Anyone who’s been following the Doctor’s adventures for the last year and a half will know that “the girl who waited” refers to his long-suffering companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), who first met him briefly when she was a seven-year-old girl, and then lived through another twelve years—all the time wondering whether he had been nothing more than a dream—before finally encountering him again and getting the chance to travel the universe with him. But that dozen-year wait is nothing to what Amy goes through in this episode, a brilliant, intensely emotional character drama that is possibly the high point of the year so far.
Writer Tom MacRae returns to Doctor Who for the first time since the two-part story comprising “Rise of the Cybermen” and “The Age of Steel” in 2006. The highlight of that tale was the emotional drama between the Doctor’s companion Rose and her boyfriend Mickey—working together with a harder, parallel-universe version of Mickey. That drama was contained within a competently written but unexceptional action adventure story. Here, MacRae has not only come up with a far more interesting story setting, but used it to tell an extremely compelling tale revolving around some complex emotional dilemmas for the Doctor, Amy, and her husband Rory (Arthur Darvill).
The setting is a paradise planet named Apalapucia, which is apparently one of the top tourist destinations in the galaxy. Unfortunately we have to take the Doctor’s word for that, since when he tries to take Amy and Rory there for a visit they emerge from the TARDIS to find they’ve landed in a stark white, sterile antechamber. A certain amount of contrivance is necessary at this point to kick off the plot: the Doctor and Rory press a button to go through the only door available while Amy is back in the TARDIS fetching her camera; when she emerges, she presses a different button, and the same door opens but takes her somewhere else. A small accident, but one with far-reaching consequences.
Beyond the door is another bare white room, containing a table holding what looks like a giant magnifying glass on a stand. The Doctor and Rory soon discover that they can see Amy (and vice versa) through this glass—but then something weird happens, and suddenly Amy is complaining about having been waiting for a week in her room while it’s only been a few seconds for the Doctor and Rory. They and Amy have been separated into two timestreams running at vastly different speeds—and to make it worse, a sleek but vaguely sinister robot enters to ask how long they intend to be visiting this “Twostreams Facility.” The fast pace of this episode is certainly a stark contrast to the gradual build-up of last week’s “Night Terrors”—and after the opening titles we quickly learn that Twostreams is a “kindness facility” taking care of the whole population of Apalapucia, which has been ravaged by a deadly plague. This disease (“Chen-7”) is apparently fatal within a day, but the facility is able to manipulate the timestream of a patient so that decades of experience can be compressed into that last day of life. The Doctor and Rory are in the visitors’ area, where outsiders can use the “time-glass” to sync up with the patients. It’s an intriguing science-fictional idea, fitting right in with the juggling with time that has been a hallmark of the Steven Moffat era.
The Doctor: “You could be in here for a day, and watch them live out their entire lives.”
Rory: “And watch them grow old and die? That’s horrible.”
The Doctor: “No, Rory, it’s kind. You’ve got a choice. Sit by their bedside for 24 hours and watch them die, or sit in here for 24 hours and watch them live. Which would you choose?”
The Doctor takes the time-glass so he can use the TARDIS to rescue Amy by locking on to her timestream. It emerges that, although Amy and Rory are immune to Chen-7, the Doctor is vulnerable because it is a disease that particularly affects species with two hearts—like Time Lords. This rather expedient device serves the purpose of keeping the Doctor in the TARDIS for the rest of the story; it allowed Matt Smith to quickly film all his scenes for this episode and then move on to episode 12, the production of which overlapped with this one. However, “The Girl Who Waited” doesn’t really feel like a “Doctor-lite” episode in the same way as, for example, “Blink” or “Turn Left”. Although physically absent, the Doctor is very much present throughout the story thanks to a pair of glasses he gives to Rory, which allow two-way communication with the wearer.
Amy enters the facility proper and is checked in as a patient. She has the problem of staying out of the way of the robots which constantly patrol the place, trying to anesthetize her and inject her with medicine that will undoubtedly kill her, given that she is alien to this planet. She manages to evade them and find her way to one of the facility’s many entertainment zones, a wonderfully surreal Alice in Wonderland-style garden, with enormous, fantastically sculpted topiary. (“You really could spend a lifetime here. Not that I’m going to…”) Eventually, she finds a hiding place among the “temporal engines” powering the facility where the robots aren’t able to sense her, and settles down… to wait.
This episode is directed by Nick Hurran, making an extremely strong debut on Doctor Who. One of the most noticeable features of Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner has been the introduction of a brace of new directors who have been more inclined to push the fantastical aspects of the series to the fore. This script certainly provided Hurran with plenty of opportunity for creating memorable images, and he took full advantage of it. The minimalist, bright white interiors of the facility rooms are very striking, helping to focus the attention on foreground elements like the time-glass or the robots. The check-in area and Amy’s hiding place are not quite so inspired—the latter is just another “industrial” environment as seen in plenty of other stories, while the former is unfortunately only too recognizable as the Wales Millennium Centre standing in once again for a futuristic hospital (see also “New Earth”). On the other hand, the lush garden already mentioned is a beautiful piece of design—and we get to see it not only as a standard digital matte painting vista as Amy enters it, but also in a couple of wonderfully detailed high shots as Rory wanders through it later.
