Tuesday 13 September 2011

Doctor Who - The Girl Who Waited

So, an Amy-centric episode this week. Given my general dislike of Amy, I naturally went into this episode with several reservations. However, I have to say, it was a damn good episode. Indeed, “The Girl Who Waited” has quite a bit of what I’ve been missing in Doctor Who over the past two years: real emotion, and believable character motivation. Part of the strength of this episode is that, despite what I said in my opening sentence, this is not really the Amy-centric episode it pretends to be on the surface. It’s much more a Rory-centric episode. In the end, it’s all about Rory and the decision he must make.

I’ve seen it suggested on-line that this episode could have been called, “Rory’s Choice”, to create a thematic link with last year’s “Amy’s Choice”. While I prefer “The Girl Who Waited” as a title, “Rory’s Choice” certainly does fit the overall theme of the episode, and unlike “Amy’s Choice” last year, the episode makes me actually care about his choice, and the ramifications of it. And there most certainly are ramifications, unlike “Amy’s Choice” where absolutely nothing turns out to be real. Things are very real in this episode, and it even makes me start to care about Amy by the end of it. SPOILERS FOLLOW

Arthur Darvill turns in a stellar performance as Rory, who is back to being the Rory we’ve come to know and not the retrograde of “Night Terrors”. He is often uncertain and indecisive, but he has massive determination, especially where Amy is concerned, and he will do anything to see her safe. Darvill always manages to portray the conflict in Rory—the battle between his instinctive childhood cowardice and his new-found courage and determination from travelling with the Doctor—in a readily apparent and believable, but not over-the-top way. His love for Amy is always clear from the way he looks at her and speaks to her. The fact that this has always been apparent (unlike the reverse for Amy) makes this episode so much the stronger for it. As viewers, we can experience the emotional journey that Rory must go through, dealing with two versions of Amy, and ultimately having to choose between them. We can understand his conflict between accepting the older Amy as having a right to a continued existence, and wanting to remove the pain of suffering that led to that existence by saving the younger Amy. The scene at the end where Rory is on one side of the TARDIS doors and the older Amy is on the other is truly heart-wrenching. And it is in this scene where the true brilliance of the episode displays itself. Rory does something that is just so Rory. He refuses to make the choice—or more precisely, he chooses the option that is not allowed. He doesn’t choose one Amy over the other; he chooses to save them both. Just a few moments earlier, when the Doctor gives him the choice to make, he tells the Doctor, “This isn’t fair. You’re turning me into you.” And for the briefest of moments, that really seems to be the case as it looks like he’s going to force himself to keep the old Amy out. But then he turns the tables and starts to let her in. It’s not his fault the choice is snatched away from him again.

While Rory’s love for Amy is ever present, it’s even possible to see Amy’s love for Rory in this episode, especially in the older Amy. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve never really believed that Amy loves Rory. By this, I don’t mean that I think she’s lying. That’s clearly not what is intended. Amy does love Rory; we just never really see it. We are told endlessly that she loves him, but the old show, don’t tell maxim comes to mind here. Amy says the words, but never really displays the love. I don’t place all the blame on Karen Gillan’s performance—most of the problem comes from the poor writing of her character—but some of the blame certainly has to go there. When Amy looks at Rory, she doesn’t look at him as someone she loves, but rather just as this guy who happens to follow her around everywhere. Characters who like to bottle up their emotions and not display them to anyone else are certainly viable characters (and there’s no doubt Amy’s supposed to be one of these), but there’s a trick to portraying them where those emotions leak through for little glimpses here and there. They don’t have to be big, over-the-top displays of weeping and crying. Subtle glimpses go so much further, but we generally never get anything of the sort with Amy. However, in “The Girl Who Waited”, those glimpses are finally there. From robot Rory to old Amy’s nostalgic look at her lipstick container, there are actual examples of Amy’s love for Rory. Most especially, when older Amy looks at Rory, we see a look of love, loss, and longing that has just never been there before.

Karen Gillan definitely does an excellent job playing the older Amy. Indeed, she does such a good job that I was honestly hoping older Amy would be saved and not younger Amy (even though I knew there was no way the show would take that route—though what an awesome route it would have been if it had!). She portrays an Amy that has actually been affected by the things that have happened to her. One of my biggest complaints about Amy is that nothing ever seems to affect her beyond the end of each episode. She might scream or cry, find courage, beat up monsters, or show bursts of unforeseen intelligence to solve the mystery, but it never has any long-lasting effect. By the next episode, those events might as well not have happened. We’ve had glimpses of her past, but apart from the events shown in “The Eleventh Hour”, her past doesn’t seem to have shaped her present in any way. Here though, older Amy most definitely has been shaped by her past. Even though she has done nothing but fight and hide away from unintentionally hostile robots for 36 years, that has impacted her in a way nothing else ever has and in a very believable way. Karen Gillan masterfully displays 36 years of loneliness in every look and every move. My only complaint about her performance in this episode is that she doesn’t move much like a person who is in her late fifties. Yes, she’s kept in top physical shape fighting robots for 36 years, but even athletic 50-year-olds move differently than 20-year-olds. It’s a minor complaint, though, as everything else about the performance is seamless. Even young Amy is far more believable in this episode than she has generally been before, which leads me to believe that most of the problems with Amy have been from the writing and not Gillan’s performance.

