“Don’t let them touch you. They don’t know you’re an alien, their kindness will kill you.”
Now that’s how to do a good standalone episode! The Girl Who Waited was brimming over with so many good ideas, so much emotion, so much depth, that I actually found it rather hard to believe that this was written by the same Tom MacRae who wrote the execrable Cyberman two parter back in 2006. But then, that was one of MacRae’s first gigs, and he’s been doing a lot of writing since then. He’s plainly matured a great deal from the comic strip simplicity of Rise of the Cybermen, to give us a piece that addresses fascinating sci fi concepts, but where the plot is entirely, believably, driven by the characters.
To be fair to MacRae, Rise of the Cybermen had the feel of a script that had been drafted and redrafted many times, with insufficient attention paid to details between drafts. Having read in The Writer’s Tale how much work Russell T Davies put in rewriting scripts, the fault there is probably his at least as much as the original author’s. The Girl Who Waited might – who knows? – have been subject to the same attentions from Steven Moffat; after all, this is packed full of Moffat style tropes. It’s got creepy, faceless enemies with a catchphrase – “Do not be alarmed. This is a kindness.” It’s got a mindbending, time paradox driven plot. And it’s full of funny, heartfelt and emotional dialogue.
However, it’s significant that Moffat said he loved the idea when Tom MacRae presented him with it, and I suspect that was because it came ready formed with the aspects of Doctor Who that Moff himself loves. In other words, we’re seeing the work of a Tom MacRae who’s really honed his craft.
A craft that was first employed by Russell T Davies, and Russell’s influences were pretty evident here too. There’s a planet with a tongue twisting name (Apalapucia), a reference to ‘Disneyland Clom’ (less nauseating than the Earthbound ones, hopefully), and some nudgeworthy references to Amy and Rory’s sex life (“How many times did we play doctor?” – I wonder which ‘Doctor’ she meant).
The central premise of the episode is deceptively simple. Arriving at Apalapucia, the second best vacation spot in the universe (“The first is rubbish. Planet coffee shop.”), our heroes are confronted by an Adventure Game-like puzzle in the form of a set of doors with two buttons. Amy, much like Sarah Jane Smith in The Ark in Space, chooses the wrong path and is immediately separated from the Doctor and Rory. Unfortunately, the door she’s chosen leads to another, faster time stream, and her men must figure out how to get her back into theirs.
So, two time streams, one moving faster than the other. It’s simple, it’s high concept. But MacRae comes up with some interesting concepts to support it. Chen-7, the one day plague, has necessitated a time stream where the afflicted can live out a lifetime in the one day they have left; that’s why Amy never has to worry about things like eating. And conveniently, Chen-7 only affects two-hearted species like the Apalapucians – and Time Lords. This cleverly gives Rory a chance to be the actual hero, but all the while allows the Doctor to be the one pulling the strings. It’s been noticeable before that the Eleventh Doctor, for all his manic enthusiasm, has a darker, manipulative side much like the Seventh, often keeping his companions intentionally in the dark. That’s never been more evident than it is here, particularly with the final, devastating revelation that he’d been lying all along, and no amount of TARDIS technobabble would allow both versions of Amy to coexist. Matt Smith went nimbly from his usual young fogey persona to something much graver as he informed Rory that it was his choice as to which would survive.
But if Matt Smith was good here, the episode was dominated by the performances of Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan as Rory and Amy. Even with the Doctor as master-manipulator, this was really their story, and both actors gave it their all with some truly romantic and often heartrending dialogue. Anyone who still thinks after this that Karen Gillan’s not much cop at acting clearly isn’t paying attention. Her performance as the bitter, 36 years older Amy who’d all but given up hope of escaping the Two Streams facility was superb, as was her delivery of the speech explaining exactly why she loved Rory so much. Even the little moment when she realised that she’d just laughed for the first time in decades was beautifully played, and as for her dialogue with her younger self through the time glass, that was a showcase of two excellent, clearly distinct performances.
Arthur Darvill didn’t get quite the kind of challenge represented by playing two versions of the same character, but his performance showed us the truth of Amy’s assertion that, when you love someone, “their face… sort of becomes them”. It’s very true, and it’s a measure of how likeable Darvill has made the character. Last year, I wrote that he was ordinary looking. This year, I’ve made several references to how attractive I find him – and that’s because he’s written and played as someone you can’t help but love. I’ve not had a chance to see Darvill as Mephistopheles in the Globe production of Doctor Faustus yet, but if he can invest Rory with this much loveability, I’m guessing he can do a pretty evil demon.
