Amy's face, she watches Rory carry Young Amy from the field of battle is as heartbreaking as anything this program has managed in a very long time.
The story, ostensibly about saving The Girl Who Waited for Rescue, becomes the story of The Woman Who Rescued Herself — but only at the cost of sacrificing herself.
The Old Amy succumbs outside the Tardis' door, the Doctor comforts Rory with the claim that Old Amy never existed. But what can that mean, when Rory and the Doctor — and Young Amy herself — all remember her? How does this differ, in any meaningful way, from "real" death?
It is certainly not immediately obvious that "re-writing time" erases from existence the 36 years of painful life so devastatingly portrayed by Karen Gillan, even if it puts an end to them.
Pretty heady stuff for a television program meant mostly for children. Pretty heady too, the complex depictions of love, of the double-edged virtues of self-sacrifice and of our titular hero's conditional relationship with truth.
Screen-writer Tom MacRae (who tweets as TomMacWriter and whose Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel was among the best two-parters of the Davies years) does not shy from yanking hard at our heartstrings, but neither does he pander as he tugs upon them.
The tragedy of The Girl Who Waited arises inexorably from the internal logic of the story, one that (at least insofar as Doctor Who is concerned) is a rigorous exercise in science fictional world-building that leaves the viewer questioning the nature of reality even as we weep at the fact the world sometimes forces brutally hard choices upon us.
Time may write a different conclusion, but a day after the fact, The Girl Who Waited seems like the first classic episode of Steven Moffat's tenure, the first episode to make us fully believe in and care about the program's principals.