The “handbots” (as the robots are called, since they have their sensors in their hands rather than in their heads) are another very good piece of design. With their bulbous, featureless heads, stiff metallic legs and shuffling walk, they are rather like a cross between the television and movie versions of Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. They don’t look particularly threatening (except for when a head opens up to reveal a nasty array of needles and other apparatus, in a nice bit of CGI), and they’re easily outsmarted, but the facility seems to have an unlimited number of them, and after a time their repeated refrain (“Do not be alarmed. This is a kindness”) comes to seem quite implacable.
After the TARDIS breaks through into the timestream containing Amy, the Doctor discovers that the thousands of patients are all isolated into individual timestreams. This provides a neat explanation of why we will never see anyone else in this vast facility—apart from the catchphrase-spouting robots, and one brief scene with a receptionist hologram when Amy checks in, the only other voice in the place is that of the computer Interface (which is frankly a bit of a waste of an actress like Imelda Staunton). The entirety of the rest of the episode is focused on our three main characters.
Or rather, our four main characters—when a strange armored, sword-wielding figure saves Rory from one of the handbots, she lifts her visor to reveal a very different version of Amy—an Amy that has been on her own in a hostile environment for 36 years, convinced that she was abandoned by her friends. She is indifferent toward Rory, but positively scathing about the Doctor:
Older Amy: “I’ve been on my own here for a long, long time. I’ve had decades to think nice thoughts about him. Got a bit harder to stay charitable once I entered decade four.”
This aged, embittered Amy is an absolutely breathtaking performance from Karen Gillan. The whole season has given her a greatly expanded range of material to work with as Amy, but this episode is a real showpiece for her, and she takes full advantage of it. She is helped by some impressive prosthetic make-up which stands up well to the many close-ups of her face—sometimes shown side by side with her younger self—but the majority of the work is done by the eyes and the voice. She is ferocious in this scene, extinguishing any spark of the empathy and humor of the Amy we know. Cold and contemptuous, she hardly even bothers to maintain eye contact with Rory, and when she says, “I hate the Doctor. I hate him more than I’ve ever hated anyone in my life…” it is totally, horribly convincing.
Arthur Darvill also rises to the occasion as Rory, confronted with this hard, unfeeling version of his wife, never stops trying to reconnect with her despite her pushing him away. “I don’t care that you got old. I care that we didn’t grow old together” is a great line. In Amy’s refuge, the first hints of humor come back into the story when we see that Amy has a pet robot she calls Rory (“You named him after me?” “Needed a bit of company”). Darvill’s expression as Rory sees his mechanical replacement—with its grinning cartoon face drawn on the robot’s blank head—is a moment of welcome hilarity amid the tension.
In the garden, Amy has to put on the glasses to communicate with the Doctor, and when Rory jokes that the glasses might look ridiculous, but “still, anything beats a fez,” Amy is surprised to find herself laughing for the first time in decades. Murray Gold’s music beautifully marks the moment with a rendition of “Amy’s Theme,” which was an important part of her journey last year. But despite this thaw, when the Doctor works out a method of using the facility’s temporal engines to extract her younger self from this timestream, Amy refuses. If her younger self is rescued, it will rewrite this older version out of time, and she will have suffered the last 36 years for nothing.
It’s one of a number of occasions when this story avoids the obvious resolution. As we saw in the episodes “The Rebel Flesh” and “The Almost People” from earlier this year, there’s a great temptation for a writer to resolve a plot involving doppelgangers or duplicates by means of a heroic sacrifice. In this case, we might expect that the older Amy would be eager to see her younger self avoid her own horrible fate, and would probably die bravely in the course of helping the others escape the facility. But no; this Amy is focused on her own survival above all—she wants Rory to rescue her, and leave the young Amy to be trapped here, just as she remembers. Rory, confronted with an impossible choice about which Amy to rescue, angrily berates the Doctor about his carelessness:
Rory: “You should look in a history book once in a while, see if there’s an outbreak of plague or not.”
The Doctor: “That is not how I travel!”
Rory: “Then I do not want to travel with you!”
Suddenly, they discover that the younger Amy is in the same location (in a different part of her timestream, of course). Using the time-glass, the two Amys are able to see each other and converse, in a brilliant extended scene between them—the image of the two versions of Amy next to each other in the glass is possibly the most memorable of the whole episode. When the older Amy tells her younger self that she is refusing to help, the young Amy says simply, “What about Rory?” Slowly, they bond over their shared memories of Rory, and the scene rises to a climax with a beautifully written speech that encapsulates Amy’s love for him:
Older Amy: “All those boys chasing me, but it was only ever Rory. Why was that?”