The writing of this episode is also quite wonderful. The basic plot is not particularly original, but that doesn’t really matter here. This is a character piece and it very rightly keeps the plot straight-forward and uncomplicated, despite being an episode that deals with time paradoxes. There have been a lot of “wibbly wobbly timey wimey” episodes in the last two years of Doctor Who, most notably the over-reaching story arc, but whereas the arc has grown over-complicated and out of control, this episode remembers the basic rule of such stories: keep it simple. Set up the situation and the rules, then let it play out. Don’t keep layering more and more on top. Steven Moffat’s early stories for the series, such as “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink” followed this rule brilliantly, but it seems Moffat has forgotten it since becoming showrunner. He could stand to learn something from Tom MacRae, the writer of this episode.

Another brilliant aspect of the writing is that “The Girl Who Waited” is a “Doctor-light” episode, yet most viewers would never guess it. Because Doctor Who has such a small leading cast, generally only two or three people total, that leading cast is kept extremely busy and has to be on set far more frequently than leading casts of other shows. Also, in order to complete all episodes in time for broadcast, certain episodes have to be filmed simultaneously. As a result, every year, there is one episode that features the Doctor to a very small extent, in order to allow the actor to be filming elsewhere. Sometimes the episode is light on both the Doctor and his companions (examples include “Love and Monsters” from series 2 and “Blink” from series 3); instead these episodes focus on new characters who have somehow been affected by the Doctor. Other times, there will be one Doctor-light episode and one companion-light episode (such as “Midnight” and “Turn Left” in series 4). “The Girl Who Waited” manages to be Doctor-light and yet include quite a lot of the Doctor. It does this by confining the Doctor to the TARDIS for almost the whole episode, allowing Matt Smith to record all his lines and scenes in just a few recording sessions, and then for those to be inserted into the episode in the appropriate places. The result is an episode that few would ever guess is “Doctor-light”.

The episode is not perfect, however. It’s main flaw is actually an external one: the series arc. Or rather, lack of it. Once again, there is absolutely no mention of Melody Pond. For all the development it does of Amy and Rory, and as much as I like Rory, the lack of any mention of their baby makes them look like the most heartless, cruel parents to have ever existed. I can accept that they have accepted that they have no way of retrieving their daughter. What I can’t accept is that we never see any emotional response from this acceptance. We never see them coming to terms with it. Once again, I don’t mean that we need to see scenes of over-the-top weeping and wailing, but I can’t believe that in an episode so focused on the relationship between Amy and Rory, that they would never even mention their daughter. I don’t really blame this on the episode. Rather, the episode is a casualty of the situation. I suspect that the writers of the stand-alone stories like this one and “Night Terrors” were not actually given much, if any, details about the overall arc, in the interest of keeping things secret and confidential. This is understandable, provided the script editor (Moffat) then edits the scripts so that they fit in with the ongoing continuity, which apparently just isn’t happening. (As an aside, since writing my review of it last week, I have learned that “Night Terrors” was originally supposed to air much earlier in the season before the birth of Melody and before Amy even realizes she’s pregnant. This confirms my feeling that the story belonged earlier. It doesn’t excuse the problem, however. If you are going to rearrange the story order, then you need to edit the scripts to reflect that. If the decision to rearrange them is made too late to edit the scripts, then you shouldn’t rearrange them or, if that’s not possible, throw in a voice-over to indicate that this is a flashback episode. But I digress...)

Its other flaw is more a regret, and again is an external one: the fact that this episode finally gives real development to Amy only to have the timeline reset at the end. While it makes sense and works for this episode, it also means the development never happened, and Amy gets to go back to being the same Amy of the past two years, the one without any character development at all.

Overall, “The Girl Who Waited” is an excellent Doctor Who episode, one of the few I’ve found emotionally investing in the past two years. It’s easily the second-best of this season. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of “The Doctor’s Wife”, but is a wonderful episode nonetheless.


  1. I really enjoy reading your blog. Everytime I rewatch a Doctor Who episode I come back here to read what you had to say about it. I think you present your ideas very clearly, very precisely, and you value things I do value on stories in general: character development and characterization.

    Well, I have this one as a favourite too. I love episodes which focus on Rory. His character, unlike Amy's, always seems to grow as a person. I can actually see how Rory grew from series 5 to series 7, something, unfortunately, I can't see in Amy. The only fault on this character is his lack of emotion regarding the loss of his only daughter. But again, that's a problem in the major arc...