Together, they make a convincing couple even with one of them embittered at 36 years of separation. I must say, the makeup given to Karen Gillan, convincing though it was, seemed to be rather flattering for someone who’s supposed to be presumably in her mid-50s – not even one grey hair? Still, it’s a bit churlish to complain about that, and after all it might have been down to the unnatural time stream inside the Red Waterfall part of the facility! Nonetheless, it was a measure of how convincing their chemistry was that I never questioned for a second that Rory would kiss this now much older version of his wife with just as much passion as he would normally.
Their final scene, on either side of the TARDIS doors, was a beautifully emotional one pitched perfectly by both actors. Blimey, Arthur Darvill can do good crying! And Amy’s quiet courage as she urged him not to let her in was equally well played by Karen Gillan. It’s one of the most interesting philosophical concepts the episode throws up; the idea that a future you from a potential time stream might be still keen to survive, and not to have their existence erased. It makes you question what you would do if someone gave you the chance to go back and change your own time stream. Would you go back, and right something you saw as wrong, even if (Grandfather paradox aside) it would mean that the you you became as a result would never exist? Initially I wondered why older Amy would be so keen to preserve the lifetime of solitude and hiding from killer robots, but as I asked myself that question, I realised that even a pretty lousy lifetime can shape you into a person you might not want to lose.
Perhaps that was the choice older Amy finally made, though. As the Doctor – really rather nastily, I thought – told Rory it was up to him which version of his wife he could save, I wondered if the episode might have been more appropriately titled Rory’s Choice. But then, as ever in their relationship, Amy made the choice for him. You could see this as an example of his emasculation; a lot of people have commented rather unfavourably on the idea that Amy is ‘the one who wears the trousers’ in their marriage, making Rory less of a hero than she is. I don’t think that’s true, as we’ve seen plenty of Rory’s quiet heroism and moral outrage. It was telling that, presented with this choice by the Doctor, he angrily blurted, “You’re trying to turn me into you!”, a shrewd moral judgement on the Doctor up there with Rory’s equally valid assertion last year, “You don’t know how dangerous you make people to themselves”. And here he gets to take out a killer robot by smashing it over the head with the Mona Lisa – fortunately we can be pretty sure this is one of the fakes!
No, Rory’s far from the wimp some critics make him out to be. But the fact that older Amy made the choice for him seemed to me a measure of her love for him; she didn’t want to put him through that, to have to live with the guilt of making the choice – to be like the Doctor. It was a genuinely moving moment as, with her last breath she asked the Interface to show her the Earth – “Did I ever tell you about this boy I met who pretended he was in a band?” I’m not normally one whose emotions can be easily manipulated by a TV show, but I couldn’t help welling up a bit there.
So an episode where the characters were at least as important – if not more so – as the big concepts, just the way Doctor Who should be. It’s telling that I’ve spent so much time writing about the characters’ stories and barely mentioned the sci fi aspects. With that in mind, I should mention that the Two Streams facility was depicted with a convincing sterile minimalism that brought to mind classic sci fi movies like THX 1138 and Logan’s Run; although presumably the intention was more to make it like a high class hospital by using whatever conveniently futuristic Cardiff building was available. There may have been a budgetary consideration, but if so, the production made a virtue out of the stark sterility without having to dress the place much. Even the basement with the temporal engines was clearly just a power plant with blue lights stuck on the generators, but it looked right, as did the CG topiary and mountains in the Gardens.
The most expensive element was presumably the Handbots – another interesting concept very nicely realised. Some clever direction convinced the viewer that there was a virtual army of them, but I’m guessing they built no more than three. And the ‘disarmed’ one that Amy named ‘Rory’ was a nice touch, with its hook hands and felt tip smiley face! I did think, however, that it was a bit of a waste of talent to cast the legendary Imelda Staunton as the voice of the Interface. She’s a brilliant actress, but even she can’t do much with an intentionally emotionless voice. Still, the fact that she wasn’t actually seen means that, hopefully, we can actually have her popping up on screen in a later episode – along with, hopefully, Michael Sheen who voiced House in The Doctor’s Wife. If nothing else, this year has shown some class in voice casting!
As you can tell, I loved this episode and thought it an excellent example of what Who can do as an anthology series as opposed to an arc (not that I dislike the arc either). But on that note, I do have to mention – again – how conspicuous it is that Amy and Rory aren’t, as my friend Gemma put it, “grieving for their tiny lost baby”. I wouldn’t want them to be dwelling on it constantly week in and week out, but it still seems jarring that such otherwise convincing characters would be already acting like that had never happened. With this issue left so obviously unspoken for the last two weeks, I’m seriously beginning to wonder if it’s intentional. If there isn’t a payoff, I shall be surprised (and a little disappointed). But then, there are so many questions still left unanswered, even from last year, and Moffat is clearly playing a long game. For now, it’s a minor fly in the ointment of this week’s otherwise excellent episode, and still won’t stop me from being amazed at how good Tom MacRae has become as a writer.