Young Amy: “You know when sometimes you meet someone so beautiful…and then you actually talk to them and five minutes later they’re as dull as a brick? Then there’s other people, when you meet them you think, ’Not bad. They’re okay.’ And then you get to know them and…and their face just sort of becomes them. Like their personality’s written all over it. And they just turn into something so beautiful.”
Both: “Rory’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever met.”
Young Amy: “Please. Do it for him.”
Older Amy: “You’re asking me to defy destiny, causality, the nexus of time itself, for a boy.”
Young Amy: “You’re Amy. He’s Rory. And oh yes, I am.”
As the older Amy tells Rory, “I’m going to pull time apart for you,” Gold’s music again comes to the fore with a reprise of the moment from last year’s “The Big Bang” when the Doctor saves the universe using the Pandorica. Even at this emotional climax, there’s still room for a funny moment as Rory realizes the robot is watching him kiss the older Amy—at a glance from her it turns away.
But then, in another clever reversal, the older Amy reveals her price for aiding Rory and her younger self—she wants to be taken aboard the TARDIS too, so there will be two versions of Amy existing side by side, permanently. We see the Doctor in the TARDIS looking highly dubious, but with a humorous stream of technobabble he concedes it’s possible for the TARDIS to sustain this paradox. We saw a similar sort of paradox being maintained (involuntarily) by the TARDIS in the 2007 season finale, “Last of the Time Lords”, when the Master brought the Toclafane, revealed to be the remote descendants of the human race, back to the 21st century to exterminate their own ancestors.
Rory: “Two Amys. Can that work?”
The Doctor: “I don’t know. It’s your marriage.”
The Doctor successfully extracts the younger Amy from her own point of the timestream, and the two Amys finally meet, rather awkwardly, in the flesh. They and Rory fight their way through the handbots back to the TARDIS. When the younger Amy falls victim to the bots, Rory carries her into the TARDIS. But when the older Amy tries to follow them, the Doctor slams the door in her face. He tells Rory, “I lied to her…The paradox was too massive.” As we have been reminded several times before, the Doctor’s Rule One is: the Doctor lies.
The climax of the episode begins with a tremendous confrontation between the Doctor and Rory, as the Doctor adamantly maintains that it’s impossible for both Amys to be rescued, and that once they leave with the younger Amy, the one currently hammering frantically on the TARDIS door will never have existed. He drives home the point by placing Rory’s hand on the TARDIS door lock and telling him to choose. Both Matt Smith and Arthur Darvill are brilliant here, with Darvill’s bitter delivery of “This isn’t fair! You’re turning me into you!” being a particular highlight. The shots of the older Amy’s hand appearing at the window, and of her and Rory on opposite sides of the TARDIS door, are heart-rending, with both of them in tears in a composition that brings back memories of the Doctor’s parting from Rose in “Doomsday”.
Older Amy: “If you love me, don’t let me in. Open that door, I will…I’ll come in. I don’t want to die. I won’t bow out bravely. I’ll be kicking, screaming, fighting…to the end.”
Somehow, Rory finds the strength to keep the door closed. Amy turns to face the handbots coming for her, and asks the Interface to “show me Earth. Show me home.” As the TARDIS dematerializes and her timeline is cancelled, her last thought before fading into nonexistence is of Rory.
Even in this lengthy recap, I’ve had to skip past many of the emotional beats and nuances in this marvelous episode—in the course of writing this piece I have watched it several times, and found more to appreciate each time. Suffice it to say that the decision to have such an inwardly-directed episode, devoted pretty much entirely to delving into the psyches of our heroes, came off brilliantly, and Karen Gillan in particular has never been better. I’m looking forward to seeing where the character revelations here will lead in future episodes. In particular, Rory’s anger at the Doctor should lead to some significant shake-ups in their relationship. In the nicely ambivalent final scene in the TARDIS, Amy slowly comes to, but the scene is cut off before we can hear Rory’s response to Amy’s question, “Where is she?” Judging from the Doctor’s guilty look back at Amy and Rory, the effects of this harrowing experience may linger for some time. And, of course, there’s this line, which as well as describing Amy could equally apply to a certain lake-side event in Utah…
The Doctor: “…sometimes knowing your own future is what enables you to change it, especially if you’re bloody-minded, contradictory and completely unpredictable…”
Next Week: The Doctor and his friends find themselves exploring a mysterious deserted hotel, in “The God Complex.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: For another tale which concentrates exclusively on the relationships between the regular cast—in fact, it’s set entirely inside the TARDIS, with no guest cast at all—see the very early story “The Edge of Destruction,” starring the very first TARDIS team of William Hartnell, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill and Carole Ann Ford.
For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.